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Writing Branching Narratives (AKA Time Travel vs. Parallel Universes)

Over the last couple of years, I have discovered that writing stories with branching plot paths might be one of my favorite creative processes in the world… and also the most frustrating.

I experience the story as I write it.

I truly believe that every writer has a different style and process that works best for her, and while techniques exist to help any writer execute her vision, the truth is that there is no one or even best method for strong writing in general. Personally, I have always fought against the motto that a lot of writers intone when asked how to write: “Writing is editing,” they often say. “Writing your first draft helps you get your thoughts onto paper, but the true writing happens during your second, third, or even fourth draft.”

For me and my own writing style, that motto is bull shit. Yes, I believe that editing is important. Yes, I’m willing to admit that maybe I need to do more of it sometimes. But for me, something magical happens when I write that “first draft.” I don’t approach it lightly. I spend a lot of time thinking, planning, and feeling what I want to portray before I start writing. And once I do start writing, I feel as if my words come to life as I write them. I feel as if my characters are really in the room, saying what I tell them to say, moving as I tell them to move. I feel a bond between myself and the world I’m creating that is fundamental to my ongoing muse. I discover the story even as I’m writing it. The characters tell me more about themselves as I write them; they lead me towards the twists and turns of the plot, even if my outline disagrees with them.

Often, as I write that first draft, I will stop and rewrite some of my freshest paragraphs, tweaking small sections until the scene flows to match what’s in my head. Sometimes, I’ll need to change something earlier in the story to support something new that I’ve discovered while writing the new scene; if so, I make that change immediately.

Generally, this is my process. Although I go back and edit some later, those changes tend to be surface-level, polishing the pace and consistency of the story. My “first draft” is my most important, my most treasured, and often the closest to my final form of the story. This is not to say that I never go back and rewrite scenes or even delete scenes if necessary—that agonizing process writers love to describe as killing your babies. For me, the reason that it’s so difficult to go back and change something from my first draft is because it feels wrong. When I tried to describe this feeling to my sister once, I told her, “To me, that scene already happened. To go back and change it would be like enforcing time travel. It’s just… wrong.

This is just how writing works for me. When the story feels right, it feels right—it feels real—and I don’t just casually change it for the sake of wrapping my book or script into a perfect, tidy package. I’m not saying that’s a writing style to which every writer should aspire. It’s just what works for me, for better or worse, and that’s that.

Okay… so if you’re against time travel, how do you feel about parallel universes?

If re-writing means time traveling through your story, then writing a branching narrative means forming parallel universes.

This, I can do. When I first start creating parallel universes, it doesn’t feel wrong. It feels plain fun. “What if Blaire lets something slip in this scene, and Amalek discovers his secret? Well, let’s find out!” As I write an alternate branch, sometimes I have so much fun that I worry I’m being indulgent. But I can allow myself to do it anyway, because I want my audience to experience an outcome catered to their own decisions for the story, and this allows both me and the player to have fun in the process.

Writing branching plot paths also allows me to discover new aspects of my characters that would have remained hidden, otherwise. For example: while writing “Serafina’s Crown,” I actively fought against making Arken a romance-able character, despite the fact he’s probably my favorite character in the series. Next, I made the mistake of allowing the player to flirt with him, as Odell, on multiple occasions. And while writing one of those flirtatious branches, I felt both myself and Arken finally cave. “Arken wouldn’t ignore a cute girl flirting with him repeatedly,” I had to admit. “He just wouldn’t.” So at last, I started writing a romance path between Odell and Arken. In the process, Arken’s emotional baggage started rising to the surface, and resulted in some great scenes. Now, out of all the other romance possibilities for Odell, Arken is probably my favorite and most meaningful option.

So parallel universes are a blast! But, um, which one’s “reality,” again? Does reality even exist anymore?

Writing branching plot paths can be exhilarating, enlightening, and altogether very rewarding for both me and my audience. Until, like a bug flying into a spiderweb, I get trapped in it.

Wait... huh?

Wait… huh?

And this is when writing branching plot paths quickly transforms from being my favorite process in the world to the most frustrating and confusing ordeal. That “reality” I so enjoyed exploring and discovering when I started writing the story starts to slip from my grasp. While writing one branch, I’m distracted by thinking about what’s simultaneously happening in another branch. “Oh, Blaire and Amalek totally trust each other right now. Except… they were at each other’s throats just a minute ago! Wait, no, that was a different plot path.” I struggle to hold all the different paths in my mind until it starts to feel like a maze. Events start to lose significance to me as I write them, because they don’t feel like reality anymore, just one of many possibilities. And then the writing process which I initially found so exhilarating becomes purely exhausting.

Writing a branching narrative is difficult, plain and simple.

The moral of my story, I suppose, is that writing a story with significant plot branches is no walk in the park. It may seem like a blast at first, and you may feel as if the universe has opened up and given you permission to do whatever you please without consequence. But if you want your full narrative to remain a significant experience from start to finish, branches and all, then maintaining your plethora of plot paths becomes a trying task, indeed.

As I continue to write large interactive narratives (Serafina’s Crown will be my third), I search for ways to ease the symptoms of emotional melancholy and logical dizziness. Sometimes, I try to focus on one plot path at a time, so that I can give it my full attention before working on another. But this doesn’t always work, because for the sake of outlining and tracking production, I need to see all the threads of my spiderweb and how they connect to each other before I continue.

Difficult… but worth it.

It’s difficult. It’s exhausting. It’s emotionally draining and technically confusing. But if you push through the difficulty, writing an interactive narrative can be one of the most rewarding creative endeavors you’ll ever experience.