I have a confession to make: I love Choose Your Own Adventure books. I loved them when I was a kid and I still love them. I love them so much I follow the primary company behind them on Facebook. I even took the image for the header of my blog from a crop of a story map from a CYOA book, The Mystery of Chimney Rock by Edward Packard (as can be found here). If they ever offered me the chance to write for them, I would take it in an instant, no thought required. And, once I make a fortune (doing what, I cannot say), I fully intend on buying every CYOA book ever written. No joke.
I won’t spend a lot of time discussing the books in detail because, quite honestly, I could write a fifty-page paper about them. That said, for the sake of discussion I’ll lay out the three main features of the CYOA books that everyone who read them remembers:
- They’re written in second person perspective, meant to immerse the reader in the story and superimpose their narrative decisions over those of the implied character. In effect, they become one and the same, making the reader the character.
- They are hypertext narratives where reader choices bifurcate the story with every decision made, which leads to more decisions and more bifurcations, etc. This leads to a surprisingly deep, thoughtful reading experience marked by enhanced attention to cause and effect and the idea of consequence.
- The books have multiple endings, and more often than not these endings involve the reader/character dying in utterly horrible fashions or suffering miserably.
For the sake of this post, I’m primarily focusing on that last item, the gruesome deaths amid what was always advertised as the one “true” happy ending. Much of my fun in reading these books came from the outlandish premises involved and the joy I took in imagining them (one of the books is called, I kid you not, You Are A Shark). After that, I thought it was funny to search throughout the book and find out what all the different “bad” endings were. They usually involved bizarre, painful scenarios like vaporization via alien death ray. I would follow the paths of the books the way I was supposed to, playing the game that the rules of the books set out for me. Then, when I was bored with that, I would break the rules of the books and flip through to find the rest of the endings I couldn’t find the right way before.
Now, before I go further, I need to ask a question. For those of you that have read these books before, did you do what I did as a kid: find the only happy ending in the book, then trace the choices backwards to try and find out how to get to that ending from the beginning?
Like I hinted before, I saw these books as a game, as I imagine I was supposed to. I wanted to know how to beat the game, pure and simple. Once I found out where the happy ending was, I did not stop until I had deciphered the exact path from the ending to the beginning, then read from the beginning to the ending to test my new map for the story. If it didn’t work, I went back to the ending and tried again in my attempt to reverse-engineer the story.
That was when I read these books all the time. As much as I love them, I haven’t read one of the CYOA books since I was twelve. A lot has happened since I was twelve. I’ve “grown up,” whatever the hell that means. I’ve gone through college, chosen a career goal for myself, witnessed a faltering economy, and graduated with my degrees into the worst hiring market for people of my age and skill set in some time. I’ve done a lot of second-guessing lately. I’ve asked myself a lot whether I have made the right choice between A and B, trust me.
These books came back into my consciousness in a big way lately. I think the time was just ripe for it. I wrote a craft paper for my MFA about nonlinear narrative and how disruptions of linearity can, in effect, lead to deeper considerations of consequence and hindsight. I’ve drafted a story that could best be described as a Choose Your Own Memoir (that’s as much as I’ll say about it publicly; anyone who wants to know more can contact me privately).
At the past residency for my MFA, I attended a presentation titled “Consider The Happy Ending” (courtesy of the brilliant Ms. Elsa Colon, who also happens to be a mega-talented poet; and yes, the title of my post is an aside to her presentation). The gist of it is this: happy endings are arguably more important and meaningful than downbeat ones, especially if they are earned by the characters through trials and tribulations. By showing characters’ paths to happiness, we actually encourage readers to find similar paths and keep in mind that even in the bleakest of times, a worthwhile ending is still possible.
It’s a shame we can’t reverse-engineer life the same way we can CYOA books. Life doesn’t have rules in the same way those books do. As such, there is no willful breaking of those rules in life to find the one true happy ending. We can’t flip the pages until we find it, then go backward again and run at it from the start. That’s not possible in real life. All we can do is make choices, in as educated a way possible, and hope they play out for the best. The great tragedy of life is that everyone wants the happy ending, but no one knows how to get there.
The great hope of life, however, is that the happy ending, however remote or improbable in a given situation, is still a possibility. Even more importantly, writers are not obligated to follow reality. There’s no ironclad rule in fiction that the way a story unfolds is exactly the way it is in real life. Instead, fiction offers a possible ending of many, a chance to peek through the pages to find a better way. Then, if the reader wants, they can make their educated guesses on how to get there from wherever they are (or, if the ending is an unhappy one, how not to wind up that way).
I remember reading the CYOA books when I was a kid and thinking why can’t they give me more than one happy ending so I don’t wind up losing so often? I feel differently now. I feel almost grateful that they at least provided me with a happy ending in the first place, because it gave me something worth focusing on and thinking about. And, if the happy ending they give me isn’t enough, I can still imagine what my own happy ending would be.
That’s enough philosophizing for now. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go pretend that I’m a shark.