Six Tips For Making Interactive Stories/ Gamebooks

2013 Artwork Interactive Fiction sketch

Although I’ve played a few gamebooks and even tried to make a few of them when I was younger, I’ve never made a full-length gamebook before. Still, it’s something which I’d like to do one day, so I thought I’d write an article sharing my (fairly limited) knowledge and experience with this type of fiction. Hopefully it’ll also inspire someone to experiment with this genre too.

This genre was still vaguely popular in the 1990s and I have a whole stock of old second-hand “Fighting Fantasy” books from the 80s (as well as a few of the more modern reprints of them and some other gamebooks such as “Goosebumps” and “Choose Your Own Adventure” gamebooks), it seems to have faded into obscurity somewhat these days. So, being both nostalgic and retro, I reckon that this type of fiction is probably due for a resurgence sometime soon.

In case you’ve never actually played a gamebook before – it is a type of novel which isn’t read like a conventional novel. Instead, it’s divided into either very short (usually 25-50% of a page) numbered “chapters” or individual self-contained numbered pages. At the end of each “chapter” or page there is an instruction to turn to another “chapter” or page. Sometimes you are given a decision between two or three “chapters”/pages which you can turn to, depending on what you want to do – for example: ‘If you wish to explore the cavern, turn to page 25. If you wish to open the door, turn to page 67 or if you wish to examine the cursed sword, turn to page 14”.

(The advantage of using “chapters” is that you can make your story a lot longer. Plus, it is a lot easier in terms of formatting if you are writing an e-book in this genre. However, if you use page numbers instead, then your story is a lot easier and quicker to navigate. But, it will probably only have about half as many steps/decisions as a “chapter”-based story will.)

Of course, this genre was also either inspired by or a precursor to electronic text-based adventure games and it has a lot in common with these types of games in terms of storytelling techniques (even if there is slightly less interactivity). Although this article will focus on making old-school interactive fiction, if you want to make a text-based adventure, some of this advice might be useful too.

There are several programs out there for making this type of game and the one I’d recommend is probably one called ADRIFT , although it takes a bit of practice/experimentation before you can make even a rudimentary game with it (and I could only get one of the older versions of it to run on my computer, if I remember rightly).

Anyway, here are six tips which may or may not come in handy if you’re interested in writing in this genre:

1) Second-person narration: Interactive fiction is about the only genre of fiction which should be written in a second-person perspective (eg: “You walk into an empty room”) in order to immerse the reader in the story and make them feel like they are the protagonist of the story. Getting used to writing in this style takes a little bit of practice and it might feel slightly strange at first, but you’ll probably get used to it fairly quickly.

Whilst it is probably possible to write an interactive story from a first-person or third-person perspective, I really wouldn’t recommend it.

2) Use a “blank slate” main character: Whilst you can create a main character who is introduced at the beginning of the book and who the reader will control (eg: “You are Aurica, mage of the seven lands and scourge of the necromancers”), I’ve always preferred interactive stories where the reader is the main character. Of course, this requires some fairly clever writing in order to ensure that your story reaches the widest possible audience.

In other words, whenever the narrator or another character addresses, describes or refers to the reader, make sure to do it in a gender-neutral way. This is easier than it sounds and you can usually get around this by having other characters address the player directly (eg: “You look like someone who is good at exploring, I need you to find a way out of these cursed caverns”) or using slightly formal titles instead of gender-based descriptions (eg: “Finally, a space marine! We’ve been under siege for weeks!” rather than “Finally, a tough guy with a gun! We’ve been under siege for weeks!”)

Likewise, if you’re illustrating your story, make sure not to show the main character in your illustrations if the main character is supposed to be the reader. This is extremely easy to do – just draw the settings or other characters which the main character encounters.

Even if you just draw the main character’s hand, make sure that they are wearing a glove or something like that (since not all of your readers will have the same skin colour as the “main character” in your illustration).

In short, make the protagonist as much of a “blank slate” as possible so that your readers can their imaginations as much as possible to immerse themselves in the story.

3) Planning: Unlike other types of fiction, you must always plan your interactive stories before you start writing them. There are several ways to do this, but the one that I learnt is apparently the one which was used by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson for their “Fighting Fantasy” books.

This method basically involves working out in advance how many pages or “chapters” your story will have and writing a list of each page/”chapter” number on the edge of a large sheet of paper (of you could do it on the computer, using something like MS Paint or something like that).

Then, after that, start plotting out a branching flow-chart style “map” of your story on your large piece of paper. Each point on this map should represent one numbered page or “chapter” of your story. Once you’ve added a point, cross that number off of your list (so that you don’t use the same page/”chapter” twice).

Another thing to bear in mind is that there should be a decent gap between each page (eg: if you’re writing page three, then don’t end it with “turn to page four” or “if you want to do this, turn to page four. If you want to do that, turn to page five”). This just gets kind of boring and it’ll encourage your readers to cheat and look ahead in the book. So, try to make sure that there’s at least a 5-10 page gap between each step of your story.

I’d draw a small diagram of this method, but I think that I read about it it ages ago in a book which explained it in much more detail (with a diagram). I can’t remember the book’s title (but it was probably by Ian Livingstone and/or Steve Jackson), but I don’t want to inadvertently copy anyone else’s diagrams in this article. Sorry about this.

4) Non-standard endings: One thing which many interactive stories have in common is that they have a few “non-standard” endings as well as the main ending at the end of the book. Most of the time, these endings involve the main character making the wrong decision and dying or suffering a fate worse than death.

It’s usually a good idea not to include too many of these endings in your interactive story. Whilst a few of them can make your story fun, dramatic and challenging – too many of them can frustrate your readers and make them feel like they are being “punished” for every tiny mistake they make. Obviously, it is up to you to determine the difficulty level of your story, but it isn’t a good idea to use too many of these “non-standard” endings.

5) Genre: Yes, fantasy, horror and science fiction are the most common genres for interactive fiction stories, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t write one of these stories in another genre. In fact, given the relative lack of interactive fiction stories in other genres, your story has more of a chance of standing out if it isn’t in one of these genres.

But, if you’re a massive fan of fantasy/horror/sci-fi stories, then it is probably a good idea to work in a genre that you actually enjoy rather than just trying something “different” for the sake of it.

6)Combat/role-playing elements: Your interactive story doesn’t have to include a dice-based combat system or any role-playing elements (such as items, experience points etc…) but you can include these if you want to.

Some of your readers might find that these elements make your story a lot more dramatic, interactive and immersive – but other readers might just find them to be too involved or frustrating (I usually just skip these elements whenever I read a “Fighting Fantasy” book. Yes, I know that it’s technically “cheating”, but it makes the books a lot more fun).

If you are going to include these elements in your story, make sure that they are clearly explained at the beginning of your story and that they are relatively simple to use as well. It might be a good idea to get a few people to “play-test” your story before you release it in order to see if there are any problems with it which need correcting.


Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂

3 comments on “Six Tips For Making Interactive Stories/ Gamebooks

  1. […] – for example, the adventure game genre pretty much started out as a digital version of those “Choose Your Own Adventure”/”Fighting Fantasy” gamebooks that were popular in the 80s and […]

  2. […] yes, I also wrote another article about this genre back in 2013 too. Seriously, it’s one of those genres that I keep forgetting […]

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