The Right Choice

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One of my favorite movies is a romantic comedy from the late 80’s called “American Dreamer.”  It’s a pretty awful title, but the movie itself is charming.  An American housewife who is a big fan of the Rebecca Ryan thriller novels enters a contest to win a trip to Paris.   She wins. of course, and when she arrives, she’s injured in a car accident and begins believing she’s the star of her favorite books.  Hijinks ensue.  But there’s one scene that always annoys me, enough that I usually leave the room for the minute or so it takes to get past it.  Rebecca thinks she needs to save a man from an assassination attempt, and asks the man she believes is her sidekick for his car keys.  He’s so flustered he tells her the concierge has them, only realizing as the door closes behind her that he’s essentially given her his car.  He panics, running around getting dressed and arrives downstairs as she goes driving by in his car.  What bothers me about the scene is that it would have been simpler if he’d lifted the phone and called downstairs to the concierge to tell them not to release his keys. 

Have you ever noticed how often story plots could have been solved with a phone call but aren’t?  It happens all the time in movies and television, and it’s solely so that the characters can be moving and shaking.  In a visual medium, the story is being told more in what the characters do than in what they say, so it’s more satisfying to see a man running around chasing someone than making a quick phone call.  In the written medium, a phone call can be as interesting as a chase, so the novelist needs to be more careful with his characters’ behaviors. 

You’ve heard writers talk about how their characters tell them what should happen next.  It’s not so much that we slap words on the page hoping the characters will arrange them for us, but that we work with the characters we create so their behavior makes sense and so that what they do drives the story along.  The last thing we want is for a reader to stop dead in the middle of a chapter because Joanna, the rakshasa hunter, has left her enchanted body armor hanging in the closet in the hotel in Dehradun.  Maybe the writer wanted Joanna to be badly injured so that the handsome Gopan could save her and they could fall in love.  That’s dandy, but making her do something so out of character bounces the reader right out of the story. 

So when you’re pushing along, and you come to a crossroads in your story, do your best to make the choice that best fits your character, even if it’s not the easy choice.  Your story will flow smoothly, and your reader won’t stop until he reaches the last page.  Which is what we want most.

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12 comments to The Right Choice

  • Thanks, Misty. It’s amazing how often thee kinds of character logic problems hinge on phones. Cell phones are the curse of the contemporary thriller because they make its almost impossible to truly isolate anyone, something we used to depend on for all kinds of suspense. I want to set my next book in Alaska because, having recently visited, I can say with certainty that it’s almost impossible to get a cell phone signal anywhere! Perfect writer fodder.

  • Rhonda

    I actually used cel phones with cameras and something like twitter to help advance the plot in my WIP. And me allergic to most “social media” … :-)

  • Misty,
    I shudder at stuff like that. For my AKA’s (Gwen’s) novel, Rapid Descent, to work, I had to find several things all in one place: dangerous rapids, unpredictable water levels, isolation from human habitation, and no cell phones. I could have invented a place (it isn’t like I haven’t done that before) but I wanted to anchor the book in reality as much as possible. I talked to a lot of people, and hiked some drought-dry rivers to find the perfect location. No pesky phones to interfere with the action. The believability factor went way up for me. I believed the scenario could play out as it did, so therefore my readers could.

  • Two words: police chases. Okay, three words: police car chases.

    I can’t count the number of movies I’ve seen where the chase scene would have easily been cut short if the pursuing cops had radioed ahead to set up a simple roadblock. Isn’t that one of the reasons they have those sets in their cars?

    Ignoring available technology is pretty bad, but, yeah, out-of-character complications are the worst.

  • Megan B.

    It would have been a simple fix, too. Just show him calling and the phone going unanswered. THEN he could scramble.

    Maybe this is why I like writing fantasy. I can create a world with no phones, no internet, etc. It creates so many more plot options.

  • Colonial Boston = no phones. And I like that. The contemporary fantasies I’m working on have these sorts of technological issues, and I have to admit that I hate dealing with them. But yes, echoing Wolf, those times when a character behaves in ways that are at odds with all we know about him/her — those annoy me more than anything.

