The other day I was asked to provide an overview of my book series to a friend. When I finished, he asked me whether I’d considered making different choices around particular plot points, or taking any of the action in a different direction. Essentially, he wanted to know how I decided which choices were the right ones for my story.
As we map out our novel, we can likely imagine several different ways our character might move from point A to point B. We can imagine different scenarios that will allow the murder to be solved, the rebellion to succeed, or the dragon to be vanquished. So, which do we choose, and how do we avoid falling down a rabbit hole of possibilities?
Here are a few things to consider:
There’s a difference between story and plot action.
I think of it like this – the story is the overall idea of your novel. For example, Harry Potter is an adolescent boy who learns he is a powerful wizard, and who learns his destiny is to eventually challenge the darkest enemy of the wizarding world. The plot is made up of all the twists, turns, and events used to tell the story – finding the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Horcruxes, making lifelong friends, learning about his parents, etc.
Through your plot, you’ll develop all the interesting bits that make your story unique, compelling, and page turning. But, the plot isn’t the story itself, only the component parts, some of which can be tweaked to better serve the story.
When I really wrapped my head around this concept, I felt a great sense of relief. I could make changes, sometimes significant changes, to my manuscript and still be true to my story. In fact, this idea allowed me to experiment with different plot scenarios without fear that I’d lose my way.
Your job is to use plot to tell the most interesting, dramatic, fully realized version of your story.
What’s baked in?
Ask yourself what ideas are so important to your story, that without them, it’s not the one you want to tell. For me, certain themes are baked in, and they’re the ones I’m exploring deeply through my writing. For example, with my science fiction series, I wanted to explore how long-term conflict impacted my characters. What choices would they be forced to make for the greater good, and how would those choices change them? When do the ends justify the means?
As my characters struggle to survive and win a devastating war, they must make terrible choices and face horrible loss. Readers follow them from action into aftermath. My characters change as a result of the plot action I created for them.
Aside from themes, there are other important parts baked into any story. If Darth Vader wasn’t Luke’s father, Luke’s whole journey would be different.The action sequence surrounding this reveal could have been scripted differently without changing the fundamental story, but if Vader had been just some random bad guy, something fundamental would have changed, and the Star Wars saga would be a different story.
Keep your eye on the ending.
Our plot should serve our story. Got it. We also know that every decision we make opens a door to endless possibilities, so how do we determine which plot choice is the best? I’ll repeat from above. Your job is to use plot to tell the most interesting, dramatic, fully realized version of your story.
But your story must also lead somewhere, hopefully to a satisfying ending. If the battle will be won in the end, the plot action should keep things moving in that direction. Conflict is necessary. Messiness is great. Tension and strife, both excellent. A good story ramps up the intensity by backing characters into a corner and challenging them, but the plot action still needs to move things forward toward eventual resolution. The way forward should be a winding, complicated path, but eventually there’s a destination at the end. If a plot twist seems interesting, play it out. If it takes you too far off course, maybe it isn’t the right path.
As we develop our story, we should leave room for the unexpected. That’s part of the creative process. But, the plot choices we make should always serve our story and lead our readers on an exciting yet satisfying path to resolution.