Your phone rings. You check the screen. You don’t recognize the number. Do you answer it?
The cars in front of you on the highway slow down, their brake lights glowing. The traffic is gridlocked up ahead, but there’s an exit just before. Do you take it?
Life is full of decisions, apparently simple choices that could take you in a whole different direction. Fiction, as a reflection of life, is the same. In the hero’s journey – a template for stories found all over the world – there is what Joseph Campbell called the refusal of the call. This is the moment, early in the story, when the hero knows he has to do something to change his ordinary life, but doesn’t yet feel able to take that step. He refuses, and those around him try to convince him that he has to take that journey. Eventually, of course, he will because otherwise there would be no story.
In The Sound of Music, Maria doesn’t want to leave the convent, but Mother Abbess sends her to the von Trapp house anyway, believing it would be a more appropriate environment for Maria. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is different, she wants to leave, and Professor Marvel, the charlatan fortune teller, has to convince her to go back home.
These are big moments of decision in a story, when the main character has to decide whether or not to go on that journey, to cross the ‘first threshold’ into the second act. But the hero makes many more decisions throughout the journey, as do most other characters, and each one of those choices could have a profound effect on the course of the narrative.
In psychology, this moment of decision is called a choice point. Therapists can try to make their patients aware of these moments to recognize the impact of certain choices. The technique can be used for anything from addiction to stress reduction. In anger management, for example, a subject could be aware of the moment where they could choose between flying off the handle or reacting differently, in a way that would ultimately have a better outcome on their life, in a way that they, perhaps later, would have preferred to have reacted. The idea is to encourage flexibility in their response to certain triggers.
The technique is also useful in stories.
‘In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives, he chooses one at the expense of others.’ Jorge Luis Borges, like Joseph Campbell, may not have been very gender inclusive (Campbell’s student, Maureen Murdock, had to come up with the heroine’s journey), but Borges made a good point in his short story The Garden of Forking Paths. In fact, the story describes a novel that is a garden of forking paths, a labyrinth of a story ‘in which all men would lose their way.’
The point is that, for every decision the character makes, there will be a cost as well as a gain. If you answer the phone, it’s probably just another robocall, but it might be the recruiter offering you that new job, but then that might make you late for your date, and you’re not sure if the other person will hang around so long. If you stay on the highway, you could be stuck for hours and you’re already hungry, but take that exit and you might end up in that neighborhood where there were twenty carjackings in the last month.
For every major decision your character takes, there should be consequences. The characters will lose something – or not gain something – whatever way they decide to go. This raises the stakes considerably in the scene or the story, adding conflict and drama, increasing tension and suspense – all of which helps to keep readers engaged and turning pages.
Dave Eggers makes good use of this in his latest novel The Parade. The main character has to decide over and over again whether he will report his colleague to the company for breaking the strict rules of their work, or to let it go for another day. If he reports his colleague, it will reflect badly on himself. He should be able to solve the problems on his own. But if he doesn’t report his colleague, the work could be delayed, which would also reflect badly on him, or worse, he could get into serious trouble in this simmering post-conflict environment.
Eggers makes this work so well because he makes the readers aware of the consequences of both choices. He shows the character’s dilemma and makes the readers feel it too, gives them a chance to wonder what they would do in that situation.
Try to become aware of those choice points, of those moments when your character could jump left or right, and then let the readers know what the character will lose, whatever they choose, and how that weighs up against what they could gain. At the same time, try to show that the other way has similar gains and losses. Whatever the decision, it should come with stakes attached, consequences either way.
What dilemmas do your characters face? How do you put readers into the characters’ difficult positions? Can you imagine how being aware of choice points can be useful in your own life?