Lost in Alternative Plots

Do you remember the television series called Lost – about a plane that crashes on a mysterious island filled with contradictions and unanswerable questions? The series ran for something like five years and never really answered most of those questions.

When it concluded, everyone had been led to believe that all their questions would be answered. But, in truth, very few were, and certainly not any of the big ones. The audience was very disappointed. But if they HAD answered the questions – well, then, it would have been considered one of the most inventive and wonderfully produced series of all time.

Still, it is usually a very good thing to create questions in the mind of your reader or audience. These are the questions your they will be asking on their own, if you have set things up right. And if they are, then they are hooked, because they want to know the answers and will keep with you for this book or television series or even for a whole series of books that spring from the story world you have created.

Now you don’t have to know the answers to these questions going into the writing process. But you do have to know the answers by the time the series is done. You can answer some of the questions in each book or episode or season, but create more questions as well, until the final book or episode or season, which must bring all the parts together.

For example, in Harry Potter, it is only in the last book that you learn that Harry is one of the “objects” that holds a piece of Voldemort’s soul – all the others being inanimate objects. It is that knowledge in the last book that allows Harry to overcome Voldemort.

I don’t know if J.K Rowling worked that one out in advance, but she sure came up with a dilly of an answer to the questions of why Harry was “the one” and also was “the boy who lived!”

And in the Vampire Chronicles about LeStat by Anne Rice, she created an overarching issue for her main character who did not want to be a vampire, then came to revel in it, then to be impertinent, and then is finally presented with a way to become human again, takes it, and discovers he has lost himself, his identity, by no longer being a vampire. He spends that whole fifth and final book in that particular overarching story trying to regain his vampireness, which he eventually does – angst over, content bloodsucker.

Another example – do you know the author, Alistair MacClean, who wrote Where Eagles Dare and Ice Station Zebra, to name a couple of his 20+ books?

He reveled in creating a plot that turned out not to be the real plot, which also turned out not to be the real plot. Sometimes, by the end of a book, you had gone through six reasonable explanations of what was going on, only to discover none of them were true and it was really a seventh.

Now, think of the series Twin Peaks, in which there are so many odd goings-on and supernatural happenings. Once again, we all expected an answer in the last episode, but it didn’t happen. Still, the “ride” was exceptional, so we all let it go, but with an underlying sense of dissatisfaction and of being unfulfilled.

But you know, as a narrative analyst, it wasn’t too hard to come up with endings for both Lost and Twin Peaks that tied everything together.  In fact, I came up with an explanation for each that is simple, obvious once you know it, and would have tied everything together for each of the series.  But, I’m not going to delve into that here, because the point of this article is not the specifics, but that you really want to have your readers or audience asking questions to keep them on the hook but you are then REALLY obligated to come up with truly clever and unexpected answers to those questions.

It is very possible to do this, even if you don’t figure it out in advance.


My point is this. Keep your reader guessing and then satisfy at the end.

But how do you do that?

Here’s the plan.

While you are working out your story, you are likely to come up with a bunch of different potential plot turns and explanations for things before you settle on the one that you want.

Write down each different potential plot as a separate synopsis of a story, as if each was going to be your story in an alternate universe.

The synopses can be as long or as short as you like. One paragraph or ten pages.

Give each a name such as “Plot Explanation 1” or “Gordon is really a sentient Twinkie” and and so on.

In each, write about the plot as if it were the only one for the story in that universe.

As a byproduct, this will help clear your mind of the cacophony of all the completing plot ideas that are running around in your head.

It will also point out which ones are most developed and which are very thin.

It will also point out which are easiest to write for you and have the most creative impetus.

Now, list some questions at the bottom of each synopsis – things you don’t yet have the answers to – things that keep you up at night, looking for a reason for what you want you characters to do or for what happens to them.

As you have now likely guessed, you may not want to pursue all the different plot versions. But once you have them all written down independently, you can compare them, their ease of writing, their interest to you and motivation for you as the author, and so on.

From the list of all of them, you can select the one you want to pursue for this book, season or script and put the rest in mothballs for later.

Once you see all of the different plot options you have considered, and once each has been independently described, then you can determine if you want to do like MacClean or Lost and use several with one turning out to be true in the end, or if you want to just select one as your plot for a single story, create questions in the mind of your readers or audience, and not pursue the others at all.

Now, armed with your basic story, you take your list of questions at the end of each synopsis you intend to employ, and focus on just one question at a time.  Turn off your reasonable mind and let your Muse run wild with all kinds of potential answers ranging from the reasonable to the ridiculous to the absurd.

Sometimes the most cockamamie answers are the most appealing to your readers or audience, because they would never think of them themselves.

Select the answer you want it to turn out to be, and then tease your readers or audience by making the answer appear to be something else along the way to the truth.  Give them several of the other answers as the explanation of the moment, then drop a little more information that makes that answer unreasonable within the rules of your own story universe.   Then, put another answer up as your explanation.  Rinse and repeat until all your really good Muse-provided answers have been run up the flagpole until, finally and at the very end, you spring the very best answer on them so they know it is going to stick.

Do this, and you’ll have the reading or viewing public eating out of your mind.


Melanie Anne Phillips