Monday, June 17, 2013

It's Your Choice

As a kid, my parents had a tactic that they’d use to help discipline guide my sister and me.
It went something like this…
“If you don’t [insert desired behavior: usually cleaning room, doing homework, or not fighting], you choose to [insert desired threat: usually going to room, forgoing something involving friends, or missing a much anticipated new episode of Fraggle Rock].”
Then they would end the ultimatum offer with the words: “It’s your choice.”
As a mom of two, I have to admit that I’ve adopted this tactic of choice with my son and daughter.  (Minus the Fraggle Rock part.)
What I like about the approach is that it gives my kids some control (or maybe illusion of control?) over their own destiny. They can’t blame anyone for the consequences of their actions, because they knew what was at stake and they actively made their decision.
Who knew my parents parenting tactics would have applicability to my writing craft?
It does.  It really does. So says Cheryl Klein, Scholastic editor extraordinaire.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I had the good fortune of taking Cheryl’s online master plotting course through Writer’s Digest earlier this spring.  I’m using what I learned through that class to revise my contemporary middle grade WIP. The goal is to have it finished up for WriteOnCon 2013 in August. (Do you know WriteOnCon? If not, you can find out more at http://writeoncon.com/)
Part of my revision process at the moment is to look at the root of the action in my plot. Does the action result from my protagonist’s choices, good or bad? Or are things happening to her and she’s simply reacting? I know when I’m reading, the characters that find themselves in trouble as a result of their own doing are much more interesting than characters that find themselves in trouble because of the events happening to them.    
While revising, I’ve found opportunities to change scenes where my protagonist was reacting to or going along with other characters.  For example, in my MG WIP, my protagonist and her ex-best friend must deal with a rift in their friendship. In a current scene, the former best friend shows up at my protagonist’s house. With the ex-best friend there, my MC knows she can ask for the help she needs and the ex-best friend might be open to giving it. In revising that scene, I’m forcing my MC to make a choice: go through her ordeal alone or swallow her pride and call her ex-best friend to ask for help.  In the second scenario, not only does my protagonist have a hard choice to make, there is also more potential for conflict because my protagonist isn’t confident that her ex-best friend wants to reconcile.  
As I move forward, I’m looking at each scene, each chapter to find those places where I can present my main character with tough decisions, and then say to her, “It’s your choice.”
When it comes to my kids, I hope they make good choices.  When it comes to my characters, I hope their choices make for a good story.

How do the choices your characters make affect your story's plot? What would happen to your story if you gave your characters more or tougher choices?

5 comments:

  1. I can relate to your parenting style and writing issues. My MC reacts to conflicts - things happen to her. More revising.

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  2. Great article. I always struggle with the concept of having your characters drive the story forward and not the story drive your characters forward. This puts it in an easier light. Thanks! -RB Austin

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  3. Great thoughts here, making sure choices are more clear for each character. I'll be thinking about this when I return to writing this week!

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  4. This made me laugh, because my mom tried that method for a while. "If you don't behave, you're opting out of the party and choosing to stay in your room instead." Oh come on--a party where I had to interact with people, or license to read and draw quietly in my room? No contest!

    But in writing, yes, it's a great tool. I'm always thinking "what's the worst thing that could happen here?" and although it may not work to actually use it, it helps free up plot point possibilities. Dire or otherwise.

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  5. That's brilliant. I love the connection you drew between parenting and writing. In both cases, we're meant to offer choices. It's true fiction feels more alive if it seems the character really is making those choices and not just reacting to the constructs around him. Nicely put!

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