My process

This post was originally written for gimcrackd.com.

One maddening thing about reading a recent interview with Shannon Gilligan, one of the original CYOA authors, was how vague she was about her writing process. (To skip to that part, search for “every writer develops” on the page.) Basically, for her it seemed to amount to keeping a map. But… then what? How did she decide what branches to prune? Did she think about trying to keep characters consistent between branches? Lots of questions. Granted, all this happened more than twenty years ago, and memory often fails. But it’s this kind of inquiry that really piques my curiosity. There are tons of manuals on how to write — some of them are even good. There are almost none on how to write nonlinear text. (If you can think of exceptions or recommendations, please please please leave a comment.)

So to try to remedy it a little, I’m going to try documenting my own process, as I work. It’s a little scary because a) it feels awfully narcissistic — but then this is the Internet b) what if I fail? What if I give up? How embarrassing would that be? But Susan Gibb’s recent foray into writing a complete hypertext story every day… for 100 days… has inspired me to suck it up a bit.

So, let me tell you about this story. For now it is called mountain.tws, because that’s the filename and I haven’t thought of a real title yet and won’t for a long time. Here’s the story map; if you click on it, it’ll show you an exact word count. I have the story map zoomed out to where the text is greeked out because I’m kinda modest about it for now. The orange exclamation-point emblems show where I have unfinished business — e.g. links that don’t go anywhere yet. The box hanging out in the upper-right is a custom CSS style I wrote, because I want to stack my choices vertically on top of each other, whereas normally they get shown side-by-side.

Right now it is really linear — you can see the branches keep folding into each other. I am hoping that it will eventually become deceptively linear, because later on, the story paths will explode, and I feel like I need to give the reader a little grounding at first before throwing them into the deep end. Deceptive is actually a good word for this part of the story — on its face I think it will look like straight-up exposition to the reader, but I’m trying to embed lots of clues in the text for later on.

I am thinking of the piece as kind of a riddle (though not a puzzle). I see four endings right now, none really superior to the other, just different. I imagine that the first time through, the reader will hit an ending without really meaning to, and then see the message: You have found one of four endings so far. Restart? And then hopefully this will inspire them to go back and try to influence the story more consciously. That’s the ideal case for now. Maybe more careful readers will figure it out right away.

Things I’m worried about:

  • My first passage is kind of long. I worry the rhythm of the story and click will be off. But I really like all the text, and again I think it helps root the reader. We shall see.
  • Is Alice, one of the main characters, too nondescript at this point? I have to leave her ambiguous right now for an important structural reason (that I don’t want to talk about yet) but I need to give her some character. Female ciphers are lazy writing.
  • Are my choices well-motivated? I have to cheat a little to keep the storyline braided the way it is, so things are not super-permanent in that a choice doesn’t cause a totally different thread of the story to occur. But I have to keep that as hidden from the reader as I can, to maintain the illusion. I’m tweaking things by having dialogue lines change based on choices, though the main line of narrative stays the same, which is cool — but I have to keep the characters in line without making them seem like they’re bumping up against invisible walls.

Things I’m thinking about:

  • I have a thought about how to render one character’s dialogue that will make it stand out from everyone else’s. I’m going to mock this up in a separate HTML page and then move the JavaScript into my story once I’m happy with it.
  • I have a pair of sentences I’m working towards: “You had been told that everyone has strange dreams the night before they walk the Pass, but you have none at all. You have never been a dreamer.” It’s like a tiny milestone to reach.