One of the strongest unsung traits of a good novelist is decisiveness. This is likely true of screenwriters and memoirists – any long form narrative. When writing a poem or a short story, for example, I can exist in a kind of suspended state and manage my way to an ending. In a larger, rangier narrative, that suspension can’t last, not for me at least. My intellect is involved early on. I have to make decisions. Sometimes I can know what the story will be, more or less, but my intellect weighs in on how it should be told – points of view, tense, structure. If I leave too many options open, I can’t commit. If I don’t commit, I can’t get it wrong and then eventually right – or right-ish.
I had a student this fall who could see multiple ways through her work. This is an excellent trait, by and large. The agility of mind to see – really see – different paths through your work is crucial. And that’s one thing that’s gotten easier for me the more novels I’ve written. The problem was that she kept each of those paths open without committing.
Imagine these paths hard-earned by a machete hacking through a jungle. She would find herself, in each path, at another fork and then another and another. Deep into the jungle, she talked to me about her deeper forks. I couldn’t help her – too much foliage, too many alternate universes, too many slightly different versions of her characters. She needed to commit.
Committing to one narrative and seeing her best way through, on the page, would allow her to emotionally commit. This main character – the kind of person who’s made these decisions – is much easier to deal with when reaching a fork. Character equals plot, as they say. So we know our characters by what they do. Her characters were all a bit unformed, living out their multiple existences. It was time to choose one and stick to it. This commitment might have felt like a loss, but I wanted her to frame it as empowering.
Committing would also allow her to use her brain space for the prime narrative. Veering to a different metaphor, keeping multiple blueprints of the same city in layers in your head becomes mentally exhausting.
Even if her decisions were wrong – and, trust me, a first draft will be full of wrong decisions – she’d be able to finally reach a final draft. And that’s where the work truly begins.
I’m fond of saying that each novel teaches me how to write it. But many lessons learned from one novel are transferable to the next, and, more importantly, these forks start to become familiar. I know what questions to ask myself before I choose a path. (This is where I can help a student, by asking hard-earned questions.)
Here are a few questions I might ask.
- Which path actually raises the stakes? Go with that one.
- Which path is going to take pressure off the main character? Avoid it.
- Which path is going to pull the narrative action away from the main characters that the reader is invested in? If possible, redirect so that the action belongs, more closely, to a main character.
- Which path is more visually compelling?
- Is your character pulling you hard down a certain path? This is important. Sometimes characters know why they need to do what they need to do long before you do. A character telling you her story – voice – can carry a novel and truly make your decisions incredibly clear. Someone else is making them for you.
- Which path scares you? Fear is a positive indicator.
- Is there a path you’re dying to write? Prize that one.
A lot of impulses collide – instinct, intuition, intellect, desire, longing. Mainly you can’t allow the suspended state to be fear of commitment. Eventually, paralysis will set in. What helps me commit is that I know I’m going to make the wrong decisions, take the wrong paths. But while down the wrong path, I might find something essential – let’s say, for the sake of grinding this metaphor into the dirt, a white teak blossom or a poisonous blue frog – and I take them with me. As much as I am a novelist, I’m also a machete-wielding collector of odd things, hacking through one jungle after another.
When facing a fork in the road that is your work-in-progress, how to you choose? The floor is yours.