This starts with a disclaimer that the process described here is my way. It’s not necessarily a good way; it’s not even a way I follow with each book, and it definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But it is a starting point. Something to try out, then you can keep the bits that worked and try new bits that you’ve gleaned from other people. So, here goes my 8-step process!
Step 1: Assemble the Nuts and Bolts
The general idea of the story should be established first, otherwise, you’ll go nowhere fast. By answering these questions, the world that you are creating should start to take shape. Grab a notebook and scribble some notes.
Who is the protagonist?
What are they like?
Why are they in this situation?
What do they want to achieve in this?
Who is the nemesis/nemeses?
What is thwarting the protagonist? Is it a living thing or a situation or something else?
What do they want to achieve?
Why are they doing what they are doing?
Who are the ‘helper’ characters and why are they against the nemesis?
Who are the additional threats? Who are you in danger from in the run up to meeting the nemesis?
How does the protagonist succeed in the end?
What are the fixed stepping stones that get the reader to the end? What midstory/mini-achievements must be made? For example, finding a new location, destroying a machine, killing a low-level adversary
Where is this taking place?
Can you picture it? Can you list a number of rooms/areas within this location? Is it based on anywhere real?
Once you have these facts scrawled down, move onto the next step.
Step 2: Pin It Down
Start with the big picture — put your plot devices in place, and I mean that literally! I use pieces of A3 paper, so, for example, Nightshift would look like:
It doesn’t look much, but this is the basic skeleton of the story, and now you can hang the flesh on those bones. But what does that look like?
Take ‘kill nemesis’ — and here, I will use imaginary things, so as not to spoil Nightshift!
What information and/or objects will be needed to kill the nemesis? Let’s say you decide that Item A, password B, and location C are all essential for this murder.
For each of those, you then need to decide where and how these are acquired. We’ll focus on the first object and say that Item A is found in a safe behind a painting in a study. That’s a lot of information and could be broken down further:
Item A is a dagger
The dagger is kept in a safe
The safe is behind a painting in the study
A good opportunity for a puzzle to reveal the combination
The description of the painting
“The dagger is behind Lady Penelope” and later, the description of the study refers to a portrait of Lady Penelope
Where the study is located
If it is in a secret or hidden location, how do you reach it?
This can go even further by having someone reveal that person X knows where the safe is located, but they’ll only tell you if you give them some chocolate. Now, you have to find person X AND chocolate…
As you can see, this could go on and on, but you can keep it short at this stage, especially if you feel a bit overwhelmed. What’s important, though, is to add these points to your timeline, so now, it looks like this:
Now, you’re starting to get a flowchart of events. What’s next?
Step 3: Enter Space and Time
Now is a good time to start doodling. Be it a map or floorplan, some sort of layout is helpful. And here’s where you can play around with the rooms or areas you listed earlier. Once you have a physical space created, you can insert the key points into it. Find out that Item A is a dagger in the library; learn about the painting in the turret — that sort of thing. I have used Post-its with the key points written on them, which I can place onto the A3 floor plan. And if I want to see how they look in different positions, it’s easy to swap them around. Usually, this stage for me takes a lot of paper, but I find this sketching process helps my mind to wander and explore the story. And you can always change much later too. I already had the proof copy edition of Behind the Weeping Walls when I decided the middle section layout wasn’t working. It seemed too simplistic, so I reconstructed it.
When you’re inputting this information, you are also starting to construct the correct pathway(s) and maybe installing some red herrings, too.
During this stage, you can begin to consider how the information is gleaned. For example, is the location of the safe revealed by a certain helper? Is the safe combination puzzle written on a hidden parchment? And with these considerations, you need to factor in step 4.
Step 4: Strike a Balance
Balance is key for the reader’s experience. Think about the format of any computer game you’ve played, and you’ll realise it probably goes a little like: Exposition/cutscene > Explore > Fight > Explore > Fight > Cutscene/exposition. Variety is the spice of life, so you can review your layout and make sure that it isn’t simply one conversation after another to access the information. I often use colour to show where conversations, puzzles and found objects are placed — that quickly highlights if the gameplay will get too bogged down in one format. And finally, you should plot out the correct path(s) to confirm that readers can access all that they need in order to succeed.
