Drama arises from choices and their consequences. Because choices are key to your novel’s plot—and moral choices are key to your theme—carefully develop the choices you present your protagonist.
1. Don’t make the right choice easy.
Easy choices make for weak storytelling. None of us needs help doing easy things.
● the rich young ruler
● David looking over the rooftops
● Abram being called to leave his home
● Pilate deciding the fate of an upstart rabbi
Even when the right answer is obvious, the choice shouldn’t be easy. Peter knew full well he shouldn’t deny Jesus; he swore he wouldn’t just hours before he made the wrong choice.
We’re constantly forced to decide between the easy thing and the right thing. Give your protagonist the same dilemma.
2. Don’t make the obvious choice.
When asked to choose between A and B, Jesus usually selected C.
● Stone the woman or let her go? Let the sinless guy stone her.
● Honor the Sabbath or heal the guy? Honor the Sabbath by healing the guy.
● Fight or flight? Neither, stand firm in peace.
● Attack or defend? Love instead.
When your hero is confronted with a decision, think outside the choices offered. Find the third way and elevate your story.
3. Give your choice a cost.
It’s easy to fall into the trap—especially when writing moral stories—to immediately reward the hero for making the right decision.
● The husband chooses to not have an affair, and right away his marriage gets better.
● The woman chooses to return the money she found, then she wins the lottery.
● The child chooses to confess, and is heaped with rewards ten times greater than the lie would have given him.
That’s not realistic. Jesus warns that making the right decision will cost us. By choosing Christ we could lose our families, our fortunes, perhaps even our lives. We will be persecuted, we will be falsely accused, we will be given a cross to bear.
Ultimately we will be rewarded. But first our decision comes at cost.
In life the right choices are not easy, not obvious, and often come with a price. Reflect that truth in your stories.
Sean Gaffney is a playwright, screenwriter, director, teacher, and producer. He has authored 20 produced plays, two television pilots, and three published books, as well as more than 40 produced videos, animation projects, and short films for such clients as Big Idea, SuperBook, Yake Films, and Globalstage. He received his BFA from Drake University, his MFA from Columbia University, and graduated from the Act One: Writing for Hollywood program. Sean’s day job is as a story administrator for Warner Bros. Features.
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