Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Choices, Decisions, Dilemmas

There’s no point posing a question for a character if the answer is straightforward and easy. If the question is “Fish or chicken?” that isn’t much of a dilemma. Even if the character loves both dishes and is at a loss and can’t make up his mind. It’s just a matter of preference.

If the character can decide later, if he can carry on living quite happily with either choice, if he can say, “Actually, I’ll just have a salad,” then why would the reader care about the outcome?

Problem is, there are plenty of people who will tell you something as though it was terribly important when it isn’t. They explain why they took the scenic route instead of cutting through town. Why they chose blinds instead of curtains. How the Cointreau Orange was the right choice for the living room walls because it matches the Ambre Solaire Beige upholstery of the settee. People are generally convinced everything they think of is as interesting to others as it is to them. But how do you prevent a conversation with someone you just met from turning into a dance of the disguised yawns?

If a man is torn between the blonde and the brunette and eventually, after weighing the pros and cons, decides on the brunette, that isn’t a story, just an expression of personal taste. Reporting the choice made is not enough. The choice has to be interesting and in some way consequential. Remember that if the next step in your story seems natural and obviously what the character would choose to do, then there’s a good chance it will seem obvious and predictable to the reader too.

In order to make sure the reader is being engaged you have to consider what would happen if the character fails to make the right option, or what others will do in response to his choice. Rather than putting down the first thing you think of, consider the consequences. Are there any? And how big a deal are they? To whom? What's stopping him from just going home and forget about it?

If the waiter says chicken or fish? and whichever dish you choose, the chef who cooked the other one is going to get fired, then you have something to think about. It goes beyond what grabs your fancy, and becomes about who you are and what kind of things you are prepared to do. 

The problem is if the choice is hard, if the dilemma is vexing, then while it certainly does make the reader think, What's he going to choose?, it also puts the writer in an awkward position: How do I get my character out of this? But that's what the art of storytelling is.

The stakes have to be high enough for it to matter. The choices have to be difficult enough so as not to be obvious. And the decision has to be unexpected enough to be interesting.  

If things turn out okay no matter what you choose, then what you choose doesn’t matter. If things turn out bad no matter what you choose and even worse if you don't choose, then you’ve got the start of a story.

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

In other words, ramp up the stakes!

mooderino said...

@Alex - yes, but that doesn't mean every decision has to be life or death. And even if it is, if the soultion is obvious or the option chosen the predictable one, it will suck the tension out of the situation.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Do you think that pouring more into your character development could have the effect of making the stakes much higher? I think so.

mooderino said...

@Michael - well, it depends how you mean. There are some genres, for example thrillers, where the imperative to act is naturally so high that you can get away with quite underdeveloped characters.

But on the other hand if you have no particular incentive but a very deep understanding of the character, you know why he hates fish and will never eat it, then he chooses chicken, that doesn't really make the scene work any better.

Even if you know what his hang ups are, you still need a predicament to put him in that pushes the right buttons.

Emily R. King said...

I'm a fish girl!
Thanks for the post. So great to remember everything in a story should be building, even the little choices.

Juliana L. Brandt said...

Great post to get me thinking on my new WIP. It's easy to let your MC make all the right decisions when really, that never happens in real life and makes for one boring story!

Jen said...

Great post, Mood. I also think that sometimes it's helpful to have you character make the decision that you wouldn't, and then justify it.

mooderino said...

@Emily - I think developing layers in choices so there are various unforeseen and far reaching consequences helps deepen a story.

@Juliana - yeah, overfondness for a main character can make you soft on them.

@Jen - definitely more fun when things go in an unexpected direction.

Sophia said...

The 'Ambre Solaire Beige upholstery' is a fantastic line of description, and that is my deep comment for the day.

Alleged Author said...

I love how you pointed out response is needed from other characters when the MC chooses whatever he/she chooses. So important.

Weaver said...

Exactly. I think it's like compliments. You really can be complimented to death ... and they become meaningless. If every choice your characters make are major drama, you lose credibility with the reader.

mooderino said...

@Sophia - thanks, plenty profound for me.

@AA - you'd think someone would mention something.

@Donna - I think as long as it's interesting it doesn't have to be an extinction level event.

Christa Desir said...

"If things turn out bad no matter what you choose and even worse if you don't choose, then you’ve got the start of a story."

Yes! Yes! Yes to this!

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Interesting post! I enjoyed this. Details do make all the difference on the realism of the Characters. Thank you! :)

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Lydia Kang said...

I always struggle with this, so thanks for the great post!

Anonymous said...

Characters need to be challenges, and one way of doing that is giving them two alternative paths with consequences at the end of each one. I like this kind of internal and external conflict.

mooderino said...

@Christa - can I assume you agree?

@elizabeth - thank you.

@Lydia - cheers.

@Stephen - I think challenged is a good way to put it.

Golden Eagle said...

Great points. If a problem presents itself to a character, there have to be meaningful consequences, otherwise there's really nothing to keep the reader's attention.

LisaAnn said...

Yay! Finally got to join your site, and I'm a huge fan of this blog post. I was recently told by an agent during a revise/resubmit that I needed to increase the stakes in my work in progress, so I've been slaving away like crazy. Wish I found this blog post first! ;)

Ellie Garratt said...

Up those stakes, and build and maintain!

Ellie Garratt

Lorena said...

A thought-provoking post. You make an excellent point here:

"Reporting the choice made is not enough. The choice has to be interesting and in some way consequential. Remember that if the next step in your story seems natural and obviously what the character would choose to do, then there’s a good chance it will seem obvious and predictable to the reader too."

This is something I hadn't heard before, but it makes total sense (I guess subconsciously I knew it ;)) I'll keep this in my conscious mind from now on.

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