7 Lessons from Writing an Interactive Story for NaNoWriMo
As a writer, I'm a huge fan of #NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month – that insane challenge of #writing 50.000 words of fiction during the month of November. I've attempted and won it several times in the past but as my style has gotten more polished and my stories more plotsy, I find myself writing more slowly. This means I don't actually want to write 50k words in one month anymore but I still want to participate in NaNoWriMo. The sense of community, the joy of trading experiences and advice with other participants, is just too good to miss.
So I decided to be a rebel and set my own goal: write something every day in November. I also decided on one story I wanted to focus on: an interactive urban fantasy story set in Kyoto, Japan, with the working title Ghostly. I have never written an interactive story before so rather than documenting my general NaNoWriMo experience, I'm sharing some lessons I learned from working on that story during the month of November.
1. Focus on one story branch at a time
When I first started writing interactive fiction, I got overwhelmed quickly. I didn't know what story branches were or how to keep the red thread that makes a story a story rather than, say, a bunch of loosely connected anecdotes. As a writer of short stories and novels, I thought I knew story structure – linear story structure, probably the reason why my brain was resistant to nonlinear story for an embarrassingly long time.
It doesn't have to be chaos though, as I learned eventually. My first eye-opener was a GCD talk in which Cassie Phillips states that the key to interactive fiction is making all branches and endings equally exciting. There shouldn't be any main or side branches even though most writers will start with one branch before moving on to others. Focusing on one branch at a time has helped tremendously with avoiding overwhelm and the confusion that comes with too many possibilities. It has also helped me keep on top of what my characters know and think at any point in the story.
I try to focus on writing one branch at a time, but that isn't to say that I don't think about other branches and directions the story could go into. I even leave notes to myself in the story file as ideas come to me. Why not in a separate idea file? A linear list of scene and plot ideas might work for a novel but not for interactive fiction. Without linear chapters or scenes, it's harder to refer back to where you might stick this idea or what point in the story that note referred to. I prefer to leave notes to myself directly in the story to ensure I don't forget where it could branch off into something new.
You could even have each story branch represent a unique theme or message that ties in with the overall concept. This can be planned beforehand or refined during the revision stage if you notice certain imagery or themes coming up repeatedly. Theme can be hard to nail down and I only have a vague notion for my own story but for now, that's more than enough.
2. Differentiate between branches and choices
In her talk, Phillips also explains branches vs. choices in interactive fiction – a difference I wasn't aware of before but that immediately made sense. She describes them as two of four essential aspects of branching stories, the other two being story and the dialogue.
In a nutshell, branches are significant forks in the story. The choices that readers or players have to make from two or more options can absolutely lead to new story branches but can also be a means to other ends without changing the direction of the overall story.
Major branches start with a choice that is followed by fundamental changes to scenes or characters. They can be unique ways to reach the same goal but also lead to different endings. However, Phillips stresses that quantity is not equal to quality. Two well thought out endings that are decided via a single choice late in the story will always be more impactful than ten wildly different but lackluster endings.
Ways to add branches might be during points of disagreement in the story or by reordering existing scenes. By changing the order in which places are visited and explored, different things are learned at different times and details might change. If the reader goes to one place first, they might miss something in another place. If it's crucial to the story, it could still be revealed in a different way at a later point.
Branches can also be found by working backwards from major conflicts or goals. This is why I prefer to plot and outline interactive stories very loosely. This way, the story has room to breathe and grow into unexpected but interesting directions.
Quality over quantity applies to choices as well, although Phillips suggests always introducing at least three choices of equal weight. Why not two? Because readers or players will be inclined to interpret them as yes vs. no, picking the option they think is the right one.
Choices can be introduced whenever the protagonist reacts to something, especially to questions from other characters. If you feel like you need more choices, you could even search ? across your entire script and introduce additional choices at some of the question points that pop up. They can also be used to soften or conceal unavoidable consequences, making them feel more fun even if they really aren't.
Unlike branches that can unfold over time, choices should be as unambiguous and specific as possible, with the consequences (both good and bad) laid out beforehand. After making a choice, the reader or player should get an immediate unique reaction to it, even if it's just one or two lines. There should be no false choices that are immediately negated by another character or the environment – the reader will feel deceived. Why would they bother to continue when their choices don't seem to matter?
3. Make the protagonist a blank page so the reader can identify with them
Remember those choose your own adventure books you read as a kid? I bet they were written in second person. Interactive fiction, too, is usually written in second or first person. This is obviously because in these stories, the reader is supposed to be the protagonist.
As writers, we enjoy giving our characters their own individual personalities, the more quirky and unique the better. However, when writing interactive fiction I had to deliberately ignore that urge and instead make the protagonist as nondescript as possible. They have to be a blank page so the reader can identify with them. Since character development is one of my favorite things, this was a bit of a hard lesson for me. In time, however, I learned that the choices that define the protagonist in interactive fiction should really be the choices the reader makes. As the writer, I only provide a framework of options for them to tell their own story.
4. Adjectives can sneakily convey the feelings of the protagonist
With that being said, sometimes I still want to convey a tiny bit of what the protagonist is thinking or feeling. Why? There is a paradox here: Yes, the protagonist is the reader but they're also not an amnesiac (at least not in my story), meaning they have their own backstory that influences their thoughts, feelings and the choices available to them.
For this interactive story, I have deliberately opted for a sparse and open-ended writing style – leaving more white space to be filled by the imagination. Still, I sneak in an adjective here and there to convey some of the protagonist's own thoughts and feelings. Not too much but enough and only in places where it feels significant to get a glimpse into their head.
5. Keep the reader engaged
Not all gamers are readers and vice versa. Since I see interactive fiction as straddling the line between games and books (like visual novels but with less visual), I find myself compromising to balance these two very different demographics that my interactive story might appeal to. I try to stick to short story segments of 100 to 250 words, imitating game textboxes but not quite as short – and with emphasis on try because some segments just demand more room for the story to be told effectively. Segments don't all have to end with options though. Even if there are no choices, readers will be more engaged if they have to click every now and then just to keep reading.
6. Pay attention to rhythm
In his gamasutra article on writing in visual novels, Pedro Marques makes a convincing argument for rhythm in visual novels which, in my opinion, also pertains to interactive fiction. Compared to books where the reader can flip back and forth, the interactive fiction writer has greater control over the flow of the story, even down to reading speed. The length of textboxes or segments visible on the screen at any given time sets the rhythm and can be a powerful tool.
At the same time, the writer must ensure that one piece of text leads seamlessly to the next and might even prioritize these text dynamics over proper grammar. Since there will be lots of clicking from one segment to the next anyway, you might as well get as much use out of it as possible – creating additional tension with cliffhangers or diffusing it as needed.
7. Use the right tools and know them well
Previously I've tried writing interactive fiction using Twine and even Scrivener, but for this project I knew that I wanted to write it in Obsidian. This tool offers not only bidirectional linking between text segments, but also a powerful way to organize all plot and character notes in addition to the story itself. Everything can be linked to everything which I find especially valuable for writing nonlinear stories.
Obsidian was originally created as a notetaking tool, a digital second brain or zettelkasten that helps you think, organize your ideas and come up with new ones. It wasn't meant to be a text editor for fiction writing and yet it has worked exceptionally well for me personally. In fact, interactive fiction might just be the zettelkasten of creative writing: When you're stuck, you can always work on something else for a while because there's always some unfinished story branch to develop, some more choices to add.
Since November 1, I've only written the introduction and part of the first arc of Ghostly, but I don't mind. It has been a fun experience learning more about this new medium that comes with its own challenges and rewards and I can't wait to learn more as I keep working on it.