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My protagonist introduced herself to me through a sequence of set-pieces. She has a very specific altruistic goal, and the conflicts she enters are with other characters who have well-defined agendas. The arc of the plot is established... except for the last act.

I have tried letting the characters speak to me (and they do). But they say too many things. There are too many equally interesting choices that they might make, too many good branches the plot might follow. My problem is how to prune this tree.

I am working very hard to stay away from any reverse McGuffins, or similar devices. I don't need a device, I need a process.

Your answers might tell me about:

  • any process you might follow to (systematically?) map-out and evaluate the possibilities;
  • any way you find works best to change your point of view, as the author, of the characters and events in your story, and thus discover a previously unseen branch to explore;
  • any way that I should try interrogating the characters to find out if the choices they are revealing to me are genuine.
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    Some of this depends on what scope you're talking about. Is this more on the lines of I have five different ways for the heroes to blow up the Death Star, or more X is in love with both A and B, and I could pair him with either one (or neither) or is it I'm not sure if Y should end the story by packing off to a nunnery, or by going to study to be a ninja? – Standback Sep 29 '14 at 7:59
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    Also, when you say "ending" - are we talking about a scene? A chapter? The last third of the book? – Standback Sep 29 '14 at 8:01
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    You are in the plotting phase, aren't you? I do not see why several possible endings should bother you at this stage. Just leave the possibilities open. Start writing the story. It will (most probably) deviate from your plotline, giving new options which make the ending more obvious. – John Smithers Sep 29 '14 at 11:57
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    No duplicate, but related: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/10945/… – user5645 Oct 1 '14 at 8:02
  • @JohnSmithers it was while working through the plotting phase that I was defeated by the combinatorial explosion of possible outcomes. I tried writing through a few alternatives and concluded that I would end an old man before I explored them all, and that I needed a different approach. – Rrr Jun 16 '15 at 13:14
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For a moment abandon the crew of your story and have a peek at your readers.

Well, before that prune endings that are too expectable, out of characters or otherwise faulty, but once you come with the decent set...

Which ending would be most satisfying? Which would elicit most of the emotions which you want to create? Instead of thinking within the story world, you just construct a satisfactory product.

It's the cheap approach, but one that works well.

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Your question seems to be primarily about how to integrate plot and characterization. This is an issue I've been working hard on in my recent writing, so I'm going to make an unearthly effort to keep this answer short and to the point.

My writing philosophy is this: every character is a question that needs answering. Every character starts the story with a gap or wound in their lives, that needs filling or healing. Your job as a writer is to make that gap or wound a central part of your narrative. It doesn't necessarily need to be the central axis of the plot. If your character is an orphan who feels like they have no place in the world, they might defeat an evil dragon and then find out that they are the long-lost heirs to the kingdom. And that ending might look cheap to you, but it's satisfying to the reader.

So ask yourself, for each of your characters, what is the question that drives them? Common types of questions: Who am I? Where do I belong? How can I be the best? Characters may not know what their question is, and then it's your role as writer to give them an ending of what they need as opposed to what they want. Example: Disney's The Princess and the Frog has an entire song about this very subject.

In conclusion: to find your plot's most satisfying conclusion, find the question that your protagonist most needs to answer.

  • @Lauren I like the conclusion you draw. If I may expand on it: While knowing the protag's most burning question would likely lead to discovering what the most satisfying conclusion concerns itself with, it won't necessarily reveal how the story ends wrt how that question gets answered. The character might not care for the answer that the final outcome forces her to live with (at least until the sequel.) It still leaves open things like the tone and mood and sense of happy-endingness, etc., that remains with the reader. – Nicole Oct 1 '14 at 3:03
  • ...okay. that was a very strange comment. – lea Oct 1 '14 at 6:53
  • Well, the comment mostly made sense (other than being directed to the wrong person ;) ). Your point was "find what the character needs." @Nicole was adding "just because the character needs X doesn't mean she'll like X, and how you execute the character getting X can be done in a lot of different ways." – Lauren Ipsum Oct 1 '14 at 10:57
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Lea has given a great answer (and +1), but, as Nicole noted in her comment, there are many possible answers to the question that is your character, so I would like to expand on Lea's answer a bit (and will use SF's answer to do so).

To find the "correct" answer to the question that is your character, your character and his behavior do not matter at all. What matters is that

the end must fit the tone of your narration.

A gritty story must have a gritty end, no matter if the character did only good. A light summer read must end well, even if the character did a lot of wrong.

Reader satisfaction does not happen when characters get what they deserve. Reader satisfaction happens when the end fits the world the narrator creates for the reader. The voice of your narrator – which can be cynical or loving, earnest or humorous, and so on – sets the reader's expectations, and your end must fit that voice.

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