Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Irreversible Choices

As discussed last time, lots of interesting characters can be passive victims, but the hero/heroine cannot be. Your main character needs to take an active role within the story (at least in commercial fiction - with, occasionally, comedy being the exception).

The typical structure of a novel or a screenplay includes turning points. These moments need to be created by your characters through irreversible decisions.

Let's take this in two parts. First, the decision. All sorts of big and wild things can happen to your character. She can win a big lottery. Or be kidnapped. Or be elected President. Or have Mr. Right walk into her shop.

Any of these may be important to the story, but they are not, strictly, turning points. They may be catalyzing events, but none are choices by an active character. They all happen to the character.

Now, they may be the result of active choices, an accumulation of choices, and a lot of work. On the lottery, "you gotta play to win." So our heroine needs to choose buy a ticket (or accept one as a gift). Being kidnapped may be random, or it may reflect risks taken or poor security choices. If random, your character is just a victim. If lack of attention to security or active risk taking (a shortcut through a dark alley), that's a decision, with action. Being elected President involved filing the proper papers, campaigning (with numerous choices on funding, advisors, positions, etc.), and accepting a nomination.

I think a writer would need to be very creative to come up with a decision that drew Mr. Right into the shop. A Mr. Right Wanted sign in the window?

For all of these, however, the circumstances demand decision and action. Win the lottery, and you need to do something with the money and the choices (often tied to family relations) can be life-changing. Once you're kidnapped, there may be a series of life or death decisions involving cooperating, getting information out, trying to escape, and more. Even deciding to eat could be a critical decision once you're a captive.

The Presidency is all about tough decisions. The character is active and her actions have consequence. And Mr. Right? Learning about him, responding to his overtures, working through differences, choosing what to share, and answering the big question -- these are all active.

Now we come to the tougher part. The decisions at the turning points need to be irreversible. There can be no going back. If the main character can cancel the engagement or resign the Presidency and return to her old life (and these were turning point decisions), there really isn't a story.

Reversible choices with major consequences show up all the time in manuscripts I read. Someone takes a job that is horrible and doesn't move to an equivalent job, without the terrible aspects, that is available. Why? The person who entered the haunted house doesn't leave when there is nothing stopping him. The guy keeps loaning money to a friend who never pays him back so he loses his house.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, he leaves home, spends all his money, ends up in miserable circumstances, and has the smarts to go back home. Spending his fortune is an irreversible decision. His leaving home is not. The redemption is not around returning, it's around his recognizing his foolishness. I really have high hopes for the kid. He may even reconcile with his brother.

If you step in quicksand, you may be stuck and need to do something drastic to get out. If you step in a mud puddle, you step out and clean off your shoes. Make your characters choose to step into the quicksand (to escape the lion).

And keep this in mind. Readers always know if a decision is reversible. And, as a writer, you'll lose their trust if a turning point decision leads to stress and anxiety (as it should), but is easily dodged by stepping back to the earlier situation.

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