What if… 3 ways gamebooks teach us how to tell terrific stories

This week I’ve been proof-reading one of Dave’s gamebook series, which is due to be rereleased next year.

Gamebooks, for the unnerdly, are interactive adventures (sometimes called Choose Your Own). The story is printed in scene sections, out of order, which end with a choice – trust the blind beggar or not, decide whether to look for your enemy in the town or the desert. Although I’m not a gamebook fan (apologies to those who are), I’m finding the process rather interesting.

Choices and consequences

First of all, what happens in each thread depends on the character’s personality and previous moral choices. So if they’re captaining a pirate ship, in one version they’re jolly tars and in the other it’s mutiny.

Choices are crucial to good stories. Stuff happens – not because a god dumped events into the plot, but because characters did things, usually under pressure. In a gamebook these choices create a unique path through the adventure. But whatever kind of story you’re writing, the chain reaction of choice and consequence is an essential.

Experimenting with scenes

To proof Dave’s books, I’m not reading one thread at a time, but front cover to back – which is jumbling the story into random episodes. It also means I encounter each scene in many versions.

This was like an x-ray of my plotting and revision process. I make copies of each scene and write umpteen iterations looking for tighter tension, more resonant changes, more interesting (but honest) ways to keep the reader on their toes. In fact my outtakes are rather like my novel in gamebook form, with all its possibilities – what if she says this, what if the characters had met before in different circumstances, what if y had happened before x?

(In fact Dave said this experimenting was part of the fun – he could play each scene several ways instead of having to settle for a single one as he would in a novel. The pic shows his flowcharts. BTW, the print books are Lulu editions for proofing only. Yes, we know the covers are horrible.)

Exploring possibilities is something that writers are often scared by. Often they want to keep a scene the way they first imagined it. But the more we squeeze a scene to see what it can do, the stronger a novel will be.


Because the gamebook contains many journeys, there are also many ends – deaths that are daft or valiant, failures to complete the quest, heroic rescues, solutions where honour wasn’t fully satisfied. Usually only one ending hits the mark. (In gamebooks that’s traditionally the last paragraph, by the way.)

Finding the right ending in a novel usually takes a lot of false starts. But you don’t get there unless you try all the permutations of success or failure and the shades between.

Get the experimenting mindset

To get in the experimenting mood, grab a gamebook and read it in a way it’s not intended to be – from page 1 to the end. You’ll see the many ways an encounter can go, the options for a scene of dialogue, the possibilities for your ending. Once you’re loosened up, go back to your WIP and play.

(Here are the titles in the series I’m proofing for Dave, but gamebook fans can probably point you to other goodies.)

Thanks for the signpost pic Shahram Sharif

Oh, and here’s a little tale of two esteemed gamebook writers: Dragon Warriors ride again.

Do you feel able to experiment with your stories? If so, what helps you? Share in the comments!  

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  1. #1 by Chila Woychik on November 17, 2012 - 8:24 pm

    Very good, Roz. It’s what I call “The Question Game.” I recently wrote a blog post on just this idea. Yes, the whole concept is imperative for novelists: what is the full range of possibilities for this story and which is the most intriguing, the most appealing to a potential reader?

    Excellent post, per usual

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on November 18, 2012 - 7:40 pm

      Hey Chila – thanks! You’ve nailed it – the most intriguing, appealing…. I’m working up a couple of new ideas and one of the things I’m focussing on at the moment is what will really grab the reader’s imagination.

  2. #3 by Daniel R. Marvello on November 17, 2012 - 9:20 pm

    I’ve heard of gamebooks before, but I’ve never run across one. After reading your description, I think I’d enjoy reading them, and possibly even writing them. I gave up gaming when I started writing fiction, and gamebooks might be a good way to re-integrate those two interests.

    As for how your post applies to my writing, I agree that experimentation is important. I’ve read enough about “killing your darlings” that I’ve tried not to become too attached to a scene or even a subplot. I do a lot of planning and considering of possibilities before I start writing, but that only takes me so far. After beta feedback on my first book, I made major changes to a scene, and that affected several scenes around it. I’m sure the second book will get the same kind of treatment.

