How to write interactive stories—and why you should go for it
Offer your audience an engaging experience with important intellectual and emotional benefits.
Benefits of storytelling
Apart from being an undisputed means of fun and escapism, storytelling has proven benefits in various aspects of human activity and psyche.
As described by a study, storytelling is a rich process that facilitates imagination, creative thinking, language abilities, and cooperative learning. It offers a limitless opportunity for developing a more authentic awareness of and respect for diverse language and cultural backgrounds and allows participants to construct their own understanding of the unknown, by building upon their own knowledge base.
Research studies have shown the benefits of storytelling:
- on an individual’s intellectual and emotional development: it enhances empathy, learning, comprehension & critical thinking, and inspires resilience.
- on an individual’s health: used in therapy, caregiving, and processing trauma or grief.
- on a community’s identity and visibility: it helps define a group’s identity, passes on history, traditions, and cultural values from one generation to another;
- on cultural exchanges between groups: it emphasises common and universal themes and challenges stereotypes, bridging gaps between different social or cultural groups.
- as a tool for scientific research and data analysis in sectors like health, social sciences, and marketing.
Besides research studies, there are many works by storytelling professionals demonstrating their observations on storytelling and its benefits to various aspects of human activity and psyche.
Benefits of interactive storytelling
With the additional element of interactivity, storytelling evolves into a uniquely immersive experience, tapping into the complex nature of play. It transforms the audience into actors and players and offers enhanced intellectual and emotional benefits.
A study indicates: [play] in all its rich variety is one of the highest achievements of the human species, alongside language, culture and technology. Indeed, without play, none of these other achievements would be possible. The value of play is increasingly recognised, by researchers and within the policy arena, for adults as well as children, as the evidence mounts of its relationship with intellectual achievement and emotional well-being.
We are hardwired to play and this is why we find interactive experiences—like games of all sorts—so engaging. Storytelling in general is important, but the exhilaration of actually being there beats watching or reading about someone else being there, offered by movies and books. Instead of following a protagonist, when playing we are the protagonist; we explore unknown territory, respond to threats and challenges, solve puzzles, converse with the story’s other characters, and even die thousands of deaths.
Games fascinate not only their players, but their designers, too. Game design is a time-consuming and highly demanding art, passionately served by amateurs and pros alike, offering a unique satisfaction to those involved. There is something mischievous about creating a work that its audience will have to actively explore. This joy of hiding clues for someone else to discover is unique to game design. (Any parent who has prepped a treasure hunt knows what I mean.)
Besides its indisputable value as fun and games, the direct engagement of the player in interactive storytelling brings the following benefits:
- experiential learning: a powerful educational tool in fields such as training and special therapy. It allows safe and controlled simulations of exposure to dangerous and demanding processes and environments, e.g. flight simulators or social stories for people with autism spectrum disorder.
- enhanced learning: because of the direct engagement, interactive stories enhance the learning process and facilitate better knowledge retention.
- roleplaying and emotional connection / empathy development
Not to mention replayability: you wouldn’t repeat a book-reading back to back, but you could easily replay an interactive story, to explore the paths not taken.
How to write an interactive story
Today, it’s easier than ever to create interactive stories. There are various game engines you can work with and passionate communities to go for advice and support.
Arcweave is a powerful narrative engine that allows you—regardless of your skillset and background—to write interactive stories and experiences, from the first idea to the final product.
You can definitely start writing without a clear plan, from start to finish, but this has the risk of blowing your story out of proportions. Especially if your experience is small, some advice will come in handy.
You can—and should—study the ways various writers approach their craft. Many professional writers of various industries have blogs of their own, where they describe their process and offer their insight.
When it comes to my takeaways, here is how you can write an interactive story.
Summon the idea
“Right now it’s only a notion, but I think I can get the money to make it into a concept, and later turn it into an idea.”
—Annie Hall (1977), screenplay by Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman
I have the impression that idea comes before concept, but no matter. The question is: where do story ideas come from?
There is no magical answer to this question; only prompts, some of which you’ve probably heard already: read the papers, eavesdrop on diner conversations, carry a notebook, keep a journal, dig deep into your own psyche, write what you know, write the game you’d want to play, etc. And they are all true. There is no wrong way to get ideas.
Your idea may come from the desire to solve a real-life problem: how can you teach a child with autism spectrum disorder to go through their morning routine? How can you encourage school children to embrace diversity? How can you help an adult deal with emotional trauma? Such questions can spark a story idea that aims at solving the problem.
