My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Which Are Good Story Branches? (The Mailbox)

How does a writer decide which branches of a story to explore?  

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox, but likely only if you ask a question. Questions about process and craft are particularly awesome..] 

Lukas asks:

Hey Chris, you said you wanted more questions, so here goes:

Sometimes when I get an idea for a storyline, I find that there are multiple angles I can take on it. Whether in style, plot development or characters, I get several, mutually exclusive branches off of the original idea. While it might be easy to say that I should just write them all and figure out which is best later, that's honestly a lot of work and I've got limited time. So, is there any particular trick to figuring out which ideas are worth spending time on and which are dead ends?

My reply:

Isn't creativity a cruel master? Or in my case a cruel mistress. 

Disclaimer: just a real quickie today since I'm running behind and trying to catch up enough to do a Grounded Parents post this week.

So believe it or not, I can actually milk a question like this WAY past "which ever one you want." That's partially because I'm just that Superfly, but mostly because I have a degree in humanities, which means I basically have four years of training in how to bullshit a two paragraph answer into a five page essay. Don't worry. I'll only fire up the engines to 30% tonight.

This is one of the reasons I tell people to JUST WRITE if they're having trouble with a story. Stop fucking worrying about what's going to publish or what will end up in your story for one damned minute, and just enjoy the process of the writing itself. Let the characters play. Let everything get fucked up. Suddenly the ideas will be boiling over.

The reason this happens is actually so predictable, it can't rightly even be called part of the creative process. It's more accurately described as a psychological reality. Our creative energy is recursive and it is simply impossible for any human to write faster than they think, so the extra brain power will always be running creative algorithms in the background. This is why free writing is such a common exercise in education and for generating ideas.

You are tapping into one of the only downsides to this process, Lukas. Sometimes you can come up with too much to write. The brain goes and plays like a papillon the day it switches from decaf frappuccinos to crank. Sometimes dealing with that overwhelming gush of creativity can feel like trying to thimble out a tsunami.

I wish there were something more zen I could tell you than to thimble faster, but at least I can share the good news, Lukas, and that is that the creative flow won't really stop. So you may have to resign yourself to a lifetime of watching most of the water flow past you, but your thimble will always runneth over.

My first response to this question is to ask you to do some soul searching and ask whether or not it's really what you think it is. Remember your brain likes to play tricks on you any time anything creative you do starts to resemble actual work. So you really have to be introspective and decide if you are actually overwhelmed by the sheer possibilities of it all, or if this is just one more way to try to sidestep the work.

If you are overwhelmed, working hard, churning out angle after angle in stories from multiple points of view, and in multiple styles and you simply don't have time to give everything you want to do your time and attention, then yes, you absolutely have TOO much mojo. And you might have to time travel back to 1969 and extract some of it from your father. Actually, what you should probably do is read on with my advice but place a hard cap on the number of different "versions" you do.

However, here is my suspicion, Lukas, and please don't take this the wrong way. I've been there myself so if I'm a little cynical, it's only because you can't shit a shitter. You are sitting with a story idea in a pupas stage. You still have a blank piece of paper. You haven't actually written any versions of this story from any angle And you're thinking to yourself "I can't do ALL these ideas. How can I possibly choose. I better not do anything until I have this all figured out."And if that's the case, don't worry. I won't tell anyone. But it's just one more way to not get going.

Pick one. Sit down. Write it. Finish it. If for some crazy reason you still have the burning urge to write the story from seven different angles, then we'll talk.

How do you decide which angle to pick? There is really only one way that matters, but I'll tell you two because I'm the man with the plan–a writing sacristan.

If you are interested in writing the story to develop yourself as a writer, pick an angle that would challenge you. Have you ever written metafiction? Try that. Never done a story in present tense? Give it a whirl. Want to try a really sardonic tone because you usually are sentimental bordering on maudlin? Go for it.

But really, there's only one reason to pick an angle. You should write the story that you really want to read. You should write the story that you really want to read. You should write the story that you really want to read.

Are you getting the thesis here?

There's almost no other reason to write anything but that you want to read it. It moves you. It excites your passions. You care about it. You wake up and you think THAT....that is the story that must be told. So if you're not really interested in what the story might be like from the victim's ghost's point of view, fuck that schticky bullshit. If that absolutely fascinates you the minute it pops into your sweetmeats, then that's the story that is dying to get out, and that is the story you simply must write.

Now, when you can catch bullets with your teeth and glow golden, you're going to find that those two angles (what challenges you and what you want to read) are actually rarely different. However it is okay if, as a starting writer, you pick one or the other and just go for it. (And if my eighties blacksploitation/martial arts crossover references are too obscure for you, I'm going to simply insist you keep up.)

Now that you've picked an angle, write it. And I mean slam into that thing. BAM. Like, you should leave a Lukas shaped hole in the wall. Give it everything you have. The little Engineer Scotty inside your brain should be calling the bridge every five minutes and screaming "She cannot take the stress Cap'in!" Warp ten motherfuckers!!! Full power to the warp drive!


Write out the whole thing. Stick to it. When that little voice tells you that you should start over from another angle, tell it to go sit in the corner and don't give it dessert. When that little voice comes back and tells you that this is all wrong and you should give up because you didn't do it from the right angle, kick it in the gonads. Just keep writing until you have a draft from that one angle that you want to read.

Because here's what I suspect: once you've written this story, all that interference and distraction from the other ways you could have written it is just going to fall away. It was always bullshit designed to distract you and once you would not let yourself be seduced out of your chair and the draft is done, all those other angles are going to have a tall, cool glass of shut the fuck up. You're not going to have an urge to tell the story again because you've already told it. You will be zen like a rock garden IN a bonsai tree garden IN a real garden.....with a koi pond.

Now, you might decide that the story will be better told from one other angle, but you'll probably know already what that angle is. You might realize half-way in that you have to tell this story in another tone or from another character's point of view.

However, that's what revision is for. And writing a story that you've already written from another perspective is a lot easier than sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper imagining the story from every possible angle and second guessing yourself.

Good luck!


  1. Thanks for the answer. No, I won't take it the wrong way. I'm well aware of my tendency to overthink myself into paralysis. Maybe it is as simple as "ignore the voices and keep writing." I'll give it a shot.

    1. Ignoring the voices is definitely one of the tricks.