How Choice Creates Compelling Fiction

choice paths
Photo by Pixource on Pixabay

Think fast. What’s the secret to a fantastic novel?

It’s not mastering the story arc (because naturally, you want your book to read EXACTLY like every other book sold).

It’s not avoiding a specific point of view (yes, you actually can do third-person omniscient).

Truly compelling fiction, in my view, revolves around one thing—choice.

Why choice is foundational for compelling fiction

There are three big reasons choice is so critical to fantastic fiction.

1. Choice directs and paces your plot.

Every inciting incident ever was written hinges around a choice—how will the character respond to what happened? Choices can keep characters stuck in one place or propel them forward. By presenting the right choices at the right time, you hit the ideal cadence.

2. Choice in fiction is that it gives readers the opportunity to know your characters.

I’m not talking about superficial stuff like Joe Beans has red hair instead of brown. I’m talking about the deep psychological motivations that help your characters seem real enough to empathize with.

In my newest novel, for example, my main character has to decide whether to get on a roller coaster. She hates roller coasters. But she hates one of the other characters more. Her choice to get on says something about the lengths she’ll go to so she can prove that she’s better than they are. It shows she’s willing to endure something uncomfortable if it will give her an edge.

As a more classic example, take Fantine from Les Miserables, one of my favorite books. Her story becomes agonizingly poignant because, with every choice (selling her hair, then her teeth, then her body), we see just how strong her love for her daughter and her willingness to sacrifice are. We see how a continued lack of social mercy can rip someone apart.

3. Choices become key to one of the most foundational writing rules—show, don’t tell.

We can show how characters feel about the choices in front of them by what they do, whether that’s making a face, staying silent, or running away. When you know the choice and have decided how the character will move forward with it, then it’s just a matter of letting your reader visualize that process.

This doesn’t mean that your readers must understand your characters 100 percent right away. In fact, if you provide backstory little by little, you can create curiosity about why the character is deciding or acting as they are, which keeps the reader motivated to keep peeling back layers. It also doesn’t mean that your readers must like your characters. Villains can be especially slimy when you do a good job of revealing their mindset and offering details about what they do.

What will your characters do now?

When your readers can see the character reacting and come to understand the character’s why, something magical happens. We compare what the characters are doing and thinking to what we would do and think. They offer a chance for us to think about our own standards and where those standards come from, and so as we learn about them, we learn about ourselves.

This is a hallmark of great writing—the ability for the story to get us to question and evaluate who we are and how we influence the world.

So if you’re not sure what to do with a draft, give your characters something to react to. Let us see truths about ourselves through them and they always will feel timeless.