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Getting started with interactive stories

Tips and advice for creating your own interactive story from scratch

Language: English
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy
Age group: 9-11, 12-14, 15-18

Last updated: 27 April 2022

What do we mean by an interactive story?

Sometimes called 'choose your own adventure' or 'gamebooks', interactive stories allow the reader to actively choose where the story goes, making decisions such as whether to turn left or right, with different outcomes and different endings depending on the decisions they make.

Some of the first great gamebooks were written by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson in the 1980's and this narrative format is still enjoyed and loved by readers. Listen to Ian Livingstone talking about his work in our online event Fighting Fantasy, or hear about two more recent 'choose your own adventure' books from our event with authors Gareth P. Jones and Simon Tudhope. Digital platforms like Twine(this will open in a new window) have made writing and reading interactive stories online popular too. This interactive story from Preston Lodge Library (this will open in a new window)shows how one might work, taking the format of an escape room.

Reader as protagonist

In interactive stories the reader is the main protagonist. Just like computer games this makes them really immersive and fun to play. But for writers this poses a problem. You need to ensure that whoever reads your story can picture themselves as the main character and the narrative doesn't break this immersion.

Start by ensuring that you write from the second-person point of view e.g.: 'You carefully open the door'. This may feel a little odd at first but will get smoother with practice. If you describe the protagonist, focus more on what they do e.g. they are a Spaceship Captain, than what they look like, that way everyone can picture themselves in the role. Also consider gender neutral ways for characters in the book to talk to the hero, for example instead of writing 'welcome sir' you might write 'welcome friend'. Finally, if you are naming them, use a name such as Sam or Alex that could work for anyone.

Story immersion

Because interactive stories are written in short sections, you need to pull the reader in quickly and connect them to the main character. A great way to do this is to use the senses. Don't just write about what they can see, consider what they smell or hear, or even the texture of something they pick up.

Remember however to balance the plot and the description. One or two sensory descriptions are great, but keep it short and try to avoid waffling. Don't use whole page describing the beautiful forest if the plot requires the main character to find a statue in the middle.

Cliff hangers

Cliff hanger choices are another great way of making your story gripping. If all of your choices are about which door to open your readers will soon become bored. It is far more exciting to punctuate a story with choices that appear to offer real peril:

'You leaned too close to the cliff edge and some loose stones underfoot cause you to slip! Heart pounding you frantically scramble to grip the cliff face as you slide over the edge, eventually stopping on a small dusty ledge about 30ft above the sea.

Do you:

In this literal cliff hanger, both of these choices have the potential to go horribly wrong, but at the same time either could work. Your reader now has an exciting life and death decision to make.

Keeping track

Interactive stories use a branching narrative structure that can be quite complex to keep track of. Just like a branching tree, two choices become four separate stories, which then become eight and can quickly become confusing.

To help you plan, you might want to draw out a family tree style narrative map(this will open in a new window) with the different choices on it or you could draw an actual map of the story locations with the page numbers marked.

There are some great free technology tools online like Mindmup(this will open in a new window) and Inklewriter(this will open in a new window) that can help you to write and plan interactive stories.

Play test

Finally ask your friends and family to play through your story a few times, making different decisions each time. They can let you know if the 'game' works, if you have any dead ends or page number errors.

So leap off the metaphorical ledge and give immersive storytelling a go. Who knows where it will lead you!