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Robert's Rules of Writing #47: Lay Down the Law

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Does anyone out there remember the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books?

The books came out when I was a kid, and I loved them. A man named Edward Packard developed the concept, and at first he had a hard time selling them to a publisher. But one publisher took a chance, and once "The Cave of Time" appeared in bookstores, the series took off.

In a way, they were an early version of text adventures or hypertext fiction. The concept behind each book was that you guided the main character, usually known as "You," through the adventure. At the end of every page there would be a branch point, a question you had to answer. For example, you might be wandering through a forest and you come to a cave. If you decided to explore the cave, you would turn to page X to continue the story, but if you chose to keep plowing through the forest instead, you would turn to page Y.

Masello remembers the books; oddly enough, he remembers them being a failure, although I know my personal collection included well over two dozen volumes. Furthermore, I remember other publishers ripping off -- excuse me, adopting -- the idea for themselves, with other lines of books that required the reader to choose a path through a story.

But Masello dismisses the books, and actually for a pretty good reason. He points out that readers don't really want a "choose your own adventure" experience, that they want an author to be in control of the narrative and to bring the story decisively from its beginning to its end.

Personally, I think it depends on the experience a reader is looking for; the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books probably appealed more to the gamer in me than the reader. But while I disagree with Masello's assessment of these books, I do agree that if you're writing a straightforward short story or novel, you have to show that you are in strong control of your material. And that means laying down the law, as he puts it.

Personal example time. When I finished the first draft of "Paying It Forward" (Analog, September 2003), I deliberately left the ending ambiguous. I wanted the reader to be unsure as to what had really been going on throughout the story. Nomi read the ending and told me I was making a big mistake, that the story had to have an explanation for all the events that took place, or else my readers would take umbrage.

Looking back, it occurs to me that perhaps I myself was unsure of how I wanted to resolve the story. The ambiguity existed in my own mind, and that's why I put it on the page. Lawrence Block mentions this issue in one of his own essays on writing; he was never quite sure how he wanted to end his novel "Ariel," and so he tends to feel that the ending of the book is one of the weakest he ever wrote. (And to the best of my recollection, that book never sold as well as his others.)

To conclude, as much as we may like the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure concept, when writing a short story or novel we have to eschew it. As Masello advises, be in control of your material from beginning to end, and keep your readers satisfied.

Copyright © Michael Burstein


With all due respect to Masello and this rule (which is one I always try hard to follow, granted)...the CYOA books a failure?

They published dozens of titles, and the series is still out there. The next-to-last time I was at Barnes & Noble I went back into the children's section hunting for the latest "Last of the Jedi" book and they had a big display of CYOA books next to the YA section.

Though I was a little taken aback, I'll admit, to see that #1 in the series is no longer The Cave of Time. Don't know what's up with that.
There's quite a bit of research going on right now in the game world on the subject of "interactive storytelling". Basically, it's trying to have interactive experiences where the story is just as good as if it were a non-interactive story by an author "laying down the law". There are some who think that this is not possible (at least not until we have true artificial intelligence), but that hasn't stopped a lot of people from trying.

A stab at this that got a lot of attention a year and a half ago is Facade, which you might be interested to check out if this area interests you at all.
Masello remembers the books; oddly enough, he remembers them being a failure... Masello dismisses the books, and actually for a pretty good reason. He points out that readers don't really want a "choose your own adventure" experience...

I've been following your "Robert's Rules" essays pretty regular and I have to say that this is the first time I've violently disagreed with something Masello has said. My first reaction was "This guy is full of [expletive deleted]!" He's using a children's book series as an example for essays about writing adult fiction and treating the series as such, which it most assuredly was not.

First of all, the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series (full disclosure: published my my former employer) were wildly successful financially and critically. They wouldn't have lasted as long as they did or be copied as enthusiastically as they were by other publishers and packagers if they hadn't been.

Second, for kids, they were full of surprises and, as you yourself know, provided a different kind of reading experience than traditional fiction. Sure, they were most popular with boys and they did appeal especially to a gamer contigent, but they were product that targeted and found their market successfully, which much of adult fiction only occasionally manages to do.

Third, comparing children's fiction that was created specifically targeted to a particular market to adult mainstream fiction may be fine as an object lesson—and I do see his point—but it's inappropriate to offer a qualitative assessment of this series in particular based on a different set of criteria than those they were created by. It's an apples to oranges comparison.

I wholly buy the "be in control of your narrative" rule. Of course, that makes sense. But damning the CYOA series for putting the reader in control misses the point of what that product was created to do and is, I think, a little misleading.
"Violently disagreed"? Don't hold back; tell us how you really feel. :-)

I should make it clear that he doesn't refer to the Choose-Your-Own-Advneture line specifically, but to the concept in general. I must admit that I wonder if he's thinking of something else...for example, is it possible that someone did try to do this as an adult line of books, and that's what failed?
Are you kidding? I loved those books! But I think if Maselo got rid of the analogy, the point is valid; the reason I stopped watching Lost was that I felt J.J. Abrams no longer had a clue where he was taking it and was suspending disbelief from the neck until dead. Readers (and viewers) prefer to trust that the author knows what they're doing and will take the audeince somewhere good, even if the audience doesn't have all the puzzle pieces yet. Look at J.M.S.; for a huge part of the B5 run, we didn't know what was up with the Shadows, but we knew that he knew, and it was internally consistent, so we trusted until we were let in on the secrets.
I don't completely agree on the comment on Lost, but I'd certainly include Charmed, Alias and possibly West Wing in that list. Series don't need "arcs", but if a series (whether tv or book) has them, the author(s) darn well better know where the arc is going, or people just stop caring.

My opinion, which I know is not shared by many, is that J.M.S did know where he was going, but was prevented from getting there by outside factors (not knowing if there would be a 5th season, actors leaving etc.)
Why isn't that shared more? I always felt one of the problems of 4th and 5th season was that the end of 4th season was trying to cram in all the cool 5th season stuff he wasn't sure he was gonna get to, which left a vacuum when he did get season 5.

Doesn't change the fact that it was a damned good show, though.
Funnily enough, the Choose-your-own-Adventure series was the topic of an article in the most recent Wired--apparently they've decided to make more of them, updated with modern touches like cell phones.

Because the people at Wired can't resist a gimmick, the article was CYOA style...if you want to learn how they were written, turn to page 58, and so forth. Since I read Wired cover to cover I just kept going until I got to the next paragraph, wherever it was. They have all sorts of high-falutin' phrases for how they're writing the things, and hopefully that won't stop them from writing the solid pulp that the originals were known for.

December 2016

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