  • With current social media and technology, it does make things harder, but not impossible. In my current WIP, my Canadian character has no working cell phone, because she can’t afford to pay the horrendous roaming charges while she’s in Florida, for what she initially assumes will be a short trip. :) (Yes, this is a reality. I’m headed to Seattle for PAX in a few weeks, and my sisters will be there, but they’re refusing to take their phones for this reason.)

    Also, I have friends that are sometimes difficult to reach because they’re known for turning off their phones or letting them run out of juice and forgetting to charge them. Or they forget to top off their pay-as-you-go phones. Not everyone has a data plan because not everyone wants to pay for them. I know people who for various reasons, refuse to join Facebook and/or other forms of social media. And on top of that, there are *still* places where either by chance or design, you can’t get reception.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I have to admit, I never caught that logic hole watching American Dreamer, but you’re totally right, and it is *so* much more annoying when there *is* still a logic-consistent easy fix. However, you should have *heard* me after watching the final (Episode 3) Starwars movie. Oh. My. Goodness. And having a degree in astronomy does not help in matters like this. I get worked up enough when writers have solar eclipses during the full moon. For me, the prime example in that movie of bad logic that has a simple fix was the scene when R2D2 is battling droids on a ship that gets damaged and ends up tipping sideways toward the planet so that the action ends up with things sliding sideways. First of all, in orbit everything is in freefall, so the only acting gravity should be coming from the ship’s artificial gravity which, I would assume, bears no directional relation to the ship’s orientation to the planet. Second, the impact that “tipped” the ship *should* have sent it spinning, which would have a) produced even *better* visual effects and b) provided a sideways force that would have let the internal action proceed in a tipped reference frame. gah! Another interesting/obnoxious thing about Episode 3 is that I have a friend who is incredibly picky about fight sequences in films but for some reason had no problem with the final light-saber battle, even though light-sabers are supposed to weigh nothing, but the actors were swinging them around like tree branches…

    On a side note, I feel like issues like these are one reason I have trouble designing magic systems for books. I feel like magic systems should retain at least some level of mysticism, but the logic part of my brain always goes in and tries to apply so much sense to things that meshing magic with plot becomes problematic. Any tips for dealing with this issue?

  • Razziecat

    Hepseba, the thing about magic systems is that they have to have logical consistency within the rules that govern your world. For example, if you decide that a wizard must chant a long, complicated rune to make magic work, you can’t have him just snap his fingers and produce results. Simplistic example, I know, but you get the idea. I like to base magical systems on something physical and natural. In my WIP, mages are born with magical ability, but need training to control it and use it without causing harm to others. Their magic is rooted in the connection between the mage and the natural world. They use the materials at hand: soil, plants, water, wind, etc. That means there are limitations to what they can do. A mage could make a child’s wooden horse gallop (temporarily), but he couldn’t make it live.

    Another good example is from David’s Thieftaker: Ethan uses his own blood to conjure. He could take a life to produce much more spectacular results, but death is permanent; and Ethan’s morals are against that kind of thing.

    You need to find the logic that governs magic in your world, and then it will all make sense. :)

  • Vyton

    Misty, a very interesting topic. Thank you. I have a WIP set out west in 1976. No cell phones, but a regular search for pay phones and having enough change. The time setting requires careful attention to keep out anachronisms.

  • Oh yes, I sympathize with this one, both as a writer and a reader. I keep finding I have a related problem – moments when I describe what someone has done step by step because years of writing papers has made me tediously meticulous about that sort of thing. Of course, it’s really boring and no one wants to see the process of making tea unless there’s something special about the tea. It cuts a good chunk of words when I find those bits.

  • sagablessed

    In my first yet-2b-published book, the MC hates texting and so on. He only has a cell for emergencies, which creates some issues for him. His abhorrence of such technological things is almost pathological.
    As to the logics of magickal systems, in one world to get magic power you must first develop a relationship with spirits, who can give or with hold it at their whim. Plus, they must be around to draw from. Creates problems if one is traveling or battling in unfamiliar territory.