A conversation with the Ultimate Ending authors

I reviewed the first six CYOA-style books from the Ultimate Ending series, by Danny McAleese & David Kristoph. I asked them both to answer a few questions I had about their writing processes, creating a CYOA-style story, and whatever else happened to cross my mind.

Tell me about your earliest recollection of reading CYOA-style books?
David Kristoph: My first experience with CYOA books was with the “Give Yourself Goosebumps” series when I was about 12. I loved the regular Goosebumps series, and was always checking the bookstore for new additions. That’s when I stumbled across CYOA. Although I enjoyed them, they weren’t very deep stories: each page only had a few sentences, and the choices were often nonsensical with random outcomes. I remember wishing they had more depth to the decision-making, with more compelling endings.
Danny McAleese: It was the early 1980’s, and my cousin just got me hooked on Dungeons and Dragons.  I was looking for adventure modules when I saw one of the Endless Quest books, Mountain of Mirrors.  It had a dragon and a frost giant on it!  I couldn’t get it off the shelf fast enough.

What is your favorite CYOA-style story not in the Ultimate Ending series?
McAleese: I’m tempted to say the Cave of Time, because the original was just so awesome.  It covered so many endings, and all of them were fantastic.  Edward Packard really took his time with it.  You could tell it wasn’t rushed, which unfortunately started happening with some of the later titles in the CYOA series.
Kristoph: One of my author buddies (JS Morin) wrote a CYOA book for his Twinborne series called Murder in Marker’s Point. I thought it was really cool to have a CYOA book as sort of an offshoot of a normal series.

Which of the first six Ultimate Ending books is your favorite?
Kristoph: As a writer, I had the most fun making The Strange Physics of the Heidelberg Laboratory (book 6), especially the reactor shutdown mechanism the reader has to find. But as an objective reader, I think Treasures of the Forgotten City is my favorite in the series. I’m a huge Indiana Jones fan, and the book really captures the feeling of exploring a rediscovered city for the first time.
McAleese: I love The Secret of the Aurora Hotel.  Running around a haunted hotel after midnight with your two cousins… It just feels fun.  It has a mood to it too.  The ghosts, the story, the raging blizzard outside, plus all the different theme rooms throughout the Aurora made telling that story very enjoyable.

What is your favorite non-CYOA-style collaborative work other than Ultimate Ending?
Kristoph: I’ve only worked on one other collaborative project in my career: a space disaster series you may have heard of called Days Until Home. In terms of other peoples’ work, I recently started reading Leviathan Wakes and absolutely love it. I think it’s really cool that “James S.A. Corey” is a pseudonym for two separate authors collaborating on one project, and that they do it so seamlessly.
McAleese: My biggest non-CYOA collaborative influence would have to be the Dragonlance Saga.  I always marveled at how Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weiss so seamlessly put together that incredible world, and I can only imagine them fighting over who got to write the Raistlin parts.

I assume there is an epic amount of planning to create a CYOA-style story, tell me about the process.
McAleese: In the beginning, I try to think of fun things.  Mini-games, riddles, dangerous situations, running into other characters, etc. I write all these down as separate encounters, without worrying about order. Once I have 20-30+ encounters or so, I start thinking about how the book will be laid out.  Where the characters will go first, what they’ll need to reach the later (and more important) sections, etc. For example, in Treasure of the Forgotten City I need the reader to obtain one of three possible star gems.  Once they have one of them gems, the second part of the book takes place in the pitch-black halls beneath the city. I try to lay each book out in ways that lend equal amounts of danger (i.e. premature endings) along each major story path.  I also have to keep track of items the reader might pick up, and place encounters where the reader would potentially use those items in the correct places.  Item retention and hidden clues are just one of the ways Ultimate Ending goes beyond traditional CYOA books. When all of this is done, then I start writing.  But the writing flows a lot more freely now that I know exactly where the story is going.
Kristoph: Oh man, the flowcharts! I plan each book in a Google Draw flowchart before I start writing. These things are massive; I’m talking hundreds of boxes outlining each scene, the choices, with arrows all over the place connecting it all. It’s really the only way to write a CYOA book and keep it all straight.

