Drama is conflict. Smooth sailing doesn’t make for much of a story. Things have to go wrong.
The main character has to be involved in these conflicts. It can’t just happen to her, she must make decisions and choices that affect the story. A character who waits, observes, runs away or takes the easiest way out is much, much harder to make interesting. They are in effect avoiding the telling of their own story.
But as well as choosing which path to take and then seeing what happens next, the actual choosing is also part of the story. Why this option? What are the important factors that led to the decision? Which risks are worth taking and which aren’t?
Giving an indication of these things not only immerses the reader deeper in the story, it also gives them a better idea of who the character is and what they’re capable of.
And while you need to make sure there’s enough at stake or a sense of urgency so the character can’t avoid taking action, contriving events too such an extent that there’s only one option available won’t help characters reveal themselves.
If there’s only one thing to be done, then anyone would do the same thing, and that takes away the opportunity to learn about this character, something that’s very valuable early on in a story.
Of course, how they go about achieving their goal will vary from character to character, but that’s something that will become apparent over the course of the narrative. You also need to connect the reader and character early on so they want to know more about this person.
Providing a number of options and showing which this character chooses is a quick way to give the reader an early peek into a character.
Having a lot of options that are either impossible or too easy won’t add any interest. They have to be viable options and they need to have consequences. Choosing to go left or right at the crossroads is arbitrary. Choosing left through the crocodile swamp or right through the river full of piranhas is a much more interesting choice.
But there’s more to these sorts of decisions than flipping a coin.
Why choose one over the other? What’s the thought process? What are the precautions and preparation? These are the things that make the approach to the action as engaging as the action itself.
Once the decision is made and we understand why one path is selected over another, then the next step is to take that path and for it to lead to disaster.
This isn’t always going to be the case, but most of the time the way to get the most out of a situation that has obvious risks attached is for the worst outcome to come true. Because this requires character to act.
If the character goes through the swamp with crocodiles and luckily avoids any of them, that won’t be a very exciting story. That doesn’t mean they should head into the swamp and then get attacked and then fight their way across. First, how do they plan to get through the swamp?
If, for example, they decide to disguise a canoe to look like a crocodile and then cunningly float through the swamp, you can see the plan, and also get an idea of the mindset of the people involved. And to get the most out of it, they can’t just succeed. So maybe an amorous croc decides to fall for the canoe and mount it in loving fashion...
The point is the plan should be specific to the character’s way of thinking, and the way it goes wrong should be specific to the plan.
A character’s struggle with which way to go will link directly to how they react when it goes wrong. The fact they knew things could go wrong and went for it anyway will make them more likeable. Their plan to overcome the obstacles will give the reader something to root for. When things go wrong they will get our sympathy. When they get in trouble but find a way to keep going, they will win our admiration.
All these things are linked and they start with a character who is conflicted about what to do.
This can work for any situation. You can take any choice and make it harder (by making the consequences clearer).
Showing the problems the character has with each option, and then why they choose to do what they do will help show the kind of person they are when facing trouble. Having things go wrong will show what kind of person they are in a crisis.
Let’s say Mary discovers her sister’s husband is a professional thief responsible for a bank robbery where people died. What does she do?
If she goes to police, the sister and her kids will be left without anyone to take care of them. The sister probably won’t thank her for it. If she keeps quiet, more people could die.
The question at this point is what kind of person is Mary? Is she shy and not the type to get involved in other people’s business? Or is she mouthy and always sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong?
If she’s the mouthy type, and she’s going to get involved, how is that a difficult decision for her? If she isn’t conflicted about the choice she has to make, it won’t feel like a big deal.
In this sort of situation where it feels like the path is obvious and that it will eventually lead to dramatic stuff, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how dramatic it is right now.
Mary's the type who wants to say something, that much is clear, but how can you make what she does less predictable?
If she goes to the sister to warn her and discovers that she already knows and is fine with it, then what?
But what if she sees the brother-in-law slap her sister around?
But what if the kids will get taken away if the law gets involved?
You can always find a way to make the right thing to do less clear cut.
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