This week I had an insight about storytelling and life (isn’t it amazing how often those go together?) that has been a long time coming, and I wonder if it’s as true for other people as it is for me.
I come from a stubborn gene pool, so that might have something to do with it.
“It” being the fact that I’ve always resisted either/or choices.
My preschooler does it all the time, too. “Do you want one or two?” I’ll ask him. “Three,” he’ll reply.
When I was in high school and we were reading/watching Inherit the Wind junior year, the teacher wanted to hold a debate between Creationism and Darwinism. I stubbornly created my own third team: those who believe evolution is part of God’s plan of creation.
It wasn’t until Hubby and I watched a documentary this week about a round-the-world race that I started to realize maybe there’s more to this either/or dilemma than stubbornness — and that it might be the key ingredient for a good story.
The documentary, called Deep Water, focused on an Englishman in the ’60s who decided he wanted to enter the race to be the first man to sail around the world without stopping . . . even though he had no real experience. He was sort of a bookish type (to which I can relate!) and had read enough about it that he felt confident he could do it. So he found an investor and jumped into a contract where the other man would finance a boat, etc, so long as Crowhurst (the bookish would-be adventurer and father of four) did not drop out of the race. If he did, the investor would claim everything and Crowhurst’s family would go bankrupt.
Where the either/or came into play was once the race began. His boat sprung a leak, requiring him to bail out the water by hand, and there was no way he could sail the treacherous southern oceans in a leaky boat. Suddenly he faced almost certain suicide if he kept going or financial ruin if he went back.
Not such a great pair of choices, huh?
* * *
Another example came in my email box via my “Daily Insights” subscription back in January. It asked you to suppose that you were driving along and spotted three people waiting for a bus: an old friend who once saved your life, an old woman in desperate need of a hospital, and the perfect partner for whom you’d waited all your life (apparently you are omniscient in this scenario and can see into the future; we’re just gonna go with it, I guess ;)).
The dilemma? You only have one seat in your car. Who gets it?
Starting to see the pattern? Good stories require tension, and tension often comes from battling between contradictory and equally unappealing options. It’s that whole lesser-of-two-evils thing. Um, who really wants to pick either “evil”?
I gave the email scenario to my intermediate writing students to puzzle over, and they said that obviously the old woman was the “right” choice because it’s the only humane choice. If she needs a hospital, you can’t leave her waiting for a bus. And the old friend would understand, right?
But what about your perfect partner? I don’t mean to sound callous toward the old lady, but can you really jeopardize a lifetime of happiness? (Being married to my best friend, I can testify that finding “the right one” makes all the difference!) What if you never see that person again?
So again, it’s a choice where no matter which one you opt for, the consequences aren’t so hot.
The trick to it is to hold out for another choice, or create one yourself.
My preschooler comes up with his own number of how many (of whatever) he’ll accept. I insisted on having my own third debate team in high school.
As for Crowhurst, he decided to stay put off the coast of Brazil and slip back into the race once everyone else had rounded the tip of South America and headed back north toward England. (Yes, a bit deceptive, but when your life’s at stake? Anyhow, this post isn’t about honesty, so we’ll save that debate for another time.)
And with the daily insight, the email suggested that you have your old friend drive the old woman to the hospital while you stay and wait for the bus with your perfect partner.
Once we see The Other choice, it becomes almost obvious, right? “How could I have missed that?” Right?
* * *
Well, I argue that it’s the same thing with great stories and the very best of endings. I think a great story keeps you on the edge of your seat because all the available options are horrid! You don’t want the main character to end up dead/dismembered/unhappily-married/financially-destitute/estranged-from-her-family/orphaned/any-other-number-of-awful-consequences; but you can’t possibly see how she can avoid it! Oh, the glorious tension! Oh how your heart races! Oh the angst and the drama and the perfect recipe for a good story!
. . . With the catch that the author must wow us at the end. Somehow, the author has to stubbornly reject the given choices — not choose This OR That — and have the main character create The Other choice: one so perfect that we shut the book with a happy sigh thinking, “Of course! Brilliant! That was the way it was meant to work out!”
One example that comes to mind is Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely that I blogged about a year or so ago, raving about the excellent job she did in finding a compromise between the seeming contradictions of two love interests and career versus love. The ending of that book was fantastic because it wasn’t one of the obvious choices.
Now it’s just a matter of coming up with the right one for my own manuscript. It gets closer every draft, but I think that once I hit on the perfect solution, it’ll be obvious. I just have to keep stubbornly holding out, confident that eventually I will think up a best option.
What do you think? Have you come across this in your own life? What stories have you heard/read/watched/lived through that exemplify the principle of rejecting either/or?