Controlling the Narrative

Diana has long been a fan, via a
heartfelt first start from her father, of the Choose Your Own Adventure
series. These are books that her dad loved in his youth, and I had no
experience of. I vaguely remember a prescient history teacher (does that make
sense?) in 8th grade telling us that "vast technological
changes were happening that we going to allow readers to actually
participate in the stories they read…" but I remember thinking (in
best profoundly-miserable-and-

sneering-eighth-grade-girl-fashion), So?
For those unfamiliar with them, these books are sort of interactive
metafiction adventure stories set in the second person, so they begin,
"You are in Osaka, where you are furthering your study of Aikido, with
your good friend Nada." It will continue for a few pages in this vein
(with notes at the bottom like "Continue to the next page. or Turn to
page 17, which are necessary given their insane narrative and
structural demands) until you get to your first choice: If you want to
go back in time immediately, turn to page 24. If you want to be put
into a trance, turn to page 37.
When Diana started going for them, I didn't think much about it other
than to appreciate the groovy 70s covers and to have my mind briefly
blown by a mispaginated one about the Titanic. One wrong page number in
those babies and all bets are off.
Then this past weekend, Chestnut, who seems as partial to realistic
fiction and heartfelt, earnest storytelling as Diana is to fantasy and
alternate worlds, asked me to read this as she was heading to bed (yes,
there has been a remission for the formerly close-to-death practice of
reading people bedtime stories).

CH16_Ninja Cover

She brought me into things because she had made a choice on one of
the pages that led her somewhere she really didn't want to go, so she
wanted us to start back at the beginning. And as we started reading, I
realized that these books were basically attacking everything I
understand and hold dear as a reader. Here, my concerns:
1) It's too much responsibility! I know I make the wrong choices all
the time in life, why do I have to be reminded of that—and do it all
again—here?
2)
I want to know which one is the real story. My dearly-held (if slightly
whacked-out) belief is that all fiction came from some stream of stories
in another world, where they all exist intact. If they don't get told
well, they're false, false to their origin, false to their alternate existence. Which disturbs the universe
in some deep invisible way. Yeah, I know, I know. This might not be
true.
3) I feel judged. "Are you going to turn back because you're feeling
nervous, or take out your sword and fight?" I mean, really, I feel a
bit pushed here. I know which is the cooler thing to do certainly, but
why must I make this decision? Isn't that the author's job?
4) It resists narrative drive. I want to get swept along. This is not possible when you are doing the sweeping.
5)
I can't help thinking the whole time, But how do they manage this
manuscript? I mean, really? Is there a program for this? Some sort of
mathematical formula? How do they get all the pages in the right order? Which doesn't help me enjoy the story all that
much.

Clearly, this is a question of taste. And/or cherished beliefs. But
as much as I am trying to be a good and fair person by saying that, in
my heart I think these books are sort of, um, wrong. Which belief is in and of itself wrong. The whole thing leaves me
feeling slightly out-of-step with the rest of my metafictional family.

11 thoughts on “Controlling the Narrative

  1. I loved these books when I was a kid, and had dozens of them. I’d read it one way, and then go back and make different choices and get a different story altogether. I’m smiling remembering how much fun I had reading them so many years ago.

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  2. Snuggly Girl doesn’t like those books, either, though she loves metafiction of other types (Chapter 13, Which Has A Really Long Title But Doesn’t Actually Have Any Words, etc.). I think the reason she gave is that she wants to read all the versions and she doesn’t feel confident that she can trace back accurately to get every possibility, or it is just too much work, maybe. So she just avoids the whole series.

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  3. I went through a short phase with them….I remember quickly tiring of them because I like a straight narrative and reading page 76 once I’ve finished with page 75.
    That, and I inevitably ended up dead in a dungeon somewhere.

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  4. I get stressed just reading about them. I’m sure they’re great if you can enjoy the feeling that you’re creating your own story. But I think I would, like you, miss the sweeping away, and worry about the choices I make. It sounds just too cerebral, and like too much triggering of my “what is the Right Thing to do here?”-side.

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  5. I had a couple of them as a kid, but I just didn’t find them that interesting. I wasn’t interested in the plot, or the writing wasn’t good. And, like you said, I just like to be swept along in a book. Having to stop and go and move and jump was really disturbing to me. The anal part of me wanted to test out every possibility, but I was always disappointed in the outcome.

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  6. I really enjoyed these as a kid. One time, I stuck a piece of paper in each page and went through the book removing the pieces of paper when I read that page. Then I went through and made different choices and kept at it until I had read every page.
    What I liked was the idea that every choice, even the seemingly mundane ones, changes your life.

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  7. Chalk me up with those who enjoyed them but didn’t devour them. And I was also one of those who wanted to read every version. I wonder if it makes any difference that I liked to write stories (still do) – maybe that’s why I didn’t mind having to construct my own narrative?
    I don’t remember reading very many, though, so they probably didn’t keep my interest for long.

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  8. I used to read every option for each choice so that I knew how each option turned out and I could make the “right” choice. If it didn’t work out (usually didn’t, I think the ratio for death to success was like 35:1 per book!) then I’d go back and start over. I found them good books to read during my elementary school classes (my 5th grade class was located in the school library) but never cared for them enough to actually take home with me.

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  9. Are they always science fiction? I remember reading a few, and they were all very distinctly space adventure-y, which has never been my cup of tea. But I sort of liked the idea of getting to make up my own story; it made me feel grown-up and responsible, I guess, like I was big enough to actually control the story.
    But almost always, I would end up at the end of the story and be kind of pissed off. First, it always seemed like there was a better ending than the one I ended up with, and I wanted to figure out how to end up there. And second, as someone who loved reading and was sad when a book ended (I’ve actually bought books based only on the number of pages they offer), it seemed like such a waste. Here was this great big book, full of readable pages, and I only got to experience maybe a third of them in any given story. I might suggest them to my kids if they’re looking for a different kind of book, see if they think it’s a cool way to tell a story, but I guess I never really got the appeal.

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  10. Most of your objections say much more about you than the form. Consider how you feel about the responsibility of choices in board games or video games.
    Your forth objection is a problem for interactive fiction, especially for those young readers’ books, which tend to have a choice on every page. Both the reader and writer need some experience with interactive conventions before the reader can be swept along. (The same might be true of conventional literature, but we can take that for granted, because it was part of our early education.)
    Computer-guided interactive fiction nearly died out in the late 1980s, but there’s a healthy niche or new non-commercial writers now, thanks to the internet. It will never replace conventional literature (nor should it), but its writing, subject matter, and execution are all maturing.

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