Saturday, August 27, 2011

Why Bad Decisions Make Good Stories--A Cure for Writer's Block

I'm on a writing sabbatical this week so I'm rerunning a favorite post from December 2009--hope you enjoy it!

Still life--may be nice to look at but not the stuff good stories are made of.

Bad decisions? Ah, there you have my interest.  Friction and fracas--they are the real meat of the plotting craft.  Is enough happening in your book?  Are you stuck in a "still life" that's beautiful but not going anywhere?

An editor from a well-known literary journal once told me 90 percent of the stories he reads are rejected, and most for the same reason:  nothing happens.

Don't let that happen to your book!

Why Bad Decisions Make Good Stories
A friend from Florida just emailed me a list of random thoughts, truisms to laugh at or shake your head over. Here's the one that grabbed me for this week's writing exercise: "Bad decisions make good stories." Funny, but really accurate. A good motto for writers.

Bad decisions are one of the only ways plot is furthered in memoir and fiction. If you're stuck in a rut, chances are your writing is staying too safe.

This week's discussion and exercise looks at a simple question. Why are you keeping bad decisions out of your book?

The Downside of Staying Safe
A student in my classes complained about her writer's block. She wrote several chapters that just flowed out. Then, about chapter 5, she got stuck. Nothing happened--either on the page or with the pen. I suggested she look at the bad decisions in her chapters. Try to find something that made everyone uneasy or got them into trouble.

What you're after here are the qualities of risk. What does the edge feel like? What does it feel like to "up the stakes" in your writing?

This writer was working on her book's storyboard (a visual map we create in my workshops and classes) so I suggested she review the main plot points.  As she scanned them, she realized nothing big had happened after the opening event, which triggered her story. Everyone was skating along, keeping the status quo.  This writer realized she had been saving the "good stuff" for later in the book, because she wasn't sure she could conjur up enough of it to spread around. Thus, there were no bad decisions resulting from the triggering (opening) event.  And very little momentum, very little energy to propel the plot.  This was a book that would probably get shelved after chapter 3, unfortunately.

I asked her why she was holding off on getting her characters in trouble via bad decisions.  She explained at length, and I realized that this writer is a very nice person in her real life, someone everyone liked and someone who prized harmony at all costs. She also believes in a world where most people are good at heart, so she just couldn't see how to embarrass her characters with any faux pas.  She liked them all (they were modeled after her!) and she couldn't see a way to paint them as bad people.

I like this writer--who wouldn't? And I also believe in that kind of goodness. 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 what your "story" was after the 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. Where are the bad decisions? If you don't have many, make a list of 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.

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


  1. I love this advice. Readers aren't going to read about characters who do everything right, all the time. They might love them and think they're great people, but if they don't have those driving flaws that get them into trouble, there's no excitement to keep hold of the audience.

  2. Thanks, Paul, glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. Hi Carroll: I wish you had a Share button on your site, b/c I always tweet your posts and share them on FB. Great work. Thanks. (But, do consider a Share, or at least Twitter button.) ;-)