I was updating my outline the other day and something interesting hit me (I love when this happens). I had a line of what was going to happen in a chapter, but it was written as if this was an inevitable event.
Protagonist defies her superiors.I realized this was a common phrasing for my outlines, because I know roughly what’s going to happen. But by stating it so clearly, in a “done deal” kinda way, I was robbing the story of the mystery of wondering what would happen. I changed it to:
Protagonist has to choose between superiors and friend.I made it a choice my protagonist had to make to achieve that outcome, which made the scene more unpredictable. Sure, the outcome is going to be the same, but when I write it, I’ll have that struggle to choose firmly in my mind. I won’t write it as if it’s a done deal. And that makes a ton of difference.
When plotting, we often know what happens, but if we look at it as a choice, we can shift the focus to something more plot advancing and suspenseful. It’s one of those subtle things I love, because it really works to put you in the right mindset.
So I went back and looked at all my scenes again in the first half and asked:
How many choices did I offer my protagonist?
Obviously not every actions is going to have options, but I wanted to see how many times I gave my protagonist a choice that could either raise the stakes, the tension, add unpredictability or take the story in an unexpected direction? The scenes in which I did offer choices were far more compelling scenes.
How many clear outcomes were there?
The scenes where it was obvious I was working toward something happening, an “action without a choice,” were less compelling. They were still good scenes, but they didn’t have the same drive as the ones where it wasn’t as clear what was going to happen. The scene was about getting the protagonist from point A to point B, not if they were going to get from point A to point B.
Where could I add more choices?
Some scenes had to let the action drive them. The whole point of that scene was to get from A to B (and that’s okay since this will happen). But others could be made stronger if I thought about what choice my protagonist had to make either at the end of it, or during it. Sometimes those choices were related to the plot, other times to the internal conflict, and sometimes it was just a choice that allowed for some world building or setting.
Events are going to unfold as you want them to, but approaching those events in a slightly different way can help you think about the details that can create mystery and tension.
Do you think about choices or do you write what you know happens?