Design Guide

Design Guide


Tools
Story Outline and Character Bios
Choice Design
Types of Choices to Avoid
Good Choices
God’s-Eye-View Choices
Choice Wording
Formatting Choices in Word Docs
Nesting Choices and Branches
Sensory Details
Paragraph Length
House Style

This Design guide illustrates how to format your story for publication and gives a few tips for designing your choices and writing for all five senses.

Story Outline and Character Bios

Before you begin drafting your story, it usually helps to sketch an outline to review the break down of plot points and character development. Post-it notes or other visual ways of planning the structure can help.

You can write a paragraph summary of each chapter or section. The summary should cover story beats, plot points, and character beats.

Additionally, please note the choices you’ll give the reader per section.

Along with your outline, it might be helpful to come up with brief bios and physical descriptions for your characters. The bios can be a couple of sentences.

Choice Design

Readers should have two options per choice.

One of the biggest criticisms interactive fiction readers have with the medium (especially on mobile) is their dissatisfaction with choices. They often feel writers force them to “like” certain love interests and are punished for pursuing others. The other problem is that players are faced with Hobson’s choices (non-choices), or that their choices have no effect on the story. Here’s a quick primer about good choice design, how to add choices in scenes to enhance player agency, and how to seed consequences based on choices throughout the story.

Types of Choices to Avoid

  • One-Choice Options that simply transition the reader from one part of the story to the next or a new location: One-choice options tend to be some action or line of dialogue that the protagonist can say or do without the reader making a decision.
  • Synonymous Choices: It’s difficult for the reader to see a difference between the two options. It’s as if both options are the same, but the prompts are written a little differently. Additionally, there’s little difference between what the protagonist does/says in each choice option’s branch.

For example, the reader has these dialogue options:

Choice 2a: “I can do it by myself.”

Choice 2b: “I can do this on my own.”

Let’s say these dialogue options are intended to show different aspects of the protagonist’s personality and how he feels towards addressee. The problem is that a reader may sense the same attitude from “do it by myself” and “do this own my own.” The differences in options can’t be too subtle. Readers need to understand what they’re choosing. The dialogue options are more distinct if they read like this:

Choice 2a: “I don’t want your help.”

Choice 2b: “I can do this on my own.”

Now it’s clear that Choice 2a is cold towards the addressee, and Choice 2b is more neutral.

  • Uninformed/Confusing Choices: Readers have no idea what the options will lead to or what the consequences (positive or negative) will be. Some surprises are good, but the reader should be able to forecast what might happen based on what they choose.
  • Hobson’s Choices: “Take it, or leave it”/“Do it, or don’t.” These choices only offer the reader one real choice, where the other choice is an illusion. Hobson’s choices force readers to make the “take it” or “do it” choice. They can be extremely frustrating for readers because they feel tricked into making a choice they didn’t want, or they wonder why they had the options in the first place.

For example, the reader has these options:

Choice 5a: Take the elevator.

Choice 5b: Take the stairs.

Choice 5a reads like this:

We rushed to the elevator. There was an “Out of Order” sign posted on the doors.

David sighed.

“Guess we’re taking the stairs,” I said.

Choice 5b reads like this:

The stairs were always cluttered with trash, but it was better than waiting for that ancient elevator.

“After you,” I said as I opened the door to the stairwell.

Whether to take the stairs or the elevator is a minor one in this instance, but the only real choice here is to take the stairs. Choice 5a redirects the reader back to the stairs. This is frustrating for readers because they’ll probably wonder, “Well, why is this even a choice if I can’t go down the elevator?” An illusory choice like this becomes even more frustrating when readers get excited for a choice option, and then they find out they can’t do it.

  • Meaningless Choices: The story world should respond to the reader’s choice in some way, even if the reader chooses what the protagonist wears. For example, the reader chooses a leather jacket. At some point, the story should reference the leather jacket in the text, or at least another character needs to acknowledge the jacket. Readers need to experience their choices.

Good Choices

  • “Non-Judgmental” Choices: The choice doesn’t present “right” and “wrong” options, nor does the writer seem to inject their own opinion or moral judgment based on what the reader chooses. A common issue readers of interactive fiction apps raise is the sense that the writer wants them to make certain choices, whether they are plot based or character driven. They feel writers judge and punish them if they don’t choose the “right” love interest or make the “wrong” decision. A non-judgmental choice doesn’t mean that it won’t lead to negative consequences, but any consequence should feel like a natural story progression, not that the reader is being penalized.
  • Difficult Choices: Difficult choices are great! These can present two awesome options the reader has a different time choosing between or two heartbreaking options the reader agonizes over (or anything in between!).
  • Choices With Long-Term Consequences: Strong choices lead to immediate consequences that readers experience right away, but they also have consequences that may affect characters, the world, or the plot in ways readers may not foresee later in the story. These long-term consequences make readers’ choices feel even more meaningful, as the story will continue to respond to their decisions.
  • Choices Revealing Different Facets of the Protagonist’s Personality: The options you give can show off different parts of the protagonist’s personality. For example, one dialogue option might be more sarcastic, while the other is a little more forgiving. Letting readers determine the protagonist’s personality and characterization facilitates the readers’ ability to roleplay.

