Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Stories off the Leash 4 - Bad choices make good stories

Where would horror movies be if people never went outside to investigate a noise or walked down that dark alley or opened that door? We all make mistakes in real life. Sometimes ridiculous, thoughtless ones and sometimes ones that "seemed like a good idea at the time." Many of these become tales we retell, and some reveal us in ways no descriptions ever could.

When I read manuscripts, it's unusual for me to find stories where bad choices by protagonists propel the stories forward effectively. Either the result is the plot turning on stupidity or the drama is robbed as the mistake is minimized, leading to tepid consequences. But, when a character makes an understandable decision that wreaks havoc... wow.

I'll discuss making the most out of bad choices next week. For now, let's look first at advancement of the plot by stupidity. Here, the protagonist knows (or should know) the decision is bad and goes ahead and does something that can't turn out well. This is frustrating because we want to identify with the hero and root for him or her. How (except in some comedies) can you root for a dolt? How can you feel bad when trouble follows and it's completely predictable? (And if it is completely predictable, where's the fun?)?

But we do have good examples of protagonists who make bad decisions where the story is not harmed.
  • When there's no time to deliberate. We understand bad decisions that are made in a split second. The reasons why astronauts repeat so many scenarios in training is because it's so difficult to make the best choice in the moment.
  • When we find there's special knowledge. Shrimpy David took on beefy Goliath, but he had a trick up his sleeve -- a secret weapon slingshot.
  • When there's irony. In this case, we know that the killer is behind the door the heroine is about to go through or the bomb is under the seat the protagonist picks, but she or he doesn't. And it's excruciating.
  • When there's betrayal. We can all sympathize with a protagonist who makes a decision based on bad information or advice from a trusted friend or because friends get him or her impaired (say at a drinking party) and don't look out for him or her.
  • When alternatives are exhausted. High Noon provides a great example of this. Will Kane tries everything to deal with the gunfighters headed his way. He can't get help and he can't leave town (without sacrifices his honor). He's just stuck.
  • When it leads to unintended consequences. Sometimes small acts lead to major results. People may get away with distracted driving hundreds of times before deadly consequences result.
  • When the situation is completely new to the protagonist or significantly changed.You might lose the sympathy of the audience if the protagonist is texting while driving. But what if he or she gets a sneezing fit?
  • When the choice is between to equally horrible outcomes (dilemma). This is a classic for drama. Superman must choose between saving Lois Lane or stopping a bomb from going off. Something bad will happen.
Stakes add an important dimension when considering protagonists' choices. High stakes can drive bad decisions and create better stories. I'll cover that as part of the next entry in this series.

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