Step 5: Just Get On With it!
At this point, it’s usually good to start writing. I know you’ve now identified a lot of things that need to go in, but, for now, just stay with your character in their opening scene. Where are they? What’s happening? And crucially, what do they do next? Hopefully, step 1 has created the world in your own head, so you can imagine the protagonist there and how they interact within it. From that, the choices arise quite naturally. Nightshift was the easiest one for me as it literally was the hospital I worked in. I have crept along those same corridors at night, albeit not being chased by an assassin…
Choices based on where to go next (turn left, turn right) are sometimes necessary but don’t go overboard with them. Again, aim for variety and make sure the decisions are logical and meaningful. As you have the key points plotted, you may feel tempted to go quickly from one event to the next but remember to keep showing the world. Simply walking along a corridor could be an opportunity to create the atmosphere — spooky, desolate, tense — which allows readers to feel that they are immersed in this place.
Step 6: Turn to?
What about the numbers? When you get to the end of a section, how do you know which numbers to choose? Well, I have my trusty chart of numbers and I pick a random one, highlight it to show that I’ve used it and that’s it! If I later decide that I need a certain number as it is the answer to a riddle, but I’ve already used it, I swap them. I’m now on my 7th gamebook and this has always worked for me, but there is some more advice later for checking that it all links up correctly. Let’s face it — that is pretty important! Otherwise, I am back to good ol’ pen and paper…
Step 7: Facing the Consequences
As the story unfolds, you will need to make sure that readers face the consequences of their actions. There is, after all, no point in having choices if they don’t actually matter. You could use:
· Codewords (if you have ticked SHARDS, turn to…)
· Simple statements (if you have an ivory dagger, turn to…)
· Numbers found on or associated with previous events (go to the section number that was engraved on the key/add the number that the witch told you to this section number)
· Word conversions (convert the name to a number, using the code A=1, B=2 etc)
You don’t have to use these mechanisms, although it probably would result in a lot of similar sections and therefore, a not-very streamlined book.
Step 8: Keeping Track of It All
As I mentioned, you don’t need fancy software to help you to keep track of numbers, orphan sections or dead ends. That said, some savvy formatting can help enormously. Apologies for Mac users at this stage — I only work with Windows and Word, so here goes.
With your pristine, blank document, set up the Styles of ‘Normal’ and ‘Heading 1’ to be whatever takes your fancy. When you are writing, use Normal for almost everything and Heading 1 for the actual section numbers. That’s already saved you a huge job of setting up Bookmarks later! Because Word recognises Heading 1, you can now easily hyperlink all your ‘turn to…’ And why is that worth all your time and effort, especially if you’re not planning on an eBook release? Well, it enables you to check that each ‘turn to’ does indeed go to the right place and while you’re doing that, you can also use ctrl+F to check the sections that lead to it are correct.
It might seem a bit much, but this belt and braces approach will help to pick up on mistakes, plus you can never have too many opportunities to proofread and find those typos. Because they will be lurking!
I also use Twine for the end-stage check process. By simply copy and pasting the text in, you can play through the entire game. I find this helps to check the flow from section to section — does it seem to jump too much or is there unnecessary repetition? And if I can use Twine, then anyone can!
One of the things I enjoy about writing gamebooks is the evolution. I feel like I’m adding layer upon layer to the story and I fluctuate constantly between these stages — sometimes, altering the layout, sometimes realising that I need to provide specific information, sometimes just developing more atmosphere.
I knew early on that I needed to curtail the number of wards in the hospital in Nightshift, so I had a corridor that was blocked. But only when I/’you’ crept along the corridor, did I picture a huge barrier made of skin. And only then did it occur to me that a natural decision would be to try to break through it, so I offered that as a choice, but, of course, made it impossible. However, the attempt was a perfect opportunity to add in yet another horrible experience. And then much later, once I’d written about a certain entity, I went back to the skin and included tattoos that reference the entity. The end result looks like a rich and well-thought-out section, but it only happened piecemeal and with repeated play-throughs — it absolutely wasn’t there from the start. So, have a little faith in yourself that, with a little space and time, the layers will go on and your story will come together.