Choice in Storytelling

I’m currently writing a story that allows the reader to actively choose his or her path through the tale.

This is an uncommon struggle for me because a story is usually finished, polished and then told. By a single person. That’s how it is given to a reader. A finished thing that is nonetheless dead without imagination.

An active tale feels different.

Unfinished, somehow. Or like several tales.

This is a collection of thoughts – to get them out of my head and also as an offer to fellow storytellers or good readers to offer their own helpful, critical or inspirational thoughts.

choices

– The main character is, by necessity, an everywoman. I try to shape her by offering the reader little choices about her background…whether she comes from a healthy family background or not, whether she is interested in emotions, thoughts or actions etc. But it is impossible to define her much further than that because she is everyone who is reading the story.

– There are no thoughts or severly limited thoughts, because you cannot offer the reader any guesses as far as motivation goes…everything is a clue that she must decide to follow or to abandon. The writer can only describe outward things and must make the reader guess what is behind them and make their choice accordingly.

– The story needs to move quickly. Depth is hard to achieve, and only by action.

– The pacing is more akin to a video game or movie. I only decide when and where to cut. I try comparing it to various practices of how to cut a movie. Do you show the whole action…beginning – climax – result…and then cut or do you build it up and offer the decision, the climax of the scene, to the reader?

– Are there meaningful choices and can I allow a reader to make them? Do I offer moral choices? Allow the reader to choose sides? Can there be choices between different approaches? One emotional, another intellectual, a third physical? Is it possible to tell a story where I, the writer, make no choices myself and not have the story branch out into thousand unmanageable pieces?

– Is it possible to tell a good story without full control over the story itself? Or does one simply need to tell several good stories and stitch them together seamlessly?

– How much is illusion of choice? The reader cannot choose everything or she will derail the story. Stories work within limits. How much choice do you give someone to create the illusion of choice?

– Like in a conversation, “Yes and No” questions quickly lead to dead ends. Choices between obvious opposites soon become uninteresting unless one subverts them or mixes them up. Choices need to have a certain level of unpredictability.

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One Comment

  1. Oh that sparked so many thoughts in my head. Obviously I struggled with many of the same questions, so I’ll try to formulate a few responses here:

    On the blandness of character. That is true to a certain extend, but every character, when we first meet them, starts at that level of superficial shallowness. I think that the choice really are the key to character development in this case. But it’s not only about actions, especially in the written form (as opposed to the more visual heavy computer games). There is so much opportunity to involve “inner decisions”, things that might not even be apparent to the outside world, but color the readers interpretation of his own character. Things only she may know, which still might lead down a certain path. Likewise, the reaction to others actions can be questioned. How do you interpret a certain reaction of another character? Can we question that reaction, or is it just left to the player to eventually influence a decision down the road. Can we challenge the reader to think beyond the obvious?

    Also, there are some tricks that can be used to change the possibilities of character development. For example, maybe the player isn’t the hero of the story, but the heroes consciousness? What if she can influence the main character, but she herself is not the same as the main character? Yes, this eliminates certain possibilities and aspects, but it opens up a more traditional approach to defining the main hero.

    Next, how about the unknown? Maybe there is more to the character then he already knows? Past lives? Amnesia? A split personality acting on it’s own (think Fight Club)? Things conflicting enough that the hero is actively avoiding them (and you as the player have to coax it out of “yourself” through the proper choices).

    Yes, I think this form of storytelling is harder then the worn-out paths of traditional dramatic structures and narratives, but all in all I think there is a lot of potential for unexpected and unusual storytelling.

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    “Is it possible to tell a story where I, the writer, make no choices myself and not have the story branch out into thousand unmanageable pieces?”

    I loved that sentence. It reminded me about this fascinating world I discovered a few years ago about emergent narratives. Can you create a system that produces compelling stories purely out of random circumstances and what the player is making of it? So far we’re not there yet, but I think CYOA stories aren’t really meant for that. Yes, it’s the logical conclusion of the path CYOA sets you on, but the original art form is simpler. It’s about a story that gives you a stronger sense of agency, that makes it more personal and intimate, that let’s you experience the adventure not by proxy but by participation. But in the end, it’s a certain adventure that you’re experiencing, not an open world with an infinite range of possible adventures.

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    – Is it possible to tell a good story without full control over the story itself? Or does one simply need to tell several good stories and stitch them together seamlessly?

    – How much is illusion of choice? The reader cannot choose everything or she will derail the story. Stories work within limits. How much choice do you give someone to create the illusion of choice?

    Such good questions. We really have to discuss this at length one day! 🙂

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    “Like in a conversation, “Yes and No” questions quickly lead to dead ends. Choices between obvious opposites soon become uninteresting unless one subverts them or mixes them up. Choices need to have a certain level of unpredictability.”

    So true. I found improvisational theatre to be an interesting source for helpful tools on how to bring that level of variation and uncertainty into a conversation. In the end, it’s about answers that keep the options open. Everything that narrows it down, kills a bit of the fun. But if the conversation is ever expanding, how do you steer it…? 🙂

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    Thanks for writing that blogpost Sebastian, it really was an inspiring read!

    Reply

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