mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)

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
Tags: personal, roberts-rules, science-fiction, writing, writing-advice

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