Saturday, May 16, 2020
Taking the Hardest (And Best) Path in Your Story ~ by Christie Stratos
We’ve all gotten to that point in our writing, whether it’s a short story or a novel, where we can’t decide which path to take. Let me tell you what the wrong decision usually is: the easy one. If you take an easy path out of a tough situation, that means it’s going to be highly likely (1) your reader will have already guessed the direction you’re going and (2) it’s the least interesting option.
If you want to hold the reader’s interest and keep the suspense high, take the road less traveled. Can you skip the action or the part you’re struggling with and then have the character recount what happened in a totally separate scene after the fact? Can you just go with the easiest option and hope the reader sticks around since they already spent money on your book? Or maybe go with something tried and true that you’ve read in loads of other books, even though the reader will probably predict its outcome? Ultimately you can do anything you want. But do you want readers to remember your book for its unique characters and page-turning situations? That should be a resounding yes!
So you’re working on your story and you hit that point we were just talking about—the one where you either don’t know which path to take or you can’t see a way forward at all. How can you choose the toughest path that readers will fawn over but you currently struggle with?
Sometimes we’re blocked by what we think is possible in real life, what we ourselves would be capable of doing. But this is your character, and they have different circumstances and are different people. So just because you couldn’t stand up to your boss and tell them to find another employee who will take their garbage, then walk out of their office and slam the door behind you, it doesn’t mean your character can’t do that and end up with a very tough spot to get out of. Maybe your character expects to be fired and collect unemployment while looking for another job, but they aren’t fired—the boss keeps them working, but he also tortures them with demeaning comments and jobs far below their level, causing other employees to lose respect for your character. It’s the worst kind of revenge—and the best kind of story. Now even if your character quits, they’ll lack a reference from the job they’ve worked at for the past ten years of their life, which looks really bad to a new employer. Good! If you’re having a tough time figuring a way out of this one, so is your reader.
Maybe you’re struggling with figuring out how to move the story forward. Let go and allow your character to do something regardless of what you had planned for the rest of the novel. Pretend your plans, your outlining, and your character sheets (if you have them) don’t exist and move forward. That leaves loads of possibilities open to you, so now it’s a matter of trying out some options (ignore imperfections and cringy writing while you brainstorm—just open up your creative flow and fix it later) and seeing what matches the character and feels really good—and by “really good”, I don’t mean really easy. I mean, if you were a reader, would you be shocked? Would you be dying to read more? Would you have to turn the page? Good, that’s what you want! Figuring your way out may be tricky, but isn’t it worth the time and effort if you stun your reader and stick in their heads?
So stop focusing on “Is this situation too hard to get out of?” and start focusing on “Will my reader be excited about this situation?” After all, Harry Potter never would have become the renowned and celebrated character and series it became without seemingly impossible situations and mind-blowing resolutions.
Listen to Christie Stratos' podcast episode here.