This fall, my friend Aaron King handed me the brilliant “To Be or Not to Be: A Choosable-Path Adventure“, a (very loose, very funny) adaptation of Hamlet by Ryan North. Not only is it illustrated by this genius, among others, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure book. For adults. When Aaron handed it to me, we were busy drinking wine and drawing a vision board, so I was pretty happy, but I stopped both activities to drop my jaw, riffle through the book, and choose some adventures.
For the uninitiated, CYOA books (it’s a copyright, hence North’s rewording) are like video games. Generally the protagonist is a kind of blank, genderless second-person narrator. They are relatable in that they have no distinguishing characteristics, allowing you to easily insert yourself into the page and imagine that you are, for instance, trapped in a pyramid. At the end of each short section, you are presented with a decision; you page forward to find out what happened in, say, the left-hand tunnel as opposed to the right one. Hint: usually you die. Especially in “To Be or Not to Be”, because you are Hamlet.
CYOA books were really popular when my generation was in middle school. I always wondered what happened to them, and I was surprised and gratified to see that the form didn’t die in the 90s, especially since I’ve started forcing my Fiction and Creative Writing classes to collaborate on their own chooseable-path books. I’m proud of this one in particular, by my Fiction Writing class last spring:
Okay, maybe it is that difficult. A few people have asked me how we pulled it off, and though I’m somehow able to muddle through when faced with seventeen or so college students, I am very bad at telling my colleagues how it works. Hence: today’s blog post. If you too are teaching Creative Writing and want to spend a good hour indulging your students’ gory urges, the recipe follows after the jump. Feel free to print it off, use it, whatever.
Happy writing! (And do get “To Be or Not to Be” and play as Ophelia, it’s very empowering.)
HOW TO CHOOSE AN ADVENTURE
On my own, I write the first page: part 0, chapter 1, whatever you want to call it. It’s easier if you’ve read a lot of these, but if you haven’t: 2nd person, present tense, melodramatic, more or less genderless. It’s kind of interesting if there’s some kind of underlying conflict that’s NOT just the weirdness of the situation. (In this case, it’s a shitty breakup.)
With the Entire Class…
I put what I’ve written up on the projector and read it in a dramatic tone.
You stride through the darkening woods, each boot-fall a little angrier than the last. You’re leaving that sunlit apartment for the last time – you’re through with this relationship, and you’re better off for it. The fact of the matter is, you’ve just been dumped, abruptly, but you have chosen to walk home through the park to convince yourself that breaking up was all your idea. It’s a dank park, full of large wet-leaved trees that drape over the path. The air smells of rotting vegetation. Small animals scuttle around in the underbrush – they are only birds, you’re pretty sure. You don’t think snakes move that fast.
It’s occurring to you that this is smaller and muddier than the path you remember from your long walks together. Perhaps it looks different in the evening, underneath darkening gloomy clouds, but when it curves left, you realize you don’t remember a lake being there.
It isn’t a big lake; a pond, almost. It’s green and absolutely still, covered in scum at the shore. Next to your feet, a little red row-boat bobs, tied up to a rotting stump. It looks safe enough, and you could take it and row out into the middle and do some really good thinking…. but something moves in the underbrush next to you and you look down. There, nestled in the roots of the largest oak you’ve ever seen, is a green door, about three feet high. It’s open, slightly. As if something’s just wandered in.
- Step into the pretty red rowboat and go on a mission to explore the lake…or
- Forget about the rowboat, you want to check out whatever lives in that oak.
Now It’s Their Turn
Let’s say there are 17 students in class that day. The students number off. I implore them to REMEMBER THEIR NUMBER.
On the board, I make 2 decision trees –
1 (go explore the lake)
7 9 11 13
2 (head into the door)
8 10 12 14
The students move to sit in two groups – odds and evens. (Already there will be heckling. They see it as a competition. This is healthy.)
Students 1 and 2 are in charge of their halves of the class. (If there is some way of making sure that 1 and 2 are students who can write competently / yell loudly / control a large group of people, use it. Best case, maybe they sit next to each other already! Or maybe in the numbering process you nominate them yourself “at random”.) In these nine-ish person groups, students debate the next decision the adventurer will face. This is the most raucous / confusing stage of the project, so circulate vigorously and make sure they’re both on track. For example, Group 1 as a whole is in charge of deciding what happens from when the adventurer steps into the rowboat only until they have to make some two-pronged choice, just like in the example chapter.
