I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of parallel universes. Those places where, (according to one theory at least) events of our history turned out differently. Because there are an infinite number of universes, any given one of them may differ from this by so little as the fact that in that reality my name was spelled Tye. (Many people believe that we live in that reality now…)
On the other side of the coin, another universe may have unfolded in such a way that a friendly alien race found planet Earth in the year 1400, introduced electricity to humanity, and guided us towards a whole new type of civilization from there on out.
And everything in between those two realities.
Of course there is a whole sub-genre of fiction dedicated to this very concept. Countless books, especially by the self-proclaimed “king” of the genre Henry Turtledove, have been based on the premise that history in our world unfolded differently within the novel’s world. But here is something to consider; what if the history within your own fiction had taken an alternate route?
When you write a story or novel you need to know what is happening next, and what led to it taking place within the universe you have created. (How wild would it be if one of the real-life alternate universes were one of the ones in your novel??)
You character wants something or does something that sets a story into motion. That character makes a choice. Readers may wonder what would have happened had your character gone the other way. In fact, I dare say it may be a sign of a good story if people do wonder about the other possibility. So why not write these possibilities?
These alternatives need not be for public consumption. And I’m not suggesting that for every story you write you put in as much time writing an alternate version. We are talking about infinite possibilities after all. I do suggest however that perhaps outlining an alternate course of events for your novel, or even a novel by your favorite author can be a great way to work on cause and effect, sequential action, plotting, character, and any number of other concepts important to writing quality fiction.
Just to keep your imagination limber and your skills sharp, outline the result of The Wizard of Oz had Dorothy not defeated the Witch of the West near the end. What would that have meant? How would she have accomplished her goals then? Or would she? When is the next moment wherein she would have a chance to defeat the witch? Would the rest of her crew still be together at that point, and if not why? How would Oz, Dorothy and everyone else have to adjust from what we know of them now if this key event did not take place when it did?
This is in many ways what fanfiction is, when you think about it. Not an exact match, but in both cases a writer is exploring the inner working of a world and a set of characters to see what makes them tick, and how that ticking might be differently if XYZ occurred.
As I said, it works with your own fiction as well. Rewrite your climax. Only this time proceed as though the main character experienced the polar opposite. They key character didn’t escape. The protagonist got the girl after all. Or pick some other point in your story and change a single thing. Prevent a meeting of two characters. Remove one of the conflicts. See where the characters and story will take you after you do that. If you explain it to them, I’m sure their oblige your flight of fancy. You may even find your experiment in alternate history works better for your work in progress than what you had planned at first.
It’s all about recognizing the wonderful complexity and fragile consistency of stories. The gust of wind that can change the course of the whole ship. Even if you remain on the course you set, you can only improve your craft by taking a peek at the alternate universe that lies just around the cosmic corner.