Food for thought from my fellow blogging friend Jane Ayres which I found very interesting considering my WIP is all about the consequences of choices ;)
What if? What then? Problem solving for writers.
Writers are constantly asking “What if?” And after we have answered this question, it then follows, “What then?” This got me thinking about the choices we make, as human beings and as writers. One aspect of writing fiction that I love is that of problem solving. We create a situation for our characters (or vice versa) and as the narrative unfolds, we have to work out how to develop and resolve subsequent events. There will be questions to pose and answer and obstacles to navigate before a satisfactory conclusion is reached. We create a series of problems which we then have to solve.
I’ve been reading a wonderful collection of essays by journalist and screenwriter Nora Ephron (who sadly passed away last year) called I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman and one of the essays, The Story of my Life in 3500 Words or Less, relates a story told by film director Mike Nichols, which he uses to make a point about a conversation they have.
I’m going to do my own version of the story (there will be many versions), but with the same outcome as the original. At the end is a question.
My version of the story:
A couple live in a remote location. The husband goes off to work and his wife takes a bus journey to the nearest town to see her secret lover. (Her husband has the car). After her illicit assignation, it’s late and she misses the last bus home. Desperate to get back before her husband discovers her gone, she pleads with a taxi driver to take her home. Exploiting the situation he demands triple the normal fare, which she doesn’t have. So she starts to walk home and is attacked and killed by a stranger.
The question is, whose fault is it? Who is responsible for her death? The woman, her husband, her lover, the taxi driver or the killer? All of these? None of these?
It’s not a trick question and there is no right or wrong answer. Everyone will respond differently. When I first saw this, my answer was immediate, my judgement instant. Then I began to think about the way choices lead to consequences. How much more information, if any, do we need to consider our response? The process of answering these questions (and the reasons we give for our answers) is both a valuable springboard for our own creative narratives, and offers an insight into how and why we engage with characters in fiction.
If you get stuck writing your short story or novel, go back and see what would have happened if your character/s had made different choices. Which in turn might change another aspect of the story. Why are they motivated to behave the way they do? What would you do if you were them? If the story then ends differently, would it have started at a different place or point in time?
Is that why we write? Because we can’t help asking questions? What if we stopped exercising our imaginations? What then?
Footnote: I’m curious – who do you think was to blame for the woman’s untimely end? Would the response change if the characters and situations of the husband and wife had been reversed?