Ryan North On ‘To Be Or Not To Be,’ ‘Adventure Time,’ And Why Books Where You Don’t Choose The Adventure Are For Babies
You're probably already familiar with Ryan North as the creator of Dinosaur Comics or the author of BOOM!'s Eisner award-winning Adventure Time series -- or possibly as the writer of the world's most in-depth critique of the novelization of Back to the Future -- but thanks to Kickstarter, he has another line on his resume: An author who decided his first attempt at a novel should be improving Hamlet.
And just how do you improve Hamlet? Easy. You turn it into an 800-page Choose Your Own Adventure style gamebook and raise enough money to stock it with illustrations by amazing webcomic artists, and make sure to actually put the pirate battle in there this time. I talked to North about his approach to the book, why he wanted to try his hand at a chooseable-path adventure, and why he gave Ophelia a bonus to science.
ComicsAlliance: So I just read To Be Or Not To Be and it's amazing.
Ryan North: You read part of it. The amazing part.
CA: I actually got to the point where I started just reading it in order to figure out what I'd been through and what I hadn't. What got you interested in doing a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style book as a format? I know you've used it as a gag in Dinosaur Comics, you did the Adventure Time issue that was set up like that, and now the whole book. Obviously, it's been in the works for a long time.
RN: I've always had an interest in the format, because there's all this literary theory on how to write books, how to tell stories, how to build a narrative, how to have characters with traits that play off, how to introduce things and have them show up later, and all of this applies to linear stories with only one story where you don't get to make any choices. It's like a baby book. There's really not much theory on how to tell adventure stories when you're giving the reader a choice, which is weird because games do that all the time. I feel like eventually, we're going to start thinking about what it means to tell a good story when you're giving the reader or player choices like that.
I enjoy being able to explore this type of writing without having anyone having done it before on quite that level. They've obviously done Choose Your Own Adventures that existed, but they were all primarily written for a YA or juvenile audience. I thought we really needed to have a story that was written by an adult for an adult. And when I say it's an "Adult Choose Your Own Adventure," that sounds like it's a Choose Your Own Sex Scene. It's not, but it's a lot of fun.
CA: There are a lot of makeout scenes in it.
RN: There are some makeouts. There's one makeout you can reach as either Ophelia or as Hamlet. It's the same text, so I use a clever avoidance of pronouns.
CA: How much did that affect your writing, in terms of interweaving those stories? You've got a very unique approach, in that it's a book where you can "play" as Hamlet, Hamlet Sr., Ophelia, you -- you're a playable character in the book -- Horatio at the end...
RN: Claudius in the middle.
CA: In the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure within the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. Although I guess I should call them "chooseable path gamebooks."
CA: But did you realize that it was going to be that much of an undertaking?
RN: No, not at all. It sort of grew in the telling, but I was really into the idea of the choice structure and having different choices and different structures of choices. If you look at a the map of the book that I designed while I was building it, there's choices that branch, there are loops, there are tricks that I came up with. A lot of the fun things came from different ways to tell the story.
Obviously, I had story notes I had to hit. The funny thing with Ophelia is that I remembered her being this really cool, awesome female character when I read Hamlet in high school, and when I went back and read it, no, she's not. She does nothing and then drowns, so I made her super-awesome in my book.
CA: I was wondering where the science stuff came from.
RN: I wanted her to be rad! You can read the original Hamlet as having all the science stuff in there, it just never comes up because Shakespeare never chose those paths.
CA: So why Hamlet?
RN: It actually came from the title. This makes me sound like a super-genius, but I was just thinking about Hamlet's soliloquy in the car -- because all men think about Shakespeare all the time -- and it occurred to me that it was structured like a choice, "to be or not to be." I was like "oh, like those Choose Your Own Adventure books! Oh my God, I have to write this."
CA: You talked about reading it in high school, but did you have any kind of special attachment to Hamlet before you started rewriting it?
RN: Not really. It was my favorite Shakespeare play. It has a good story, I thought Hamlet was interesting, and unlike a lot of Shakespeare, I didn't find it to be too much of a linguistic challenge, maybe because I read it in my final year, when I was older. But no, I never dressed up as Hamlet for Halloween or Comic-Con or anything.
CA: It's interesting that you mention you actually did like it, because one of the things I did after I'd gone through and played as Ophelia and got the happiest possible ending in three moves was play through the actual story of the play. You have it marked so that you can go through making "Shakespeare's choices," and you are continually frustrated with both Hamlet as a character and with Shakespeare as a writer who doesn't bother to put the most exciting scene in the play.
RN: I forgot! There's this pirate scene in Hamlet and I forgot it was there until I got to that part in the play. There's this scene where Hamlet goes off to sea, and then in the play, he's back and he goes "oh hey, yeah, pirates attacked and they brought me here and then left without any reason. Let's get back to the play!"
Shakespeare's writing for the stage, and it's hard to show a pirate battle in 1600s England on a stage, but for a modern audience, it feels like such a cheat when we're used to watching robots smash each other up all the time. You want to see that spectacle. I thought it was funny, you have this pirate battle that's dismissed with one line and then everyone goes back to talking about their feelings.
CA: Did you find yourself frustrated with it as you went back through it? Hamlet is a very frustrating character by design.
RN: But when you're the player playing Hamlet, what's nice is that I can shift that frustration onto you as the player. I can tell you "hey, Claudius is right over there, you can go kill him right now. No? We're not doing this. Fine, let's continue." I sort of treated it as a gameplay thing. I know when I play games and I'm really enjoying it, I try to stretch it out. I know the game wants me to do this, but I'll try doing other stuff because I don't want to progress the plot just yet. That sort of idea fit into the book nicely.
CA: How long ago did you start working on To Be Or Not To Be?
