How to write a branching elearning scenario – 2

Sixties photo of woman with flowers, man hiding behind screen.
It’s all about feeling in control, darling.

In the last post I described one way to write a branching scenario – working with the SME to let the story unroll itself, but referring back to the learning objectives as a reality check. The main advantage is that it fully involves and engages the SME; the main risk is that you get carried away and build more complexity than you really want.

The second method is almost the opposite. If that method was ‘bottom-up’ this is ‘top-down’.

How to use the top-down method

You create a flowchart map of the scenario, with only the minimum content sketched in. If you’re not the SME yourself, then you’ll populate it with the SME later, or populate it yourself and get them to check it.

Why would you use this method?

  • You keep more of a feeling of control from the start. You can see as you develop it how much content you’re going to need, how many choices and where their consequences will be
  • The visual representation makes it easier to focus on simplicity, not complicating the routes so much
  • If you have to justify a scenario, or sell the idea to someone, it helps to have a handy one-page visual aid. It’s especially good if your sponsor is expecting a fact-fact-fact-fact-test linear lesson. It’s easy to demonstrate that this is something different but that the ‘facts’ are still available, for example as help screens or in the mouths of ‘advisor’ characters
  • If you’re procrastinating and are intimidated by starting to write, a simple structure put down in 15 minutes can make you feel that you can do this, it’s not too overwhelming
  • Standard structures exist you can re-use them. (For example, the String of Pearls )
  • If you’re not the SME you can still create scenario outlines with the knowledge you’ve got, and ask the SME to check it
String of pearls illustration - line of circles with figure of man walking across them
String of Pearls from
Flowchart in ioDraw
Flowchart in ioDraw (select for fullsize)

How to use this method

1. Using a flowcharting tool, set up a box for the starting situation – put only enough words in to give you a rough idea of the content
2. Below it create a diamond (a ‘choice’ box) for the best choice
3. Below that create a box for the consequences of this choice and connect it with a vertical ‘Yes’ arrow from the choice box above
4. Beside the first diamond create another diamond for a less-good choice. Connect it to the previous with a horizontal ‘No’ arrow; below it make a brief note of the consequence
5. Repeat for another less-good choice and consequence
6. Now you have to decide if your less-good ones are going to lead to more choices or return to the situation to give another try; if you go on to another set of choices you have a branching scenario.
7. Continue from each consequence to build the subsequent decisions

Risks and downsides of this method

Overall this is a lower-risk method than the bottom-up method. You’re much less likely to get carried away with your story and end up with scores of branches which you somehow have to bring back to the ‘good’ route. The downside, if any, is that you may be more tempted to go for a formulaic ‘teaching’ approach. A series of mini-scenarios – in which each ‘bad’ consequence invites you to go back and try again until you get the ‘good’ answer and go through to the next situation – can feel a bit more like a linear elearning lesson and less like an immersive game.

It doesn’t have to – The Broken Co-worker shows how great storytelling makes a very simple structure engaging. And you can choose to save results of decisions as a variable and reveal the result only at the end. I’ve just been working on a branching scenario where a teacher has to meet a series of six challenges while teaching a PE class. Each decision she makes simply leads to the resultant situation, then to the next choice, without any ‘good’ or ‘bad’ commentary and without the option to try again.’Stress points’ are accumulated with every poor decision. At the end the points collected (invisible to the user) portray the final situation as more organised or more chaotic and the teacher herself as more or less stressed.

A potential downside of this method may play out in some work situations where your relationship with the SME or sponsor is one of signoff and checking rather than engagement and co-writing. This method leaves most of the work to you and doesn’t involve the SME’s imagination or emotions to the same degree as the bottom-up method. That may be perfectly appropriate to your relationship with the particular sponsor and SME, or it may be less involvement than you’d hope for.


Flowchart in Twine for writing elearning scenarios
Twine screenshot

You can use Powerpoint for a flowchart, although it can be bit clumsy going from slide to slide. I use iodraw, a free flowcharting tool on Google Drive, but any flowcharting app will do. This visual overview is one of the advantages of Twine, Storyline and Branchtrack over more linear tools like Quandary and Camtasia.

In Twine you can easily create an overview for approval then fill it out in more detail to make a working prototype. However, it’s not easy to print the overview or export it to a graphic, no easier than in Storyline.


If you’re new to scenarios I’d definitely start with this method and focus on a string of pearls – a series of linked mini-scenarios – to start with. With your structure laid down, use Designing Predicaments and other story orientations to add drama. Use help pages to present the ‘how to’ information and use characters to offer advice and perspectives on the different choices. I didn’t start this way – I started in the immersive Quandary method and while I still enjoy that method I find this method more practical when I don’t have lots of SME time available.

Do you have a different method? Use different tools? Please share in the comments!


Leave a Comment