Master the Possibilities

When you start a novel, the options are virtually limitless. A character can go in almost any direction. As the story progresses though, all of those options should fall away until the only option left is the conclusion. Think of your story as a tree. In the beginning, a tree is just a seed, and it can grow in many directions, both up and down. As you move along the tree though, you eliminate options. If you move up, you have left the roots behind. If you move past a branch, that branch is now behind you and can no longer be chosen. When you choose a branch, you eliminate everything but that branch. As you follow that branch along, you move by other branches until making another choice. At that point your choices are narrow. You are running out of branches until eventually, you reach the end, where you have nowhere else to go but to embrace that final leaf or bud or whatever form your conclusion takes.

Decisions Define both Characters and Stories

The choices in a novel run along those same lines. Every word, every paragraph goes toward defining your characters, your plot, and your themes. Each choice your characters make eliminates the other choices that could have been made. As each choice comes up, it further defines the character and eliminates the choices that they could have made. The character might make dramatic changes as the story moves forward, but those changes must be the result of their earlier choices. Eventually, the character runs out of choices. They arrive at the ending knowing that it is now the only ending that remained possible.

Each decision leads to the next

Keep track of the choices that your characters make. In the beginning, your protagonist may be a high school graduate who must choose between college and work. If they choose to go to college, then they must choose a major. If they choose a major, they have to choose from a specific set of classes. If they go to the class they must choose a seat. If they choose a seat between two people, they may choose to talk to one of them, none of them, or both of them. If they talk to one of them, that person may turn out to be a friend or an enemy. If that person is a friend, they will go places together. If they spend too much time doing things other than classes, the student fails out of college.

Even making the same choice is now different

At that point, the student once again must choose, college or work, but they are not at the same point as they were in the beginning, even if they are making a similar choice. Getting back into college will be hard this time. They may have to choose a lesser school, for example. If they go to work it will be as a college dropout or perhaps as a part-time student who must hold a job as well. Either way, their choices revolve around college or work, because those are the branches of the tree that we have followed. If they fail at college again, the chances are very slim that they will have a third chance. Meanwhile, they have acquired a friend along the way, and that friend would not have appeared if they had made different choices.

Sometimes decisions are made for you

Sometimes, in a novel, outside forces determine some of the branches. For example, the protagonist’s parents may have been paying for college, but then they lose a significant amount of money when the economy crashes, and the parents can no longer afford to help out. The protagonist must now make their choices based on the new situation. Be careful with outside forces though. It is usually better for a story if the characters’ own choices determine their fate as much as possible. The outside world may act to eliminate some options, but for the most part, rely on your characters to determine their paths; otherwise, the conclusion will feel unearned.

The key

The key to plotting by elimination is to follow the branches. Look at the starting possibilities, and keep eliminating until you get to the conclusion that is best for your protagonist. If you don’t like where the story is going, then you need to find the point at which their choices need to change. This is why it is better to create a plot like this before you start writing. That is when it is easiest to make changes to the plot.

 

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