Choices and Plot
Writing genre fiction, like mysteries, you strive to meet genre reader expectations. A detective. A crime. Multiple suspects. A villain. A discovery journey. False clues. While you work to fill in all the genre requirements, you can lose depth. You may have all the tropes, but your story feels flat.
While you are busy giving your detective clues to follow and suspects to interview, you may be missing giving them difficult choices. All the plot elements are there, but you’re not challenging your character with moral choices. Give your character dilemmas where they must make a choice.
Know Your Character’s Priorities
Walter Mosley, in his book, This Year Write Your Novel, said, plot is the structure of revelation. For a writer, that means you must have something to reveal. Give your character a belief system, an internal moral code so you can reveal it as the story unfolds. Then challenge those beliefs, that code, so that your detective must make a choice.
When characters must make a tough choice you engage your readers. You deepen their understanding of the character and create empathy. The reader will wonder what they would do faced with a similar choice.
A character without convictions and attitude is one who is hard for readers to cheer on and easy to forget. Create situations where your character must make a choice that challenges their moral code.
Place a character with two equally strong convictions in a situation where they must choose between the two. Look for ways choosing between the two forces them into something they don’t want to do.
Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins is forced into something he doesn’t want to do every time is friend Mouse, a really bad dude, shows up. He has to choose between his loyalty and love for his friend and protecting himself and his friends.
Author Steven James suggested an exercise for discovering your character’s inner demons.
Brainstorm a list of at least 10 inner demons your hero has to fight. Ten. Get creative. Then choose the best one. Work that demon into your hero’s backstory, and show how it is affecting him in the present—and could hinder him even further in the future. Give him actions that demonstrate the flaw.
Don’t be easy on your characters. Test them. You may care about your character, but plunge them into trouble. Test their convictions.
Threaten your character to go against his convictions. Will they go against a belief in order to get out of a tough situation? If they can make money without consequences even if it contradicts a belief, will they take the money?
Adrian McKinty’s Killian in Falling Glass has multiple chances to get himself out of financial trouble, but each opportunity offers a moral challenge.
Push your character to struggle with beliefs.Think of a way to challenge one of your character’s strongest convictions. Then think of something else equally bad. Then force him to make a choice between the two.
Push Your Character Into A Corner
Force your character to act. There’s only one discernible way out, but it contradicts a strong conviction. Look at the two conflicting beliefs. Then, raise the stakes. This dilemma works well as you head into a conflict toward the end of Act 3 in a Four-Act structure.
Push his loyalty to his law enforcement organization and his moral belief. He wants to keep his job, but it means losing his wife. What choice does he make?
Ask “What if?” as you work through the dilemma. The higher the stakes for the decision, the sharper the dramatic tension and the greater your reader’s emotional engagement.
Delve into grey areas. If neither choice is good, how does your character make a choice? Does the end justify the means? What will your character sacrifice for each choice? When is doing the right thing wrong?
Jo Nesbø creates moral choices for Harry Hole pitting his obsessive drive and sometimes illegal choices against the law itself and his love for his family. And Michael Connelly pits Harry Bosch and his belief, “Everybody counts or nobody counts,” against police procedure and the law.
Moral Depth Power
When you give your character a belief system and test their actions against their convictions, you heighten tension. You supply your reader with a look at the character’s belief system and how the character operates in their world. Empathy and tension are two strong pulls to reader engagement.
Create the puzzle and slove the mystery, and along the way give your character some very tough choices.