Set Up a Scene That Could Go Either Way

Set Up a Scene That Could Go Either Way

I'm currently reading the legendary Alice Munro's latest story collection Dear Life, and I'm thrilled with it (though I'm only a few stories in). Maybe I'd been hitting a dry spell of good short stories lately, but suddenly I find these stories crackling with life, bursting with ambiguity, with strangeness, with character. In particular, I'm noticing Munro's particular strength at creating situations absolutely bursting with suspense, situations that really and truly could go either way.

Take this moment for example: a woman with a husband and a young child is taking the child on a long train trip. Halfway through the journey she strikes up a conversation with a young man who attracts her; it soon becomes clear that she is restless and unhappy in her marriage. She leaves with the young man to sleep with him in his train car. Returning to her own compartment, she discovers that her child has disappeared.

In this moment, I really couldn't tell which way the story would go. It was beautifully set up to feel full of meaning and danger; it could end in tragedy, with a kidnapping or an accidental death on a dangerous speeding train, or simply a lost child getting off at the wrong station somewhere across the wilderness of Canada; or it could end in relief. I won't reveal how it goes; that's entirely my point.

Most writers who try to set up these sorts of branching paths in their stories end up doing a bad job at it. They set up two possibilities, but there's a false dichotomy; one option is clearly weaker or more fantastical than the other, or else the tone and mood of the story clearly angles toward one option over the other, or little clues are dropped throughout that let you know which way things will go. Then we can read with pleasure, but no real suspense, whereas in an Alice Munro story, I can have pleasure and suspense both.

Set Up Your Own Forking Path

It was Borges who used the term "The Garden of Forking Paths", and it's an apt metaphor for an ideally suspenseful story. Instead of shunting us smoothly down one road throughout your story, moving us from inevitability to inevitability, we should feel that things could actually go badly or well at different times. Life doesn't feel inevitable and pre-destined; it feels uncertain and full of potential. There should be moments of forking paths, places where a person's life could change hugely depending on coincidence or choice at key moments.

Play up these moments where life could really pull your character in a multitude of directions, then let your reader stew and worry about these moments. Keep him or her guessing; let us see life unfolding naturally, in all its good and bad decisions, its closing and opening doors.