    Thanks for sharing this info about Dave’s book with us. I’m intrigued with the concept now.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on November 18, 2012 - 7:45 pm

      Hi Daniel! Can’t believe a hooded fellow like you hasn’t come across gamebooks before. I think you’d get on well with them and if you’re going to write them it helps to have a programmer’s way of thinking because you have to construct loops and variations, and codewords to keep track of where characters have been.
      Agreed about the darlings, and if you create alternate versions of scenes it becomes easier to be objective about precious ideas. You come to see everything as serving the story, and changeable.

  3. #5 by AmyBeth Inverness on November 17, 2012 - 9:52 pm

    I love “Choose Your Own Adventure” books! I can see how the concept would help while writing a novel.

    I’ve always found it ironic that fans and readers end up knowing our stories better than we do, as authors. But we know all the stuff we DIDN’T do… all the scenes we cut, or drastically rewrote. Sometimes it’s hard to remember which alternative actually ended up in the finished story!

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on November 18, 2012 - 7:51 pm

      Ah Amy, ‘the stuff we DIDN’T do…’ – you’re so right. The possibilities explored and discarded, or removed because they would have spoiled the pace.
      You’re also right about readers knowing our stories better than we do. When I look at reviews of my novel I see a host of ideas that I didn’t set out to put there, but have come through in a reader’s connection with the work. I suppose in a way the writer is a conduit. We really find out what the book is when readers respond to it. Funny old business.

  4. #7 by cydmadsen on November 18, 2012 - 5:38 am

    My husband and I used to sit up in bed together and read gamebooks. “How’d yours turn out?” we’d ask each other. It was lots of fun, even if we were robbed of sleep. But I’d never thought of them as a writing tool. Excellent way of pointing out a very important writing process–play, experiment, take risks.

    In my own writing, playing around with possibilities has always been part of the process, most likely because I write standing up (nasty back problems) and act out the story. If there are multiple options that seem to work, I take a walk, let my mind go blank, and think of each step settling the right bits into place. I’ve discovered this is called walking meditation. Who knew?

    The fear of experimenting was lost long ago in a watercolor class. WC is a commitment because once the paint is down, it’s down. Everybody was tentative with each stroke until a fire fighter in the class put us straight. He told us to get a grip, it was just a piece of paper and there was paper, paper everywhere and never-ending chances for doing it over and saving the painting. There were no such options when running into a burning building to save a child. (Gulp.) That carried over into my writing. Really, what have we got to lose in the privacy of our own workspace with a good supply of white out or the delete key?

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on November 18, 2012 - 7:59 pm

      Hi Cyd! (Gosh it’s nice to be back blogging and to see familiar faces arriving in the comments)
      I love that – tandem gamebook reading. Dave and I went through a phase of late-night Sudoku, but never tried gamebooks.
      There are several writers I know who work standing up. I’m tempted to try it for my next novel if only for the variety. I like to make my writing space feel different in some way for a new book. Apart from the obvious comfort angle, do you find it different for the thinking processes?
      Crikey, that watercolour story. Shows how so many of our blocks are non-existent, really.

      • #9 by cydmadsen on November 21, 2012 - 10:10 pm

        Hi Roz. Writing while standing results in a huge difference for me. It makes putting my chin in my hand and pouting very difficult 🙂 It feels less restrained for some reason. I read that people are more creative while standing, but I don’t think the statistical boost in creativity is all that great or there would be a dozen books published about it by now.

        It’s good to have you back and sharing your ever-helpful thoughts. I always find something helpful in what you post.

  5. #10 by Áine on December 2, 2012 - 1:51 pm

    Hi,Roz. We call them decision trees in programming land…

    • #11 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 2, 2012 - 5:22 pm

      Hi Aine… funnily enough, the gamebooks are constructed using flowcharts. Which I believe also originated in programmingland….

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