Writing branching scenarios can be intimidating or overwhelming. Unlike a linear course, it’s not as easy to know where to start writing. Do you write the endings first? Should you write all the mistakes first? Do you start at the beginning and then flesh out each path as you write those choices?
In my own work, I’ve found it’s easiest to write the ideal path from start to finish first. I note decision points and sometimes draft bad choices along the way, but I don’t fully write anything else until I finish the ideal path.
Write the Ideal Path from the Outline
In a previous post, I explained how I create an outline of the steps in the scenario. This is my plot outline for the story if learners take the “ideal path,” making the best decision at every step. For each step in the outline, create a situation in which the learner must choose to take that action. Create a decision point where the best choice is the first step in your outline.
Write the First Decision
Building on the example from my previous post, a course on screening potential consulting clients, I have a process with 4 steps.
- Send client initial screening questions.
- Review client responses for fit and feasibility.
- Learn more about client needs during preliminary phone call.
- Propose a short road mapping engagement.
Because I did that planning in advance, I know exactly what I’m writing first: a decision where the right choice is sending the client initial screening questions.
Sophie receives an email from a prospective client, Robert.
My company has 4 classroom training courses we’d like to convert to online. One of them is a half day course; the others range from one day to four days long. Can you please tell me what you would charge to convert these courses to online?
What should Sophie do?
- Send Robert a price estimate.
- Send Robert some client screening questions.
- [[Some other OK choice TBD]]
Write the Remaining Ideal Decisions and Consequences
Once you have the first step written, the next step is to write the consequence from making that best decision in step one. In this example, the prospective client replies to the email.
Robert replies with his answers to the screening questions.
[placeholder–questions and answers here]
What should Sophie do?
- These answers look reasonable. Schedule a call to discuss it further.
- [[OK choice TBD]]
- [[Bad choice TBD]]
Continue writing until you get to the end of the ideal path, showing the consequences for good decisions and how they lead to the next decision.
Don’t Write the Mistakes Yet
When I write my initial draft of the ideal path, I focus just on the correct or best choices first. I don’t write all of the mistakes and their consequences on the first pass through writing. As I draft choices, I might write down some of the bad choices if I already know them.
For example, in step one, I know the mistake I’m trying to avoid is the first choice above of sending a price estimate without understanding the problem and scope first. However, at this stage of writing, it’s OK to just leave a placeholder for the other choices.
I find it helpful to indicate what kind of choices I still need in the placeholder. When I’m writing branching scenarios, I often use decision points with a Good, OK, and Bad choice. You can see how I noted that in my placeholders as “OK choice TBD” or “Bad choice TBD.”
Write the Ideal Ending and Feedback
At the end of the scenario, after learners have made all the correct decisions, write the ending. This should show the positive consequences of those choices. The ending should show what it looks like when people meet the learning objectives. In this example, the ending will show Sophie and Robert working together with a productive relationship.
You may also choose to include some more instructional feedback or coaching. At the end of the scenario, it can be helpful to tell people why the decisions they made were correct to reinforce what they learned.
Use Twine for Writing
I have tried a number of different tools and methods for writing branching scenarios. The open source tool Twine is my favorite for writing scenario drafts and creating quick prototypes. This makes it easy to see the connections between decision points. It’s also easy to leave placeholders for other choices that you will flesh out later. If you haven’t used Twine before, check out this post to help you get started.
This post is part of a series showing the entire process of creating a branching scenario from start to finish.
- How to Get Started Writing a Branching Scenario
- Planning a Branching Scenario
- What to Write First in a Branching Scenario (current post)
- How to Write Alternate Paths
- Branching Scenario Prototype in Twine
- Creating Branching Scenario Layouts
- Building a Simulated Phone Conversation in Storyline
- Building One Path in a Storyline Branching Scenario
- Branching Scenario in Storyline
Originally published 11/7/2017, updated and republished 10/12/2020