//by Reinhardt Suarez//
"Choose Your Own Adventure." These four words still manage to inspire excitement in me, many years after the books’ heyday in the 1980s. As a kid who quickly exhausted all the books not about God in my elementary school library (what happens when you transfer from a strict Roman Catholic school to a stricter Opus Dei school), I treasured the few CYOA-style books (Choose Your Own Adventure) is only one of the brand names for these kinds of books) I could get my hands on. Each one was like twenty books combined, in that events on the pages could unfold in myriad ways, depending on what I chose to do. It was like magic.
Now that I'm supposedly knowledgeable about literature, having a shiny MFA and several years of experience in big corporate publishing, I’ve tried to go back and see how these books actually worked. Call it intellectual curiosity, or maybe a terminal obsession with the arcane, but I wanted to really get at how these books could so entrance me back in the day.
THE DIAMOND STRUCTURE
The defining feature of CYOA books is their branching narrative, determined by the reader’s decisions during the course of a single read-through. This manifests as a set of choices at the end of a scene that poses paths for the reader to pick from.
The rabid ape-man blocks your path! There’s no hope of crawling through the rockslide behind you. You must make a choice! If you choose to fight the crazed mutant with your epic kung fu skills, go to page 18. Or you can grovel on the floor like a ninny. In that case, go to page 56, you sniveling coward.
Depending on this choice, the reader is then taken to one page or another, revealing the consequence of the choice and furthering the storyline. Many of the more hardcore CYOA prominently feature the swift death of the protagonist. In any case, fully reading through the book once (by the rules—no flipping back and forth!) yields merely one of the possible endings. On a second time around, the reader could make different decisions altering the story considerably.
This branching narrative structure, also sometimes called “diamond structure,” is the engine that drives the CYOA locomotive. Most conventional narratives (novels, movies) follow a linear story structure that emphasizes Freytag’s Triangle based on character and plot arcs:
Not so with CYOA narratives, and for good reason. These books are designed to put the narrative engine chiefly in control of the reader instead of the characters.
The vast majority of CYOA books are written in second person, with only some describing the history, life, and accoutrements of the main character. Many others merely opt to get on with the action and thrust you into a situation in which the reader (“you”) must make a choice. From there, you make more choices—picking from an increasing amount of “alternate dimensions”—that further you to one of many ends. Any one of these choices could dramatically redefine your reading experience.
One example that comes to mind from a book written by R.L. Stine, of the Goosebumps fame. In The Golden Sword of Dragonwalk, the main character, a non-descript young boy, is suddenly whisked away from his home in our world and thrown into the beleaguered fantasy land of Dragonwalk, which is threatened by the evil machinations of the wizard Ravenhurst.
Yeah, standard fantasy fare. But it isn’t even a few pages in before you must make the most important decision in the book. Once you dust yourself off from your inter-dimensional jaunt, you see three men strolling down the road. And thus your first choice—one of these three men will be your constant companion during your exploits in Dragonwalk: Elkar, stalwart warrior; Chalidor, magician extraordinaire; and Bendux, really rich dude. (Like really rich.) Each potential companion makes a case for being the best companion to help you find a way home. But you can only choose one.
From there, you have adventures, but your choices—as well as the outcomes of those choices—are constantly defined by who you picked at the beginning.
Elkar may be a valiant fighter, but he’s also a bonehead who gets himself into trouble. Bendux may be pretty useless in a fight, but who says that he can’t use his wealth to avoid conflict? As you proceed farther and farther down one path, your story diverges more and more from the other branches.
The best (and most infuriating) part about CYOA books is the many endings that your tale could have. One of the tricks the writers of these books had was collapsing the narrative once all these possibilities were opened up (the other pointy end of the “diamond structure”). Sometimes this was done with deft writing that could make a particular scene jibe with multiple narrative branches, unifying them. Other times, you’d encounter some event that resets the whole book (wormhole, magic spell) back to the beginning or that allowed you to choose an alternate path.
All these different ending possibilities allowed for some unorthodox narrative endings, like your untimely and gruesome demise or a pack of ninjas jumping out from nowhere to make your life even harder. The fact that you can’t count on a happy ending, or even a true narrative ending at all, is what makes CYOA books so fun to read. And read. And reread.
I take back what I wrote before. It wasn’t like magic. CYOA books definitely are magic.