How to Write a Pick-a-Path Story
How Does Pick-a-Path Work?
Long before computers, Nintendo, Xbox, Facebook and Twitter, my two sons enjoyed reading adventurous interactive role-playing stories known as Pick-a-Path or Choose Your Own Adventure books. Each book had a different setting, anywhere from being whisked away on an ocean adventure or traveling back in time to interact with historical or mythical figures. The plots and settings writers came up with was boggling.
The allure of the colorful book cover, as well as a captivating opening story, promised an awesome read. There were several comic book Pick-a-Path series that came out in the 1990s. Pick-a-Path stories are also called visual novels, and in the past 15 years, role-playing Game Stories (so named for stories about computer role-playing game characters and game system characters). There are a number of online groups with interactive stories; each member contributes to the storyline so that the story is always changing.
- The basic concept of each book remains the same. The writer creates a setting, usually writes in the second person naming the reader as the main character, creates a problem involving the reader, provides exciting adventures along the way, gives the reader preselected choices (picks) to solve the problem, and guarantees multiple endings.
For the story to "work" depends on the reader making decisions (picks) at strategically placed "jump points" in order to advance the story to the end. Pick-a-Path books were a delight to read whether you are a child or an adult. They were also a challenge to write.
I have one son who was and still is an avid reader. My other son was not interested in reading at all until the comic book version Choose Your Own Adventure books made him a convert. To any parent who has a child with little interest in reading, this is a very good way to give him/her a nudge. Let them read comic books; at least they are reading! Because my sons liked Pick-a-Path books so much and because I wanted to try my hand at creating a few, I started writing them in 1989.
- Choose Your Own Adventure books were primarily geared to boys, but you'll find a few writers out there who have written stories to attract the girls. There is a promising new teen series (2012) called "Choose Your Destiny" whose character Haley Miller enlists the aid of the reader.
As my boys grew older, their reading choices became more sophisticated—Star Trek, video game role-playing stories, etc. I had to step up my game with the plot twists and the types of stories I was writing, but after completing 11 books, I ended up abandoning writing these stories altogether.
- There is a revival of demand for this type of writing these days. Writing Pick-a-Path books can be excellent training for any writer and I strongly urge you to use it as an exercise to hone your plotting and short story writing skills.
A Pick-a-Path story is almost always written in the second person ("you") which draws the reader into the story. The pages are numbered, even in manuscript form. The opening story is not extremely detailed, just enough to let the reader get the lay of the land. There is very little fleshing out to do. The story is always exciting and that excitement is what moves it along, making the reader anxious to get from one chapter to the next.
- When writing in the second person, you will always have to check yourself (and relentlessly proofread!) to make sure you are addressing your reader as "you" so that they feel they are inside the story. That is the easy part!
The hard part is writing the same story with multiple endings. I use a short story format, between 2500 and 3000 words, however, this genre is not bound by a word count restriction. You can add more to the number of pages or word count, but those are the parameters I use to produce a 110–120-page book.
Have You Ever Wondered...?
You finished writing your story and you are basically pretty happy with the outcome. But as you think about your story later on, you wonder what would happen if:
Your character's time machine plunked him down in 1864 instead of 2525 (check out the link for "fan fiction site time travel stories")? or
Your character's last name is Vanderbilt and he/she is always mistakenly associated with the wealthy family? or
Your character had run away from that arranged marriage? or
Your character's spouse had a different personality or suffered from a terminal illness? or
Your character had made a change in travel plans (missed a flight or took a bus instead of a taxi) and met the man who was to change her life (could be a future spouse, employer, long lost parent)? or
Your character got hired for a different job than what he applied for and became famous in his field (by accident)? or
Your book setting were in Hawaii instead of New Orleans to weave local customs into your story.?
What if your book had a different middle and ending, just because of choices you made in the writing? As you can see, the possibilities here are endless and can apply not only to this genre but to any story you write.
