Plot and the Power of OR


“Depth” is a word people have used different ways about fiction, sometimes not being that clear what they mean–just some sense that a character winds up with more layers, a situation more reality, and so on. Personally, I think the metaphor might be incomplete– because one of the best ways to give a story realism, or complicate a moment or a plot, or just loosen up the writing mind to let more in, is something I think of more as “width.” That is, ask the question “Or what else?”

(The Unified Writing Field Theory — searchings and findings on what makes stories work)

Yes, that’s partly what all writers do: work out a plot or moment by thinking, “what if something different happened here?” To rethink a choice that isn’t working, or to keep the next thing varied from what’s gone before, sure. Such as:

  • OR it’s someone else making a move (or even an object breaking or changing)
  • OR they focus on something else (a different plan)
  • OR it gets a different result.

Mixing up who takes the initiative can add a lot: a hero working through his plans while the villain never strikes back makes the story seem lazy, and a hero always defending is passive, but a sense of each retaliating against the other makes the whole story more organic and exciting. And other characters can’t be labeled so “secondary” that they never demand a scene when she tries to bargain for her husband’s life, or he needs protection after being the only crimelord to survive the villain’s purge, or they’re sure they’re the ones a troubled young man will listen to. For the second option, changing the target of that someone’s action covers going to deal with different people (or eliminate them, or whichever), gaining some other tool or pausing to develop it–using the whole world as a source of possible different tactics.

But changing up a plan’s result gets tricky–“let the villain win” can sound fun, but it’s bad news when the story’s only half over, and not much better to have the hero winning too much too soon. Worse, half the time the person and plan that fit best seem too sure to wipe out big parts of the story; what if the villain just had too good an opening to fail at? Asking that kind of “or” can put a whole story at risk.

But “or” can be more than a way to shake things up, it can be a whole perspective to work in. People often talk of stories as having “depth” when its elements have layers to reveal–a person with attitudes like masks over other masks, or a setting the story can explore within rather than acting like a 2-dimensional backdrop. But I like the idea that besides static layers, a story can reveal itself by how a character acts by asking “what else he tries,” or what his reaction is to someone else’s attempts; they “move forward but zigzag” to deal with each of those options to follow their goal. By this model, “depth” comes from those layers of zigzagging, how many different choices (of their own or others) that they deal with. All from considering “Or.”

That is, how many choices does a character really get to try out? At least half of making a story believable is in looking at those; couldn’t he just “leave the haunted house,” or Google a problem to get its basics, and doesn’t every problem have some expert or authority who’s already trying to deal with it? A story that covers more of its situations’ and people’s options comes off as more real–simple as that.

(The other half of plausibility is “what wouldn’t work” and the sad business of finding out if the hero’s glorious strategy is liable to get shut down because cars just don’t explode.)

“Or” is the viewpoint that can work all of this out, just by asking which options there are, and how far each goes:

What choices get blocked right away? Look at any situation from the view of a character trying to get through to a goal there, and it becomes a set of barriers and lost opportunities. An isolated house has distance to stop help from coming, and a fortress that’s lost its commander may have no leader strong enough to help; that’s what makes them ominous from the start.

What choices do characters realize won’t work? A fast way to explore more options is to just talk out, think out, or make quick tests to show some things as dead ends. How many scenes do we know where an Expert was called in, that began with “Did you try–“/ “Well of course!” Even a few lines of this builds realism, and suspense, in both how many choices it checks and the process of how people would go through them.

What choices do people try but fail, and which tempt them? These two might be half the structure of a scene or plot, and they may be the more important half.

After all, even though what actually happens or works is the spine of the story, so often what brings it to life is its contrast with the failed schemes, red herrings, and roads-not-taken set up next to them. A murder with one suspect, or a duel with no choice between safe and desperate maneuvers, don’t compare to stories that do make full use of these, and what they mean that a character chooses one over the other. After all, making that duelist choose between finesse and letting himself be hit creates a whole different scene–and character–from using skill vs. driving his opponent into a rage. Better still, when the story paces these to crush certain hopes at the right moment, or spring a new option just when someone’s resolved to go one way… now that’s momentum.

(Finally, what if there’s a plan or force that really does work–and something else comes down and overwhelms even that? “The cavalry comes over the hill” is annoying, unless it’s been hinted at first without ruining suspense… or it’s enemy cavalry…)

So often, “or” is the story. It sorts out the basics and then adds what else can justify them; it can take anything and define what it is by capturing what it isn’t; and then deciding how often to zigzag between choices can be the meat of designing any plot, scene, or even sentence.

Just a theory. Or…

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