Dissecting a “Choose Your Own Adventure” Book

I think the very best times of elementary school were the days when the Scholastic Books orders came in. Ah, nothing like that wood pulp smell. I’m getting a little teary just thinking about it. ūüėČ

The Order Sheet
The Order Sheet

I was blessed enough to have been born to a reasonably well-off family with an appreciation for the importance of reading. I typically had carte blanche to choose as many books as I thought I could actually read.

Something like this would have worked. :D
Something like this would have worked. ūüėÄ

Rarely did I get a book I did not enjoy. They were all very, very good. But for me, the creme de la creme of the Scholastic library was the Choose Your Own Adventure series. I am not at all surprised to see they are still quite active and going strong.

Yeah, I read a few of those.
Yeah, I read a few of those.

So, just the other day I was in my attic and saw my forgotten collection of classic Choose Your Own Adventure books. I grabbed the closest one.

The Case of the Silk King, #53
The Case of the Silk King, by Shannon Gilligan

It’s a little beat up and well-loved, but more or less intact. I scanned the title page to see when it was produced.

1986.

News from the day
News from the day

My naturally curious mind demanded a little digging. I found an author named Sean Munger who wrote an incredibly in-depth review which filled in a lot of blanks concerning the real-life story the book was based upon. This was great reading, but not really where my interest was centered.

I wondered, was this something I could do?

You see, every November is national novel writing month.

http://nanowrimo.org/
http://nanowrimo.org/

I’ve attempted this in the past, but fell short of my goals. Taking on a 700 page novel proved to be too great a task for me.¬†The Case of the Silk King however, only weighed in at a slim and trim 115.

This didn’t seem so daunting. I wondered, was this something I could do with my existing time and talent stack?

THE DISSECTION

I needed to figure out what makes a¬†Choose Your Own Adventure¬†book tick. Just reading a few dozen of them isn’t the same as forensically analyzing one under a microscope. This time-tested process is a oft-overlooked key to obtaining real knowledge and understanding. So, let’s get started!

The Story

“You” are the star of the story. You are a young girl who operates a well-known detective agency. You receive a mysterious package in the mail directing you to investigate the disappearance of an American businessman in Thailand. You are immediately tasked with deciding to trust the anonymous sender and boarding an international flight, or staying home and trying to find out more about the case from there.

This drops you right into a world of mystery with two reasonable choices. A bold choice, and a cautious choice. This ‘bold or cautious’ motif occurs often throughout the book.

Little time is spent establishing extensive character backstories. This seems appropriate, sense the story is about “you.” No need to agonize over the protagonist’s motives and aspirations. “You” already know them! The author quickly gets into the action while allowing your imagination to fill in any¬†missing detail.

By the way, if you want a copy of your own, there is a modern remake of the same story available here.

The Endings

The cover boasts of “19 Possible Endings.” I decided to read and grade each one based on quality of “your” life and the fulfillment of the stated objective. My results were very interesting.

Possible Outcomes
Overachievers Need Not Apply

No ending scored an “A,” in my opinion.

The most shocking finding is that there is no “home run” ending. I suppose this keeps the fictional story in line with its real-life unsolvable counterpart, but that did not mitigate my surprise. I wondered if withholding an A+ result could keep eager readers longer engaged in the story? Perhaps they hoped you would go down each and every rabbit hole searching for a better result?

In the back of my mind, I assumed as a game maker, you were obligated to provide an opportunity to “win.” Dissecting this story turned this idea on its head. Interesting.

Also interesting from a cultural perspective was the writer’s willingness to graphically kill the main character. (You.) It even boasts on the back cover, “You might find yourself dumped into a snakepit or fed to the sharks.”¬†This seems to harken back to a less-snowflakey time. I wonder if the modern remake tempers the violent endings a bit?

But, what is the path to arrive at these endings?

The Decision Tree

Choose Wisely!
Spoilers! (sort of)

First, let me explain the chart. You start at the top on page 1. You go down the next two pages, 2 and 3, and then you leap over to page 8 where you are faced with your first decision. This comes at the 4th page you read, as indicated by the leftmost column. You must then decide to turn to page 4 or 12 to continue your story.

Now, some facts the tree illuminates:

The “Best” Endings

There is a “best” ending down each of the major trunks of the decision tree. They are¬†highlighted in green. This means you do not doom yourself with your first choice of the game.

The number of “correct” choices you must make to arrive at one of the best conclusions are 6, and 5, respectively.

Choices Made Per Game

Choices Made Per Game
Choices Made Per Game

There is one possible ending that can be reached by making only 2 choices. There are 2 endings that occur after 3 choices. The most popular choice length is 5. The range is 2-6 choices, with 4.68 being the average.

Pages Read Per Ending

Page Length Chart
Page Length Chart

There is a broad range of story lengths. You could read as few as 11 pages, or as many as 25. There is a fairly even distribution, averaging out to 18.68 written pages per adventure. But the story isn’t only told in words.

Artwork

There are 25 high quality, full-page black and white drawings by Frank Bolle sprinkled throughout the book. That means almost 22% of the book is illustrated. In addition, there are 3 pages where artwork and text coexist.

I think it would be difficult to overstate how important these drawings were in providing the immersion necessary to become emotionally invested within the story. Perhaps, if I want to pull one of these things off, I’m going to need to brush up on my drawing skillz.

Characters

I counted a little over 20 characters. Only a dozen or so are given names. Many of the characters fill obvious roles, simplifying the verbiage needed to describe their significance. For example, a Librarian, a Police Chief, etc. Remember, the author is attempting to convey a complete story within 11-25 pages. Brevity is essential! With that in mind…

Conclusion

  • Average story is 4.68 choices, 18.68 pages, and has a 61% chance of reaching a “bad” ending
  • The “best” endings require many “right” choices
  • Don’t take too long establishing the story
  • Start with the hook (mysterious envelope, immediate choice)
  • Often offer the option to be bold¬†or cautious
  • Keep characters mostly one-dimensional
  • You don’t have to offer a “100% win” conclusion
  • Good artwork is as important as a good story

I have no idea what copyright claims the¬†Choose Your Own Adventure¬†series may hold precluding any commercial use. My interest in one day formulating a story experience is not motivated by money, however. Maybe I can resurrect “Ricky Rockstar” to, I don’t know, …Rock Your Own Way On The Road

Ricky Rockstar
Ricky Rockstar

Don’t worry, I doubt I’ll attempt to make you pay to play out Ricky’s adventures. I’ll probably just add some links at the bottom to my music…umm, like I’m doing now.


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