Making Choices in your Narrative

Some writers may talk about their characters and their stories as if they spring fully-formed out of the ether, flowing through the writer’s fingers like barely-captive lightning direct from the beyond. But for everyone else, writing is a constant series of choices.

The first challenge of making choices is coming up with options—if you can come up with more than one. If not, then it’s hardly a choice and you just have to go with what you’ve got. If you can, then first you have to determine when you are done searching for choices; is there something else just out of grasp that would be perfect? At some point, you have to accept what you have, one choice or ten, and go from there.

Every choice is an opportunity, but it’s also a loss of opportunity. Once a single pathway is taken, all other pathways close off. Occasionally, you might find a way to reincorporate them in a different way; for example, a story I had thought abandoned might now be useful to me as a secondary plotline. For the most part, however, every choice makes your story that much more specific and defined, and closes off the multitude of vague shapes it could have taken.

When making a choice, there are several things to consider. First I try to come up with as many viable options as possible, so I know I have the most informed choice to make. Try an original choice, a cliché choice, a direct-from-this-other-work-with-a-bit-of-disguise choice, a nonsensical choice, a stupid choice; try a choice you never thought you wanted.

Then you want to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each choice. Consider the difficulty of writing that choice, or the possible reception it may receive, or whether or not you would like a book that made that choice. Think about which disadvantages are a deal breaker—you for sure want one book and this choice would make it too complex for just one? Then that’s not going to work.

But also look at the advantages—where are they coming from? It’s okay to consider an audience’s opinion, but if it’s in direct contradiction to your own opinion, then (I think at least) you should always go with your own preference over someone else’s.

I wrote a while ago about “realism” in fiction, and how while I appreciate and admire it, I don’t want that sort of bleak outlook in my own work. Today, I faced a choice that might be shocking or original or really interesting, but I realized the reader would end the book sad or even devastated (if I were talented enough to wring that sort of emotion out of them). For another writer, that might be just what they want—but while I want to tell an interesting story with lots of conflict, and I won’t shy away from sadness when it’s the right choice for the story, I don’t want the story to deflate in agony for the sake of realism or shock value.

And so I made a choice. The path I chose might be less original, or to someone else, not as “good.” But I’m happier with this path than with the other option, and so I know it’s the right one.

If you make your choice but aren’t sure about it, and find yourself longing for another path, think carefully about where your feelings are coming from. Making changes to go back on previous choices isn’t forbidden or even necessarily bad—but it can open up a doubt spiral that might swallow the whole project whole. Depending on how large the effect of the change would be, how far back you have to go to change the choice, and how often you end up wavering like this, it might be worth gritting your teeth and working through the end of the draft without making the change. But that’s easier said than done; I know that better than anyone.

And sometimes you make a choice and you feel it isn’t good enough, but nothing else is either. This is tough, too, since it can make you feel like an inferior writer. But just like most writing, you have to trust in the multilayered process to improve everything with time and effort, and you also have to realize that your perspective on a choice might be completely different once it’s written. A mentality that seems to be working for me now (during this one-month challenge) is that I’m still learning and growing as a writer, and maybe my “early work” will be a bunch of dumb novels, but that doesn’t mean it will define my writing talent forever.

Above all else, choose to keep writing.

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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