Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Choices characters make

I spent a lot of time reading my requested fulls over the holiday break. One thing I noticed was that writers often skip past the choices characters make, in their zeal for getting to "what happens next."

But, readers won't care what happens next if they're not invested in the characters, and one way to get your reader to invest is show them the choices characters make in moving from event to event.

Sailing past choices looks like this:
Stan and Fran Stanley were longtime members of the Roadside Attraction biker gang. Every weekend was spent on the road, hitting dive bars and juke joints. On an otherwise normal Saturday afternoon in May, as they paused at the one stoplight in Bisbee, Arizona, Fran realized she was three sheets to the wind. That everyone in Roadside Attraction, including Stan, was drunk, and they'd been driving drunk like this for years. She got off her her bike, said goodbye to Stan, to Roadside Attraction, and left her custom painted Harley parked in front of the Five and Dime. Stan watched her go. He revved his bike and followed Roadside Attraction out of town.

Sure, that's a compelling image (well, ok I hope it is) but what will make us care about about what happens it is what I left out. The choice Stan made:

Stan and Fran Stanley were longtime members of the Roadside Attraction biker gang. Every weekend was spent on the road, hitting dive bars and juke joints. On an otherwise normal Saturday afternoon in May, as they paused at the one stoplight in Bisbee, Arizona, Fran realized she was three sheets to the wind. That everyone in Roadside Attraction, including Stan was drunk, and they'd been driving drunk like this for years. She got off her her bike, said goodbye to Stan, to Roadside Attraction, and left her custom painted Harley parked in front of the Five and Dime.  Stan watched her go. If he went after her, the guys would razz him as pussywhipped forever.  He revved his bike and followed Roadside Attraction out of town.

We implicitly understand Fran's choice. There's no need to get bogged down in explaining it.
It's STAN'S choice that you don't want to bypass. He's choosing his path for a reason, and knowing the reason tells us a lot about him.

Am I interested in finding out what happens next?
You bet.
Particularly about what happens when Stan and Fran get home that night. IF Fran gets home.

Not every choice needs to be laid out, but this is one thing to watch for if you're hearing a lot about "no plot", "no tension", "loses momentum." All those say you're doing events, not choices.

If you're having a hard time pinpointing choices in your novel, time for some research.

Take a look at any good novel you love. Read with an eye for how/when the character chooses things.
It can be implicit (Fran) or explicit (Stan).

Die Trying by Lee Child is a masterpiece of choices. Here's the excerpt to show that. (click the expand button for the page)

Another place to look is Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. That book is ALL about choices.

22 comments:

Kitty said...

This is a GREAT post, Janet. WOO-HOO, welcome back!

Hermina Boyle said...

This is a really good topic.

1) But couldn't that first example work IF you had previously shown Stan's total devotion to Roadside Attraction? Wouldn't it then be the reader anticipating the obvious choice that yeah, he'd stick with the gang?

Knowing Stan's attitude ahead of time sets up the the consequence of his choice. I would expect some major blow up with Fran and that's what would keep me reading.

2)Does the amount of choice showing vary with the type of story your telling? Internal thoughts seem more important when the character is changing over the course of the story.

3) Are we really looking at cause and effect set up? Stimulus triggers a change of mind (feelings internal reaction, WEIGHING CHOICES?) which produces a reaction.

John Levins said...

Thanks for the excellent advice! It compliments other great advice you've given, specifically to make it clear what the characters want. Desire, plus choice, makes for great tension!

Mister Furkles said...

Bisbee has an old copper mine and a haunted hotel but I don’t think there’s a five-and-dime. Bisbee, like most Arizona towns, does have a Family Dollar Store. And greater metropolitan Bisbee has more than one traffic light, plus seven first rate gun shops.

So Stan stays drunk, gets himself killed in a five vehicle pileup on I10. But Fran checks into the Copper Queen, meets a gaggle of ghosts and begins working the unsolved murder cases of the nineteenth century copper and silver boom towns.

Ha, take that Jack Reacher. Ever been in a shootout with ghosts?

Timothy Lowe said...

Awesome reminder -- I realized yesterday that my WIP, which has WAAAY too much going on, is actually pretty much finished. I have to go back and backfill, fleshing out character arcs and adding moments of decision. This post is perfectly timed.

KrisM said...

Hi Janet,

I agree with you that readers need to know the reasons behind character choices to be invested in the story. That said, my critique partners would never let this passage fly without flagging the head-hopping (first Fran's thoughts, then Stan's) as she would never have known his unspoken thoughts.

Since omniscient POV is all-but-dead in the traditional publishing fiction market, to present reasons behind more than one character's choices, an author would either need to write the story in a multiple POV structure, or deliver the other character's reasoning via dialog and/or physical cues for emotion.

An alternate ending to your paragraph might be:
Stan watched her go, yelling as she turned onto the gravel drive, "You're on your own, Fran. I'm not some pussywhipped moron." He revved his bike and followed Roadside Attraction out of town.



Stacy said...

Welcome back, Janet!

I think Sunburn is a good example of choices characters make, too. Lippman is a master at WHEN to reveal why those choices were made, too. I started out SO not being in the protagonist's corner... but by the end of the novel? One-hundred percent in her corner.

Melissa said...

