Navigating a new story idea can feel like following a blank map: You’re not sure how to get where you’re going—or even where to start. Does your character walk or drive to reach a destination? Should the protagonist face an obstacle head-on or ignore it? Will a scoundrel get a punch in the nose or a kiss? Every choice you make carries weight, so each decision matters. The experts at Writer’s Relief know a writing technique that can help you whittle down your options and improve your focus: Create a decision tree!
How To Use A Decision Tree To Write Better Stories
A decision tree is a tree-shaped flowchart that acts as a visual aid and makes it easier to analyze a situation, explore the potential outcomes, and consider the pros and cons that come with them. Once you see where the story might lead along any hypothetical branch, you can eliminate dead ends and choose the best way to move your story forward.
Visualize significant plot points
Whether you’re a plotter with a specific outline in mind or a pantser who intends to let the story tell you what’s next, you can benefit from using a decision tree to analyze various plot points and see the possibilities. Following the various branches will help you visualize the butterfly effect that can come from each scenario. If your story pivots on an important battle scene, what happens if the good side wins? But, oh no, what if the villains succeed? And what else in the story will be different if the battle never takes place?
Simulate a character’s thought process for a specific decision
A decision tree is especially helpful if your character is a very logical or analytical person, but it can also give you insights to a character’s more creative mindset. If a character is presented with a difficult choice, creating a decision tree that lays out all the pros and cons of their choices can give you a peek inside their mind. You can also factor in percentage of success, as well as risk and reward for each outcome.
Say, for instance, your character is deciding whether or not to cheat on an exam. The two choices are cheat or don’t cheat. Use your decision tree to follow each possible outcome. Cheating may lead to a better score but will also corrupt the character’s moral integrity. If the character doesn’t plan to cheat on the test, then their moral integrity remains intact, but more studying will be required.
The risk with cheating is getting caught. The risk with not cheating is failing the exam. Depending on your character’s personality and values, a decision tree can help you make more accurate choices for a more realistic outcome.
Map out decisions and consequences
Once you see where characters’ decisions might lead, you can better determine how your story progresses. Different branches of the decision tree can also offer insights into things that happen outside of your character’s control.
Using the last example, will a passing grade result in acceptance into an elite program? If so, does all the required work result in having to sacrifice family or friends? Will the character regret the choice?
And just as the branches on a tree turn and curve, your story doesn’t have to move forward in a straight line. Finding ways to add unexpected choices can also make your characters more compelling and introduce thrilling plot twists.
3 Things To Consider When Using A Decision Tree
- What is at risk? Is there a possibility for profit, either from the perspective of your character or for you as a storyteller? What opportunities are presented or taken away with certain decisions?
- Who is bearing the risk? Is a decision risky for your character or the people around them? Who or what is your character willing to sacrifice?
- What distinguishes the risk? Is it a unique, once-in-a-lifetime event? On what scale could you see the repercussions? Is it world-ending or just another Tuesday?
When you use a decision tree to examine all the possible outcomes of different character decisions, you can see what obstacles might arise and how different solutions may or may not move the story forward. Then you can use that knowledge to keep your story focused so your readers stay engaged and interested. You may even discover better plot twists and a new, better ending!
Once your story is written, edited, polished and perfected, it’s time to branch out and make submissions. The research experts at Writer’s Relief can help you target the best markets and boost your odds of getting published. Learn more about our services, and submit your work to our Review Board today!
Question: How might you use a decision tree in your writing process?