RN: I started writing it in December of 2011. It took me about six months to write it, and then I did the kickstarter in 2012.
CA: I'm surprised it only took you six months.
RN: It was a pretty intense six months. But what I loved about it was that I've never writtten a novel before, and the imposing part of that was that you get one chance to write this really amazing storyline. With a branching narrative, I had a hundred different chances. I never felt like "this has to be it." I could write stuff down and flow with it and edit it later on without feeling like I had to nail it right away.
CA: Did you take Hamlet as it exists and break it down first, and then identify each point where you could break off and go from there?
RN: When I had the idea in the car, my mind was racing and I was thinking that you could have a book within a book, because there's a play within the play, you could play as Ophelia, all this different stuff. Basically I started writing Hamlet's storyline, and every time there seemed like a point where I could go a different way, or wouldn't it be fun if he did this instead, I'd put it in. Those storylines grew from there, and it ended up with this book with three quintillion -- three followed by fifteen zeroes -- possible stories in it.
CA: I noticed in the Kindle version that it breaks out to like 6500 pages, because each choice is a separate page.
RN: If you go by that metric, I wrote a pretty long book.
CA: It's big in print, too. What is it, 800 pages?
RN: 768 pages, yeah. And 1.4 pounds. It's a hefty book.
CA: Did you know it was going to be that heavy when you did the Kickstarter?
RN: No. My initial idea was that some of the nodes don't fit on a page, so the idea would be to put five or six on a single page. "Turn to page 65, section C." But when it did really well, we could go a bit decadent and do every node as its own page, and it's nice and substantial.
CA: The reason I ask about when you started writing it was because of Adventure Time. The chooseable-path issue of that came about after you finished To Be Or Not To Be.
RN: It's funny, I emailed my editor and gave her the pitch, and all I said was "Choose Your Own Adventure Time." She was like "run with it!" and then I wrote the comic. I didn't tell her what it was about or what the story was or any of it, just that one sentence. I pitched that after I'd finished the book.
The comic was fun, because all the choices were visual. There were arrows between the panels, almost like a really fun flowchart.
CA: When you did To Be, did you have any kind of page count consideration?
CA: You just went in with unlimited space.
RN: Yeah, I mean, I figured worst case, it'd just be an ebook, and the Kickstarter let it be a physical book. I actually wrote until the story was done, which was nice to do.
CA: You wrote until the story was done a hundred times. In the comic, though, there's a very finite space. You have a definite page count to work with.
RN: 16 pages. That was definitely more constrained. I normally just write a script, but in this one, I wrote my own little panel layout that I just scanned and sent to the artist, saying "here's how it can all fit on the page, if you want." It felt tight in terms of one story, you only have so many pages to do and you're left with three panels per page, maybe, but it's also a wide story. It branches out, so you get more narrative than you normally would. That was fun, it felt like it was a worthwhile endeavor. More comics for your dollar.
CA: So you were involved in the actual formatting of the pages for that one.
RN: I kind of had to be. I felt like I would be the meanest guy ever to just drop this script in the artists' laps and be like "hey guys, I used words to describe what happened here, but figure out the arrows yourself." That would not have worked. It was just pen on lined paper with empty boxes and arrows between them.
CA: But for To Be Or Not To Be, you actually designed software to make the book.
RN: Yeah, it's this open-source software called Twine, and I used that with some modifications to write the book. The nice thing with Twine is that it just shows you boxes and you have lines between them, so you get a visual idea of the story. I knew that this node goes here, this branches like this, and then it all explodes.
CA: What has the response been like? I told you a minute ago that I loved it.
RN: That's what I like to hear. The book is shipping out to backers now so I should start hearing back soon, but what I liked about Kickstarter is that every day, I posted another page and the backers could vote on where the story would go so they could experience the book. That was really useful, because I was worried people would love the idea but not actually love the execution of the book. So during the campaign, we posted 30 pages, and this one guy messaged me and said "hey, are these actually pages of the book? Is this what you wrote?" and I said "yeah." He said "Oh, these are terrible! I don't want this at all!"
At first, I was like "oh, what a jerk," but you know, I'd rather you not get a book you hate than be tricked into buying a book you don't like. My hope is that the 1500 backers on Kickstarter will really like the book, because they already had a taste of thirty pages.
CA: Do you have plans for any further Chooseable Path Ryan North Adventures?
RN: Yes! When we launched the Kickstarter, there were stretch goals up to $100,000. We asked for $20,000 and went up to a hundred, and I thought maybe in a month we could get there. Then we did it all in the first day, and one of the goals was that I'd write a sequel. I need to start working on that soon.
CA: Is this going to be a sequel to Hamlet?
RN: There's not many people left alive in Hamlet, even in a lot of my versions. So it'll be a new story, but a choosable path.
CA: I'd like to see a sequel to your version that has Oceanographer Hamlet Sr., Scientist Ophelia, Badass Pirate Hamlet...
RN: Take all their best endings and form an unstoppable crimefighting team.
CA: What was your experience with choosable path books when you were a kid? Did you have a favorite?
RN: I remember... they're all sort of my favorite. I remember going to the library, and you could get one book that has one story, or this book that has ten stories and you get to make it. That blew my mind. I found the books frustrating, because in some, say, there's a choice between stand or sit, and if you stand, aliens invade, and if you sit, the planet explodes. Either way, that's ridiculous. My choices have way too much influence on the universe!
As a writer, I get that they wanted to trim that decision tree and start pruning choices so that it doesn't explode, but with To Be Or Not To Be, I wanted the choices to have meaningful impact. Sitting or standing doesn't change whether aliens attack. That's going to happen no matter what you do. I want your choices to matter, and that was inspired by the books I read as a kid.