For example, the odd (-numbered) half of my Fiction class decided that the adventurer would row out into the middle of the lake and be confronted by a tentacled monster, who rises up from the deep and offers assistance helping the adventurer cross. Does the adventurer take the monster up on its offer, or does she/he decide instead to bash it on the head with an oar and row back to shore?
So now Person 1 settles down with his / her notes and starts writing the long-form version of the rowing-out and meeting the monster narrative. 3 and 5 decide which option they would like to take:
1 (go explore the lake)
3 (bash it on the head) 5 (row back to shore)
7 9 11 13
Move to Even Smaller Groups
Person 3 is in charge of leading the conversation with people 7, 9, and 15. They have to come up with what happens next, now that the monster has been bashed. Obviously the monster is not going to be very pleased with this. Perhaps it sobs, “I thought you loved me,” and within a second, the adventurer, seeing its features more clearly, realizes that the monster is in fact a mutated version of his / her recently-broken-up-with ex.
“Oh, no,” the adventurer says, “so you dumped me because you’re a lake monster?”
“I was so afraid you would find out,” says the ex. “But now you have. Listen, if you like, I can turn you into a lake monster too and then we can be together forever. It’s not a bad life, being a lake monster. We get to eat ducks and everything…”
Let’s say the adventurer really loved this person and truly thought they would get married. Now, well, maybe it’s worth it, they are after all a sparkling conversationalist. Next decision: does the adventurer decide to live in the lake and eat ducks, or does the adventurer decide he / she can do better?
Even Smaller Smaller Groups
3 settles down with his/her notes and writes the narrative version of the preceding events, ending with the decision. 7 and 9 decide amongst themselves which option they would like to write. As we see in the diagram, 9 is a terminal adventure – it must end the story somehow.
So: “Yes,” 9 says, “let’s do it,” and the adventurer is dragged beneath the lake, and when they next open their eyes they are as tentacular and icky as the former lover. It’s great, though.
“But I still think your mother hates me,” the adventurer jokes.
“Well, she’s down here too…” says the monster, and boom, the adventurer is swallowed up by an even larger monster as it groans “DON’T YOU HURT MY BABY!”
Meanwhile, 7 decides to say, “No – we broke up for other reasons! It wasn’t just you, after all. My feelings were hurt too.”
“It was mutual,” glowers the lake monster.
“Nice seeing you,” says the adventurer nervously. He/she takes up paddles and rows vigorously for shore, the lake monster crashing behind him / her and roaring…
1 (person rows out to the middle of the lake)
3 (bashes monster on the head)
7 (decides to finalize breakup, row for shore) 9 (insults mother, dies)
… 15 gets to decide how the story ends in this branch. Perhaps the monster’s younger sibling, for whom the adventurer has always harbored feelings, is standing on a small island in the middle of the lake, waving his / her arms vigorously and yelling expository dialogue at the monster. Something like, “Hey, you might have gotten the monster half of our DNA, but I am totally human and very into your ex and if he / she makes it to the shore we will live in peace on this island!”
MEANWHILE, people 5, 11,13, and 17 have been coming up with their own version of events in which the adventurer denies the monster amicably and then god knows what happens. And also the even-numbered group has been doing exactly the same thing – as a group, deciding what will happen until it reaches a binary decision, then splitting into smaller and smaller groups, deciding further, and writing the narrative version out as individuals, perhaps as homework.
Note: It is very fun to, as a class, separate back out into a large group and tell them you’re going to go through it by flipping a coin. They don’t have to have their narrative chunks written – they can just shout what happens at you.
There will be confusion, of course, but if the students remember their numbers, take notes, and all remember to email you their chunks of narrative soonish, it is not such a hard matter for you to:
- compile them into a Word document…
- edit their grammar, probably…
- rearrange them in the standard Choose Your Own Adventure way (maximize the amount of flipping from front to back)…
- make a Table of Contents using the narrative chunk numbers as a guide, possibly adding the students’ names…
- change the narrative chunk numbers to page numbers and make sure all the “Flip to Page 22 if you bash the monster on the head / Flip to Page 10 if you take it up on its offer”s are correct…
- and then, if you like, format it into a proper little book using something like Lulu.com. They love this.
I think the whole thing makes them consider what constitutes an interesting decision in fiction, and also it lets them get to know each other while celebrating weirdness /nonstandard narratives.