One of the most compelling things you can encounter in a story (either short or long) is a hard choice. The character gets to a certain point in the story and has to decide whether to take this path or that one, whether to hurt someone by doing one thing or hurt another person by doing something else. I don't know about you, but when I sense a hard choice coming it engages me wonderfully. Oh, my goodness, look at the conflict that is going to come out of that!
This is good. However, the big risk with setting up a hard choice is that you have to follow through.
I've read a number of books recently that involved hard choices, and at least two of them have let me down. The author has gotten me deeply engaged in the question of what choice will be made, and what the consequences of that choice might be... and then suddenly changed the game. Either the choice became unnecessary, suddenly, or the protagonist decided she was going to have her cake and eat it too, and for some reason that was okay with everybody.
I found this very disappointing, but when I think about it now, I wonder to myself why it is that I feel so disappointed. Why shouldn't I be happy that this horror for the protagonist isn't going to take place? Why shouldn't I be pleased that in the end, everything is going to work out?
In part it may be because this feels to me like what Janice Hardy calls "nice writer syndrome," where an author isn't hard enough on his/her characters and the story has less impact as a result. It's important to remember that one of the reasons we care about a character is because that character might have something bad happen to him or her. If there are no consequences, it's easy to think that the character's choices simply don't matter. As you can imagine, Janice herself doesn't suffer from this! (Just read The Shifter and all will become clear...)
The other part of it, I think, is the sneaking suspicion that the author might be playing with us as readers. That we're being led to anticipate an enormous consequence, getting worked up with excitement at the prospect, and then told that it really wasn't important anyway. The only way I think one could get away with this as an author would be by leaving so much evidence through the story that there was another way out of the situation, that when readers finally got there the whole thing would click together and we'd say "why didn't I see that option before?"
I realized just recently that I'd set up a big choice in For Love, For Power. Unlike in the last novel I wrote, the choice isn't central to the climax of the book (does she go into the magical world or not?); in this case it has to do with the relationships that happen between the characters. I hadn't really thought through it until recently, but I'm realizing that readers will think Tagret has to choose between his relationship with Reyn and his relationship with Della. If I defuse that question too early, say by having Reyn lose interest, or (God forbid) die, then I'm not taking advantage of all the potential conflicts that my book offers. I think of it as an opportunity that I'm happy not to have lost through lack of attention. Once I started thinking about it as a hard choice, then I realized some changes that could happen in later chapters of the book that would really make things fraught with tension, conflict, and doubt. Since tension, conflict, and doubt all increase the amplitude of the story's impact, I'm definitely going to head in the direction of facing the choice rather than defusing it. There have to be potentially bad consequences either way the choice goes, because a choice that is too obviously good on one side and bad on the other really isn't a choice at all.
What choices do your characters have to make? What kind of consequences do they entail?
It's something to think about.