Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 6, 2020

How Small Decisions Can Make Huge Story Impact

by Fae Rowen

We all make hundreds of decisions every day, whether it’s to go one more day without washing our hair or deciding what we're going to read. Most of those decisions are routine and unremarkable. But I bet you can remember a seemingly unremarkable decision that had a big impact on your life.

This is true of your characters as well. There are important decisions that can affect the entirety of your character's life. Four particular areas carry a lot of power in guiding your main character through the story: motivation, backstory, conflict and character arc.

Decisions that show motivation

What if... In the beginning of your book your character makes an unpopular decision. We'll say it’s to quit school. Your reader may not agree. It's even better if your reader doesn't agree. You can get them to change their minds and their hearts.

If you show the why of how much, how long your character has wanted to do this very important thing, you build the motivation that will guide your story.

Maybe your character wants to join the military because of her brother’s service and questions around his death, or start a business, or volunteer with elders. Perhaps you show how much she loves art and working with artists. Maybe she paints “on the side” but it is a secret she’s never revealed. Perhaps you show how her love of her grandmother and listening to her grandmother’s stories has filled her heart with her family.

Whatever you choose, pick something that speaks to your characters overall motivation.

Decisions that reveal backstory

What if your character’s parents’ marriage was bad? As in a society father who flagrantly cheated on the character's mother? Backstory like this explains his reticence to become engaged. And if he finds out about a pre-nup that was very negative for his mother, won't it make sense for him to resist when his father pressures him to get a pre-nup of his own?

I bet you can think of lots of possibilities for a short backstory scene that will reveal a character’s reticence or determination about something.

Decisions that cause conflict

Your female lead comes downstairs for a family dinner, wearing green. Not her favorite color, but why are her parents livid? Because the dinner is in honor of a knight whom they are hoping will ask for her hand. His coat of arms is red. His enemy’s is green.

You got it. She doesn’t want to marry the man her parents want her to. She may or may not have feelings for the “green knight.” Whatever the reasons, conflict is sure to ensue.

Decisions that show character arc

In PRISM 2: Rebellion (available for pre-order July 1), the hero, Jericho, is the son of the wealthiest and most powerful man on Earth. Over the course of the two books you see his perception change from wanting to make his first billion by the time he’s twenty-five to recognizing his father’s deceit and disregard for planet Earth and the people under his care.

Jericho has fallen for O’Neill, his pilot and bodyguard on Prism. His decision to marry her is problematic because she cannot leave the prison world. He considered travelling back and forth from Earth, but it is a six-month round trip that he’s already made once.

When Jericho decides he can't bear not seeing O'Neill every day, his inheritance, his privilege, his way of life no longer matter. His entire character arc changes with that decision. Now he is more concerned that he has no skills suited to surviving on a planet that's awaiting a mercenary invasion financed by his father. And no matter what, he isn’t leaving O’Neill.

Are you struggling to show motivation, backstory, backstory, or character arc? Are you trying to come up with a decision your character needs to make to move your story forward? Share it down in the comments so our WITS readers can help you get writing again!

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About Fae

Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.

P.R.I.S.M., Fae's debut book, a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, and love is now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Fae's second book in the series will be available for pre-order on July 1, 2020.

18 comments on “How Small Decisions Can Make Huge Story Impact”

  1. Thanks, Laura! Who wants to read pages of a character angsting over a "small" decision that only the future will reveal was huge?

    1. Thanks, Tiffany. You know (better than anyone) how I've struggled with getting the story just right.Thank you for sharing all your editing wisdom! (Shameless plug: Tiffany's new book INTUITIVE EDITING is available everywhere as of yesterday.)

  2. Good reminders, Fae. So glad that PRISM will soon be available. Need to get together once this world is healthier. Miss you!

    1. Thanks, Jann. I am glad to be just about able to move on to other *stalled* projects. But I hope all my readers agree that the wait was worth it.

  3. For whatever reason, this manuscript seems to be filled with my characters facing decisions. I'm hoping they'll turn out to be the right ones. On the flip side, a book I'm reading has a character I can't get behind for her "stupid, she knows better, why put her life at risk when there are other options." Maybe it's because it's a man writing a woman. It's a thriller by an author I've read before and enjoyed, but now I'm trying to remember if he ever wrote a female protagonist before.

    1. You're right, Terry. Decisions done poorly by an author never work. I learned about "to stupid to care" in my first critique group long before I met our WITS group.

  4. Another spot-on bit of advice, Fae--thank you. I'm in the midst of revising all the protagonist POV chapters of my current WIP for the very reasons you cite. It doesn't matter how good the story is if the protagonist cannot capture the reader's empathy. It's worthwhile to give great attention all characters but particularly the protagonist, and you've pinpointed specific considerations to help us do that.

    1. Thanks so much, Rick. When I started paying attention to why my characters made the small decisions, I could foreshadow events without giving things away, show flaws, and much more—all without having pages of worry-driven character self-talk.

  5. Great post, Fae! Right now I am pondering -- I'm not far enough in to be struggling yet -- what drives my protagonist Jane. In my first novella about her she is willing to take on a dangerous assignment because she believes she killed a man when she was 12 years old. (He had just murdered her parents.) She believes she is "damaged goods," a bad seed. Now she's mostly dealt with that and in the next story she's moving on. So, what drives her now, making her decide to help again? Hmmm? Unfortunately, she's happy, darn her hide!
    BTW -- great cover for PRISM 2!

    1. Thanks, James! Don't all characters have to suffer to make the story interesting. But...it would be interesting to read one that the character is happy to begin with, maybe like Sleeping Beauty. And thanks for noting the cover. It won a contest! I love my cover designer.

  6. Funny, it's usually the little things that lead to the big problems for my characters. Maybe because it's the same in life for me. It always seems to be some small choice that appeared insignificant at the time that snowballs into a big problem down the road and leaves you stranded in a bad neighborhood with only one way out...and that one way is straight through your greatest fear.

    1. So true, Eldred. I made a little choice to help out a colleague by going to a coaching dinner with him. Not a date, because I'd been dating the same guy I met in college for four years. Four months later, my "nondate" is telling me we're getting married. I kept protesting that I never wanted to get married. Well we all know how that worked out...

    1. *Big smile*, Denise. It looks like I've gotten a look of people thinking today. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing, but thank you!

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