Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Choices

Stories are rich in choices. Here I'm referring to characters' choices, although certainly writers face many choices as they construct a story.

Choices carry natural suspense and tension--they should create uncertainty, and yet their outcome should feel "right" and believable. Here are some examples of central choices in YA books:

Braless in Wonderland, by Debbie Reed Fischer: Should Allee go to college right away as she has always planned, or take a detour to pursue modeling offers, which will allow her to travel?

Bunheads, by Sophie Flack: Is Hannah satisfied with focusing single-mindedly on her dance career just when she is starting to see success, or does she want to have time and energy to explore other interests?

The Day Before, by Lisa Schroeder: Should Cade and Amber follow through with life-changing obligations, or escape and keep their current lives intact?

The love triangle is a classic example of a choice often found in books. Then there are, in the most extreme examples of choice, the life-or-death decisions such as those in Unwind (Neal Shusterman), Crash Into Me (Albert Borris), and The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins).

I've been thinking about choices because I have a two-part short story in the January and February issues of Cricket Magazine. (You can read a summary of the January issue here--my story is the one about Everest.) Central to that story is the main character's choice of whether to pursue his dreams, even if it means defying his mother and taking risks--and his mother's choice of how much to allow him to do. I struggled with the ending to the story and initially left it much more open-ended, but the editor encouraged me to take the next step, to follow through, to document the characters' decisions. And so I made a choice that was, for me, almost as scary as the characters'.

As a writer, choice can be scary because we risk disappointing some readers. If the two possibilities are equally compelling, then the road not taken will have fans (notice how the participants in love triangles even have "teams" rooting for each of them?). But that can be positive, too. I think there's value in allowing readers to ask, "What would have happened if the character had chosen the other option?"

4 comments:

  1. My publisher always has me write up Reader Guides for my books, and that would be a great question to ask on them - "What would have happened if the character chosen the other option?"

    What a fun way to look at a story!

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  2. Choices make for compelling reading, I think. We all have choices, often difficult, to make in our lives, so we enjoy reading about the choices that others must make. Yet, as writers, we risk disappointing our readers when our characters make decisions. However, we probably get them thinking. As a reader, I love it when a novel leaves me pondering.

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  3. "Choices carry natural suspense and tension..."
    Well said, Jenn. And part of the tension of creating a story is deciding what our characters will choose. ^_^

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  4. Michelle: You're right about the reader guides. And debating "what if" is one of my favorite things to do--in fact, I blathered on this blog not long ago about several "what ifs" in The Hunger Games trilogy!

    Cynthia: Sometimes I wonder if, the higher the stakes, the greater the suspense, the more investment people have in the outcome (which also risks disappointment for those readers who hoped for the other alternative!).

    Angelina: I think of it as the characters making the choice, but the problem is when they are coy and won't tell me what they want. ;-)

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