Entwined! A Tool Kit for Creating Branching Narratives

In 2019 we were tasked with building an online graduate-level survey design course. We wanted students to make decisions about survey design and experience the consequences of those decisions in a low-stakes, self-paced environment. The solution was Twine, a free, open-source, game development platform that allows the technically unsophisticated to create stories with choices and branching scenarios. Using Twine, we created a set of choose-your-own-adventure–style modules in which the student is inserted into the story as the protagonist, moving through a set of realistic scenarios involving a thesis advisor, a roommate, and a dissertation committee.

Each Twine scenario allows students to practice decision-making skills using concepts from the course. For example, in one, students choose an appropriate survey deployment method based on survey questions, target population, funding resources, and available time. Another scenario focuses on deciding how to eliminate superfluous survey items based on measurement theory, contextual factors, and provided statistical outputs.

Students reported that the modules deepened their understanding of course content, and the instructor (coauthor Chelsea Proulx) found the platform easy to use, customize, and share. From this experience we came to believe that Twine is a powerful and underutilized tool for instruction, applicable to a wide range of disciplines.

Twine comes with basic plug-and-play templates that provide a starting point for design. These templates, known as “story formats,” offer users a range of choices in the complexity and sophistication of the end product, from a simple, text-based learning experience to the inclusion of multimedia to more complex, video game styles with built-in “save” and “load” functions. Instructors who are new to Twine can start with a simple template. They can also take advantage of the large online community of Twine users willing and able to provide technical assistance. Thus, the technological aspects of using Twine are not overly daunting. But the pedagogical challenges can be more significant. Creating branching narratives requires faculty to think about instruction in an unfamiliar, nonlinear way. Composing narratives to highlight key principles, moreover, takes storytelling skill and a level of creativity that are not generally part of academic training.

To help faculty (or other instructional staff) overcome these challenges, we developed a Twine Tool Kit. Our goal was to lower the barriers to entry for educators interested in trying Twine. The tool kit begins with three exemplar Twines based on cases from the book (coauthored by Marie Norman) How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Ambrose et al., 2010). On the recommendation of a colleague with game design expertise, we chose scenarios that highlighted emotional or high-stakes moments to increase engagement. One Twine examines a conflict that breaks out in an economics classroom; another focuses on stereotype threat in an engineering course; a third looks at the tensions that can spring up around group work. To represent a range of visual approaches possible in Twine, we included one text-based narrative, one comic-based narrative, and one narrative that combines text and images. In the interests of accessibility, we opted to focus on simple visual styles and avoid approaches that required coding.

We then provide a duplicate set of Twines with pop-ups that explain, in situ, the thought process involved in each Twine’s creation. For instance, ambiguity is a crucial aspect of choice-based narratives; after all, a story with choices and paths that are too obvious are unhelpful for learning and uninteresting for the learner. This notion may not seem intuitive to first-time writers of branching narratives, though, so our tool kit contains embedded pop-ups within relevant passages of the Twine that explain the rationale for ambiguity and provide tips for how to incorporate it. We called this set of annotated Twines “Meta-Twines” as they provide a behind-the-scenes look at how an engaging and effective branching narrative comes into being. Finally, we offer links, templates, and tips we think will be useful to faculty. Two of these resources, a tip sheet and a template, are below. 

Tips for developing a branching narrative

Start by defining the beginning and end:

  • Identify a scenario: What is a complex, real-world situation where important, discipline-relevant decisions must be made? Branching narratives can take many forms. A bad decision can return the protagonist to the original decision point (a fairly simple model), or it can lead down a path of its own (a more complex model). We believe that it is best for faculty who are new to Twine to keep it simple at first. Look for existing case studies you could rework as Twines. Cases that use conflict, confusion, emotional tension or some combination of these to spark problem-solving are best.
  • Determine the desired outcome: What do you want learners to understand or be able to do by the end of this activity? Tip: Make your outcomes active, learner-centered, and measurable.

After that, build out the middle:

  • Identify key decision points: At what points in the scenario must action be taken? Tip: Think about what your students don’t know, what they are likely to misunderstand, and where they tend to go wrong.
  • Identify possible actions: What actions, good or bad, might learners take at these decision points? Tip: Don’t make the “correct” choice too obvious or force learners to choose among bad options and see where they lead. Remember that inaction is a viable option.
  • Determine consequences: What are the possible consequences of each action, and how might missteps and mistakes eventually steer the learner toward the desired outcome? Tip: Consider exaggerating the consequences of a bad choice (e.g., a poor teaching decision that leads to a social media debacle) to heighten the stakes of your story.
  • Use engaging characters: What characters might populate your Twine, and what perspectives can they illustrate? Tip: Use your characters (e.g., risk-averse traditionalist, overly optimistic dreamer) to draw out varied facets of the problem and drive the story forward.
  • Set a timeline: Over what period of time will your scenario unfold? When will consequences of actions be visible? Tip: Your Twine does not have to be linear. You can jump hours, days, even years ahead to see consequences or go back in time to reexamine past decisions and explore different choices.

Template for developing a branching narrative

This template guides instructors through the stages of Twine development, using one of our teaching Twines as an example. In the case (available here), an economics instructor has assigned a reading that sparks a heated exchange among his students, and he must figure out how to avoid a similar fiasco in the future.

A branching narrative template, showing a SCENARIO that leads to DECISION POINT that leads to three CONSEQUENCES, one of which leads to a DESIRED OUTCOME. 

The SCENARIO: "A conflict breaks out in an economics classroom over an assigned reading. The faculty member, who is relatively inexperienced, did not anticipate this happening and is not prepared . . ."

The DECISION POINT: "What should Professor Hanson do to avoid this situation in future semesters?" There are three options, each leading to a different consequence.

ACTION 1 is to "Use a different article." This action leads to "CONSEQUENCE 1 (Bad): Next year, a different article causes a similar reaction in class, and Professor H. is faced with the same dilemma.” An arrow with the words “Go back and make a new choice" leads back to the DECISION POINT. 

ACTION 3 is to “Assign individual reflections on the article but do not discuss." This action leads to “CONSEQUENCE 3 (Bad): Individual reflections add considerable grading for Professor H. He regrets the choice.” An arrow with the words “Go back and make a new choice" leads back to the DECISION POINT.

ACTION 2—the correct action—is to "Develop discussion guidelines." ACTION 2 leads to "CONSEQUENCE 2 (Good): Having set clear guidelines for discussion, Professor H. is able to keep the reading and have a productive, civil discussion.” 

CONSEQUENCE 2 leads to the DESIRED OUTCOME, which reads: “Professor H. should consider the emotional impact of the assigned readings, frame it appropriately, and institute guidelines to ensure civil, productive discussion.”

Twine is a powerful tool for building robust and innovative instructional materials, yet the process of developing branching narratives may not be intuitive for faculty. Our Twine Tool Kit is a work in progress, but when it is fully built out, we would be happy to share it with any interested party. Contact us if you would like to learn more, and please share advice and Twine experiences of your own!


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey-Bass.

Marie K. Norman, PhD, is an associate professor of medicine and clinical and translational science; Chelsea N. Proulx, MPH, works at the Clinical and Translational Science Institute; Colleen A. Mayowski, EdD, is an assistant professor of medicine; and Michelle Zuckerman-Parker, PhD, is an instructional designer at the University of Pittsburgh.

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