I actually have shelved a book because I couldn't make a character's choice feel plausible to the reader. The entire plot hinged on that choice.

It's a revenge story where a wife goes to extremes to find out what happened to her missing husband. All my readers could not understand why she was so driven and couldn't let go. To this day some years later, I don't know if it was my faulty writing or if my beta readers (who only read happy stories) were the wrong beta readers.

I suspect a mix of both. One day I'll pull it back out again to revisit.

Bethany Joy said...

This is timely for me because my current revision is all about delving into character choices, motivations, and consequences. Reading in my category with an eye to this showed me that characters frequently debate their choices. I agree with Stacey that Sunburn is quite effective at telling just enough to maintain mystery but also reveal character.

Sherry Howard said...

Great example, and great reminder! It’s that skill, to recognize WHEN to do that, that separates writers.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Janet, this is helpful.

KrisM: Join me in a quest to bring back the omniscient narrator! It's not head hopping if you plan to do it!

Craig F said...

I tend to work on posing ZE BIG QUESTION somewhere at the beginning of my work. The bigger choices throughout tend to be in response to that original question.

I am hoping that such a set up will allowing the reader to re-read the damn thing and find more depth to those questions.

A couple of Betas and some critique folk have been responsive. Soon I'll see if anyone important to the business gets it.

Beth Carpenter said...

Great advice. I was struck in the excerpt by not only how fascinating the choices were, but by the effective use of passive sentences. They say passive is less dynamic, which is exactly what makes these two scenes so great. The men are absorbing information, making decisions on when and how to act. With Jack Reacher, it's like he's winding a spring, preparing for action when the time is right.

Thanks, Janet.

Julie Weathers said...

Welcome back!

This is a really good topic. One of my posse has a tendency to wrap my knuckles if I don't explain why someone does something or at least make sure it isn't explained at some point.

In one of Diana Gabaldon's books a ship sends a boat to a very remote islet. The sailors go right to where Jamie's nephew is fetching some jewels from a casket. They take the casket and the nephew. I was dumbfounded that she would make such a blunder. Seriously? A ship would just happen to see a boy slipping around on that small strand and send a boat?


Well, it wasn't a mistake. The woman who had stashed the treasure there for the Jacobite uprising sent them to retrieve it. It was just poor timing on Ian's part to get caught there.

Anton Chekhov said if you place a rifle on the stage in the first act, it must be used by the third act.

There must be a reason for everything. Every act. Every decision.

In Janet's example, it might come out later that Stan has never really felt accepted before. The bikers are his family. Maybe someone there saved his life. It goes far beyond being whipped.

Anyway, I'm back to work. Plus, I have a plumber coming to look at the habitrail masquerading as a gas line.


Lennon Faris said...

This is something I am working on. I know why my characters want something, but I don't always portray that (implicitly OR explicitly). Room for change!

One aspect where I differ - I am much more interested to know what FRAN is thinking here. After all these years, why did she suddenly have a change of heart? What's her plan? Stan didn't change. He's not as interesting.

Karen McCoy said...

It also helps to think about the "why" when it comes to characters. Not where they go, but why they go there. For instance, I'm interested in what made Fran realize she was "three sheets to the wind". What prompted this? Why that day? I'm sure this would be revealed in a longer passage, but it's always fun to think about.

Two really good craft books I'm reading are STORY GENIUS by Lisa Cron and SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody. They have great sections on character too.

Karen McCoy said...

Yup, Lennon took the words right out of my mouth! Smart one, he is.

Tammy said...

I have a similar concern to one listed above - how to tell reasons for choices if I can be in only one head at a time (I do it per chapter). Louise Penny just hops wherever she wants, and it WORKS. Lee Child goes omniscient. As a newbie I'm told those are both illegal if I'm not named Penny or Child.

How to get around this???

Colin Smith said...

Tammy: You said it: "It WORKS." It's not illegal to have multiple POVs, or third-person omniscient, or even second person. Do what works for your novel. If you're not sure, re-write a chapter or two in a different POV (after saving a copy of the original version first, of course). How does that change the characters? Does it improve the story? Perhaps it changes the tone or mood of the novel in a way that excites you. Or maybe it makes it just makes the novel harder to write. Experiment! Try things out. You're allowed. :)

How does that affect telling reasons for choices? You may have to show them, not tell them...

Colin Smith said...

... okay, so that wasn't a helpful way to end my comment. By "show them not tell them" I mean, you may need to do more to show the character's personality, so the choice they make seems logical for them--you don't need to be told. OR it's out-of-character, in which case someone at some point will ask, and they will tell via dialog.

Just some suggestions. :)

Elissa M said...

Great advice as always. My characters' motivations and choices are clear in my head. They just don't always get on the page. (Something my beta readers tend to point out.)

Am I the only one here who lived near Bisbee for 26 years and has been there many, many, many times? Yeah, lots of narrow, steep roads, but not really many stop lights. It's mostly a very picturesque mountain town. Been used in a few films.

John Davis Frain said...

Mystic River! Be still my heart. If Lehane hadn't written Shutter Island, then Mystic River would be his best ever.

I'd also offer up The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian (sp?) as a recent example of character choices.

This was a great post, Janet, thank you for the thinking. Wow, I've missed this neighborhood after being sick so long. Good to (almost) be back!