On Writing Interactive Fiction

What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower: Being An Adventure of Your Own Choosing

In this series I explore the writing and editing processes behind some of the books I’ve put out. Obviously, I am not really an expert on this process, but I’m learning as I go and am happy to share what I’ve figured out.

My first “novel,” What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower (Combustion Books, 2011) is what is known as interactive fiction. Commonly, these books are referred to as Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books, but that is a trademarked term and the company that owns that trademark does, indeed, defend it. So my book was an Adventure Of Your Own Choosing and I recommend that if you put one of these out you also avoid the CYOA label.

I get asked about the writing process behind that book fairly often. So I’ll lay out what I learned by writing it.

Clock Tower

I first started toying with the idea years before I even started the book, and then, one day, frustrated with the direction of another writing project, I started writing Clock Tower. I’m fairly certain I started with the name, but I’ve got a pretty bad memory. I mapped out the very basics—that the protagonist was a 19th century drunk, that there were goblins and gnomes and kabouters living under the city—and then just, well, started in to write it.

Big mistake.

I wrote twenty-five thousand words before I realized the error of my ways. By nature, I’m not a careful planner, more of an “adapt my plans as I go” type of person, so I basically just started writing one plotline of the book and then left places where it could branch off. My plan was that I would go back and fill those out later. I even filled some of those other paths out. But for the most part, I had one very long path plowing through the book with short side-paths. Not a good way to design an interactive book.

One night, I was watching a movie with my then-partner, and I started complaining about the film. “Why are the protagonists always the generals and the kings? Why can’t we watch more films about foot soldiers, about the baker who volunteered for the war effort?” And then I thought about it for a moment. “I have to rewrite my book.”

This, of course, meant rewriting, piecing out, or just scrapping months of work. But it was worth it. I took stock of what I had, then worked out the general plot lines, then took a scrap of paper and wrote out a new tree. I wrote out five major plot paths, each branching out another 3-4 ways, with various live-or-die endings down each road. This little scrap of paper lived in my notebook for another two years while I worked on the book… I didn’t bother doing anything intelligent like photograph that piece of paper until long after the book was in print.

Here’s that piece of paper: (don’t look! spoilers!)

I futzed around back and forth with the book, working on it slowly, until I got accepted to a writer-in-residency program called The Cyberpunk Apocalypse in Pittsburgh. I showed up and wrote the entire second half of the book in one month. For the record, Clock Tower comes it at something like 42,000 words, I think, which is quite short for a novel but longer than any CYOA-syle book I’m aware of.

Interactive Fiction

Writing second person present tense is weird. Most novels are written in first or third person, and there I was writing “you do this,” and “you do that.” “You are eaten by a grue.” While my years of experience running tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons came in handy, one of the biggest challenges I faced was reminding myself that I was not writing a D&D campaign and that I needed to remain literary.

The individual sections, in between choices, range from probably a hundred words to upwards of a thousand. I think the sweet spot seemed to be in the 300-400 word range, but honestly I didn’t stress much about that and I believe I ended with a decent variety of lengths. I might try for more consistency in any future interactive book, but I’m not convinced it matters that much. It’s just a matter of personal style.

When I read interactive books as a kid, I usually liked the simpler ones, where you didn’t have to keep track of an inventory or hit points, where you didn’t have to flip coins or roll dice. I liked the complicated ones too, but my favorite ones didn’t have any of that. I’ve written out a few drafts of other interactive books (including a few comic strip-based ones) that did keep track of various factors, and balancing those is its own challenge.

The other question to ask yourself before you set down to write is whether or not it takes place in what I would call an objective world or a subjective one. In an objective world, the decisions the reader makes change what the protagonist does, but don’t change anything unrelated to the protagonist or their actions. In a subjective world, this is not the case. For example, in an objective world, the mysterious stranger with the gray hat is always a mad bomber, whether or not the character decides to go into the tower of destiny. In a subjective world, the stranger is a mad bomber if the character doesn’t go into the tower, but a benign mentor if the character does. Personally, I greatly prefer the objective world approach. I find the subjective world one to be less interesting because one of my favorite parts about reading an interactive book is the feeling that I’m able to slowly explore and reveal the entire world over the course of multiple plotlines… something that is taken away if the world itself is different with every path I take.

