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.
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 at a certain point 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 had defused that
question too early, say by having Reyn lose interest, or (God forbid)
die, then I wouldn't have been 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.