Wednesday, August 18, 2010

More Choices

What I'm reading: The Black Cat, by Martha Grimes

Thanks, J.L. for your post yesterday. A lot of those authors are on my Keeper Shelf as well.

Today, as well as being here, I'm at the Single Titles blog, discussing multi-layered characters.

Since Monday's blog on Choices seemed to generate some interest, I thought I'd take it a little further with some examples.

Writing professionals much more knowledgeable than I have stressed that your characters must want something in every scene, even if it's only a glass of water.

For any "want" there are three possible outcomes: Yes, No, or Yes, but.

Let's see what happens with each.

If the answer is "yes" your scene is pretty much over. The conflict is gone; the character has what he wanted.

If the answer is "no" then your character must move on. He either tries another approach to meeting his goal, or changes his goal. There's some conflict here, and your reader might be saying, "Hmmm…so what will he do now?"

Perhaps the best outcome for the story is the "yes, but" because it means the character must make a choice.

Let's say Joe desperately needs a raise. Maybe his mother will be kicked out of her nursing home if he can't make their increased payments. Or she needs an expensive medical treatment. Or she's fallen prey to the Nigerian Internet Scam. It's your story, you get to decide. He goes to talk to his boss.

1. The boss says yes, Joe says thanks and everything is sweetness and light.

2. The boss says, no. Joe either has to wait until the next raise opportunity, or he might quit. There are a few more possibilities, but slamming doors in your character's face might not give you enough places to go next.

3. The boss says "yes, I'll increase your salary by 33%, but you will have to change your work schedule. Instead of Monday through Friday, you'll work Wednesday through Sunday."

Sounds good. But what if Joe works with inner city children on the weekends, and without him, it's likely they'll go over to the dark side? Maybe Joe is the only stable element in their lives, and if he leaves, he takes their trust and future with him?

Now Joe has choices to make. He gets the raise, the kids lose out. He doesn't get the raise—he can't afford to keep his mother in her nursing home.

Sometimes it's good to give the character what they want--but they discover that might not be what they wanted after all.

An example Deb Dixon uses is the pregnant heroine whose only wish is that her baby be given the best possible life, one she was denied. She decides she'll give the baby up for adoption. A wealthy, loving couple seems perfect. Then she has the baby and looks into its eyes. Instant bonding. She has to choose. She wanted a good life As the author, your job is to make the choice difficult. The reader shouldn't be able to know what the choice will be. Or, if there seems to be only one possible choice, then the reader should worry about how the character will be able to deal with it.

In Finding Sarah, Sarah's goal is to be independent, and make a success out of her gift boutique. It's all she has left of her late husband. Throughout the book, as 'bad stuff' happens, she has to make choices. Should she accept financial help from an old friend. To do so would make her indebted to him, and she knows he'll stifle her. As the author, my goal was to keep throwing things at her, seeing how far she would go before she would admit she couldn't go it alone and, more importantly, discover for herself what being independent really meant.

Although not all choices need to have dire consequences, they should all have some consequences. And the consequences shouldn't be, "and everything was wonderful"—at least not until the end of the book. (And even then, they shouldn't be too wonderful!)


Linda Leszczuk said...

This is one of those things that we all sort of know but it really helps when someone spells it out in a way that makes it that much clearer. Thanks.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

It's a given as far as plot: choices have consequences. Characters who refuse to accept this are lacking in understanding.

Terry Odell said...

Linda - glad I could clarify it for you.

Jacqueline-it's the author's job to make the choices difficult and make sure the reader understands the consequences (and cares) so they worry about what the character will do.

Carol Kilgore said...

Great post. I like the 'not too wonderful' ending. I have one of those.

Terry Odell said...

Carol - those "not too wonderful" endings do leave doors open for spin-offs and sequels! Which is what happened with Sarah & Randy. They weren't ready to leave, so they got another chance in Hidden Fire.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Yes, I guess we know it, but I liked the way you put it together. Your teaching talent at work again:)

Maryann Miller said...

Great tips and examples, Terry. It is so helpful to have concrete examples, and I agree that the perfect happy ending to a scene or a story is not nearly as interesting as a more ambiguous one.

Ray said...

Good blog Terry. I just downloaded and read WORDS. What a beautiful love story.


Terry Odell said...

Ray, I'm so glad you enjoyed Words. One always has a soft spot for one's "first-born"

Terry Odell said...

Maryann, I agree -- the reader can't be left hanging (although I've seen it done), but neat-and-tidy packages wrapped in shiny paper and tied with gold ribbons aren't needed, either.