By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Making a decision is one of the most important things your characters will ever do. Readers turn the page to see what happens next, and decisions are all about the "next." But there's a catch.
They have to care about the outcome of that choice.
Should I have the eggs or the cereal? is a choice, but no one is going to stay up late to see how that turns out. Because the other half of choosing is the fear that you're making the wrong choice.
Now, here's where it gets tricky.
That fear is the reader's fear, not so much the character's. Sure, the character will have their own concerns, but what makes that choice matter is how the reader feels about it. If they care about the outcome of that choice, that choice has stakes for them as well as the character. If they don't care, no matter how important that choice is to the character, it won't have any stakes. This is why those exciting action situations where the protag's life is in danger often fall flat. You know the protag isn't going to die. They might be scared out of their wits, but you know they'll be fine. Nothing they do then matters because there's no consequence to those actions.
Friday's post sparked a question about stakes. I said a man choosing between two great women wasn't real stakes. The reader asked if the man cared about those women, and one of them would get hurt, and he might wonder if he made the right choice, wasn't that something at stake? Did both choices have to have to be bad?
This is a question worth delving into more, especially since romance plots of this type are critical to so many stories of all genres.
If that choice is a core conflict choice, then it should have major consequences to it. If the entire book is about that choice, there has to be high stakes. If the choice isn't that important to the overall story, then no, the stakes don't have to be that high and the outcome can have lesser consequences. (But honestly, if the outcome doesn't matter, why have it in there in the first place?)
It's not that both choices have to be bad. Both choices should have a consequence that matters on a larger scale. If the choice between those two women (or two anything of this type of choice) has no consequence aside from hurting someone's feelings, the stakes aren't high enough to carry a whole story. Because that isn't a choice readers are likely going to care about without something else going on in the story to carry the book.
One of the big romance choices right now is The Hunger Games Katniss vs Peeta or Gale. Readers were rabid to know who she was going to pick. By all accounts, this is exactly the "bad example" situation I said not to do, right? Two great guys, one girl having to choose.
But step back.
If the book had started with Katniss in a love triangle with those two boys, would you even care? I doubt it, because there are no stakes in choosing one or the other. It's the conflicts her relationships with those boys created that made you care about her choice. It's not just hurting Peeta's feelings, it's hurting those feelings after manipulating him and faking a romance to stay alive. How he reacts to that choice has the potential to affect a much larger problem in the book. Every choice Katniss made had ramifications. The book was more than just "which boy does she choose?"
On its own, a choice between two good things with no consequences for making that choice is probably not going to hold your reader's interest. As a subplot, or in conjunction with an internal conflict, it can be an effective choice and provide higher stakes. But only if it has the potential to cause trouble for your protagonist. And this is the key.
If hurting one of those women was all the consequence the protag had to worry about, so what? Harsh as that sounds, after some grieving she'll go on with her life and find a much better guy than this jerk (grin) As for the man, nothing bad is going to happen to him for breaking her heart. It's not going to hurt him in the long run, even if he does feel bad about it for a while.
If, however, the woman was so upset she killed herself, that's a pretty serious consequence to his actions that he'll have to carry around the rest of this life. If she decided to make his life miserable in revenge, that would cause him trouble. If the woman he dumped was his new boss's sister, he might be in a world of hurt at that new job. It doesn't even have to be that overt. It can have more subtle ramifications for the protag. It can cause emotional troubles, it can make him so guilt-ridden it keeps him up nights and causes a ripple effect.
Consequences create high stakes. Whatever the choice, it should have the power to adversely affect your protag in some way, even if that problem is down the road some. That consequence might not even happen, but the potential for it should be there.
From a purely plotting standpoint, choices that don't cause trouble are wasted opportunities. The whole point of a book is to show someone overcoming adversity to win. If there's nothing to overcome, there's no point in the winning. Just look how many fans leave a sporting event before the end when it's clear what the outcome is going to be. There's nothing left to lose, so seeing the win doesn't matter.