The Endless Possibilities of a CYOA Universe
Last year I was granted the immense privilege of writing a real live actual Choose Your Own Adventure gamebook for Chooseco.
Blood Island, as the resulting volume was titled, tells ookie spookie tales about YOU, an intrepid biologist determined to find living proof of a giant prehistoric bird, which makes its supposed home on a haunted volcanic island in the South Pacific. While ashore on Blood Island, YOU encounter shipwrecks, various ghosts, bedeviled pools of water, ancient burial grounds, cave paintings, and even time travel. Yes, Blood Island has all of this loveliness and more.
Writing Blood Island was my very first crack at interactive fiction, and shortly after I started, I realized that while there are plenty of structural rules to work around, this format also grants its authors an amazing amount of freedom. If you're at all familiar with interactive fiction, you know the fundamental difference between a CYOA gamebook and a regular, linear novel; how these differences manifest for the writer is that instead of coming up with one compelling and plausible plot line, the writer must come up with many compelling and plausible plot lines that all fit into a "choice-tree" if you will. Some of the branches of the story are longer than others, some are more plausible than others, some, by default, will be less compelling than others. But therein lies the challenge: write not one story but many.
And therein precisely lies the fun!
When writing straightforward linear fiction, I often find myself pausing, stepping away from the work, and having to think long and hard about what needs to happen next. Maybe some writers can create entirely fleshed out stories in their head and then transcribe their thoughts into a complete manuscript all in one go. But not many, I'd wager. I start a story with the beginnings of a plot framework and a general concept I want to explore. The actual act of writing is the exploring, and most of the time I don't truly know who my characters are or what happens to them until I am literally putting pen to paper. Or, as the case may be, until I am typing characters into Microsoft Word.
Throughout the whole process, I'm continually asking myself questions, such as: should my two main characters meet on a bus in Minnesota, or on a beach in Maui? Should they reunite after 5 years, or after 20? Should they end up together, or should she get on that plane and start her life over alone on the opposite side of the world with nothing more than a suitcase and her pet lizard? In a linear story, I consider these questions and then write what I feel are the best options; however, I always wonder about those other un-taken, un-written paths. Sometimes I write pages and pages and pages, only to reach a point where my confidence falters; I reconsider, I toss those pages, and I go back and write the other choice. No, Jane shouldn't get into that car accident after all, because then she won't be able to run that marathon where she falls into a manhole and discovers the colony of mutant spider monkeys living beneath the city. Sometimes I make this call just because it feels right, sometimes because it makes more logical sense, or sometimes because I think it will resonate with more readers. But the thing about CYOA gamebooks is that you the author don't have to choose -- you leave that part up to the reader. As the writer, you get to explore all of the "what ifs" without worrying whether you've made the right choice. Jane can die in a car accident, and discover mutant spider monkeys, and maybe even cure cancer while she's at it.
It's like writing your own fan fiction. And it's awesome.
Liz Windover grew up in small-town New England. She has traveled widely in the United States, Central and South America, Europe, and the Australian outback, finding adventure at every turn. Liz had one life-changing summer living off the grid in the middle of nowhere, which taught her the importance of thinking outside the box. On any given day, she can be found at home in Vermont enjoying good food, good music, and/or good books. Liz's favorite idea is that we are all made from the dust of exploded stars.
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