I did a quick mind map of the various ways in which a middle-aged man could respond to the news that his wife is having an affair. I then popped it onto my blog and asked for comments as to which scenario would be the most compelling to a reader if it were made into a story (see Plotting).
I thought that people would go for the option with the most decision points because I considered that this would make the most interesting plot. So, my choice was something like:
He finds out that his wife is having an affair, he confronts her with it and they get divorced. He keeps the house but because he still loves and misses her, he turns to destructive habits. He buries his sorrows with drugs, takes an overdose and after a touch-and-go period, he recovers. As he does so, he has some sort of deep realisation about life and is transformed. Maybe he even falls in love with the nurse.
I thought that this would be fine because there is plenty of scope for the ups and downs of life and he has a shot at personal redemption. So – did the readers on my blog agree? No, they did not!
The people overwhelmingly voted that our middle-aged man should kill his wife! There were various suggestions for what came next, and some were marvellously inventive. Twists and turns of plot abounded – he got away with it, he wrote a novel about it, he got caught by some clever piece of detective work, someone else did the killing for him and he got away scot free – a marvellous set of ideas. Only one person disagreed with the ‘killing’ scenario and she was in favour of our man having a revenge affair.
It seems to me that the conventional plots have been done to death and people are hankering for something different – in this case, a combination of killing, a revenge affair and novel writing. Lo, mine eyes have been opened!
We are then asked to consider how the following would change our man’s behaviour: “his daughter confides that she has lost her job after stealing from her employer. The employer has not yet decided whether or not to go to the police.” I was struggling with this at first. I guess that’s because I am rather cold hearted about these things. The only thing I could think of is that the employer could turn out to be the person his wife is having an affair with. That could shake things up!
Ultimately it could go one of two ways, depending on what sort of a person our man is.
Scenario one would be that he is caring and considerate. He could hold off from killing his daughter’s mother because he recognises that the daughter needs her mother’s support. That could set up a nice little conflict in him – he wants to kill his wife but also wants his daughter to have support.
Scenario two has him being more heartless. He would look at the women in his life and see that they are all corrupt, lawless and amoral. This would lead to him deciding that killing would be the best thing for his wife, and perhaps even for his daughter too. His wife’s affair has pushed him over the edge after an abused childhood, a marriage in which he was browbeaten daily by his mother, wife and daughter and a demeaning job in which his bosses and co-workers bullied him constantly.
Which would I go for? Hmm – each has its merits, but I think that at this point there is too little information to decide. If I were intent on writing this story I would start by working up a robust character sketch to determine what kind of man he is. The plot would then follow on rather automatically from this information. With a character outline in hand, it would be pretty obvious which path he would take at each decision node.
So, in conclusion, a mind map containing all the options available to our man, combined with a good character sketch, would ultimately be the best tools to find a compelling way forward.