Reposted from my blog at liakeyes.com
Have you ever started writing a novel or short story but lost impetus after the opening act, unsure what should happen next, but sensing that the arc you pre-planned doesn’t work for some mysterious reason? Then maybe you need to take another look at what your protagonist does after the incident that gets the story started.
We pay so much attention to that inciting incident, and sometimes too little to how the protagonist reacts to that dramatic change in their lives, choosing the most obvious response to the story stimulus instead of the most complicated one. Yet it’s in the protagonist’s response to the inciting incident that the narrative drive of the story rests, because it is our morally significant choices that define us, that set us on an active path through life, with consequences that we may or may not have foreseen—consequences that we have the rest of our lives to attempt to justify, reverse or atone for. Those consequences are as important to the narrative drive (and emotional punch) of the story as any action or retaliation by the antagonist.
Now take another look at all of your protagonist’s choices, and make a list of possible consequences for each one. If your protagonist has made risky enough choices your plot should thicken and expand quite effortlessly. If not, ask whether he or she could make a different one—one that will engender more emotionally interesting, risk-laden repercussions, not just for the antagonist, but for everyone in the story. Aim for maximum conflict, suspense, intrigue and potential for complication. How big a ripple in everyone’s lives can your protagonist’s choice make? Who, beyond the antagonist, will his choices hurt? How will they react in their turn? What pressure will this add to the protagonist’s quest for resolution?
Next, look at the ending. What morally significant choice does your protagonist make at the climax of the story? Your reader should care about the protagonist’s decision and, ideally, shouldn’t be able to see it coming.
Finally, in revision, revisit the choices the protagonist made and lay the foundations of that decision by foreshadowing sound, solid reasons (like clues in a mystery) for why they might make a decision either way. By planting a few emotional red herrings you can keep the reader unsure, questioning which way things may go until the very last page.
Nathan Bransford explores the morality of choice in: Doing The Right Thing