Sections & Numbering

It’s really complicated to keep track of all of those different sections, and “how did you do that?” seems to be the question I get the most. What I ended up doing was having two sets of section numbers: the ones I used while I was writing it, and the ones I changed them to at the end. The first time through, every time I wrote a choice (“If you go up the stairs, go to section five. If you go down the stairs, go to section six.”) I just numbered the sections linearly as I wrote. Then I would go ahead and add those sections later in the same document, and include a little note indicating which section it was linked from. So I’d write “Section Five (from section 3)” or something to that effect. I wrote the entire book this way. And then, once it was all written, I wrote out all of the sections into a family-tree style tree, like my doodle above but including every section, and then started at the top and worked my way down, left to right, coming up with new numbers for all the sections. This meant that usually any given choice would take you deeper into the book, rather than back towards the front.

Then I went through and changed the actual manuscript to reflect those changes. Then I went through and checked every single link to make sure it matched up. Then I made two of my friends do the same thing. I was terrified we’d get one wrong, but we didn’t.


A hidden bonus in writing interactive fiction is how much fun it is to present. With linear fiction, it seems that the average audience’s attention span is roughly fifteen minutes. With interactive fiction, you can go for an hour and a half and keep a large crowd entertained, because they get to participate every five or ten minutes. It keeps their attention focused.

There are probably a thousand ways to do interactive readings. My personal favorite is to force the audience to use “rapid consensus decisionmaking” process. That is to say, rather than allowing the audience to vote on which path to take, I make them all come to an agreement. They don’t all have to like the decision, but they can only move forward if everyone is willing to accept the decision and no one “blocks.” I like this method for readings for three reasons: one, because I believe that consensus decisionmaking is a crucial life tool for those who seek to interact with one another as equals; two, because using consensus decisionmaking in real life can be stressful and intense, so using it in an entirely fictitious environment allows people to blow off steam and practice the process in a lighthearted manner; and finally, I like it because voting is too easy—with consensus decisionmaking, the audience has to argue for their positions and collectively weigh the benefits and drawbacks of certain behaviors. And watching an audience argue about whether or not to jump on a lion and chase down gnomish children is really, really entertaining.

Other posts on writing:

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6 thoughts on “On Writing Interactive Fiction”

  1. Hi Margaret, it’s nice to meet another interactive fiction writer! I’ve just finished my first interactive novel, too, and I really enjoyed your article because I found that I encountered a lot of the same challenges, especially with the plot branches. What software did you use to write your novel? I used Scrivener and Scapple, and they were definite time-savers for me. I look forward to reading your book.

    1. I use scrivener now, and would probably use it to organize my writing next one of these I write. I just used Word or OpenOffice or something with the last one. Congrats on your novel!

  2. Hey man, I know you mention here that you weren’t as much into the dice and paper adventure books, but I was thinking about how I used to play those back in the day, and I found some ‘interactive gamebooks’ on google play… namely “Blood of the Zombies”.

    I have it on my tablet, and it keeps track of everything including dice rolls and tracking hit points and all that, so you can really concentrate on the story and making decisions. Overall, it really took me back to my junior high school days, and I was thinking, “Man, magpie should make something like this” even if it was just a translation of ‘what lies beneath the clock tower’.

    Anyways, i know you have an iphone, but there’s an iOS version too:


    You should give it a try and see if it’s something you’d be into. I can’t imagine it would be that difficult to program, you could probably get a friend or someone like myself to do it :P

    1. huh. that’s actually really tempting. I like the idea of including more stats and things if there’s a computer doing the dice rolls and keeping track… otherwise, bouncing between reading and keeping track seems like a bit much.

  3. I don’t think I ever shared this with you: http://samizdat.cc/cyoa/

    it’s a cool breakdown of a bunch of CYOA books — the infographics are really nifty, but I also really like his essay – he talks about how speculative fiction “provided scaffolding for my own imagining”, and about how the CYOA books had a trend toward linearity, and ends with a nice example of transcending the form

    1. oh I totally read this when I was writing Clock Tower, I completely forgot about it! thanks for the link.

      The idea of the page that can only be reached by cheating was one I considered for a long time… not actually sure why I didn’t end up using it.

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