The Importance of Choice in Storytelling #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

I believe choice may be the most important aspect of good storytelling. Choice is what grants significance and meaning to the events of the story, and its characters. If a character does not choose, or if their choices have no bearing on the outcome of the story, the character’s choices cease to matter.

A series of identical white doors.

For example, imagine a character was confronted with 3 doors (Door #1, Door #2, and Door #3). The character chooses Door #3, only to find that behind Door #3 is another Door #1. Next they try Door #2, only to find another Door #1. The story/villain has presented the illusion of a choice, but the truth is all choices lead to the same outcome.

This doesn’t add to the story, or developing the character; it just wastes time.

Consider another example, the Star Trek franchise, containing numerous distinct iterations, but in almost every case the story focuses on the bridge crew. Why? Because within that narrative, all of the interesting decisions are made by high ranking officials. The vast majority of the crew simply “follow orders”, applying technical skills in support of the decisions made by the few who lead.

A subordinate can be a main character, if it’s established that they are choosing to obey. The distinction lies in whether a character simply “follows instructions”, or pauses to consider their options. If the story demonstrates that the character is willing to disobey, and actively considers doing so, then even “following orders” can be an engaging choice.

Another important aspect of choice is accountability. A character who demonstrates remorse, regret, guilt, and/or contrition about past deeds is also taking ownership of their actions. In the process of regretting or apologizing, they are admitting that they had a choice, that they could have “done something else”.

If a character simply does as they are told, they might as well be a pen, car, or other “device”.

A hammer hovering over a screw and a monkey wrench gripping a nail.

Choice, and the positive/negative consequences of those choices, exemplifies the meaning of the story, and audiences crave meaning.

There’s a wonderful episode of Star Trek Next Generation entitled “Elementary, Dear Data” (spoilers to follow).

When Data manages to effortlessly overcome the challenges of a Sherlock Holmes simulation, his friends challenge him by commanding the computer to create a character capable of defeating Data. Eventually it’s revealed that the only way for a holographic character to challenge Data would be to grant them sentience.

Similarly I would argue that a protagonist without agency, without the will to think and act independently, cannot oppose a villain who does have agency.

Consider Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars prequels. Throughout much of the prequel trilogy, Palpatine is the only one proactively choosing his actions. Everyone else is reacting to Palpatine’s actions, or passively waiting for additional information.

The few times that characters do (or may) stray from his script, nothing is actually changed by their choices. Phantom Menace still sees him elected, Attack of the Clones still justifies an army under his command (which he shares with the Senate), and Revenge of the Sith completes his plan by crippling the Jedi and further consolidating his power. No other character manages to prevent or change Palpatine’s plan.

A game of chess

By thinking for themselves and making their own decisions, characters perpetuate the necessary belief in the story’s uncertain future. Once audiences know the plan for the remainder of the story, the only merits lie in whether or not things will go according to plan, and any remaining unresolved questions in regards to “how” the characters will execute the plan.

In any story there are a few central questions that represent the foundation of audience interest:

1. What is going to happen? (narrative outcomes)
2. How will these outcomes affect the characters? (consequences)
3. What meaning is expressed through the plot outcomes and character consequences?

Once audiences know the answers to the first two questions, they can answer the third on their own.

It’s the choices characters make, and the consequences of those choices, which create meaning for the story. If the outcome lacks uncertainty, then all relevant choices have been made, and the meaning is already evident. At that point, there’s no reason for audiences to keep reading or watching. They already know the answers to all the relevant questions:

It’s only when the outcome is uncertain, and characters might be required to make new choices, that the meaning is uncertain, and audiences have a reason to continue.

 

This post was written for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop where we share our new discoveries on the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, and blogging tips. Posted every third Wednesday of the month. For rules and sign-up click here.

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21 thoughts on “The Importance of Choice in Storytelling #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

  1. Yep, stories reflect life in all its contrariness.. It’s all about “ifs” and “buts.” Proceed down route a and you’ll get shot, but route b leads to safety.. It’s choosing the right route that’s the teaser.