How do developing characters and situations for a CYOA-style book differ from a long-form story?
McAleese: You have to strike a balance.  My gripe with some of the older CYOA books is there was very little character development at all.  Ultimate Ending books are novella length, so there’s a lot more room to play around.  You can introduce new characters mid-book, and have story arcs that include or disinclude starting characters, depending on the choices you make. If you plot your connection points correctly, you can also have characters reach major revelations about the story, and about themselves.  They can develop over the course of the book.  The unfortunate part is that by definition, the CYOA genre forces you to say goodbye to these characters at the end. Ultimately however, the most important character is always the same: the reader must remain the star of the story.
Kristoph: Character development in a CYOA book is fun because the reader helps shape that development with their choices. In Enigma at the Greensboro Zoo (book 4) the main character is Katy Rodriguez, a police officer who has to decide the best way to regain control of a zoo run amok. Some of those decisions are cautious, and others are more ambitious. The type of character the reader drives Katy toward is the type of resolution they get. Different endings result in different character arcs!

How does the implementation of digital CYOA-style differ from those old paperbacks we loved?
Kristoph: Digital CYOA books are a bit trickier to create because of all the hyperlinks that need to be created, but aside from that it’s a wonderful reading experience. Especially since it keeps readers from accidentally seeing what’s on an adjacent page, which is always the problem with a paperback version: the desire to peek! I still prefer a paperback in my hand, but the digital copies we’ve published are all top-notch.
McAleese: If anything you can read them faster.  You can flip to a page with the touch of a finger!  Also, kindle-readers are only shown the page they’re currently on.  This is an unforeseen bonus because when I was a kid, I always succumbed to the temptation of looking at adjacent pages (and sometimes ruining future parts of the story).

Have you gotten feedback from readers beyond the very favorable reviews on Amazon? If so, please tell me about it.
Kristoph: I sent a demo copy of a book to a coworker of mine who has a 12 year old son. My coworker likes to pre-read books before letting his son read them, to make sure they’re age appropriate, which is usually a chore for him. He ended up calling me at 9:30 at night because he read the entire book in one sitting, loved it, and wanted to know when they would be officially published. So although the books are aimed at teens, Danny and I are proud that our books are just as enjoyable for adults as they are for kids.
McAleese: People who love our books tend to be very nostalgic.  They’re looking to re-live happy childhood memories of when they got to choose their own adventure, and many are hoping to introduce CYOA books to the next generation: their children (and grandchildren!) The reviews have been favorable, and we’re humbled by them.  No matter how much fun a book may be to write, the ultimate gratification always comes when readers take the time to tell you how much they’ve enjoyed your story.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned while writing the beginnings of the Ultimate Ending series?
McAleese: The single most surprising thing to me was how much preparation a CYOA book takes.  I’d say it’s 50/50.  I spend 50% of my time prepping the book, creating encounters, sketching flowcharts and moving things around, and the last 50% of the time actually writing the story.  And even then I end up moving things around as I think of new ideas and scrap things that just don’t fit. David and I also found that the more books we wrote, the longer they got.  We wanted to tell more detailed, well-rounded stories that would build up to an even better Ultimate Ending.  And that’s the best part of our books; the reader always knows when they’ve reached the best possible ending.  And I can’t help but say our winning endings are ULTIMATE!
Kristoph: What surprised me most is just how fun it is to write a CYOA book. There’s a lot of planning and outlining, but it feels like you’re writing a videogame, with different levels, obstacles, and bosses to encounter. And of course, each Ultimate Ending feels like you’re reaching the Final Boss at the end of the game. I enjoy everything I write, but writing the Ultimate Ending series is way more fun than anything else!

What more is in store for the Ultimate Ending series?
McAleese: Lots of exciting stuff!  We have two more books planned for fast release this summer: The Tower of Never There, and Sabotage in the Sundered Sky.  One draws the reader through the many chaotic levels of a mysterious, teleporting tower.  In the other, the reader must uncover a sinister plot while riding the maiden voyage of a steampunk-inspired, dirigible airship. We’re also talking about revisiting characters from previous books, but only short-term.  Each Ultimate Ending book will always be a stand-alone story that requires no knowledge of previous books (so you can read them in any order).  That said, it might be fun to bring back some favorite characters and send them on new adventures. Look for us to put out new books every 2 to 3 months.  That’s the advantage having two authors can bring to the series: we work twice as fast!
Kristoph: We plan to release a new book to the series every 2-3 months. The next two books are The Tower of Never There, which takes readers on a floor-by-floor adventure through a mysterious teleporting spire, and Sabotage in the Sundered Sky, where two mechanics sneak aboard a trans-Atlantic airship and attempt to discover who is trying to sabotage the voyage.

Thank you both for taking the time to share these insider items with me and my blog followers. Everyone should come back to the blog tomorrow and enter in a giveaway to receive some Ultimate Ending swag…

About Mark Gardner

Mark Gardner lives in northern Arizona with his wife, three children and a pair of spoiled dogs. Mark holds a degrees in Computer Systems and Applications and Applied Human Behavior. View all posts by Mark Gardner

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