There are different ways to write an interactive story. Many authors only have a general idea or a specific scene in mind and just start writing. They allow for the actual story to emerge during the writing process. Other authors need a rather strict and tight concept where all key moments of the plot, the characters, and the endings have been pre-planned. In the end, you will have to decide for yourself which of these methods or what mix works best for you.
Plotting an interactive story in advance, however, has several advantages. In the next pages we will present to you the most important aspects you will have to consider or at least keep in the back of your mind when planning your story.
Choosing the right setting is a basic requirement for a successful interactive story. Someone who doesn’t like horror stories probably won’t play one or be able to write a good one. Sounds obvious, right? You can either follow the preferences of your players and pick a popular setting like crime or fantasy, or you can choose one that you are familiar with yourself. The best case scenario would be to have both, but there is no reason why you should not leave familiar terrain and explore new genres. This not only improves your skills as a writer, but will also help you to develop new ideas.
Before you start thinking about the plot, you should take a moment to consider what the world of your story is composed of. There are basically two possibilities:
You can use a world the player is familiar with. The advantage here is that your player will know what to expect, giving them a solid foundation to base their decisions upon. For many players it is important that their expectations are met and that they are not overwhelmed with too many new thoughts and ideas. This is one reason why sequels to novels and movies are so popular. They offer familiar worlds with rules and characters that are already known and well-established. This includes our very own world with its epochs from Ancient Greece and Rome up to the present day, but also classic fantasy stories with humans, elves, and dwarves, or mystery stories with vampires and zombies.
Yes, even though elves and vampires are fictional creatures, almost all readers have a basic idea of who they are and what their characteristic traits and abilities are. This makes it easier for you, because you do not have to explain all the elements that the player already is familiar with. And even though you are free to experiment and be innovative by having your elves be a nation of roguish robbers or sleazy traders, the basic stereotype remains intact. Your players will always have a certain idea of elves in their minds.
The other possibility is to create a new world. This world will leave known domains behind and introduce strange locales, new races, and obscure laws of nature, arousing your players’ curiosity.
A crime story, for example, could take place in the New York of the modern era, but it could also take place in a vague future where people are living in town-like underwater stations at the bottom of the sea. There are no cabs in this place. Instead, people use a system of tubes or torpedo boats to move between places. Bread is made from algae and seaweed and a constant humming sound reverberates through the station, stemming from the generators for the giant filters extracting oxygen from the water. This underwater station can be a high tech construction where everything sparkles and shines, or it is a run-down, badly maintained facility where water is dripping from leaky pipes and where dim, dark light is spreading its pale glow along the corridors. The only limit here is your imagination and, of course, how believable you can present this world to the listener without breaching the restrictions and requirements of Voice technology.
The people could have changed as well. The predominant religion is the worship of Neptune, and the president of this people is carrying a trident as a symbol of his power. During the course of the centuries, these underwater dwellers have also developed gills, taking the shape of small slits at the side of their necks which allow them to breathe underwater for a short period of time. At the same time, people have become small and stocky, being constantly exposed to the water pressure from above.
Your world could also comprise flying cities, gliding over an inhospitable and hazardous planet. The tides have gone wild and now cause parts of the planet’s surface to be exposed for a short time before the gigantic waves return and cover everything. Thus, important natural resources can only be harvested at certain times. These flying cities are powered by a mysterious technology the knowledge of which has been long since forgotten. Following an unknown plan, the cities are gliding over the planet in a seemingly aimless fashion. A fierce war is being fought over the coveted resources. If the paths of two cities cross, there are violent conflicts, decided by so-called eagle warriors. These fighters have grown wings and their features resemble those of birds of prey. During their training they have to undergo a secret ritual that changes more than just their outward appearance. But it enables them to fly off at any time and leave the flight path of the cities so that they are also assigned the important role of spies, scouts, and researchers. According to legend, there is a city somewhere on the ground, containing the old knowledge about how one can steer these flying cities or even tame the tides of the planet. But there seems to be no one who has ever seen this place with their own eyes.
As you can see, it can be very easy to come up with new worlds. You can, for example, change a familiar living condition and then think about how this would influence life, mobility, economy, and religion. And just like that, a fascinating world emerges almost by itself. You do not even have to specify every detail of this world. Many new and interesting ideas will automatically present themselves as you begin to write.
The plot probably demands – besides the design of the Player Choices and the available options for the player – the greatest balancing act from the author. On one hand, your story has to be simple, accessible, and understandable for the player but, at the same time, it should also be complex, interactive, and exciting enough to motivate them to keep playing. You can simplify a complex plot by limiting the amount of places, objects, and characters the player will have to interact with. Dynamic elements like puzzles and riddles should be used sparingly as well.
Just adhere to this rule of thumb: the less familiar the player is with your game world, the simpler the plot should be, and vice versa. This prevents the player from being overwhelmed with too many new ideas, making it hard for them to understand the world or follow the storyline.
Before you begin developing the actual plot, make a note of what is the most unique element of your interactive story. What distinguishes your story from all other stories? What is the reason why your players should play it?
This can be a complex and deep story, but also an amazing plot twist or an innovative game mechanic. Maybe your story features dozens of very different endings or offers two or three completely separate main plot threads. The unique feature can also be an extremely well and lovingly designed character that will fascinate your players and make them want to establish a very strong relationship with the character. Or you give the players control of a whole group of heroes or an entire kingdom instead of a single character. And last but not least, it can also be the language or narrative style in which you tell your story.
Try to find at least one special feature and make it a central element of the player’s interaction with your story.
Next, write down your story idea in one or two sentences. These sentences should contain the main characters and the main conflicts.
For “The Lord of the Rings” such a summary could look like this:
“The hero finds a powerful artifact that has to be destroyed in order to save the world. To accomplish this, he will have to enter the land of the enemy without being detected while his friends are trying to rally an army of allies to hold off and occupy the enemy as long as possible.”
In these two sentences, several conflicts are already established and thus possible Player Choices result from them that can serve as the basis for the story paths of your tale. For example, there could be different paths leading to these allies, different tasks might have to be completed to win their trust, and maybe the player has to choose between two allies. And the contrary, writing down your story idea can also reveal whether it does not really offer a basis for conflicts or interactive elements meaning that you will have to adjust it accordingly or even discard it.
Before you begin planning the details, write down any idea of individual scenes, moments, and Player Choices that you can come up with for your story.
“The hero awakens in an unfamiliar environment. His clothes are stained with blood. Does he want to search the place or hide?”
“The hero has to fight another werewolf to gain leadership of the pack. Does he accept the challenge or will he try to avoid it?”
“The hero is being chased by a werewolf hunter. Does he prepare an ambush for him or does he flee into the woods?”
These ideas might be mutually exclusive and still lack logical order, but that is not important at the moment. Your goal is to collect many interesting ideas for conflicts and Player Choices.
You should dedicate sufficient time to this process and really write down everything that pops into your mind. Weeding things out, rearranging them, and giving them structure is a task for later. And ideas that you do not need for your current story can be preserved for future stories. Make this brainstorming process a solid habit for which your set aside a couple of hours each week. You will soon come to realize that this task is much easier than the planning or even the writing of the actual story, and that, over time, your ideas and concepts will get better and more detailed.