There used to be a popular series of books for kids that involved “Which Way?”. Depending on which of two options you chose, the story took a different turn. Because there was the option for “which way” at several points in the story, you could end up with several different stories that all started at the same place. It was possible, theoretically, for all or some of the stories to end in the same place, but get there by different paths.
In our own writing, there is a huge element of “which way” going on, even if we are not consciously aware of it. At any given moment in the story, things change based on what the characters do or do not do. It may be something as simple as walking around a building on the left side versus on the right side and still ending up on the other side, but seeing different things along the way. Or it may involve much more. Think of the first line of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”: Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
What if one of those paths is merely a scenic trip home, but the other has a wounded grizzly bear who attacks and kills the traveler? Quite a different outcome simply from which path was chosen.
Further to what I discussed in a previous post (Spell It Out), you can use this to your advantage, whether because of writer’s block or simply plotting out your story early on. There may be some things that are fixed in your mind, that you absolutely want to have happen.
Below are some variations of “which way” (certainly not all that there could be). Suppose you know A and you know you want to get to Y. Then you start figuring out how to get there. What path is taken? What happens along the way?
You start a list of your various options at each point, and then note what options disappear/become available based on each one.
As you begin to write these ideas down, you either come up with more ideas and keep going with it, or run into problems and decide that choice isn’t working. So you go back to your sticking point and choose another path. For instance, you start at A and go to C and go to J, but somehow S is a boring way to get to Y. So you either back up to J or even C and start down a different path and look at the possibilities.
If H is a farm in present-day upstate New York, and I is a castle in Medieval times, and J is a futuristic settlement on Mars, it is unlikely that all those paths could end up at the same place (Y). At least, it would take a whole lot of writing and creativity to include all those elements in a single story, probably involving time travel or such.
But smaller changes can give more flexibility to a single story. A is the hero. He lives in a small farming community (H), or in a small town (I), or in a bustling, large city in the heart of things (J). Q might take him to the next town over. R might lead him into a dark forest. And S might send him on an epic journey across the land to some distant place. The land, the people, the environment, etc. that he/she meets along the way to any of those three will play a part in the story, and impact what happens. Does the hero meet only nice, helpful people, or is he/she constantly having to hide/avoid evil, mean people/creatures to safely reach their destination?
A –> B –> E –> N –> W
A –> B –> F –> O –> W
A –> B –> G –> P –> X
A –> C –> H –> Q –> X
A –> C –> I –> R –> Y
A –> C –> J –> S –> Y
A –> D –> K –> T –> Z
A –> D –> L –> U –> Z
A –> D –> M –> V –> AA
So this is an additional element to working through writer’s block or story problems, or just writing the story in and of itself. Start mapping it out. What happens? What is/could be the result of that? If the hero is headed through the dark forest and the person they need to meet is in the next town over in the opposite direction, there’s a problem that needs to be fixed if you want to get them together.
Going back to the example in the previous post (and here think Lord of the Rings): the evil magician has a magic ring.
What can the ring do (what magic does it possess)? Can anyone wield that magic or is it specific? (Anyone could possess the Marauder’s Map in Harry Potter, but it was just blank parchment unless they knew how to use it.)
If there are words that need to be said to make it work, how does the person finding the magic ring discover what the words are?
What is the hero trying to do with the ring? Use it? Sell it? Destroy it?
If he wants to use it, he must learn how. (Or maybe only learn how to control it when it acts on its own.)
If he wants to sell it, he must find a buyer, and keep it safe from someone who might want to steal it rather than pay for it.
If he wants to destroy it, how can it be destroyed? The One Ring in Lord of the Rings could only be destroyed in one specific way. That one way required a trek to a certain place (through hazardous terrain crawling with dangerous foes). If your hero wants to destroy the ring, what challenges does that present to him?
Perhaps these ideas will give you even more food for thought in getting your story from your head to your fingers to written.
[Basic sample of Which Way story:
(While the url above is correct, possibly because it is a pdf, clicking on it or even copy/pasting it won’t work. I found it by googling: “which way” stories
Be sure to put the quote marks around “which way” or you get each word searched. In my search in Firefox, this came up as the first item. Look for the englishforeveryone entry.)