Friday, September 29, 2017

An Inventory of Bad Decisions in Your Book--And Why Bad Decisions Make the Best Stories

A student in my classes complained about her writer's block.   She'd started her book with a bang, writing four chapters that just flowed out.   Then, she hit chapter 5.  Stuck. Nothing happened--either on the page or with the pen.

Remembering a friend's motto, "bad decision make the best stories," I suggested this writer inventory the bad decisions in her chapters.

I asked her to make a list of any moment that a choice went awry, that cause led to challenges instead of smoothness.  Search for anything that created unease or more trouble.

I firmly believe the momentum of a story comes from its qualities of risk.  If the writer can edge closer to the edge of her story, she'll naturally create tension in the writing.  It won't feel good, perhaps, especially if she's someone who likes life on an even keel.  But it will raise the stakes, and that's what makes good story. 

This writer was working on her storyboard so she went back to it.  As she reviewed the plot points, she realized nothing big had happened after the great beginning of chapter 1.  She had rationalized that she was saving the big stuff for later. 

But with zero bad decisions, there was also zero momentum.   Very little energy to propel the plot.

As she explained her dilemma and her choices, I realized that this writer is a very nice person.  She believes in a world where most people are good at heart.   She knew she had to get her characters in trouble, but she resisted it in every way.  They were like her, good people too. 
I like her, who wouldn't? And I also believe in that kind of world. But not on paper. Not in fiction or memoir, especially if you want to publish today.
I'm not suggesting you have to make murder and mayhem.  Bad decisions can just be telling a white lie, and watching the consequences unfold.   I asked this writer if she'd ever told a white lie, and she said, "Of course, who hasn't?"
"Find your bad decisions," I suggested. "List them, then transport one into your story."
Finding Bad Decisions--This Week's Writing Exercise
We've all made bad decisions. We've been on the receiving end of other people's, too.  They are hard to forget, no matter how hard we try.

Think of one.  Then remember your "story" after the bad decision.   It probably had drama, movement, energy, and consequences.

That's what you're after in your writing.

This week, write about one really bad decision you made in your life.   Write about it in all its glory.  I like to set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes, to limit the agony.   Maybe you're far enough away to not feel the pain of it again, but if you do feel some embarrassment or unease as you write, good thing--because it'll make the writing that much more emotionally grabbing for a reader.
Now look at your book draft.  List the bad decisions, small and large.  Where are they placed in the plot?  Remember, they are the propellant for your story.  If they are clumped together, they'll create a bang, yes, but the long period of nothing happening that follows the bang will read like a whimper.  Or worse, a flat line. 

If you don't have many bad decisions on your list, make another list.  Write down 10 things your character would never do. (Use this equally for memoir or fiction.)   Now write one scene, one moment, using one item on the list--imagining it happening.  Imagine the bad decision and the shame, embarrassment, bad news that follows.  Cause and effect, right?  That's what story is made of.

See if this provides momentum.   Gets you unstuck.   Out of that "still life."