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Okay, the post I made above opened the floodgates. This is going to make some people really mad, but after reading through the argument in this thread, I gotta say all this.
THP is dying because the stories are bad.
Why are they bad? Because nobody has bothered to learn the lessons from 10 years ago, the lessons from the initial few years of high activity and excitement and interest, from the first wave of CYOAs and how they were written and why they were popular.
Why was the first wave of stories so popular? Well, it sure as shit wasn’t because they were any good.
Go back and sit down and read the first wave of stories. Yes, they were fun, you can have fun reading through those stories, but try to analyse any of them and they’re all quite obviously trainwrecks. Incoherent narrative structure, characters acting in inconsistent and stupid ways, rock bottom awful pacing, blatant self-inserts, /jp/ in-jokes and references, unclear motivations and stupid endings. Exactly what you’d expect from a bunch of kids in their late teens and early 20s writing wish-fulfilment fanfiction about 2D girls.
(Here’s the secret: none of that mattered.)
The stories worked - and were fun and popular and exciting - in spite of all of this, because of the format we unconsciously adhered to, and the effect that had on us.
I’ll break it down into three things: speed, consistency, and fun.
I used to give myself roughly 15-20 minutes to write each update, with maybe a couple more minutes for a quick proofread, and another couple to select a picture to go with the post. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.
Limitations breed creativity, and this limitation had several very specific effects. There was no time for lots of description or internal navel-gazing or exposition or wandering around, every single sentence had to do something, had to move. If I needed to describe, I kept to the most striking and important details. If I needed to explore internal conflicts of indecision or confusion, I kept it expressed externally, in what happened, what the characters did and said.
Each update had to give the reader something, and give it them fast, so every single update was action, dialogue, decision - bam. Because of the self-imposed time limit and the need to get an update out quickly, as I wrote I was always looking for what the next choice would be, what’s the quickest route to having the protagonist make a decision.
Something happened, something changed, something developed in every single update (and the ones in which nothing much happened I considered failures). This meant the readers were invested because they knew something exciting would happen in every snippet of story, and the choices mattered - they had to avoid death, solve a puzzle, or say the right thing to get into a touhou’s panties (because let’s be honest, that’s part of what we were here for).
Back in the first wave we updated fast. Once a day, twice a day, multiple times a day. Even those who couldn’t update that fast still put out posts a lot faster than anything on the site today.
But speed was less important than consistency.
Consistency is key in any online periodical media, webcomics, youtube, whatever. CYOAs are no different, they’re just faster and freeform and don’t make any money. Back in the day we could all be pretty secure in the knowledge that we’d be updating once a day, or once every two days, or whatever, because of the speed of the format and the enthusiasm we had. And readers knew this. They knew that if they opened the site, new posts! New updates! New things to read, to see, to feel excited about!
Sure, we all dropped a day here and there, or had little hiatuses, but we let the readers know. And when we were back, it was back to normal. Consistent.
I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew THP was sick: the time I first saw a new writer in the IRC ask for a beta reader, and then complain they couldn’t post their update until it had been read and critiqued, and not a single person in there called them a dumbass and told them to just post it now and just go. Critique and editing and whatever, that’s great if you’re writing a novel, or traditional fanfiction, but it’s death for the CYOA format.
These days, I look at the boards on THP and, hey, updates are rare. Writers take a long time, sometimes weeks. If I was just a casual reader, rather than somebody who’s been here for 10 years, what reason would I have to come back? There’s things to see, sure, but they don’t change often. There’s little in progress.
One of the responses I’m going to get to this is “But what about the votes? We can’t write a CYOA quickly without votes! We need tie-breakers! We need an audience!”
And yeah, you’re right. If you tried to do what we did - wrote a first post and then came back 30 minutes later to write an update - you probably wouldn’t have any votes. And you’d lose interest. And the story would die.
You fucking weakling.
You’re not going to grow an audience by wishes and whining. The site’s in a hole. If you want it to grow you’re going to have to put in hard work. Write that first update, come back 15 minutes later to no votes and write the next one anyway. Decide yourself. Flip a coin. Roll a dice. Whatever. If there’s a tie? Flip a coin. Roll a dice.. Until you grow an audience you do not have the luxury of waiting. Write another update, and another, and another. If you get a vote, great, if not, keep going. Post in the IRC every time you write, let your friends know you’re writing, let people know, and stay consistent, every day. Do this for two weeks, a month, six weeks, and people will come and they’ll keep coming back if you stay consistent.
Writers screamed into the void for centuries before the internet existed. If you want to resurrect THP, you’re going to have to do the same.
The first stories on THP came from a very specific cultural background: early /jp/. We were reading type-moon VNs and comedic doujins, watching Code Geass and goofy anime. We filled our stories with video game references and in-jokes and memes about scrambled eggs. We argued about who was the best girl and were deeply fixated on romantic routes. We were primarily just having fun.
This might seem like a less important point than the first two, less technical, but it’s just as key.
We had tremendous fun with those stories. It didn’t matter that they were a little incoherent, it mattered that they were amusing. We knew how to blend wacky hijinks into serious drama, how to just enjoy characters doing things for the sake of it, that good storytelling did not have to mean taking ourselves seriously.
I’m not saying you need to immerse yourself in circa-2008 /jp/ to write a good CYOA here. I’m saying you need to be part of the culture. You need to have fun.
Every time I’ve given this advice over the last decade, the response has been the same: “Well you’re uniquely skilled, you could write in that way because you’re you, we need to do in this other way.”
Well bucko, I ain’t uniquely skilled now or I’d be a multi-million dollar author, and I sure as fuck wasn’t uniquely skilled a decade ago. Truth is, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing back then, and I’d wager none of us did. We stumbled onto a set of limitations and techniques that happened to work, and I couldn’t even articulate it until years later. The stories I wrote in the later years of the site failed because I was trying to write like a novelist, not a CYOA.
And that’s a secret, you can’t write a CYOA like a novel. You have to write like a CYOA.
My story was a fucking mess, I’m first to admit that. I’m infinitely glad people enjoyed it, that readers got something real from it, and it led to some of the best things in my life. But you know what? It was a hot mess. And anyone can do that. You can do it too, right now, with a keyboard and a little bit of thought.
I know what you’re going to say. We don’t want to write stories that way anymore, we want longer, more involved stories, with complex plots. My way is the old way and we’ve moved beyond that, we can’t go back to that, we want to be artistic and creative and we need time and beta readers and blah blah whatever. Well, you’ve had ten fucking years to do it your way, and now the site is dying.
Try it my way.
Go on, I dare you.