8 Tips for Interactive Storytelling

choose-your-adventureA few weeks ago, Heather told everyone about her experiences writing a video-game script for LongStory. The branching, non-linear style of the game structure was very different from the TV scripts Heather normally writes. At the time, we discussed how much the structure reminded us of interactive novels. These are books often marketed under one or two company line names, Choose Your Own Adventure is probably the best known of the lines.

Interactive stories allow the reader to make critical decisions about the main character’s experience by selecting from a limited menu of plot options. This story splits take place at set points in the story’s development, usually at the end of a scene.

For example:page bottom
You go straight and march into the middle of a deserted-looking town square, turn to page 44.

You backtrack into the woods and take a path around the creepy-looking town, turn to page 91.

Writing this form of story once baffled even hardcore plotters. In my case, I felt like there was zero possibility of me writing an interactive novel without leaving dozens of loose story threads and plot dead ends all over the place.

That is until last week when I discovered a free website where anyone (yes, I said anyone) from school age children on up to seasoned novelists, can write their own interactive novel.

*It’s called InkleWriter.

(Updated 8-18: Sorry to report that Inklewriter will be shutting down. Check the comments for links to alternative writing tools.)

If you have kids off school, like I do, this site is a fun way for them to spend a few hours of quiet time. Best of all the system manages everything about the structure of the novel for the writer. It tracks all the story threads and gives prompts when there is a missing element. Inklewriter

The program takes all the challenges out of the keeping track of the framework and allows the writer to concentrate on the story! And it includes a tutorial feature to help you (or your kids) get started quickly. Although the program makes it possible for writers who hate to plot to still write an interactive story that rocks, a little planning can insure an even better result.

Here are 8 easy planning tips for writing your first interactive novel.

1. Pick a cool setting. A great setting is critical and it will dictate everything else about your story. Interactive stories can be set anywhere, deep sea to deep space. Past, present or future. Real or fantasy. I set my story in Victorian era Zanzibar; my son picked space.

2. Create a main character with a goal, but without too many details. The idea is for the reader to put themselves in the main character’s shoes. It’s one of the reasons these novels are often written in second person present tense. The character needs a quest and a few motivators, but you don’t want to create a fully fleshed out character profile.

3. Limit characters. These stories don’t work well with mutable viewpoints. If you must include a secondary character, make them a helper or mascot. This could be another human, maybe a love interest, or a handy robot who fixes things.

4. You may not need or want a villain. It’s hard to go head-to-head with a single antagonist in an interactive story. However, obstacles are a must. You’ll want at include at least a dozen (or more) situations where something unexpected stops your lead character dead in their tracks. Complications can be almost anything: nature elements, random monsters, or just equipment failures.

5. Include a handful of helping items. Scatter these items around and let your character find them on their travels. Good examples of helpful items are maps, healing charms, money or food and water. When your character faces a killing obstacle, make sure you occasionally include the option for an item to save them.

6. Plant treasures. Even if these goodies don’t actually help the hero on their quest, it’s just fun to find a sack of gems.

7. Plant clues. If you want to craft an extremely tricky story, include hints about which branches of the story are the best ones to follow.

8. Establish several endings. You want to end the journey with various degrees of success and failure. A few branches should lead to the main character’s death. Others might show the main character limping off to fight another day. At least one branch should end in a spectacular triumph.

It’s seriously fun to write one of these stories and even without any advance planning you can easily create a fantastic story. My son is currently working on his second novel, while I’m still on my first one. But we’re both having a fantastic time.

If you have experience writing an interactive novel, please share your tips in the comments.


Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813). However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

18 thoughts on “8 Tips for Interactive Storytelling”

  1. Thanks for this article! Looking for something for my daughter to do during lockdown summer hols and came across this. And, in case you want to update your article yet again…Inklewriter is back and better than ever! There’s an (interactive, naturally) announcement about it from last year here: https://www.inklewriter.com/stories/36

    1. Thanks, Laura. This is great news. I’ve used this program as a writing tool for kids and teen groups a number of times over the years and I love it. Best of luck to your daughter. It’s great to see young storytellers in the making.

  2. Thanks for including something about interactive fiction on this great site. I’ve been writing IF for a few years and just love the genre. It’s perfect for middle grade to give kids autonomy and a safe place to play with big decisions. I write You Say Which Way with other authors who love the genre.

  3. Hi Robin,
    great article. Found it while looking for writing tips for interactive fiction and from the ones that I have found so far, it is one of the most helpful for an overall idea how to plan such a story.
    Sadly inklewriter seems to go down somewhere in the near future (they say on the site August 2018).
    I am using another similar software, also free and it does not plan to end its service: Twine on http://twinery.org/.
    This would be a good alternative to those who read this article after inklewriter goes down, I think.

    1. Hi Knut,
      Sadly, I’d heard the news about Inklewriter, and I’ve been meaning to update this post. Thanks for reminding me. It was such a great tool, I’m truly sad to see it go. Twine is a logical replacement, but I’ve also seen some amazing work created in Quest, TADS and Ren’Py. As with any tool, it might take some experimentation to find the perfect one for creating your interactive fiction, but keep at it. Good luck with your project and thanks for stopping by and sharing.

  4. You can export it. Just get the link and add .json to the end, then copy the text, paste it into a text document, then convert that document to an excel or numbers format.

  5. I snickered to myself as I read these eight points. We in table top gaming and now virtual tabletop gaming have followed this mantra since the inception of table top gaming in the late 1970’s. how do TT games and interactive fiction equate? They’re one and the same. All TT Games, e.g. Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder to name a few, rely on a base textual script that provides the eight items you’ve listed. Thanks so much for concisely sharing your insight.

    1. Hi Tom, You discovered my secret, passionate DM here. ; ) I’ve been thinking about these connections (and the role gaming plays in my journey as a writer) for a long time.

  6. Spot on with this write-up, I honestly feel this web site needs a great deal more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read more, thanks for the information!

    1. I think you might want to clear your To Do List first, Diane. It’s pretty easy to spend the whole day there.

  7. I LOVE this post! Read those all the time when I was little. Great tips. And I am so looking forward to checking out that site. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Sarah! I’m glad you’re excited about giving this site a try. That was exactly the way I felt when I found it. I think you’ll like it. Let me know how your story turns out. : )

  8. Would you believe me if I said that I’ve never read an interactive story like that? In Primary School I had a friend who had read one and it sounded really interesting, but I never read it myself in the end. They do sound like a lot of fun to write! I may have to try one just for fun one day, and Inkle Writer looks like a really good, helpful tool.

    1. Hi,
      I loved these books as a kid. And now my children love them. They’re very freeing to write because the plotting is simple. You just have the one end goal. The best part is adding the traps. I feel like making an evil laugh every time I kill off my character with some poison spider or giant wave. I hope you enjoy the program. : )

    1. Hi Laurie,
      I’m super interested and excited about kids everywhere leaning it’s fun to read and write. I’m always hunting for good programs to help them and fun things to share. Inklewriter should be perfect for teachers. It would help promote keyboarding, planning and sequencing skills. And once you get them started on the stories the kids can logon from anywhere and keep working solo. Please let me know how it turns out.

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