Quick, what’s one thing you need in every scene?
This question can have a lot of answers – tension, conflict, stakes, emotion, action…on and on it goes. But I would argue one of the most important is one of the most basic: choice.
Characters with agency are always doing, acting, and pushing the story forward. Without action, the story stalls, which is why conflict is so important: problems, obstacles, challenges, adversaries…these things force our characters to do something to navigate past the things blocking their way. The linchpin that connects conflict to action and puts your character in the driver’s seat is choice.
Choices come in all shapes and sizes and should rarely be easy to make. Instead, they should force the character to weigh and measure, to think about possible consequences, who will be impacted, what will be lost and gained. If your character can’t see any good options at all, it comes down to what will do the least damage and to whom. Let’s look at some of the ways we can force our characters to make hard decisions.
Dilemmas: When neither choice is ideal, you have a dilemma. Decision-making will require weighing and measuring, because no matter what choice is made, there will be blood. Sometimes these choices come down to what the character is willing to sacrifice, or their preferences. Occasionally dilemmas can be between two positive choices, in which case it’s a win-win scenario.
Hobson’s Choice: This is the choice between something unwanted and an option that is even worse…kind of like expecting a raise at work but instead being given the choice of a deep pay cut or being laid off.
Sophie’s Choice: This scenario is one where the character must choose between two equally horrible options. Named for the book (and movie) Sophie’s Choice, in which the character must decide which of her two children will be killed, this is known as the impossible, tragic choice. However, it can also simply be a time-and-place decision when the character can only be in one place at that time.
Morton’s Fork: This choice is agonizing because both options lead to the same end. Die now or die later type scenarios. It’s a deceptive choice because there is only one outcome.
Moral Choices: Moral choices are those requiring the character to decide between two competing beliefs or choose whether or not to follow a moral conviction. Protect a loved one or turn him over to the police? Moral choices require the character to rationalize the decision so they can feel okay about making it.
Do Something or Nothing: In some cases, the character can choose to intervene or not get involved. These often carry a cost: a risk to their reputation (if not acting paints them as a coward), the moral repercussions of deciding to do nothing (after, say, letting someone die), or even a safety cost (if they choose to save someone who turns out to be a threat).
Make Sure Choices Carry Weight.
Brainstorm possible complications that will further stress your character, increase the stakes or fallout, and create a fresh twist to your scenario. Use these challenge questions to help you:
- What unforeseen consequences could happen because of this choice?
- Is there an unknown factor or missing piece of information that can allow me to create a reversal of the consequences and a fresh twist of fate?
- What sacrifice can I build into this choice that disconnects the character from a safety net that’s actually holding them back (especially when this separation is needed for the character to grow and change)?
- How can I tempt the character into making the wrong choice?
- How can I raise the stakes further?
Surprise Readers With a Third Option
When it comes to wowing readers, one technique that never fails is to find the third option.
Imagine it. The walls have closed in, and your character has only two foreseeable choices. Neither is ideal, but there seems to be no other route forward.
All is lost…or so the reader thinks.
Because you–incredible story wizard that you are–have the character come up with a new, ingenious, and completely viable option so they can blaze their own trail. This third path will delight readers because it’s something they should have seen themselves but didn’t, and it upends their expectations in the best possible way.
The Firm provides a great example of this. Fresh out of law school, tax lawyer Mitch McDeere lands a too-good-to-be-true job at a law firm in Memphis. This dream job turns into a nightmare when he discovers the firm is engaging in white-collar crime for mobsters in Chicago. When he’s approached by the FBI, he’s given two choices—either continue with the corrupt law firm and eventually be thrown in jail, or work for the FBI as an informant, be disbarred, and be targeted by the mob.
The pressure is on and it seems there are no other options, but Mitch comes up with a third one: to turn over evidence for a lesser crime (mail fraud) that targets the firm instead of the Morolto crime family. This allows him to continue working as a lawyer, avoid jail, and escape the FBI’s noose.
When your character finds a third option that allows him to sidestep nasty consequences, he gets to keep his head above water and fight another day. And his ingenuity will give readers yet another thing to love about the character.
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