God’s-Eye-View Choices

You can provide some choices that are not “in character.” In other words, you can give the reader “godlike” choices that will determine major plot points or where the story goes. All choices don’t have to be from the perspective of the protagonist.

For example, the reader has a choice that will change the time of day. The time of day will be important because different events will happen based on whether it’s day or night:

Choice 7a: Helen waited until noon . . .

Choice 7b: Helen waited until nightfall . . .

Choice Wording

Please keep each choice option to one line of dialogue or one sentence per action.

Nesting Choices and Branches

Sometimes one choice option will lead to more choices, creating nesting options and branches. When this is the case, please format them this way:

Choice 5a: Find out what’s in the elevator.

Choice 5b: Take the stairs.

The reader chooses Choice 5a:

We rushed to the elevator. There was an “Out of Order” sign posted on the doors.

I sighed.

“Guess it’ll remain a mystery,” David said.

“You give up too easy. We gotta know what’s in there.”

Choice 5a(1): Mash the elevator button over and over and over and over.

Choice 5a(2): Find a way to wedge the elevator doors open.

Choice 5a(1): Mash the elevator button over and over and over and over.

Choice 5a(1) Begins

I jabbed at the up and down buttons. Didn’t matter which one did the job, as long as one of them did.

“You think that’s gonna work?” David said.

Choice 5a(1) Ends

Choice 5a(2): Find a way to wedge the elevator doors open.

Choice 5a(2) Begins

“Hey, Dave, you still got those garden shears?”

He ran to his apartment and brought back those rusty shears I never saw him use, despite him always saying what a green thumb he was.

“This is thin enough to stick between the doors?”

He looked at me and raised an eyebrow.

“Better than nothing.”

“Well, you got that right,” he said.

We stuck the shears in. I felt a little place where the elevator doors parted a bit.

Choice 5a(2) Ends

The elevator dinged. The doors cracked, like someone was trying to push them open from the other side.

“David? Mindy!”

“Um, Lisa,” I said, “how’d you get trapped in there?”

“Does it matter? YOU GONNA GET ME OUTTA HERE?!”

She stepped away from the doors, and me and David pulled them open. Lisa stumbled outside, gasping for her breath as her anxiety faded.

“Why couldn’t we hear you from the outside?” David said.

“What kinda space-time weirdo elevator were you trapped in?” I said.

“I don’t know. Can we go?”

The story returns to the main branch:

If reader chose Choice 1a:

The stairs were always cluttered with trash.

Choice-Based Content Ends

If reader chose Choice 1b:

The stairs were always cluttered with trash, but it was better than trying to open that death trap of an elevator.

Choice-Based Content Ends

“After you,” I said as I opened the door to the stairwell.

Sensory Details

Whenever possible, add sensory details to immerse readers in the scene. These can be anything that evoke sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell:

She tripped over the corner of the mildewed rug. Her ankle rolled under her weight, and she braced herself against the cold, dank floor as she fell. The shock crept up through her palms and arms. Then several pangs shot across her foot. She slapped her hand over her mouth to keep from shouting. Reaching around in the dark and wincing from pain and the overwhelming rot coating her throat, she found the wall and steadied herself, as her fingers scurried about cracks and pock marks to find a light switch.

Sight

Sound

Touch

Taste

Smell

The more variety of sensory details, the better!

Paragraph Length

For the sake of reading comfort on screens and mobile devices, please keep paragraphs to around five lines or less.

House Style

10th Muse uses Chicago Manual of Style. You can find a quick CMOS primer here.

In exception to CMOS rules, please use the following as indicated below:

Italics

  • sarcasm
  • emphasis
  • character thoughts

ALL CAPS

  • shouting/yelling

Ellipses ( . . . )

  • Character trails off in dialogue, hesitates, or pauses

Em-Dashes (—)

  • emphatic pause in narration or dialogue
  • character interrupted by another character
  • don’t add spaces before and after em-dashes

Spelling

When in doubt, use Merriam-Webster for official spelling.

You may use either British or American English.


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