Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Good Choices are Essential for Compelling Stories

Recently I was discussing the first draft of a novel. The climax came when the main character was torn between a job presentation - her boss claimed she would let everyone at work down if she didn't make it in that day - and her baby's health. Now, call me irresponsible, but there aren't many circumstances when I'd put my work ahead of a very ill child and none of them seemed applicable here.

I'm prepared to accept that, had I read the whole novel rather than a synopsis, I would have been swept away by the main character's dilemma, but in general compelling stories feature characters making difficult choices. The choices need to be proper ones, and the more evenly weighted they are, the more compelling your story.

Does Superman save Lois Lane, or the world? Does he follow his head, or his heart? Will Lizzie accept the repulsive Mr Collins and save her family fortune? Or turn him down and risk penury? Frodo could return to his beloved Shire and leave the ring at Elrond's house. Pip could give up his snobbish aspirations of being a gentleman and go back to Joe Gargery's forge and marry Biddy. Would you shop your child to the police? Or would you burn everything that linked them with the crime?

The more compelling the arguments are on both sides, the more compelling your story.


Jim Murdoch said...

Of course Superman would always find a way to do both. That’s why he’s Superman. What I struggle with when it comes to choices is where a character makes a choice that I personally wouldn’t make. The one that jumps to my mind is one that just kept happening over and over again in Star Trek - a character meets someone who looks like they might be the soul mate and yet they don’t run off into the sunset, they both go on with their lives/careers and invariably never meet again. Someone presses the reset button and the next episode it’s as if the whole incident had never happened. I don’t get it because I’ve never had that kind of job and I’ve never been particularly ambitious. But there are people like that. I just don’t get them. Nor do I get characters that choose to murder someone. I honestly can’t imagine any situation where doing away with someone would be a choice. So the problem the novelist faces to getting inside a mindset that is potentially alien and making you believe that, yes, a mother might just conceivably put her career over the health of her child; she might rationalise even that she’s doing it for the child. Good people make bad choices – especially when under pressure – and I think that needs to be considered and there are invariably consequences which is where the author gets to come in with a nice tidy moral: “And what do we learn from today’s story? Yes! If you go for a job interview when your child is sick they will die.”

Sarah Duncan said...

You're right - choices are best if we can see the characters taking both routes, as Superman invariably does.

I agree that good people make bad choices, but I was talking about the choice being a real choice, ie that both sides of the choice were evenly weighted so it was a difficult decision to make. That's interesting. If the path to take is obvious, then it's less interesting for the reader.

So with your Star Trek example, you'd have to show the characters being torn between their careers, or life on Planet Zog with their soulmate. Which would probably get boring if it was frequently used.