Ending the Either Or Problem with a Third Choice

ending the either or mentality with a third option

Think I’m taking a path? Well, think again.

The either or mentality is a bit like a famous Robert Brown poem – you have two clear options, and you pick one (well-traveled or not). Which means that ending the either or problem with a third choice has a couple inherent problems. Namely, it can be difficult to do while keeping two clearly defined options. After all, if there are 3 options, it’s not really either or, is it?

Building, Then Defying the Either Or Mentality

I talked about how to create an either or mentality a while ago, and one of the rules was that the character can really only see 2 options or all the other options have to be taken away somehow.

So how do you provide a third option if there are only 2? Or if the others are already gone?

Outside Intervention

One of the most common solutions to this situation is outside intervention. A character who has not been with the main character during this dilemma shows up and provides a way out by

  • removing a barrier to one of the previously blocked options
  • bringing a tool, spell, etc. that changes the original evaluation of the situation (like bringing someone a spell component they didn’t have or tossing a jailed warrior his/her weapon)
  • joining forces unexpectedly to turn the tide (yes, I’m being deliberately cliched and vague)

Of course, there are rules for this. At least, there are rules if you don’t want the intervention to be horribly jarring and unbelievable. *cough* deus ex machina *cough*

  1. The intervening character needs to have been introduced already. Either the character needs to have been present in a previous scene or have been talked about. This can be the type of character instead of a specific character (a Jedi, for example). You need to have at least hinted to the reader that this is person or group exists.
  2. The main character cannot know until it happens. Whoever’s perspective the story is told from can’t know ahead of time, or the reader should’ve known ahead of time. See the problem?
  3. If any of the main characters did know, their previous behavior should hint that they knew something they weren’t saying. There also needs to be a strong reason for not saying anything – like having the enemy eavesdrop.
  4. Ideally, the sudden intervention shouldn’t make the situation super easy. Readers like a sense of urgency and effort. If everything goes too easily for the main character suddenly, it feels like a copout even if the outside forced was previously hinted at. (Plot against your characters, not with them!)

This technique can be used in smaller conflicts (not just the climax). In fact, it’s probably better in small conflicts or as a mere fraction of the climax (IMHO) because you want the main character to be at least partially responsible for the climax (isn’t that the point?).

Sudden Epiphany or Reveal

This is another common solution. In essence, the main character suddenly puts together information in a new way to reveal an option that he or she hadn’t considered before. Or forgot or didn’t think of in that context.

The usual causes for this are

  • The uncovered detail: This one centers on a physical aspect of the situation that was overlooked before (seeing a rope tied to a chandelier, noticing that the villain is standing in water, noticing how a switch or lever works, etc.). Usually, someone or something moves, and the main character sees something he or she couldn’t see before.
  • The villain’s monologue: You know what I mean. The villain starts talking about the plan and accidentally reveals something that helps the hero. Or the monologue inspires a stupid henchman (or henchwoman?) to blurt out the one thing the hero wasn’t supposed to know.
  • A stray comment: Somebody who doesn’t have a clue how to fix the situation or doesn’t even know the whole situation says something in passing that inspires the main character to figure out the answer.

If you put your mind to it, you’ll find that it’s really easy to think of examples of this one.

Secret Skills

As a plot twist (and solution to the either-or problem), this works best when the character with the secret skill is a side character – not the perspective the story is told from. If it’s the main character, there had better be a narrator, or it had better be established as an unreliable narrator or liar. Otherwise, you have the same problem as using the first option that way: broken promises.

You see this most in three cases:

  1. When the character is new (you don’t know much about his or her abilities yet)
  2. When you have a spy character who was working for the other side but decides to rescue the heroes (often for reasons of his or her own)
  3. When someone is hiding a skill for some other reason (avoiding racial prejudice, wanting to be left alone in retirement, a scarring experience, etc.)
The Art of the Unexpected

Other methods rely on the character’s ability to think outside the box. If that isn’t already part of the characterization as being a character trait or something that the character is trying to learn, this tactic will totally break whatever characterization you’ve built for him/her (so don’t use it under those circumstance, right?).

The great thing about this method is that it often surprises the readers, as well – without breaking promises because they expect that character to surprise them. The downside is that writing a character who constantly thinks outside of the box can be a wee bit challenging (to say the least).

So it’s still following the rules for the first option. Actually, all of these options should more-or-less follow those rules (always follow the heart of those rules). So I probably should’ve put them somewhere else. Oh, well. Too late now. *cough*

I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve rambled on about this long enough. Anything you’d like to add?


  1. […] I listed different methods for ending the either or problem with a third choice, I didn’t give any examples because, honestly, the article was long enough already. So if […]

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