Monday, November 30, 2015

Actions vs Choices: Crafting Better Plots

plotting with choices
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I was updating an outline of my WIP one day when something interesting hit me. 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” kind of way, I was robbing the story of the mystery of wondering what would happen. To remind myself to put the mystery back in, I changed the line to:
Protagonist has to choose between superiors and friend.
A simple fix, but this edit made it a choice my protagonist had to make to achieve that outcome, which made the scene more unpredictable. Sure, the outcome was going to be the same, but when I wrote it, I had that struggle to choose firmly in my mind. I didn't write it as if it was a done deal--and that made a world of difference.

When plotting, we often know what happens, so we might write it without the necessary suspense.  But if we look at it as a choice, we can shift the focus to a more plot-advancing and suspenseful goal--a choice to defy vs. defiance. It’s one of those subtle things I love, because it really works to put us in the right mindset to add the tension and keep the scene interesting.

After this revelation, I looked at all my scenes again 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.

(Here's more on revising your outline for better plotting)

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.

(Here's more on avoiding predictable plots)

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 from time to time). But other scenes could be strengthened if I included 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.

(Here's more on character choices)

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. It's the difference between watching a re-run of your favorite movie and seeing it for the first time. 

Do you think about choices or do you write what you know happens?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to: 
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to: 
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. 

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great post! I've been starting to think about choices more and more as I write, especially after reading "Save the Cat". I do think bringing out the choices the protag has in their mind (from their perspective) can really strengthen a story.

  2. I love this perspective. An outcome can be flat and dull. It's the choice, that inner struggle, that makes it interesting to me as a reader. Perhaps that's why I shy away from writing protagonists who are just doing a job, like assassins or the like; it's too easy for me to let them go through the motions without any emotional stake.

  3. Must be something in the blogsphere--I've been talking about conflict and tension off and on at my blog as well. Everything can be a conflict, be it choosing what to wear, or whether or not to shoot the villain. If you write deep POV then these choices have to be in front of the reader as well is inside the character.

    Terry's Place

  4. I'm writing and outlining (or rather, revising my outline) at the moment. Remembering to give my characters choices, and have them struggle with making a choice, is a good idea--thanks!

  5. I'm working on my third novel, but it's the first one I've outlined and plotted. So I'm still learning how to make my protagonist come alive in the necessary A-to-B scenes. Giving him a choice is a technique I'll definitely try.

  6. Wow, this is important -and easy to overlook.

  7. Wonderful. I love this as a way to add tension.

  8. The wording of your blog-ending question intrigues me. Because as the writers of the story, it seems like we should know what happens. But as I'm writing, I love it when my characters surprise me with their choices. And I need to pay attention to the choice concept more. Thank you for this post!

  9. Thanks for the post!

    I've just started doing something like this with my WIP. I list all the choices in my outline. It helps me both choose unexpected plot twists and know what dilemmas my main character can face.

    I've really been enjoying your blog since I found it a month ago. Keep it up!

    ~ Kaitlin

  10. Great post! I only recently started outlining, and thankfully I have a great husband who can point out when this kind of "meta-plotting" happens, when I don't let characters worry about other outcomes because I know what's happening. I'm glad I'm not the only one. The idea of structuring the outline as choices is an amazing idea -- I'm just starting work on a new one, and I'm definitely doing this.

  11. Awesome post! This is definitely something to keep in mind, and very great advice. I'm going to go through my outline now and rearrange it to offer more choices so I'll keep in mind to work in certain inner struggles.

  12. Good ideas! Predestination has always bugged me. I like having a choice and I think this will generate lots of great tension in my writing. Thanks again, Janice!

  13. Timely post Janice. I'm currently in plotting mode and will be applying your suggestions to what I already have and as I continue forward.

  14. Oh I like this a lot. I'm doing a bit of outlining right now--I'm going to see how and where I can open things up a bit. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  15. Seriously--this seems like it "should be" something I already know and do, and yet I don't--at least not enough. A major light bulb moment!!! Excited to go through my outline tomorrow. Thanks!

  16. I think this is a really helpful perspective because it lets you get into the characters mind more. If you let the character make the choice then it helps define the character, for the reader and for you. The more choices you give them the more definition. Really great post.

  17. Andrea: I keep hearing about that book but I haven't read it yet. I heard god things about a plot worksheet of his as well.

    Paul: "Just doing a job." That makes a lot of sense.

    Terry: That's why I love a tight POV. The blogsphere has certainly been connected lately on all kinds of topics. I keep seeing the same things being talked about all over.

    Elle: Most welcome! It's a subtle shift in thinking, but I've found it really works.

    Laura: Good luck on the plotting! Choice is something that's always worked for me, so I hope it helps you, too :)

    Chicory: Especially when outlining. I think it's easier to add into the actual text, but when you start thinking about what is going to happen vs what can happen it changes the story in subtle ways.

    Becky: Me too :)

    Barbara: I love those surprises too. Thinking about what a character has to choose vs what will happen really helps with that. It's like you get more in the character's head and think about what they see and what choices they have to make based on that.

    Kaitlin: I like that, listing all the possible choices. Good tip. So often I think up a twist based on a throwaway detail or choice. And welcome to the blog :)

    MK: That's nice having someone to bounce your outline off of. I bet that's helpful. Looking at the choices has definitely kept the spontaneity going.

    Rachel: Thanks! Hope you find some great twists!

    Amelia: Most welcome. Choices open up so many options. And it gets you thinking outside the box sometimes.

    Gene: Wonderful! Hope it goes well.

    Angela: Good luck! Everyone is going to have to come back and let me know how it went.

    Nina: You know, I had the same feeling. I know to offer choices, I usually do offer choices, but I never did it in the *outline.* And that's where all my brainstorming happens.

    Mary Kate: Thanks! I love seeing what a character will do, reading or writing.

  18. Loved this. As I revise, I will refer back to it. Many thanks!

  19. Excellent tips! Putting choices into the characters's hands further engrains them into the fabric of the story, making more room for their unique voices and fingerprints, and further engages readers as they respond to the situation at hand and think about how they would respond and what they would do--and whether they agree with the characters. It makes the characters' struggles more relatable, too. Not everyone can identify with defying superiors--but having to choose between loved ones and superiors? Now we're talking.

    --Sam Taylor, AYAP Team

    1. Exactly. It makes even the "not an issue I'd face" problems more relatable, as readers can see the struggle to make that choice.

  20. Absolutely -- it's the unknown outcome, the decision (or indecision!) that increases the tension. Thanks so much for this post. I'm going to review one section of my WIP that I keep thinking "needs something" with this in mind. Because I think you nailed it for me, Janice! THANK YOU!!

    1. Oh good! I love when that happens. Hope this fixes your scene :)

  21. This advice is bang on! I've always known that choice strengthens a scene, but it wasn't an official part of my outline. I've now added this column to my scene outline spreadsheet (yep, I have one of those!). Thanks for the excellent reminder!

    1. I love spreadsheets. And outline templates. And pretty much any kind of organizational tool :) There's so much to remember with a book, it's handy to have those little reminders so we don't miss something.