When we choose to write, we are faced with a universe of choices where all things are possible. Many would-be writers never put a single word on the page because the number of choices to be made seem insurmountable. First, we have to choose what to write about. The topic can be anything: love, abuse, super novas. Next we have to choose how to present the topic. As fiction or nonfiction? As a blog? A poem? A short story? A novel?
By making these decisions, we begin to limit our universe of choices. A blog has certain criteria to be met; it must be brief and interesting or we run the risk of losing our readers. A short story can contain complex ideas, but a novel has the scope for us to develop those ideas more fully.
Suppose we choose to present the topic as a novel. Now there are more choices to be made. How are we going to write it? First person or third? Sassy, sarcastic, serious? Who is going to be the main character? What does she most desire? Who or what is stopping her from fulfilling this desire? What does she look and act like? What are her internal traits, both her admirable ones and less admirable ones? Who are her allies? Who are her mentors?
And those choices lead to other choices. What does the character need? (As opposed to what she wants.) Is she going to get what she wants or is she going to get what she needs? For example, maybe she wants to be a homebody, to marry the boy next door, but what she and the story need are for her to become a senator and possibly leave the boy behind.
And so the choices continue, each choice narrowing the story’s universe a bit more.
Some writers love the choosing, the creating, but I love when the weight of those choices become so great that the answer to all future choices can be found in past ones. The character might need to fight off an attacker, and when we try to choose between success and failure, we realize there can be only one outcome. Because of who she is and what she has done, she cannot succeed. To succeed might mean to kill, and she cannot kill anyone even to save her own life.
When the story gets to the point where it seems to make its own choices, it takes on a feeling of inexorability, as if there was always only one way to tell the story.
But, in the end as in the beginning, writing is about the choices we make.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”