This month I want to share on a topic I first heard Randy Ingermanson teach several years ago. It’s a simple yet powerful tool to improve our stories.
Simply stated—force your hero to make a choice. Not just any choice like which burger to order or coffee shop to visit. But a choice with consequences.
One of the beauties of this choice is that it flows naturally out of the character you’ve created and developed throughout the story.
The method is simple. As your character moves through the story, make it clear to the reader there are things he values highly. We all have core values—beliefs we promise we will never compromise on. Giving a character values is something I think most, if not all, readers can identify with.
Once you have established her values, pick the two most important, and then write the story with these values in mind. Provide instances were these values are evident through her actions and thoughts. Let it flow naturally. If we try to force it into a scene, it will come across as manipulative and phony.
I’ll give you an example from my first book, Journey to Riverbend. By the end of the novel, two of Michael Archer’s core values are clear.
One is he will always keep his word. Before he met Jesus, Michael lived a life of cheating and lying. Back then his word was, as Rich Mullins once sang, as useless as a screen door on a submarine.
Since surrendering to Jesus, Michael keeps every promise he makes, no matter how hard the task. The story begins with Michael promising a young Ben Carstairs he would visit Ben’s father to complete a prodigal son reconciliation. Ben is about to hang for murder and his father is nothing like the father of the prodigal in the Bible story.
The other value prominent in the story is Michael will not kill anyone. He believes he killed his father and, before he met Jesus, other people only existed to help get what he wanted. If they didn’t, he took whatever measures he needed to get them out of the way.
There is a point in the second act where this value surfaces. Michael and his posse are ambushed. One way to escape is for Michael to shoot and kill one of the bandits. Instead, he shoots to wound.
Later, at the climax, this option is not available. He is in the position of having to kill another person to keep his word to Ben. At that moment, he has to choose between his core values.
In our stories we want our hero to face death in some form. It isn’t always physical death. In Journey to Riverbend, Michael faces spiritual and psychological death because of the choice he has to make.
The higher and more universally shared the values, the greater the stakes, and the more intense the tension and inner conflict. This is not the time to have the cavalry ride to the rescue. No deus ex machina to pull a rabbit out of the hat.
This is a choice only the hero can make. In the denouement, we can show the consequences of the choice.
In your current work, what would your hero do when confronted with making a moral choice between two equally desirable values?