Brainstorying–The Garden of Forking Paths

The writing process, whether for novels or film scripts, has been characterized by many metaphors. Examples include building a bridge, painting a picture, hanging a clothesline, mapping an unexplored territory, opening a closet, making a sculpture, building a house, laying pipe, mining, surfing, riding a horse, and hunting.

All of these fail at some level. Here I propose another metaphor, knowing full well that someone else may have already suggested it. In fact, in a way, someone has:

Jorge Luis Borges

That ingenious Argentinian author, Jorge Luis Borges (~HOR-hay Lu-eez BOR-hays), wrote a story called “The Garden of Forking Paths.” The tale concerns (1) a lost labyrinth and (2) a nonsensical book rescued from the fire by a fussy executor.


It turns out that the “lost” labyrinth is the book itself. Each fork in the labyrinth corresponds to a crisis point within the book which branches not within space, but within time. All paths at a node are taken simultaneously, creating a multiplicity of universes. Small wonder, then, that the book is incomprehensible to Borges’s imaginary readers.

Your book corresponds to a maze, a “garden of forking paths.” At every major node in your storyline, you must choose the one, best path forward. Whenever your hero needs to make a decision (or where you need to toss something at him/her), take time to brainstorm all the possible options. Each proposed branch must be logical, i.e., physically possible and based on character, to be credible. Choose the branch leading toward maximum conflict, maximum tension, or maximum payoff.


If the most logical path is also the most predictable one, consider choosing an alternate branch, and going back and setting up a logical reason for the character to choose that path instead.

When deciding which path to take, consider theme and motif, too.

Sometimes the best path will the the one that sets up the best next scene or, in film, the most striking action shot, the most beautiful image, or the most dramatic gesture.

This process is not a science but an art. Sometimes you’ll have to guess which way to go. Sometimes you’ll have to go back and revisit a decision if a good ending doesn’t result. Even so, you’ll find that this process gives you improved insight into story development.

If you’ve constructed certain scenes in advance, out of order, consider trying reverse brainstorming: How did the Hero arrive at this Supreme Ordeal? What probably led up to this climax? Why is this scene inevitable? Working backward is more difficult, but can help you quickly steer your story along the best path.

Brainstorming is vital in this entire process. Follow the link to an article on brainstorming. There are many others on the internet.

Brainstorming was originally based on a team approach. That’s still an option if you have the right workshop to help you, but you can use these principles even when you’re working alone.

You may find that you are more creative and more alert right after a brainstorming session. Take advantage of that.

NOTE: Books have been written in which the reader can choose at certain points between two courses of action by the main character. Each path directs the reader to a different continuation page, and so on. One such book is State of Emergency, by Guerrier and Richards; Houghton Mifflin, 1970. Since it’s already been done, you don’t need to do it.

Questions? Suggestions? What is your favorite metaphor for writing a book or script? Do you brainstorm? Please comment below.

J Guenther


Maze: CC0 via Pixabay
Borges: CC0 via Flickr

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2 Responses to Brainstorying–The Garden of Forking Paths

  1. banjophobe says:

    Fascinating post and great short story! I’ve recently been reading ‘Winning Decisions’ by Russo and Schoemaker and they talk at lengthy about the value of using different ‘frames’ when considering decision options as each one will lead you to approach the process slightly differently. I think your metaphors function as frames. If an author thinks of themself as a hunter, then it frames them to think about their quarry and about the hunt itself. If an adventurer, then their approach is likely to be less single-minded and more exploratory.

  2. jguenther5 says:

    Thanks. Good book by Russo, though possibly overkill when applied to auctorial decision points in novels. In the post, I mention that all the metaphors fail in some way, thus they are shaky premises for framing. The recommended process here is to decide at every node on the path that creates the greatest potential for conflict. The author should, I suppose, frame himself/herself as a trouble-maker!

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