What an Interactive Storytelling Game Taught Me About Creativity and Quarantine

An interactive, collaborative storytelling game on my Instagram account

I’ve spent the past two months running Ada and the Lost Horizon, an interactive, collaborative storytelling game on my Instagram account. As the author of eight traditionally published books, I found running this game to be a fascinating experience — for what it taught me about quarantine, storytelling, my own and others’ creative process, and social media.

Now that the game has drawn to a close (I just posted the final installment here on Medium), I want to reflect on some of the experiences and observations I got from Ada and the Lost Horizon. (And no, you do not need to have read Ada to read and understand this essay!)

Art by Allison Smith

The idea

The idea to do an interactive, collaborative, creative project came to me in late March. We’d been in lockdown for a couple of weeks, and I was in a dark place. A lot of us were. I felt isolated and uninspired. Writing a book seemed absurd — it would be a minimum of 18 months before anything I wrote now could be published, and who could possibly know what the world would look like 18 months from now? The world was changing unrecognizably every day.

I wanted a project that would come to fruition a lot faster than 18 months. I wanted to connect with or build a creative community, so I didn’t feel so isolated. I wanted to give myself (and others) some arbitrary deadlines, so that time of day and days of the week would again become meaningful.

Enter Ada and the Lost Horizon.

Ship and royal animals by Tom and Paul on Twitter

I spent a couple of weeks developing the concept, discussing it with friends who are good at scavenger hunts and interactive art, working out the logistics. Ultimately the vision was that I would write an emergent story in installments posted to my Instagram account. Each installment would end with a creative challenge for readers. I would select one “winner” from the pool of challenge completions, and I would use that winner at the jumping-off point for the next day’s installment.

I titled the project Ada and the Lost Horizon as an homage to Alice in Wonderland. I had absolutely no idea what would happen in this story. Ada and the Lost Horizon seemed both intriguing and sufficiently vague that it could be retrofitted to suit whatever the story might become.

The process of creating each installment

The process for writing each new installment in Ada went like this: First, I would select a winner of the previous day’s challenge. This was generally a tough choice because I loved the mere existence of all of them, and I didn’t want any player to feel under-appreciated. But it was so fun to do. Easily the most fun I was having during lockdown. I would brainstorm possible story directions for each entry, and my friend Emily and boyfriend Brian would weigh in on which completion was most worthy.

Once I selected a winner, I needed to write an installment that would fulfill the following criteria:

  1. Incorporate meaningful information from today’s winning entry.
  2. Move forward the story without contradicting any of the established logic.
  3. Be roughly 500–800 words (to fit the Instagram format).
  4. End with a challenge for players to complete the next day.

And each challenge had to meet the following criteria:

  1. Inherently enjoyable to do. (i.e. Even if your entry is not picked as the “winner,” you still feel rewarded by the experience of participating.)
  2. Doable on one’s own, in one’s own house, using ordinary household materials, without requiring excessive parental involvement, in the course of 24 hours, and not relying on a computer.
  3. Calling upon a variety of skills. (i.e. I didn’t want every challenge to be an art project or a science project or a building project; I wanted a mix, so as to call upon different skill sets.)
  4. Likely to provide me with useful narrative information that I could use in the next chapter.

Designing a good challenge was, as I saw it, the most important part. Often I would try to think of what challenge I wanted the installment to end on, and then try to use my 500–800 words to get us there. Over the course of the game, the players made ransom notes, disguises, shrines, bribes, unusual vehicles, book-matching devices, book spine poetry, anthropomorphized household objects, whistled songs, themed beach resorts, decorative windows, rocket ship fuel, and more.

Shrine by adafansssss on Instagram

I spent many years competing in and then judging the world’s largest annual scavenger hunt. I loved it so much that I even edited a book about it. So when I was coming up with challenges, I thought a lot about what sort of items worked for Scav Hunt, and how Scav Hunt lists are put together. I asked the other Scav Hunt judges to suggest possible challenges, and they gave me some of the best ideas (like the one to decorate your window so it looks like a different scene outside then what’s actually there).

In coming up with the challenges, I also thought about what sort of stuff I liked to do when I was a kid, growing up an only child who was frequently bored. These were all the sorts of things I would do (or the exact things I did) to entertain myself.

The item completions

Seeing people’s submissions was, hands down, the greatest thing about Ada. They delighted me every time. I would go to bed slightly worried that the day’s challenge was no good, that no one would want to do it, only to wake up the next morning to fabulous, creative submissions and an immediate shot of joy. I often got teary, so overwhelmed was I by the idea of people all over the globe taking deriving inspiration from this story and taking the time to play with it.