    • And the fact that the outcome is uncertain, that the characters could fail, is what grants meaning and significance to their success.

  2. I think uncertainty is best developed through plausible choices, and it’s uncertainty that keeps readers’ interest. What you’ve described so well is how to make choices and uncertainty appear plausible to readers. Thanks.

    • Thank you. I’m glad you find it helpful.
      In some ways, even as I feel that the other components are undeniably important, there’s a way in which plot can almost be thought of as “the convergence of character choices and reactions”, just as ideas and themes can be thought of as “the lessons characters learn from the outcome”.
      Next time I think I’ll explore the idea that characters spend more time reacting than they do acting.

  3. I love those three central questions you identify as foundational to audience interest.

    This discussion reminds me of Northrop Frye’s explanation of tragic plots and anagnorisis: “The moment of discovery or anagnorisis which comes at the end of the tragic plot is not simply the knowledge by the hero of what has happened to him . . . but the recognition of the determined shape of the life he has created for himself, with an implicit comparison with the uncreated potential life he has forsaken.” In other words, the tragic hero is aware that he’s gotten to where he is because of his choices, and had he made other choices, things likely would have turned out better. Indeed, I think that’s the source of tragedy’s poignancy and pathos.

    • Agreed. And beautifully expressed.
      Often what makes tragedy work is the realization that at every step, the character had a choice, and simply chose poorly. If a character has no means to control their fate, then the story quickly becomes reminiscent of a victim, and the author almost resembles a bully. Definitely interesting food for thought. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Very interesting discussion, Adam. I struggle with when my character should begin to show more agency in a story, a ramping up of motivation. I need to read more on this before I take on another book-length project. 🙂

    • Mmm. One thing I like to do is map out each scene based on character goals. What is each character trying to achieve, both short term and long term, and note who is in conflict, both short term and long term. When combined with character profiles/personalities, I can determine who would most proactively pursue their goal(s) from the get-go, and who would be most likely to react/act in turn.
      I think contrary/conflicting goals is a key factor in determining tension and motivation. If one step/component of the goal feels uncontested, it’s likely the character will leave it for later.
      Often times it’s the contested steps that become the focus of the story. Few give much thought to why each character wants the McGuffin. The fact that they are racing or fighting for control of it is how most of the story’s time is spent.

  5. This is such an important point when it comes to character and story development. I recently realised one of my main characters made no choices, the plot just picked him up and dragged him along. Now it’s back to the drawing board to fix it and give him choices!

  6. When you mentioned Star Trek I thought of the Captain Kirk character. He follows a moral code rather than only orders. He takes risks and faces challenges he creates. Faced demotion and dragged his crew back into space.

    Even the new releases, have changed time so they could rewrite the future. hehehe

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    • Yeah, there’s definitely a way in which good stories often necessitate a certain recklessness in their protagonists. Audiences are sitting in their seats tallying all the poor choices the protagonist is making, but if they didn’t the story would really struggle.

  7. Interesting. The TV show, The 100, often has their main characters deciding to give up their choices and only follow the orders of others, right or wrong. The story then is about how they must then retake their own agency and make the right choice rather than following orders.

    Susan Says

    • Seems reasonable. Regret is often a potent component of a strong character, the wound that makes their challenges unique, and their choices more meaningful. I think a certain amount of regret is universal to the human condition.

    • Mmm. I’m particularly fond of the chain/snowball style of decision making, where the character repeatedly makes compromises and additional investments that individually appear small, but then there’s that moment of realization, where they look at the big picture, and realize how far they’ve strayed from their path.

  8. Interesting point about Star Trek – I’d never thought of it like that, but you’re right. I do remember one episode of TNG where the focus was on four low-level crew members (not that I remember the name). But even then they were (mostly) following orders, not making decisions.

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