Boost Pacing with Characters’ Choices by Kay Keppler
Let’s welcome back monthly columnist, editor, and novelist, Kay Keppler, as she shares with us “Boost Pacing with Characters’ Choices.” Enjoy!
Probably most of you remember all the big decisions you made, decisions that affected the course of your life.
That’s logical, because starting from the jobs you accept (or don’t) to the person you marry (or don’t), each choice has consequences and repercussions from which there’s no going back.
Your characters must make these kinds of decisions, too. Action defines and shapes who people are—in real life as well as on the page.
In fiction, as in life, decisions drive drama. In real life, you might want to minimize heart-stopping highs and lows. In fiction, however, we want to keep readers turning pages.
Maximizing the decisions your characters make—especially important decisions—will raise the stakes in your stories and boost your pacing, as well.
To let your characters make life-altering decisions, you need to create crises for them to resolve. Every scene, every act, and every book must have a crisis. The crisis for a scene would be smaller than for the entire book, of course, but the structure of any crisis is the same:
• Trigger event. What’s the problem?
• Complication. The problem gets worse.
• Crisis. The problem gets so bad that the character has to fix it. S/he makes a decision.
• Climax. The character acts on the choice.
• Resolution. The problem is resolved (for now at least).
Six Steps for Powerful Choices
You’re probably familiar with that five-point structure for crisis resolution. But who hasn’t read a book or seen a movie and thought that the story elements were far-fetched? Making your readers empathize with these crises—and the decisions of your characters—is difficult. How can you do that?
1. Give your character a desire
Whatever your hero and heroine want, make sure they want it a lot—enough to do something about it. Build up to it. Make sure that their desire is well-enough developed that readers get it.
2. Shape that desire into a goal
Have your character state what the goal is. For a very simple example, say she wants a candy bar. What will s/he do to get it? Make that goal appropriate and reasonable to your character. If a five-year-old wants a candy bar, she might push a chair over to the counter and climb up to get it. A fifteen-year-old runaway might steal it. A forty-year-old businesswoman might buy it. Whatever the character’s goal, have her spell it out. Readers will struggle to follow the story if they don’t understand that this goal drives the action in this scene/act/story.
3. Discover the resistance
If the object of desire is easily attainable, then your story will be a short and boring one. There must be a reason(s) why the protagonist can’t get what s/he wants right now, and those reasons must seem insurmountable. In our candy bar example, the chair is too heavy
for the five-year-old, there’s a cop in the drug store when the runaway walks in, and a thief steals the businesswoman’s purse on the way to the candy store.
4. Engage in conflict
Your characters must fight for what they want—from family or friends, the antagonist, society—even your setting. Without conflict, the protagonist cannot be faced with a tough dilemma and driven to make a powerful choice. With the candy bar, the five-year-old is in conflict with the chair (the setting), and the runaway and businesswoman have police and thief antagonists, respectively, with whom they can engage. What will each do?
5. Make the life-altering, risky choice
The choice must have unimaginable consequences. Few moments in life have no negative—or at least, unforeseen—consequences. Risky choices are risky precisely because there’s almost always something to lose. What if the five-year-old, unable to move the chair,
climbs up the open cabinet drawers and falls? The cop shoots the runaway? The businesswoman chases the thief into the street, where he’s hit by a car?
6. Face the consequences
Readers what to know what happened, so show them. Reveal how acting on this decision affected his/her life. Show what your character gained or lost, and at what cost. Every action has a reaction, and readers are waiting to see what that is.
Pick Up the Action
If you think that the pacing in your story could be better, or if you’re not sure that your characters will engage readers, try giving them more crises—and more problems to solve. Not only will the action pick up, but your characters will gain definition and become deeper and stronger as a result.