You can also start from the story’s genre as well as the desire to create a specific gameplay experience. If you like mysteries, will you structure your story as an escape room or an Agatha Christie whodunnit? Do you want to write an action thriller with car chases, plot twists, and split second decisions? Or perhaps you want to dive deep into the darkest corners of the human psyche and force your players to confront the horror of our collective unconscious. Or twist one of the above into a comedy version of itself? Get inspiration by stories and authors that you are jealous of.
Define the story world
The setting of a story is important. Often, it comes hand in hand with the genre (a western is set in the Far West) or contrast it: to take some famous films as examples, Westworld is science fiction, No Country for Old Men is a crime film, and Brokeback Mountain is an LGBTQ+ romance; all of them have the Wild West as their setting.
Especially in fantasy or science fiction, you must build your own story world. Some times, a story world is so immersive and successful that other authors follow along, as in the Cthulhu Mythos.
Be warned, though: world-building does not equal story-building. Whatever the world of the story, you must also structure a story premise.
Structure the premise
Try to summarise your story in one sentence, which briefly states what the protagonist wants (goal) and what stands in their way (conflict).
In essence, this is the backbone of your story:
A [protagonist] must [achieve a goal] or [dire consequences will befall upon them].
A story is a journey for both the audience and the protagonist—not just the pursue of the outer goal, but one of emotional growth, too. You may have noticed that in most stories, the protagonist starts with a character flaw and they end up learn something in the way.
A more advanced version of your premise should hint at that emotinoal journey; you can do that by mentioning the protagonist’s flaw:
A [flawed protagonist] must [achieve a goal] or [dire consequences will befall upon them].
I advise everyone not to dwell too much in the real of the invisible, before defining a clear outer motivation for the protagonist: are they trapped, hunted, or transformed into a frog? Are they trying to win someone’s heart, to solve a murder mystery, or to escape a monster? Are they a villain themselves, plotting against some unsuspecting NPC?
Of course there will be tons of things to figure out regarding character growth, but you will get further by starting from the outer motivation: What do they want? What stands in the way?
Find that and build your story around it.
Skip to the end
After figuring out the premise, it’s time to think about the ending—or rather the endings, since interactive stories can have multiple outcomes.
Skipping to the end is a quick way to test your story: if you can’t come up with a meaningful and satisfying climax, then you should rethink your idea. You want your story not only to start well, but also to end with a grand finale that means something.
Moreover, interactive narratives often have multiple endings the player reaches through choosing different paths. Those also have to be meaningful and satisfying, illuminating different sides of the story’s theme.
Tip: Take your premise and brainstorm all the possible endings it can lead to. Then pick the best ones.
And let’s not forget about all the horrible death endings that will cause you to RESTORE or RESTART. Remember: death and rebirth are powerful metaphors; your story can be a safe framework to experience them.
The end doesn’t justify the means. After picking your endings, you need to reverse-engineer the middle: what player decisions could push the story towards one ending or another?
Create a rough sketch with pencil on graph paper. Give yourself permission to make a mess. At this stage, your brain needs creative freedom.
Then, write a cleaner version in Arcweave. Write an interactive outline, one element per scene, and test it on Play Mode. Having an outline that keeps the player’s interest is a good basis for expanding your story.
Outlining a story is one of the most demanding and time-consuming stages, where you cover the whole story, deciding what scenes you need and what happens in each of them.
No intention to make this stage seem like cakewalk.
Puzzles or no puzzles
Perhaps you want to make an adventure game. Or you want your experience to have a challenge, one that the players must think through.
Players enjoy the story more than anything else, asking for well-shaped characters, world consistency, and original points of view. Having said that, a few good puzzles never hurt anybody. In a very short game, you hardly need more than a couple of them. Just make sure they fit the narrative.
If puzzles are your thing, create a puzzle depencency graph, to design them efficiently.
Write the thing
Easier to say than to do, writing means giving a regular amount of time and effort to fleshing out that outline of yours into the actual product: the text or script for your interactive story, experience, or game.
In a nutshell, writing interactive stories is a journey among the points of a pentagon:
- researching: finding the necessary information on your story’s subject;
- planning: designing the plot, characters, and world of the story; outlining is part of this;
- drafting: writing the actual words, resulting in a story draft;
- testing: running the story to test the flow and discover errors, aka bugs;
- editing: manipulating the draft; cutting out bits, changing the scenes’ order, taking notes; preparing a rewrite.
There is no right order to visit those, although some of it comes naturally, e.g. you can’t edit nor test a non-existent draft. Whatever the order, though, multiple revisits of all five points are strongly encouraged.
