Saturday, August 19, 2023

Writing Gamebooks the Uncle Mac Way


All right, kids, gather 'round and park your butts. Uncle Mac is gonna talk your ear off for a bit.

Quite a few of you write gamebooks, or want to write them and are still figuring out the best way to do it. Word on the 'net is there are a number of softwares you can use to help navigate the labyrinthine process of piecing a gamebook together. I shall refrain from commenting on those, because I am what you might call a "cantankerous old coot" and prefer not to go out of my way to learn newfangled technologies if I don't find it absolutely necessary.

Writing screenplays, for example, required that I purchase special software to write in screenplay format easily. My word processor of choice is problematic enough without my having to jury-rig its default formatting to the anal retentive degree required by the film industry. So I broke down and bought Fade-In (not a plug, but kind of a plug).

My approach to writing gamebooks was different. I didn't bother getting any computerized aides because I found a way to write and organize gamebooks without them that suits me fine. And also because I prefer to do things the hard way, apparently.

Being a decent writer is a good start to writing a good gamebook. Natch. Most of you probably figured that out already. But it's best if you also have experience as a game designer. For simpler gamebooks like CYOA, it can help you better organize the book's structure and keep it engaging; for more advanced works ranging from Interplanetary Spy to Fighting Fantasy, it's essential if you want to design effective mechanics, puzzles, and games. In either case, it can help a lot with worldbuilding, too. You'd be surprised how much easier it is to world-build with a board game, video game, or tabletop RPG prototype than with a simple novel and a ream of research notes as long as your leg.

So far I'm wearing my Captain Obvious cape. You didn't come here to listen to me prattle about writing a chapter book. Writing a chapter book isn't all that hard. The tricky part is writing a chapter book with forking paths, and then mixing them up, all without losing track of which choices lead where.

I have seen a few useful ideas for structuring a gamebook on the 'net, but when I started out writing gamebooks I found their usefulness was pretty limited. The most common method I've seen is to map the book somehow, either with a diagram, or with index cards / sticky notes.

Ghetto Scribble Diagram Method

Plot Map for Dinah-Mite #2 and several painkillers.

At a glance, the diagram approach looks like it's more trouble than it's worth. I've found it does have its uses, however. Much like writing a synopsis before tackling a story in detail, a plot map like this can help get you started on a new gamebook project when you aren't quite sure where you're going. 

It is messy, however, due to the amount of erasing you'll end up doing whenever you re-plot a section, and I mostly recommend this method if you want a quick and dirty way to get the ball rolling.

Index Card / Sticky Note Method

The index card/sticky note method has its uses, too. Basically it's the same as the plot map technique, except it's easier to rearrange things and add new chapters. It has the added bonus of making it a lot easier to decide on chapter order: once you have all your paths sorted out, rearrange the cards into whatever order suits you and then number them.

The downsides here are 1) running out of space, which may require the purchase of a bulletin board dedicated to your gamebook projects; and 2) the page-organizing aspect only really works if you are going the CYOA route of one-page chapters, OR the Fighting Fantasy style gamebook with paragraph chapters rather than page chapters. If you want to write a basic gamebook with more involved narrative like Dragontales, the sticky notes won't help you with reorganizing pages.

Uncle Mac's Method

When I sat down to write the first Dinah-Mite gamebook, Holiday in Castle Quarantine, I quickly realized that the above techniques would only get me so far. I didn't want to write chapters as short as Which Way, nor as long as Dragontales; and I wanted a protagonist with a backstory rather than the generic "You" of CYOA. Essentially I wanted to write a maze-like adventure in the style of The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, and The Neverending Story, something that would stand on its own as a story or as a gamebook.

Both Holiday in Castle Quarantine and its upcoming sequel were written in two main drafts: the Chapter Draft and the Page Draft. Someone else probably writes their gamebooks the same way and has their own name for it, so I'll refrain from pretending I've invented something super unique and useful and worthy of accolades. I can only be so pretentious in one sitting.

Phase 1: The Chapter Draft

Let's assume for the sake of argument that I'm writing a Dinah-Mite story where Dinah has a misadventure in the American West. I start by writing the first chapter as if it were a linear novel, and I give the chapter a header that reads "Ch1." When I reach the first fork in the plot at the end of Ch1, instead of listing a page number, I list a chapter number.

If Dinah enters the saloon, turn to Ch2.
If she explores the train station first, turn to Ch5.

Nearly all of the chapters are only a few pages long, so now I start adding blank pages with appropriate chapter headers (Ch2, Ch3, Ch4, etc). As I add each new page, I write a one-sentence summary of what will happen in that chapter. This helps spark ideas for what happens next, if I haven't already started a plot map like the one pictured earlier.

If I don't know which chapter will come next, I'll use "ChX, ChY, ChZ" as placeholders. And if I think I might have a puzzle in a particular chapter, I'll list generic options that I can figure out later.

Dinah enters saloon full of surly, uncooperative customers who are angry that the player piano isn't working. She tries to get piano working to lighten the mood.

Solution A? Turn to Ch3.
Solution B? Turn to Ch4.

Dinah gets eaten by the player piano, but at least the music her dead body produces is catchy.

~ THE END ~ 

Everyone starts dancing. Dinah befriends saloon keeper.

~ Dinah gets the Poker Chips ~
Turn to ChX.

Dinah enters train station and meets lost hillbilly kid, who helps her if she doesn't anger him.

Choice A? Turn to Ch6.
Choice B? Turn to Ch7.

Dinah and hillbilly kid hit it off. He hooks her up with a horse to ride to the next town.

~ Dinah got the Work Horse ~
Turn to ChY.

Hillbilly kid tells Dinah to jump in a lake and won't talk to her anymore. Now has to find another way to reach her destination.

Turn to ChZ.


Eventually I make my way through every possible idea for branching paths, coming up with games and puzzles on the fly (or creating placeholders). Once I know how many chapters I'm dealing with, I go back and write the chapters proper. When the entire book is written, and every chapter has been thoroughly edited and proofread, that leads into...

Phase 2: The Page Draft

So now I have all the chapters written in the order I came up with them, and they all have a chapter header designation. Now comes the tedious part: I rearrange all the chapters until they're thoroughly mixed up (preferably with a lot of space between sequential chapters).

I then go through the document and find every instance of the chapter headers listed thusly: Ch1, Ch2, Ch3, etc using the Find/Replace function, and replace them with their designated page number. So if Ch2 is on page 100, I Find/Replace all instances of "Turn to Ch2" with "Turn to Page 100."

Finally I go through every chapter and remove the "Ch" from the header, and probably add a cute bit of art around the chapter number to indicate which act of the book the reader is in.


Some of you will no doubt find the Chapter Draft/Page Draft method standoffish. The disclaimer did mention that I like to do things the hard way. But I've found this method makes it easy to streamline cranking out chapter content. Also, by the time you're done putting it all together, it's already organized the way you want it, formatting and all. Relying on the sticky note method could lead to chapters occupying the wrong page numbers, forcing you to seek out the point where you went wrong and reorganize your chapters all over again.

Of course, the previously mentioned gamebook software probably makes all of this easier. If you don't want to bother experimenting with a new interface, though, give these methods a try and see if they gel with you a little better.

Time for bed. Uncle Mac out. Come visit anytime.

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