I’ve got some good news and some bad news.
Good news: This post will solve writer’s block.
Bad news: Solving writer’s block is damned near impossible, for if it was easy, nobody would complain about it.
Quitting is Easy
So far, we’ve explored two reasons why readers quit our stories and books:
And the solution to these two problems is relatively straight-forward: Just add something.
At the very least, it’s easy to throw some change into your story, and it’s easy to dangle a carrot in front of your protagonist. Plug-and-play.
These changes may or may not rejuvenate your work, but they’ll definitely get you on the right track for the tougher stuff, like this next Story Secret.
And you’ll need to be on track, too, for the next reason readers quit is an especially dangerous one.
It’s the reason you quit, too.
Once your protagonist has a goal, he or she needs to begin doing something about it. He needs to take action.
And this is where writer’s block rears its ugly head, and the temptation to quit often overwhelms us.
So we cheat. We “tell” the change because we’re out of ideas.
And being “out of ideas” never leads to a story that readers love and share.
Cue Shia LaBeouf
Unfortunately, we can’t scream at our protagonists like Shia LaBeaouf: “Do it! Just do it!”
Instead, as the storytellers, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of our characters.
“What would I do?” we sometimes ask, or “What would he/she do?” we wonder, pretending to be our imagined creations.
And this is where the first major breakdown is going to occur.
Because decision-making is hard.
To many of us, it is crippling.
When I have to make a tough decision, like what car to buy, what house to live in, what school to send my daughter to, my anxiety skyrockets and I find myself paralyzed, unable to take a step forward for fear of falling flat on my face.
A similar paralysis happens during storytelling.
To get a story moving, characters have to act. They have to do things.
And that means – through us – they have to make tough choices.
Readers Quit When Characters Don’t Make Tough Choices
I had the pleasure of helping a friend, Jeff, revise a play.
Buddies, Jeff’s play, focused on a tough-guy named Blake who befriends a special needs boy. Throughout the play Blake rebelled, committed vandalism, and mouthed off.
And then, as if by a miracle, Blake was reformed. He became a good person.
“How?” I asked Jeff. “When did this happen? Because it certainly didn’t happen on the stage!”
Sure enough, Blake’s transformation didn’t happen on stage because it hadn’t been written there.
So Jeff and I picked his play apart and made two major changes:
And second, we outlined several scenes where Blake has to make difficult choices about his goal and his special needs buddy. And through making these choices, and then making sacrifices for what he believed in, Blake went on an actual journey, an arc, that resulted in him being a better person.
That’s how a character arc works.
A story arc, or character arc, is a series of difficult choices that the protagonist must make.
A character arc also includes the consequences of those choices and the growth the character experiences – and we’ll get to those elements soon enough. But without clear, difficult, and intentional choices, there cannot be consequences or lessons learned.
Choices must be made.
Readers pick up stories to go on a journey. We often mistake that to only mean a physical journey.
And while journeys to foreign settings are often a part of a good story, they are incidental to the true journey of the story.
The journey readers truly want is the journey of choices: Of conflict, crisis, and consequence.
That’s what readers want.
And if they don’t get it, they’ll turn to other writers who can deliver the goods.
Story Secret #3: Make Tough Choices
To get what he/she wants, your protagonist must make a difficult choice.
Because wanting is not enough. We expect people – and characters – to do things, to make difficult choices if they hope to accomplish their goals.
It must be the choice to leave home, to leave family, to leave an old dream behind.
It must be the choice to sacrifice relationships, worldly goods, and social status.
It must be the choice to surrender comfort, body, and soul.
Readers don’t want wimpy, easy choices, like missing the next episode of “The Bachelor.”
Readers want to see characters walk a tightrope and somehow make it without falling to their doom.
That’s the journey they crave, and the journey they expect.
But these choices are not easily made by you, the author, either. You have to plan specific choices ahead of time, and then draft them.
You have to give yourself time and space away from those drafts, and then have the courage to approach them with an honest perspective.
You have to revise or rewrite, and share those drafts with critique partners, and listen humbly for their feedback.
And then you have to start over.
Getting choices right – in life and in storytelling – is extremely difficult.
We are accustomed to judging the choices of others without much leniency. Just think of a “dumb” character on a TV show (Kim Bauer of 24 comes to mind) who constantly does – chooses – stupid things.
Character choices have to be worked carefully. They are not plug-and-play.
They are art.
So as you tackle your new story, or revisit an old one, keep three things in mind:
- Focus on how the story portrays change
- Give the protagonist a physical goal
- Commit to exploring numerous choices that pursue that goal
Back in September, I wrote that “writer’s block” is really just a series of foolish choices that writers make that back us into a corner.
But if you approach your story strategically, and keep your readers’ wants in mind, you won’t get “blocked.” You won’t give in to the temptation to quit.
You’ll become a master craftsman or craftswoman at the stuff that stories are really made of: Tough – and honest – choices.
Remember, you can discover all 10 Reasons readers quit your book, and the Story Secrets that will win them back, in my FREE new book, The 10 Reasons Readers Quit Your Book (and How to Win Them Back)!
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week!
What do you think? Do a protagonist’s choices really matter to a reader? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below!
Image Credit: Sasquatch I, Creative Commons