A monthly column of wit, insight, irreverance and inspiration

by a published author and veteran of the publishing trenches.

The Ink-Stained Wretch

Don Whittington

August, 1999

One From Column A…


Say a guy pulls a gun and points it at you. At that moment you have several choices open to you.

  —You can try to talk him out of shooting you

  —You can try to take it away from him

  —You can flee

  —You can pull your own gun

  —You can beg for your life

  —You can say, "Hey, great looking gun you got there!"

And so on.  You can even try to ignore him.  But the point is, once you do one of these things, you have influenced whatever happens next.  In other words, your choice makes all the difference.  Choose well and you live.  Choose badly and you get shot.

In real life it is important to choose well.  In fiction it is important to choose badly.

If you've done any research into writing then you know all about "story problems" and how important they are to fiction.  Some teachers call them "complications" or "setbacks" but they rarely tell you how to achieve them in simple terms; mostly they just tell you your story has to have some.

So how do you get these complications? You get them by giving your characters choices and then letting them make the wrong one.  Gone With the Wind is ultimately the story of a woman who makes one poor choice after another about men until finally she picks the right man who leaves her.  Notice, she doesn't just choose badly once: she does it over and over.

Consider Disney's Pinocchio.  Here's a character who makes the wrong choice so many times you want to wring his neck.  As a child watching this movie you think , "I would never be that stupid."  But it fascinates you.  Here's a case where the author not only makes his character choose badly, he provides a second character (Jiminy Cricket) to keep pointing it out.  Pinocchio's choices are so bad for so long that he nearly loses everything important to him.  In the end he chooses well, and he is redeemed.  He could have done that up front, of course, but if he had THERE'D HAVE BEEN NO STORY!

Some stories revolve around a noble choice.  Huck Finn's choice to run away with Jim is hard to fault.  But he makes enough poor choices thereafter to keep the story going.  Otherwise, Twain would have written, "And so we went down the river until we found a town where me and Jim could open a store. The end."  Characters who choose well all the time are boring and self-righteous.  They're okay if you need someone to found a religion on, but they make for dull stories unless you surround them with characters who choose badly for comparison.

Look at the Bible.  Moses argues with God, not the brightest choice for a start. But when he submits to God's will his followers constantly (and repetitively) make poor choices.  And who pays for their poor choices?  Moses.  The story of Christ follows this same pattern.  Christ does everything right, but his followers get it wrong time after time.  And who foots the bill?  Christ.

When your protagonist makes a poor choice,  dramatic potential increases.  His motivation is clarified for the reader.  He blames himself, perhaps, and so he has to make things right.  Or perhaps he is hiding from his own guilt which infuriates those who love or hate him.  I'm quite sure I would walk barefoot across broken glass from Texas to Alaska if that's what it took to save my child, but I'm going to be just that bit more determined if it was my fault my child was in jeopardy to begin with.

Make enough poor choices and soon you find your world crumbling around you.   It drives you to the edge, and that's where you want your story to be.  The edge is something sensible folks back away from lest they fall, but in stories we want to keep our characters on that brink so we can gain insight into how it feels to court disaster.

An old cliche says that any time your story drags you should type "Suddenly the door burst inward…" and write about what happens next.  You could as easily say that every time your story drags, you should give your protagonist an opportunity to choose.  So long as he makes a lousy choice, your next step should be easy.


About The Author:

Adult titles by Donald Whittington:

Blood Coin, HarperPaperback, 1994 Grim Weeper, HarperPaperback,1995

Children's works by Don Whittington:

Werwolf Tonight, Avon, 1995 Empire Mom, Avon,1995 Spook House, Avon, 1995 Zombie Queen, Avon, March, 1996 Freak Show, Avon, June, 1996

Don Whittington is represented by: The William Morris Agency, New York