Reflection: Non-Linear Stories and Branching Plots

Recently, I posted my story, Choices (readable here), as an experiment in non-linear storytelling, a subject that has always fascinated me.  Most stories, by their nature, take place in a very linear way, each page simply leads to the next, and everything plays out in a set way.

The most common example of a non-linear story is a story that makes extensive use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, or other similar devices so the events are not included in the story in chronological order.  I may blog about these devices later, but think I should focus on the type of non-linear storytelling I was experimenting with in Choices: a branching plot.

The type of non-linear storytelling I was experimenting with is the type often found in more interactive media, like choose your own adventure books.  At the end of some pages in these books, the reader receives instructions to go to a different page depending on a choice they make.  Such interactive stories can be found regularly on the internet as well, where different choices can be easily made through links.  Thus, the story can end up going a myriad of different ways depending upon the choices the player makes.

This is also used in video games, where it can be taken even further.  A player does not always have to perform actions in a set order.  Plus, some games include side quests, which can be undertaken in any order the player likes, or ignored if the player wants to focus on the main storyline, or simply finds them too difficult.  This is in addition to the possibility of choices, like I described above.  However, in something like a video game, the implications of each choice can be more complex, or even not obvious until much later.

I have been challenging myself to try to figure out whether this form of storytelling can be done in ordinary fiction.  The closest thing I’ve seen was a rather unusual sequel to another book, written to tell the story of what would happen if one thing was done differently in the ending of the first book.  You might argue this can result from retcons (short for retroactive continuity – the idea of intentionally altering facts established in an earlier story in a series).  I’ve also heard of instances where different versions of a book may have some different details – in extreme cases, even a different ending.

Something like this could happen in a story where a character imagines “what if” scenarios, and explores what could be, though I’d say this is debatable, as the events don’t actually happen, and are really just that character’s imagination.

As I write this, I think back to a certain moment in “The Cromm Conspiracy”.  At this point, I realized that I had three possible directions I could have taken the story in, and the more I thought of it, all of them could have made a really good story, and part of me wanted to write them all.  However, when writing an ordinary novel, a writer has to simply choose the direction he (or she) likes best and stick with it.  I could decide to just write them all, but I’d later have to decide to use the one I like best, and scrap the rest.  In this case, though, the change would have affected nearly three-quarters of the story, so doing this would take a lot of work.

Ultimately, after reflecting on this, I came to the conclusion the sort of thing I did for Choices can make for a good short story.  It could probably even be made into a longer work, if the decision is important enough, and has major enough implications, or there are a lot more possibilities, but what works for Choices is that the decision is the focus of the story.

Writing a short story or novel is not like writing for a video game or a “choose your own adventure” story.  In those other forms of media, branching stories are a lot easier to do and necessary because the player/reader is the protagonist, and thus, makes choices, which the story has to adapt to.

Besides, branching stories are nightmares to write sequels for.  Anyway, I have a few more things on my to do list to do, so later!

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