"Jump Points" and "Picks"
Here's how Pick-A-Path stories work:
- The reader reads the first chapter - this is where you address the reader as the main character, create your setting, give a basic plot, add a friend or two for supporting characters and dump your reader into a dilemma.
- In order for the story to continue, the reader is offered a minimum of three choices at the end of the each chapter to determine where the story will go next. These are called "jumps." I usually make my first chapter about two to three pages long to give the reader enough of a picture so he can climb into the story, but other writers will make their opening chapter one to two pages, starting the action and decisions immediately.
Hint for success: Know your subject matter and your story will flow that much easier. (see Cinderella link below as example)
Pick-A-Path Story Example: You are with your friends Crystal and Sheryl on a children's tour at Cinderella's Castle in DisneyWorld to have breakfast with the "Once Upon A Time" characters at Cinderella's Royal Table Restaurant. You are all very excited to see Belle, Aurora, and Snow White visiting each guest table and posing for photographs. When the breakfast is over, you and your friends tell the tour guide you need to go to the rest room. When you come out, you see the tour has left without you. There are so many doors in the corridor, you don't know which one leads out of the Castle. Then you see Belle open a door that leads up a staircase and ....
Although this story might need a little more "fill" to let the reader visualize the wonders of being in the Castle, it is good enough for demonstration purposes. The end break (...) would signal the end of the first chapter and your first jump point. Your choices (picks) to offer the reader could be:
- "if you want to follow Belle up the staircase, jump to page 9." Or
- "if you want to open some of the other doors to see where they lead, jump to page 20." Or
- "if you want to continue reading from here, turn the page." This last pick, you will include as the third choice on every break (jump) point.
While I didn't make up a very good story above, I just wanted to give you the basic format and show how I used the word "you" to draw in the reader. It is not a "must" to write in the present tense but this is typical of pick a path stories to allow the reader to "interact" and feel a part of the story.
Each of the above picks would take the story off onto a different tangent. There is not much room in this genre to provide backstory for characters, so your story has to be more "show" (providing hints) than "tell." In your choices for picks, you must give the reader the types of picks that work out each dilemma to bring them to a different ending and still provide interactive entertainment.
After each jump, reading the next chapter takes the reader to two more picks to change the direction/solve a dilemma/make a decision and the standard one pick to continue reading in the same direction to see how the story pans out.
- This continues until the end of the story, which can end at any time depending on which path the reader "picked" at the end of each chapter. When finished reading the book, most readers will re-read it -- starting over with the first chapter, and choosing an alternate "pick" to read the book again in order to enjoy a whole different story and ending.
Your Paths and Endings
Some writers end their story after five chapters (10 visible picks and up to 20 hidden picks), sort of "they lived happily ever after" story endings. That is fine for very young readers with short attention spans.
Other writers like to write a story with over 100 picks so that the story truly is interactive. That is fine for more mature readers where you can afford to give more choices more often.
But you never want to put so many choices in your story that the reader feels the story may never end.(see book with Amazon pix at right with over 3800 endings!)
Also, be careful not to write "cop-out" middles and endings for ANY character - these are the "picks" where a character's story stops abruptly (due to death, coma, family moved away, etc) so that there are no picks for you to offer the reader to continue to the end of the story. This would be a writer backing themselves into a corner for not doing their prep work by writing enough multiple endings.
- If you choose not to write in the second person, keep your picks to the main character. Don't offer picks for the reader to make decisions about minor characters, especially when you know they will be killed off in your story, This is because your reader may think the character is important, will choose paths for that character, especially if they have championed that character's cause/story, only to find they have no one left to champion for the rest of the book. It is not fun for a reader to find out a character they have been championing died, was put in a coma, or moved away and is otherwise out of the running to keep the story interesting.
Also, you can bore or even embarrass the reader with silly picks, so always select your choices for picks wisely.
Example of a silly pick:
Offering a pick where the reader follows it to a dead end. It can go something like this:
"All your friends want to go to the food court at the mall. Some are calling their boyfriends to meet up there. Your boyfriend Rob is almost done work so ....
