September 2, 2003
Choose One of Four Deep Paths
Ever wondered what the underlying plot structure of a “choose your own adventure” book actually looks like? I recently bought Night of a Thousand Boyfriends, a kind of dating adventure book, by Miranda Clarke. It had been a long time since I’d read a “choose-your-own”-type book, and was now curious to better understand the exact nature of its plot branching — would branches multiply systematically, leading to dozens of distinct paths and endings, or would the branches tend to fold back on themselves? Would there be any of clever re-use of pages in different contexts?
The only way to find out was to spend several hours graphing the interconnections between each page. The resulting hand-drawn plot graph is below. Each node in the graph contains one or more page numbers in it, signifying a linear sequence of one or more pages. A doubly-circled node indicates a story ending. (The cover of the book proudly claims “24 different endings!”)
The story structure seems to be primarily composed of four major paths (hi-lit in yellow), each with lots of little ending offshoots. Occasionally there is some interesting interconnectedness, particularly that cluster on the left middle of the page. In two places a path backtracks quite a distance to connect to a different path; one of them I drew as a dotted line, because it was so lame — you are abducted by aliens, your memory is erased, and you start the story again from almost the beginning.
Anyhow, I found it to be a fun exercise.
September 4th, 2003 at 10:17 am
So there was no reuse of sections, except in places like over on the right there where the path from 121 to 131 can be direct or via 2?
I recently rediscovered a Famous Five Adventure Game book from my childhood that I’d completely forgotten – my seven-year-old was so pleased with it that she insisted I read it for her three times in a row, because “something different might happen this time!” Something different never did happen, the game was very much set up with several paths leading to the same end – or you fail, which can happen whenever you have no picnic lunches left.
This book’s more of a game than a choose-your-own-adventure, though it’s different again from the Steve Jackson gamebooks. You have three picnic lunches (bits of card) that you put in your backpack, which is another card, with a drawing of a backpack, and a slit for the lunches to fit into. When something goes wrong or you make a bad choice, the Famous Five get hungry and you’re instructed to eat a lunch. When you have none left, you have to go home – so that ending’s a general rule rather than something written into individual pages. There’s no direct narration of the end at all actually. The other possible ending is that you discover the thieves, fetch the police and watch the police arresting the thieves – I don’t think we found any other endings, anyway.
The book comes with four other items, apart from the picnics – binoculars, a compass, a codebook and a map. You can only choose to bring one of these on the adventure, and they all help you figure out which page to go to. If you don’t have the needed item, you need to guess which of a number of pages to go to. If you do things right you’ll find other objects. (“On the way, the light from their lamp made something gleam in the heather. It was a compass! They took it with them as a spare.”
Because the plot branches but then always meets again its map would look rather different from yours, Andrew – sections are reused, but not very excitingly, just because you join up with another path.
After three readings my daughter stopped asking for more. I’m not sure if this was because I was less willing to read it AGAIN or because she realised that it was not going to be very different whatever choices we made. She also cheated more and more, after being very strict the first time round. The last time she decided to bring the compass, the map, the binoculars AND the codebook with her from the start. With all those tools she raced straight to the end. And I suppose that, for her, was closure.
September 4th, 2003 at 10:22 am
I forgot to link to info about the book; well, googling it, there is no info to be found. It’s “The Haunted Railway Game”, #2 in the Enid Blyton’s Famous Five Adventure Games series, based on Five go off to Camp and published in 1984 by Hodder and Stoughton. “Mysteries to solve, maps to follow, codes to crack.”
May 4th, 2004 at 12:14 pm
Thanks for mapping this book. I bought it based on the strength of your interest in it, which appears from this to be borderline-obsessive, and because I am trying to study the idea of multisequential fiction separately from notions of electronic literature, so print examples are useful. There aren’t many print examples aside from the often cited but seldom studied series of kids books, the name of which invariably comes up as people grope for terminology to explain the form.
I wanted to warn other readers that this book is underwhelming in the scope of its ambition. It is neither deep nor pornographic nor containing insight about relationships (not the variations I’ve read thus far), and is consciously designed to look and read like one of those childrens books. But without any functioning irony: while purportedly being about adult situations, this novel is written at an adolescent reading level. Artistically (and sociologically), the author did not try to do anything new, which is a crushing disappointment for a type of literature that is wide open for creative experimentation.
I copied your diagram to my site, I hope you don’t mind. It will be surrounded there by other types of diagrams concerning fiction.
May 4th, 2004 at 1:53 pm
William, cool to see you found this mapping valuable. However I didn’t have any obsession with this particular book; I was simply interested to map one of those choose-your-own-adventure-type books that I had read as a kid, that occasionally gets (condescendingly) referred to in contemporary discussions of interactive stories. (Although because this book was about dating, and not about finding a treasure or exploring an undersea world, it was more appealing to me than an adventure would now be.)
Yes, I’m pretty sure the ambition of the author/publisher of this book is not to make a impressive or thoughtful interactive story, but to use the choose-your-own-adventure gimmick to attract the buyer’s attention, to sell more copies. (oops, I’m being condescending… you’re probably right that there is room for experimentation in this form; it doesn’t have to feel so gimmicky.)
January 19th, 2004 at 2:35 pm
In this assignment you will be required to read/play and answer questions about a book from the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) series of “gamebooks.” The series was published 1979-1998. Many people assume that electronic literature (interactive ficti…
December 6th, 2004 at 11:56 pm
In addition to the obvious uses of Choose Your Own Adventure style books, I think the gendering of the CYOA books for girls are really interesting. Night of a Thousand Boyfriends focuses on dating and sex while the CYOA books I’m familiar with deal mainly with action-packed adventure: pirate ships, stolen treasure, bank robbers, dangerous cliffs, and the like. Of the CYOA type books marketed to girls instead of boys, I’ve only read Night of a Thousand Boyfriends, but it seems like the CYOA books–even in their branching narratives–still use most of the branches to reaffirm traditional gender norms.
The main character even gets a worse ending (stating that she’s embarassed and can’t date the doctor after her foolish behaviour) for having a one night stand (granted it’s with a drug dealer) and for being nosey. However, if I remember correctly, it’s also a positive ending when she becomes a sex-goddess for and alien planet, so it’s definitely more open-minded than many of the books marketed to teenage girls.
August 5th, 2005 at 6:15 pm
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April 25th, 2006 at 10:27 am
I started a diagram like this during a commute. I ran out of space on the back of the envelope, so I continued the task with Graphviz when I got home. After comparing the diagrams for a few Endless Quest and Choose Your Own Adventure books, I identified some patterns.
The least satisfying is the dead end: make the wrong choice and the story ends. It matters little whether the ending is “successful.” The most satisfying pattern may be the quiz: you should be able to pick the correct answer (out of several choices) based on your previous reading.
Ultimately the shape of the graph is but a small aspect of the quality of the story. I’m aware of the criticism of branching narrative, particularly the frequent use of foldback to offset the exponential cost of branching. Even if two paths converge, however, they can still be different paths. This is bad example, but imagine that you’re reading a whodunnit, and one of the digressions contains a spoiler, “The butler did it.” You perceive a different story depending on whether you visit that node, kind of like watching Sixth Sense or Memento a second time.
I’m sure many people interested in interactive / non-linear narrative have read Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck. I was struck by her description of the Kuleshov effect, and the ways in which an author can exploit it. Essentially, Kuleshov recognized the ability of the audience to stitch together fragments into a cohesive story. By combining ambiguous foldback fragments (which Murray sometimes calls lexia or lazzi) with defining branch fragments, I think a satisfying branching narrative is possible.
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