Plot Decisions

It seems to take me a while to move from scene to scene. I like to be swept along by my story as much as the next person, but I get speed-bumped every time by the question “What next?” I usually have ideas about what could happen, but often they turn out to be impractical for some reason, once I really think them through. Or I get to a decision point and am overwhelmed by the options. What would be the most interesting, most exciting, most character-revealing and plot-thickening path to take? It’s easy to get stuck. So how do I decide what happens next?

I’m a lists person, a person who makes a spreadsheet for all of life’s decisions. So I like to map out all the possible actions. I brainstorm and write down everything that could happen next, and then I list pros and cons next to each option. Often this helps me think of something I wouldn’t have otherwise. Sometimes I have to balance between the “best” decision a character could make, from their point of view, and what I need to happen for the story. By breaking down the situation logically, along each possible path of action, and listing all the possibilities at each point, I end up with a many-branching decision tree.

Then I check the decision I’ve chosen from the other characters’ points of view and make sure that it makes sense for them to take the actions required by that particular path. Often I have to redo my decision tree when I look at it from the bad guys’ point of view, because they would never be that stupid!

At the end of this, I usually have a sequence of actions to get me through to the next big scene that I feel make sense and are doing the story tasks I need them to do. It’s not a foolproof method, though. Sometimes, I realize after writing the whole thing out, that I’d missed some really obvious alternative, and have to go back and redo it. And sometimes, after all that planning and well into writing, I have a better idea out of the blue! It’s frustrating scrapping a bunch of work, but the excitement of a better idea gets me through without too much pain.

I hope that this process results in characters, both protagonists and antagonists, who seem smart, competent, and believable. It has occurred to me, though, that I need to let them make mistakes sometimes, too. I don’t want to be predictable, or unrealistic. Always something to improve on!

What’s your method for what happens next? Do you plan, or go on instinct? How do you get your best ideas, and get them to stick together? Does it usually come out right, or do you have to go back and rewrite?

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