“There are a lot of ways for a novelist to create suspense, but also really only two: one a trick, one an art. The trick is to keep a secret. Or many secrets, even. The art meanwhile, the thing that makes Pride and Prejudice so superbly suspenseful…is to write stories in which characters must make decisions.”
So says Charles Finch in a piece for The New York Times Book Review (published May 22, 2015). It seems like common sense rather than art, to talk about characters making decisions, but we don’t automatically write stories with this in mind. It’s possible to write scenes filled with rich setting and character details, that don’t focus on decision-making.
“His hands were like robotic claws, disconnected from his body, with minds of their own. They picked up strange objects and everyday things that other people paid no attention to. Like the odd bits of copper- reddish-brown tubes, thin curled circles, flat rectangular plates- scattered about the cement floor of the half-finished house his plumber Grandpa was working in. Seans’ pockets bulged with the cast-off copper. Grandpa didn’t mind. He told him he had been the same when he was a teenager, always needing to keep his hands busy.”
This is the opening paragraph of a story I wrote based on the prompt, “write about a teenager.” Rereading the story, I see that I set a leisurely pace that meanders towards an ending in which Sean doesn’t make a decision, as much as come to some self-awareness about himself. There’s nothing wrong with what I wrote but it falls a little flat. Stories come to life when there is something at stake. The act of making a decision, pushes the action forward. Decisons have consequences.
I’ve had Finch’s article in a file for a year. When I reread the quote this week, it had fresh meaning for me. I am revising a different story and the feedback I’ve received about the ending is that it’s not satisfying. My main character witnesses a brutal act by her longtime lover. She is devastated. We see her loneliness, hear about the challenges and heartbreak she’s faced in this relationship and we want her to make a decision that will make her life better. But she doesn’t. She lies down and sleeps without dreaming.
I’ve been thinking about Lauren Kirshner’s comment in the Advanced Workshops last spring; that fictional characters can do things that are larger than life. We know that in the real world change happens slowly and that people get stuck in- relationships, jobs, places- for years, unable to break away. But one of the reasons we read fiction, is to imagine another possibility.
Whatever your personal experience may be, your character is free to make decisions and take action. I realize I’ve carried my personal baggage about decision-making into this story that I am editing. More than once in my life I’ve put up with unacceptable circumstances rather than make a difficult choice. I know what it feels like to live in limbo. But if writing is among other things, a way to exonerate personal ghosts, then I have a chance with this story and this character, to stand up and say “enough.”
Joe Bunting, in an article for www.thewritepractice.com, says:
“At the end of the day, a story, like a life, doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to choose something.”
Resolution is what we crave when we read a story. We want to believe that it’s possible to change our lives. This doesn’t mean that the change has to be dramatic, but it should signal a breakthrough. And if after some soul searching, doing nothing is the right decision for a character, then the reader will want to know why. Take us inside your characters’ head; expose some of her secrets.
Janice Hardy says in her online piece, “Decisions, Decisions: Character Choices that Matter”:
“The other half of choosing is fear you’re making the wrong choice.”
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen lets this fear build and build before allowing some resolution. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy make more than one wrong decision, and for much of the book we watch the consequences of these decisions cause havoc. When these two characters finally figure out they are meant for each other, we feel giddy with relief.
Some of the best examples of decision-making driving the action, are on Netflix, in three of my favourite series: Homeland, Silk, and Happy Valley. I won’t give anything away in case you haven’t seen any episodes, but these three series feature strong female characters who must make tough decisions constantly. They find themselves in situations that are disturbing and that require them to face their fears. This makes for compelling viewing.
My story, the one I’m revising, is opening up old wounds that are painful to poke around in. That’s one reason for the soft ending. I wasn’t sure I wanted my character to explore possibilities that in real life, I was afraid to try. So it’s back to some free writing, to see what the future holds for my character.
There is a useful Natalie Goldberg prompt in her book, Wild Mind, that has helped me in the past.
Here it is – give it a try:
- Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Go for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. Be willing to be split open.
Til next time, keep writing.