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Wednesday, November 15

The Impossible Choice: A Surefire Way to Hook Your Readers

impossible character choices
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The first job of any story is to hook its reader, but after that initial hook, the story can’t just slack off. It has to keep hooking, keep drawing readers in, and keep making them want to turn the page. An excellent tool for this job is the impossible choice.

A well-crafted story will have choices all the way through. Some will be small choices that subtly directly the plot or character arc, while others will have major repercussions on the story. It’s these choices and the reader’s interest in seeing how the tale unfolds that keeps them interested in the story.

But to really grab a reader, force your protagonist to make an impossible choice.

Impossible choices are those where there is no clear answer, and every option has dire consequences. It often puts the protagonist’s deepest desires, beliefs, or fears at the center of this choice, such as saving the love interest vs. stopping the madman with the bomb, or compromising their ethics to keep a needed job vs. maintaining their integrity and losing that job.

It makes readers ask, “What will the protagonist do? How will they solve this terrible dilemma?”

Which is what makes the impossible choice so darn appealing.

Reading is a voyeuristic activity. We watch the characters struggle to solve their problems, vicariously (and gleefully) living lives we’d never experience on our own. But if the characters sail through those lives without effort, we feel cheated.

From a purely technical aspect, choices help us plot, because having to choose a course of action creates action. It gives our characters things to do to drive the story forward. The more interesting those options, the more readers want to see the resolution to the situation. The harder the choice, the greater the draw.

Here are some reasons why putting your character into difficult situation creates storytelling gold:

Impossible choices create unpredictability, and readers are intrigued by outcomes they can’t predict.

Readers read to find out what happens and to see a problem resolved. Obvious outcomes or directions don’t have the same impact as the unknown, because discovery is part of the reading process. It’s the anticipation of what might happen that piques and holds interest.

(Here’s a fun way to keep your plots unpredictable)

An impossible choice with no right answer makes readers choose a side—and that gets them emotionally invested in what happens.

Any time you can get readers to put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes, you increase the chances of hooking them further in the story. Making them consider what they would do in the same situation creates empathy and a potentially strong emotional connection to the character.

(Here’s more on making character choices that matter)

The anticipation of the consequences from an impossible choice keeps readers hooked in the story.

Tension fuels a strong story engine, and anticipation is at the heart of tension. Tough choices that will inevitably lead to trouble give readers something to worry about, so they keep reading to see how the protagonist will handle those consequences, or avoid them if possible.

(Here are three ways to create tension in your novel)

Impossible choices forced upon a character create sympathy for that character.

Remember, not every choice is made willingly. Putting a character into a situation that forces them to make a choice no one would ever want to make, gets readers on that character’s side. They root for them, worry about them, and want them to find a way out of this horrible situation.

(Here’s more on making characters likable)

Think about your own stories and the choices your protagonist makes. Ask yourself:
  • Is she making choices or just going with the plot flow?
  • Is the right choice always obvious?
  • Do the choices make him question his beliefs or convictions?
  • Are her choices forced upon her?
  • Do the choices lead more often to trouble or to a resolution?
  • Are the choices interesting?

Not every choice in a story will be an impossible one, but aim for at least one impossible choice per story. Quite often, this choice ties into the protagonist’s internal conflict, putting their needs and wants at odds.

As for scene-by-scene choices, the harder they are, the more interesting the story is likely to be. It’ll be more unpredictable for readers, generate more sympathy for the characters, and build tension all the way through.

Impossible choices create stories that make it impossible for readers to put them down.

Do you have an impossible choice in your story?

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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  1. Thank you! This article had an immediate use for me! Nice that you publish stuff just for me, isn't it? :-)

    1. It really is. I have gremlims who help me out with that. :) Such hard workers, those guys. :)

  2. Great advice, especially in the middle of NaNoWriMo!