Monday, 23 June 2014

Tricking The Reader By Choice

No story is full of high drama all the time. Sometimes you’re setting things up or dealing with the aftermath of some event, and the characters are on their own or in a non-volatile situation.

Introducing a problem or a struggle at this point, even a small one, often helps to keep the narrative interesting, but there are times when you don’t want your character to be fighting battles or solving puzzles.

So how do you turn a mundane moment into something more gripping without resorting to enemies to battle or mountains to climb?

It’s worth remembering that conflict isn’t just fighting and arguing. Any kind of struggle for a character is going to lift a scene above the mundane, even when nothing much is going on. One technique for achieving this is to turn an action into a choice.

If the scene is full of drama and action then conflict won’t be hard to create, but it’s those other scenes I want to look at, so I’m going to use the most bland examples I can think of to demonstrate my point (although you can still use this approach to heighten an already highly charged scenes).

Let’s say our character comes down to have breakfast. Maybe it’s the start of the story, or a lull between hugely suspenseful chapters, either way it’s very easy to make this kind of scene incredibly dull.

Most of the time the advice will be to cut it or make it as short as possible, but there are times when you need this kind of scene. You can convince yourself the quiet, uneventful nature of the scene is necessary and reflects the mood of the character, but dull is never fun to read no matter how meaningful you think it is.

However, if instead of having the character go through their normal everyday actions as they would in real life, you give the character a choice to make it will immediately intensify the moment.

Rather than have them go in the kitchen and have a bowl of cereal, have them decide whether they want cereal or toast.

Now, this choice isn’t in itself going to grip the reader. When the choice is inconsequential it makes no real difference. It is more interesting than no choice, but not by much.

Consequences are what make the choice interesting to people other than the person choosing. So let’s say our man fancies cereal but there’s only enough milk for one person and he knows his wife will want her morning coffee with milk or she gets very grouchy.

This very low-stakes choice is still enough to raise a few questions and focus the reader on what he will do. But when you have a one-sided choice like this (he knows one will create problems and the other one won’t, so not much of a choice) it only really creates the kind of conflict we want if the character chooses the unwise option. The hell with his wife!

The problem, though, is that once you raise a question like this the reader will want to see how it turns out, so a scene with the wife opening the fridge door and finding an empty bottle is almost unavoidable. Which is fine if the story is about their relationship—you can afford to let the scene play out—but if it was just a small interlude and you don’t really want to spend too much time on it you can find the narrative spiralling off into a tangent making the whole thing more trouble than it’s worth.

If you’re just trying to add a little oomph to a quiet moment you might not want to introduce a lengthy subplot for no particular reason.

The whole point here is to try and give a minor scene a bit of a lift without making it too involved.

A better way to make the choice more interesting is to give both options consequences. If he eats the cereal his wife will be pissed, but if he eats toast it will break his no carbs diet and he’s really got to lose some weight.

This approach can still spin off into an unnecessary digression. Whichever he chooses will it really matter to the reader if you don’t follow through on the outcome of his choice?

What you can do to keep it short and still engaging is to take the third choice. The one you didn’t mention.

For example, let’s say our man comes down for breakfast. There are pizza boxes everywhere and the place is a mess. I have to sort my life out, he thinks to himself. He considers his choices: a low fat yoghurt that tastes terrible or an apple, the most boring of all fruits. He leaves the house eating a slice of cold pizza.

Did I say pizza was an option? No, but I planted the idea when I mentioned the pizza boxes.

The choice of yoghurt or apple (dull as it was) raises a question.

The very low-stakes consequences of those choices are enough to keep the reader engaged, at least until they get the answer.

The surprising third option is not only a nice way to reveal a little of the character’s personality, it makes the reader totally forget about where the other options would have led.

No need for lengthy explorations of the effects of his choice, no follow through necessary. Short and concise.

This means you can use choices with consequences to pull the reader in, and use a surprising third option to trick the reader into not asking any awkward questions (that might need extra writing).

Cheating? Absolutely. In my pizza example, I started with the choice of yoghurt or apple, decided he would reject both and choose pizza, and only then did I go back and add in the pizza boxes at the start. Being the writer allows you to do that, like a magician stuffing his sleeves with doves.

Come up with three choices, decide which one you want the character to choose, tell the reader the other two. Now you just have to go back and plant a few clues that seem unrelated and hey presto, option number three is both a surprise and logically sound.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'll take door number three...
The pizza choice could lead to something later - he could feel sick from eating food that was left out. Placing him puking in the bathroom where he overhears...
Yeah, those little choices could affect the whole story if you do it right.

Sarah Foster said...

Breakfast has never seemed so complicated...

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

This was a nice writing tip. I did retweet it.

mooderino said...

@Alex - that's the hope, that small moments will lead to something.

@Sarah - I highly recommend not doing a breakfast scene at all, just seemed a suitably bland example to make my point.

@Elizabeth - thank you.

Elise Fallson said...

I love it when writers sprinkle in seemingly benign information and then have it become significant later on. For some reason, it reminds me of Nicolas Flamel in the first HP book. I think good writers have to be part magician at some point.

Unknown said...

I personally don't want to hold onto benign information for too long if nothing will come of it. But, if something will come of it, I want it resolved sooner than later.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I kept thinking about the man's inability to make a decision. But I'd go with the yogurt for myself. LOL

The Armchair Squid said...

There's something important about the choice you're offering, too. It's a dilemma. Neither choice is perfect.

Denise Covey Writer said...

Thanks Moody. Door Number Three sounds good. I have a lengthy breakfast scene in my romance, but underlying it is a boiling hot argument, so that may suffice, but I will examine it some more.

David P. King said...

Choices, even small ones, make a big difference to any story. Good way to add tension to the small things. :)

Unknown said...

Adding oomph to a quiet moment is definitely a challenge. I try very hard not to have any in my novels. ;)

Unknown said...

I like it. Keeping your reader guessing as to what the challenging choice might be is a great way to engage them.

mooderino said...

@Elise - part magician, part bare-faced liar.

@Diane - build up that goes nowhere is never good.

@Susan - the indecision doesn't have to last as long as I made it seem in the example. Probably the shorter the better.

@Squid - it helps the drama if it isn't an easy or obvious choice.

@Denise - if you have conflict on there already then it's pretty much job done. Not that you can't turn the screw a bit.

@David - it's the small moments that often get left a bit flat, so a little tightening of the screw can help.

@Lexa - that's another way of dealing with it.

@Lilith - a remarkably difficult thing for people to ignore.

dolorah said...

Excellent analogies with the choices Moody.

Unknown said...

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Misha Gerrick said...

Definitely an interesting idea. Never really thought about it like that before. :-)

mooderino said...

@Donna - thanks.

@Jerry - Cheers for the mention.

@Misha - always good to get a fresh perspective!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Sometimes I like a book that fills the lulls between action with some really hot sex.

Chemist Ken said...

Okay, I'm always up for learning a new trick and I like this one. My problem will be to remember it when I need it. Thanks.

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