No matter how much I like number 5, there is actually a sixth, hidden point in the writing process: getting feedback.
I already mentioned testing as one of the 5 points: as its writer, you are also bound to be your story’s first playtester. However conscientious you may be, though, your testing endeavours will never be enough. You must ask other people to play your story and give you feedback. “Other people” may include friends and family and, ideally, a pro: someone savvy about writing, interactivity, and the pitfalls of both.
Now’s your time to start writing
Writing knows no shortcuts. There are courses for it, books, articles, videos, advice, and endless feel-good, pep-talkish meta-discussion around it.
But eventually, you just have to do it. It takes years of practice, perseverence, education, some times therapy, and—I’ll say it again: regular amounts of time actually doing it.
So, why not start immediately?
We’ve designed Arcweave to make writing interactive stories as easy and intuitive as possible. To start using it immediately, read our Arcweave QuickStart Guide. To discover all the basic features, go through our article about how to write your interactive story in Arcweave. And of course, for even more tips and tactics, watch our video tutorials series.
Finally, don’t be shy! Reach out to the Arcweave community itself! You’ll find all the AW-Team along with our creative users on Arcweave’s Discord—answering questions, admiring bugs, and brainstorming new Arcweave features.
More importantly: start your own project in Arcweave today and see how easy writing interactive stories can get.
Palmer, Harshbarger & Koch (2001) Storytelling as a Constructivist Model for Developing Language and Literacy. ↩
Yumi Kagawa et al (2023) Using patient storytelling to improve medical students’ empathy in Japan, Youran Shi (2021) First-person narrative and story meaningfulness: promoting empathy via storytelling, Nicholas Bowles (1995) Storytelling: a search for meaning within nursing practice. ↩
Sasi Kirana and Arik Susanti (2022) Improving students’ critical thinking skills through digital storytelling on narrative text, Javed Sahibzada et al (2020) Effects of storytelling on improving EFL Students’ critical thinking and reading comprehension. ↩
Laine Zizka and Amorette Hinderaker (2023) You are here: narrative construction of identity and community resilience in Newfoundland during and after 9/11, Leah East et al (2010) Storytelling: an approach that can help to develop resilience. ↩
Gamze Mukba (2022) Therapeutic storytelling: how can we use stories more effectively?, Petrovic et al (2022) Using the Transformative Storytelling Technique to generate empowering narratives for informal caregivers, Marcella Carragher et al (2022) Adapting therapy for a new world: storytelling therapy in EVA Park, Khosrow Ghasemian and Mohammad Amin Ehsani Estahbanati (2019) The effectiveness of storytelling on reducing depression in cancer patients, Nici Long (2013) Therapeutic Storytelling in a Pupil Referral Unit, J. William Cook et al (2004) The application of therapeutic storytelling techniques with preadolescent children, Hilda Glazer and Donna Marcum (2003) Expressing grief through storytelling ↩
Andrew Gelman and Tomas Basbøll (2014) When do stories work? Evidence and illustration in the Social Sciences. ↩
Maryam Behzadi and Mohammad Javad Bakhtiary (2023) The role of storytelling in the age of Digital Marketing, Wenmin Zhang et al (2022) Research progress and trend of storytelling in marketing based on literature search visualization tools, Patricia Días and Rita Cavalheiro (2021) The role of storytelling in the creation of brand love: the PANDORA case, González Romo, Garcia Medina & Plaza Romero (2017) Storytelling and social networking as tools for
digital and mobile marketing of luxury fashion brands, Awa Faal Danso and Sandra Larsson (2008) Storytelling as a marketing, leadership and communication tool. ↩
Examples: Hasnat UI Ahad (2023) The power of storytelling: why humans are wired to tell and hear stories, Robert McKee (2023 interview) The art of story & why stories matter, The New York Times (2022) The big question: why do we tell stories?, Emily Falk (2021) Op-Ed: Why storytelling is an important tool for social change, Christine Hennebury (2020) Storytelling is not just entertainment. It’s a fundamental part of being human, David Robson (2018) Our fiction addiction: why humans need stories, Kate Hurst The importance of storytelling and story creation, and many others. ↩
Play/Write Student Journal of Klagenfurt University (2022) Vol. I: Death in Games, Diana Melnic & Vlad Melnic (2018) Saved games and respawn timers: The dilemma of representing death in video games ↩
Sunagul Sani-Bozkurt et al (2017) Design and use of interactive social stories for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) ↩