Pick 1) If you want to go to the mall and call Rob to meet you there, jump to page 30 or
Pick 2) To continue with this story, turn the next page.
Pick 3) If you don't want to go to the mall and want to go home alone, jump to page 199 (near the end of the book is a hint!).
When the reader gets to page 199, the page has one sentence on it:
"You go home alone and spend the night writing in your diary. The End."
Readers do not want to see the words "The End" after only a few chapter picks.
- This would qualify as a cop out ... a dead end ... a silly pick, because the reader "wasted" their pick, only to be shut down and out of the story. You could essentially lose this person as a follower who will now be putting your book down for good.
Killing off the reader as a character is a common ploy in the Pick-A-Path books of the 1980s and 1990s.
- It was not surprising to jump to a page and find out your pick got you killed. Today's readers are more sophisticated and discriminating. They don't want to die; they want an adventure!
Try to always offer meaningful picks so that the reader continues to feel involved in the story. They need to feel that their choice of pick was a good one that continues the adventure, not leads to an ending of the story. I usually steer clear of giving a pick where the story ends until I'm near the last two chapters.
The Basics of How to Write the Story
In a typical 1980's-1990s young children's pick-a-path book, there could be anywhere from ten to as many as 500 endings to a book. In those days, parents knew their child would be occupied for hours when they started reading a pick-a-path book! Each book would provide the reader with hours of read-through's to completely exhaust all the paths.
This is quite an undertaking for you, the writer, because essentially you have to write multiple books with completely different endings, choreograph the book so the "jump to" pages follow to the right path, and still have a clever exciting story to keep the reader engaged.
It is not easy to write these books.
While some writers worked with a different template, my template was to write five short stories, using the same characters, weave adventures and problem solving skills into each sub-story to craft up to twenty or more choices (jumps or picks) for the book to progress to a minimum of 20 different endings. I often ended up with more than five complete short stories because I made choices for the characters that carried me away to another story, adding to my number of endings. Because each pick multiplies into two more picks, your original 20 picks could hide at least 15 to 20 more picks by utilizing all the jumps. Readers enjoy the challenge of locating all the story lines by following the jump pages.
After you weave each story into the paths, you have to make sure each jump links up to the right part of the story. It can be quite confusing to write, but I have provided a flow chart below to help you to keep track of your jumps and stay organized, which is key with this type of writing.
Some writers offer four to five jumps at the end of each chapter, which makes writing the story even longer, harder for the writer to keep track and makes getting to the ending of your original story seem interminable for the reader. Four choices of paths at the end of each chapter could mean writing the book many more times instead of five. The only way a writer could get out of doing all that writing is to direct the picks to lead to a lot of dead ends (or red herrings) in the story which many readers do not appreciate.
To keep you, the writer, from getting lost or confused, this hub will deal with five books in total, consisting of one complete book, and four books with different middles and endings.
How to Construct Books One Through Five
- Create the characters and the setting for your book.
- Have a clear idea of the story you want to tell, with five different endings.
- Write your primary story from beginning to end. (This is Book 1)
- Write your story again using only Chapter One from your first book. Continue from Chapter Two onward writing a different middle and ending. (This is Book 2)
- Repeat step 4 three more times. (Book 3, 4, and 5)
- All should have the same first chapter.
- Book 2, 3, 4, and 5 should have different middles and endings.
I find it is easier to write each story to stand alone as a separate book and not depend on one of the others to continue. That way you can choose to use all five of the books in your Pick A Path book or just a few of the books to weave into your original Book 1.
How to Pick Good Jump Points
The fun part for the writer is deciding at what point the reader will be given picks to change the direction of the story and what those changes will be.
Your dilemmas and chapter breaks are called jump points. These are the "stops" where you want the reader to stop reading and pick from the three choices you give them to continue reading.
Your first conflict point is always at the end of Chapter 1. You want to give the reader just enough first pages to lay out your story and to draw them in.