Granted, I was already in a teary mood — I couldn’t leave my house or see my friends and family, and hundreds of thousands of people were dying — but I found myself channeling that excess of emotion into love for the Ada completions.

Most of the submissions were completed by children, which makes sense. As adults, most of the time we’re like, “I could build a structure out of books… but then I would just have to put them all away.” Or, “I could put a message in a bottle… but I’m not getting paid to put messages in bottles.” This is not how kids think. This is one of the primary reasons why I often prefer kids to adults.

Library built out of books by Willa and Adi on Instagram

The fact that the submissions generally were created by kids often made me feel even more emotional. After all, kids don’t have social media accounts; they weren’t following this story on their own. Their parents were reading it aloud to them, photographing their challenge completions, uploading the photos to Instagram, and telling their kids who won. I loved the idea that I could give parents and kids a task to do together that had none of the built-in obligation of homeschooling. Sometimes someone would apologize to me for missing a challenge, and I was always like, “No, the point is that there is no obligation. There is no shame or guilt. Participate exactly as much as you want to, whenever you want to, and no more.” Wouldn’t it be great if more of life were like that?

Can you write without guilt?

But, of course, on my end, there was an obligation. The game depended upon my posting a new story excerpt every other day — though after the first few weeks, I started pacing that out to once every fourth day, to make it more manageable. And I did experience guilt.

I am very, very well-acquainted with that sensation, because I am a professional writer. Being a writer, for me, means feeling guilty every day that I have not written, or have not written enough. If I do write, and write enough, I experience at best a few hours of self-satisfied freedom — before it’s tomorrow, and a new day in which I “should” write but haven’t yet.

I once had a conversation with my dear friend Kendra where we were describing our dream days. I said that in my dream day, I wrote a thousand words before noon so I could go out and enjoy the rest of my day without guilt. Kendra did me one better: her ideal day started with her waking up in the morning having written two thousands words the day before.

Space craft by Phil and Felicity on Instagram

I have many reasons why I write. “Feeling guilty if I don’t” is one of them. It is probably the least romantic reason, and it is unlikely to be the answer I give when asked at a writing conference, but it is an undeniable force for me. I wondered if maybe, in writing Ada rather than a traditional novel, I could escape from that guilt, and just write every other day out of pure inspiration and desire to see where the story would go next.

And to some extent, I could. There was something very liberating in the fact that, unlike with novel writing, I could not possibly plan where the story would go next. Once I posted an installment, there was truly nothing for me to do or brainstorm or think about until I saw the next batch of challenge completions. I couldn’t go for long bike rides and turn the story over and over in my mind, which is how I often craft narratives, because so much of the narrative was being crafted by readers.

But that feeling of liberation lessened as I got to… the middle.

The middle is hard no matter what

Anyone who’s tried to write a book knows that the middle is the hard part. At the beginning you have a brilliant idea and the excitement of something shiny and new. At the end you have the sense that you’re closing in on the finish line. In the middle, you have a bunch of amorphous scenes. To mix some metaphors, the bloom is off the rose and you are wandering in the middle of an overgrown forest, whacking at trees and hoping to find a path through.

Ostensibly, writing the middle of Ada should have been way easier. In a book, you have to worry about logic: does what I said on page 118 contradict what I said on page 11? You have to worry about foreshadowing and follow-through: I can’t have the climactic reveal of the bad guy’s identity be a character we’ve never met before! I can’t early on drop hints that this character is hiding a dark secret and then never reveal what the secret is! In an online storytelling game, I really should not have had to worry about any of that.

But I did. I couldn’t help myself!

Once I got to the middle of the story, I was spending hours on each scene, trying to figure out how to use all the information we’d already established. Because that is how writing works, and it is very, very deeply ingrained in me. At the exact same time that I was writing Ada, I was also teaching a six-week class on revising middle grade and YA novels. I was professionally preaching narrative continuity!

Royal cat by reanbug on Instagram

Because of what it is and how it was made, there are bits in Ada that don’t follow the ‘rules’ of storytelling despite my best efforts, and they bug me. In the ninth installment, we’re told, “[Ada] knew where Concord Hill was, of course. Who didn’t?” But we are never told why everyone knows where Concord Hill was. In the first installment, we’re told that Teddy “had a big day tomorrow and he needed a good night’s sleep.” But we’re never told what exactly he was supposed to do on his “big day.” In the sixteenth installment, Ada and her aunt get into a big argument, and then we never really see the aunt again — the argument is not resolved.

