Ask Nicholson: Choices
By Scott Nicholson

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Do you make them, or do they make you?

Every story, or any work of art, or any human undertaking, is nothing more than the sum of a series of choices. Often, our most significant life choices are not the result of measured consideration; instead, they are the haphazard impulses that doom or save us--the love letter never sent, the spontaneous affair, the one drunken time that "safe sex" seems too restrictive, the trip not taken, the reckless financial gamble, the passionate moment of violence, the decision to go an extra five miles per hour on an icy road, the blinding tantrum that compels us to walk away from our jobs or families.

For the author, the choices usually begin with the idea. Since the universe is brimming with ideas, the problem is not in finding them but in selecting one, or combining two or three, and committing to their development. After that, the characters are built and set in motion. While the author is making decisions about these characters, they are also bringing themselves to life, spawning their own motivations, and blazing their own trail so that even the most diligent outliner can be surprised or ambushed by their own plot. Simultaneously, the author is making hundreds of structural and grammatical choices, settling on specific words that mark the author's "voice" or "style." Most of these decisions are subconscious--the worst writers rely on a thesaurus and use words beyond their understanding rather than go for the common language of their own lives and hearts.

Just as a fool "goes for it" when under the bizarre delusion of love at first sight, or the zealot with blind faith, the author is wire-walking without a net, building a new reality underfoot with each step. The sum of the choices builds that fictional world, and those who trust their instincts will almost always find solid ground. It doesn't matter whether the choices are the will of the author or imposed by some aloof Muse, whether the characters take turns in the driver's seat or whether a "formula" provides a map.

In the end, the choices will not only make the story, they will be the story. A story is simply a person with a problem. If you have a problem, you have a choice to make. If you make a choice, things happen and other things don't happen. While things happen, other choices become necessary. Really, when you think about it, the wonder isn't that there are so many plot possibilities; the wonder is that anyone can ever type "The End."

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