Stopping the story (jump point) to give a choice during a mundane bus ride to school, or in the middle of a fight scene are not opportune times. You want to make sure you present the reader with interesting and exciting choices that will move your story along. Choosing what color shirt to wear to school is not interesting or exciting. On the other hand, each jump point doesn't have to be a live or die decision.
You need to make your story fun for the reader not only to read, but to feel a part of the story. If you look at it that you are giving the reader "clues" to bring him to the ending of that storyline, then you will be able to make good decisions as to where to make the jump points to offer picks to the reader.
You can only do so much description in this type of story. You can paint the outline of the picture, just don't fill in all the scenery. You want to do just enough for the reader to envision the setting.
So you will need to choose a path to offer the reader from one of your other four books. Go to the end of Chapter One in one of your other four books and choose the conflict you want to offer your reader. Note the "jump" page number. This is Pick One.
Now go to one of your other three remaining books to the end of Chapter One and choose the second conflict you want to offer your reader. Note the "jump" page number. This is Pick Two.
Pick Three is always the choice to continue reading the story, which if followed all the way through the book becomes your Book One, your original story.
When you get to the second conflict point (or the end of Chapter Two), you will repeat the process as above. When you get through to Chapter Ten, or your last chapter, you should have five completed pick-a-path books with endings.
When you are completely done, you will need to read your book all the way through using each of the picks to make sure you didn't leave anything out or didn't lead your reader to any dead ends.
What I usually do is:
- First read through - I read my book through to the end using NO picks - this is my original Book One.
- Second read through - I read the story through to the end using only the first pick for each jump. If the story pans out and all the jumps "work", this should tell a complete story with Pick One (Book 2).
- Third read through - I read the story through to the end using only the second pick for each conflict break. If the story pans out and all the jumps "work," this should tell a complete story with Pick Two (Book 3).
- Fourth read through - I read the story through to the end using alternate picks. I write them down like this: First chapter, use pick one, second chapter, use pick two, third chapter, use pick three, fourth chapter, use pick one, fifth chapter, use pick two, sixth chapter, use pick three, seventh chapter, use pick one, eighth chapter, use pick two, ninth chapter, use pick three, tenth chapter has no picks because it is the last chapter. If the story pans out and all the jumps "work" this should tell a complete story to become Book 4.
- Fifth read through - I read the story through to the end by reversing the order of picks in my Fourth read through. First chapter, use pick two, second chapter, use pick one, third chapter, use pick two, fourth chapter, use pick one, etc. until I have exhausted all the picks to make sure they all tell a story and the reader doesn't hit any dead ends. If the story pans out and all the jumps "work" this should tell a complete story to become Book 5.
- Sixth to tenth read through - I read the story through to the end by using random picks and noting them as I use them. There will be at minimum four more alternate endings using random picks to become Book 6, 7, 8, and 9. Your hidden picks will likely add several more books to this total.
- Because you are so familiar with the work now, it is best to ask a friend to read it and record on paper the picks they used to get to the end of the book. If they find any dead ends, you will have their record of picks to be able to re-trace where you went off track.
- If you keep a spreadsheet or use my flow sheet, writing a book like this is easy. If you are going to "wing it" you will give up before you get to your third read through.
Jump Flow Chart
Even television commercials are using the Pick-A-Path method for advertising products as seen in the following video.
Dog Food Pick-a-Path Commercial
Reading several Pick-A-Path books of varying length will give you the best insight on how to write them. If you can, locate a copy from the 1980s to read and compare it with a book written and published after 2005 (make sure it is not a reissue of the 1980s which is being done now). You will see how far these books have come in satisfying the reader's appetite for adventure, while still telling a good story.
Writing a Pick-A-Path book is not only challenging but it can be very rewarding when you finish writing it and see that all your jumps worked out perfectly. Keeping copious notes is the only way to stay on track. Use a copybook to make your own diagrams or use my flow chart, whatever works for you. Good luck and have fun.
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