“PEOPLE DO NOT CARE!” I would shout at myself as I tried to make all the pieces fit together, tried to make use of every piece of information I had introduced and tie up every loose end. “JUST MAKE SOMETHING UP! STOP SPENDING SO LONG ON THE LOGIC OF THIS WORLD!”

But the rules of storytelling are too deeply burrowed into my brain at this point. It did not matter that nobody would care. I still cared.

On the flip, I will say that I was pleased every time I did make a connection. In the ninth installment, Ada is told to “begin the third revolution on the top of Concord Hill.” In the seventeenth installment, I figured out what “the third revolution” would be, and I was psyched about it. In the second chapter, we’re told, “Nobody was able to open the box from Ada’s parents.” In the twenty-first installment, I figured out why no one could open it. (Because only creatures from a parallel universe are capable of unlocking it, that’s why.) In the first installment, we’re told that “she, Ada, could not talk to the police. Not about Teddy, not about anything.” In the eighth installment, an explanation for this avoidance is hinted at. (Because Ada believes that she killed her parents with her supersonic voice, so she can’t go the police without risking getting charged with murder. Sorry, should’ve mentioned #spoileralert.)

A particular challenge was that I couldn’t go back and revise any installments after they were posted. For example, in the ninth installment, Ada receives a mysterious message that claims to be from someone named “Red.” We never learn who “Red” is. I still have no idea who it might be. But I couldn’t go back to the ninth installment and delete this line.

It reminded me of learning about Charles Dickens’ publication process. Apparently he would write a chapter, then send it off on a ship to America where everyone would be clamoring to read it as soon as it arrived. While I’ve always longed for hordes of people clamoring to read my books, the idea of publishing a chapter before you’d finished the whole book seemed foolhardy to me. How coherent could Dickens’ work be, really, if he couldn’t go back to the beginning and revise? I guess Dickens may have been a very good outliner, which is literally the opposite of the process by which Ada was written.

Very clean revolutionaries by Amy on Instagram

The lasting value of Ada

One of the things that I love about writing is that, once you have written something, it is done. It exists. People can read it today or they can read it years from today, and it will still exist. I hate everything that needs to be redone — I hate having to wash dishes just to dirty them just to wash them again, or having to sweep the floor just for more dust to gather on it just to sweep it again. It is stupidly Sisyphean.

Writing is not like that.

What that means is that people can find Ada at any point. It’s out there now. At any point, you can read the story. At any point, if you need a creative task to entertain yourself or your kid, you can do any of Ada’s twenty-two challenges. If you want to pretend that a different completion was the winner, and then write down what would happen if the story had gone in a different direction, you can.

That’s part of why I felt so passionately about making Ada interactive in as many ways as possible. I want to bring people into the storytelling process. There’s not one “true” version of a story, and the writers are the only ones who know it, and they have to give you permission to deviate from it. The writer chose one path through the forest, but there are infinite other paths that can be made equally true if you only write them.

Example from my life: I felt about the finale of season three of The O.C. roughly the way I gather people feel about the finale of Lost; namely, I hated it. One of my favorite characters dies at the end. It was dumb and bad. I cried, and then, emerging from the living room older but wiser, I declared, “That episode did not happen. Nothing after this episode happens, either. In my version of The O.C., she is still alive.” That is my right, as audience. This is your right, too. This is the beauty of fiction over reality. If you don’t like the “truth,” you can create a new one. The real world’s truth is, alas, not so malleable, no matter what politicians might try to sell you.

I’ve heard from a few players that their kids now do their own versions of Ada. One parent wrote to me to say:

You’ve inspired my six-year-old daughter to “Play Ada.” She writes a little about her favorite subjects, then assigns me, Mommy, and her to create something. Then one of us judges the best effort.

Guess what? That is the greatest thing I have ever heard. That is a gift. Making things is awesome. Inspiring other people to make things is even better.

Final note

After roughly two months of writing roughly 500–800 words roughly every other day, I wound up with 15,000 words of Ada and the Lost Horizon. People often say that if you just do a little bit every day, it will dd it up. Turns out they’re right. Remind me of this as I write my next book.

Magical compass by Daniel on Instagram

Author of If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, This Song Will Save Your Life, Once Was a Time, and more. Kids' book editor. Chocolate lover.