Paths 3- What Ifs, In Characters And Plots For Writers


When I was young I used to enjoy playing the game of Consequences.

‘Each player is given a sheet of paper, and all are told to write down a word or phrase to fit a description (“an animal”), optionally with some extra words to make the story. Each player then folds the paper over to hide the most recent line, and hands it to the next person. At the end of the game, the stories are read out.

The exact sequence varies, but a sequence could be:

  1. An adjective
  2. A man’s name
  3. The word met followed by an adjective
  4. A woman’s name
  5. The word at followed by where they met
  6. The word to followed by what they went there for
  7. The words he wore followed by what he wore
  8. The words she wore followed by she wore
  9. What he did
  10. What she did
  11. The words and the consequence was followed by details of what happened as a result
  12. The words and the world said followed by what it said’

Then the story is read (for example):

Mediocre Joe met transparent Kim at the bowling alley, to dig for gold.

He wore a seafoam green leisure suit. She wore a sandwich board. He poured a martini. She looked at her watch. And the consequence was, the band got back together.

And the world said “Somehow, I think I saw this coming.

The fun was in not knowing what the result would be. Deciding what will happen to your characters or the plots and sub-plots in your stories can be like that, as your creative imagination runs riot in your head.

Neil Hughes discusses this dilemma (‘Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a hilarious and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a novel set in the prelife. He also spends his time on humorous talks about mental health, standup comedy, physics, computer programming, and everything from music, video games, languages and pub quizzes. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello at‘)

He says:

‘The pressure of non-fiction has an obvious solution: patiently plodding on, and being thorough.

The vertigo of fiction also has an obvious solution, but I found it harder: CHOOSE.

The infinite possibility of the blank page is terrifying. So you have to choose something to put in it. A character, a scene, a place, a plot idea… as long as it’s something. This is your initial fixed point. From this, you can define everything else. Who else is near this character, or in this place? What happens after that plot point?

A story can’t exist without fixed points – at the very least, the hero must start out somewhere, and she must end up somewhere else. Once I fixed some ideas in place, I could be as creative as I liked with the parts in between.

These fixed points aren’t “right answers” in the non-fiction sense, but I could treat them as if they were. They made up the essence of the story I was trying to tell.

And this is the crucial difference: unlike non-fiction, fiction isn’t universal. War & Peace is no more the “right answer” than Harry Potter.’

Multiple Plot Choices

In last week’s blog I discussed children’s books in which the reader can make different choices throughout the text of a book

So why not think outside the box and do something similar in adult books? Apparently, some have tried this. It sounds like a great idea to me but very complicated.

David Lerner Swartz discusses this idea (David Lerner Schwartz holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars where he was a recipient of the MFA Alumni Writer’s Grant. His work has been published in Witness, Literary Hub, SmokeLong Quarterly, Quartz, New York magazine, and more. His play, produced after winning Red Bull Theater’s Short New Play Festival, is forthcoming in a print anthology published by Stage Rights. He served as the 38th writer in residence at St. Albans in Washington, DC and works as the fiction editor of Four Way Review. David teaches at the University of Cincinnati, where he is a recipient of a graduate enhancement scholarship and a PhD candidate.

‘Inviting the reader to make decisions in a text inherently questions the sufficiency of traditional narrative, which is largely singular in that it unfolds page after page. (Though the reader technically has a choice between reading and putting the book down, the author’s job is to make the reader unaware he continues to choose the former.) But today, in a world where we skim and scroll through so much consciousness, where truth seems ever more relative, where algorithms synthesize data that are parts of ourselves but not all of ourselves, perhaps we’re more multiple than ever. And literature reflects us.’

‘Stories are tools to shape life, providing structure from otherwise chaos. The difference between our lives and narrative is a beginning, middle, and end. I like to think books built for interactivity are less about the linearity of story and more about the power of the cyclical. They prime us to pay attention to interconnection, the possibilities that could be,  should be, won’t be depending on factors pre-decided by the author and also chosen by the reader in the moment. Retrospection, too, can be narrative, a looking back at the aggregate. A realization of quantity, a comparison of quality. A gradient instead of a line.’

Practical Tips On How to Work It

In an article written by an author of these kind of books for children, is some very good advice which could be adapted to writing an adult book. Please read the whole article to understand it completely as there is a lot of instructive help.

  1. Create the characters and the setting for your book.
  2. Have a clear idea of the story you want to tell, with five different endings.
  3. Write your primary story from beginning to end. (This is Book 1)
  4. Write your story again using only Chapter One from your first book. Continue from Chapter Two onward writing a different middle and ending. (This is Book 2)
  5. Repeat step 4 three more times. (Book 3, 4, and 5)


  • All should have the same first chapter.
  • Book 2, 3, 4, and 5 should have different middles and endings.

I find it is easier to write each story to stand alone as a separate book and not depend on one of the others to continue. That way you can choose to use all five of the books in your Pick A Path book or just a few of the books to weave into your original Book 1.

2 thoughts on “Paths 3- What Ifs, In Characters And Plots For Writers”

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