Monday, July 26, 2010

Decisions, Decisions...

A while ago, I was watching an old episode of a television show that, while I find it entertaining, I don't take particularly seriously. I don't take it seriously, because, well, I find it rather ridiculous. I find it somewhat ridiculous, because the characters, whenever anything happens, tend to take the most outlandish or over the top response and run with it as fast and as far as they can before someone vaguely reasonable character turns around and makes them knock it off.

The show demonstrated this quality during the old episode when the Male Lead walked in on Female MC (with whom he's in love) and His Best Friend in a darkened room, alone, on a bed. When I saw this situation unfolding, I thought, "Wow, we're seeing the potential for High Drama. This could be really interesting. Interpersonal relations here could get much more complicated. Yay! ..... Wait, they're going to find a way to screw this up."

They did.

Instead of having an interesting reaction or having his relationships with either character change, nothing happened. The Male Lead went wacky for 30 seconds. Then it all shut down and went almost completely back to normal. No drama, just a few moments of the ridiculousness. I rolled my eyes.

What happened at that moment right before the Male Lead went wacky was the writers made a choice. They made the decision not to choose the highly dramatic route, or really, any dramatic route at all. They decided to go with the ridiculous. They decided.

At every point in the writing process, the author has to make a decision. Does the MC have a good relationship with this character? How does this character secretly feel about the MC? Should these characters turn left at this fork or right?

Every time a character makes a decision in the book, the author also made that decision to move the story forward. The choices the author makes should be moving the story forward, upping the stakes, increasing the tension. Writing is an active mental process where everything must be calculated to up the ante of the story.

The secret problem of having a lot of decisions to make is that you have to make these decisions, you have to keep your hand on the wheel, because if you stop making the choices, if you start flipping coins for your characters or guessing at what they should do next, then you surrender your control.

When you surrender your power to make the decisions of the story, you'll lose your control of the narrative. Characters will do random stuff that doesn't move the story forward, that doesn't make sense, or doesn't align with your actual intentions. That's bad. As writers, we're basically playing God in this universe, we need to be in control of it. We are the music makers, and we are the deciders.

How do you feel about decisions? Do you ever feel like your narratives are getting away from you? Do you make all of your decisions?


  1. Ah, it's so important to be in control, I agree. You always mention movies and tv shows here and I'm always wondering which ones you're talking about! Good way to keep me on my toes. :)

  2. No, my characters don't wander off. I know them in such detail, what makes them tick and why. I could only be more shocked if I did something out of character. ;)

  3. I've upped the ante on my MC again and again but then I've also given her some down time to think about her next move.

    I've heard that every page should be full of tension, until the big fat roaring climax but that just leads to headaches for me.

    I think down time is good.

    As for the male lead in the program, the writer's just didn't care. They knew an explosion wouldn't sell the commercial spots.

  4. Yes...I make all of the decisions! I'm always looking for ways to up the ante in every scene, making my reader sit up in his chair. I don't always succeed as well as I'd like, but not for a lack of trying. :)

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  6. I absolutely agree: every decision made for the characters should squeeze the reader's heart and wrench the reader's gut a little bit more. This is particularly true in the beginning and middle of the book as the plot thickens. I like to say I'm in control of all the decision-making in early drafts, but the truth is my characters sometimes take it upon themselves to go left when I'm ordering them right. If their decisions squeeze my heart and wrench my gut, then I hang on for dear life and let them go with it. :))

  7. Decisions have to move the story forward, and if they don't, then they are the wrong decisions. I totally agree that you cannot have huge drama and then no pay off, it's like what on earth happened there?!

  8. Michelle -- I must admit, the real reason I don't name names of things I critique is that I don't want to be unkind. If I like something, I'll happily give the details. But, if it keeps things interesting, that's always a plus.

    Elaine -- Respect. Knowing your characters that well is awesome.

    Piedmont -- I agree, downtime is useful, so long as something is happening. Characters need to process what's going on just like the readers do. Just so long as the entire book isn't down time.

    DL -- Well, efforts definitely worth something. I'm sure the attention to the issue shows.

    Nicole -- I can understand that. Sometimes stories unfold in unexpected ways during the writing process. That's why editing rocks. It gives us a chance to regain control.

    Jayne -- I concur. If nothing happens, the reader's going to sense that the writer took a potential conflict and went the other way.

  9. I have seen this happen, especially in TV, a lot. I think it's not as common as it used to be. In old tv shows, every episode existed as though in some sort of independent bubble of the spacetime continuum from every other show. Characters seldom ever even referred to the events of other episodes.

    "Hey, remember last week when you were kidnapped, shot in the arm and decided to move to Rhodesia but changed your mind because of one thing I said at the airport? Yeah, that was cool. Anyway, I found a baby mammoth stuck in a mine shaft...."

    But I do wish you would consider being more specific about the show, so your dear readers could place the show in context, and also judge the scene for ourselves. I applaud your reticence to be rude, but here are four good reasons in favor of specificity:

    1. You aren't rude. You engaged in no ad hominem attacks or snark-for-snark's sake. You provided a genuine, well-thought critique. There's nothing wrong with that.

    2. There's no such thing as bad publicity. If you don't want to mention something by name because you don't want to endorse it -- it's THAT bad -- fair enough. But don't worry about turning people off an otherwise okay show. I read a review of Twilight saying it was the worst movie ever, and why, laughed my head off, forwarded it to my friend, and added, "When are we going to see this?"

    3. Someone may disagree. Maybe they saw something in the scene/show differently than you did. But it's hard to discuss if we don't know the show.

    4. If one is trying to learn a craft, the more concrete the examples, the better. I *think* I know what you mean by "went wacky" but... actually, no I don't. However, if I know the episode and show I can, if I want, actually look up the script and read the exact dialogue which did/not work. And see why.

    Just sayin.' :)

  10. Tara -- I think you raise some valid reasons for giving more concrete names. I'll certainly consider your points next times it comes up.