DECISIONS: Revving the Story Engine
by Sylvie Kurtz
A story contains many decisions points. But three main decision points serve as your story’s engine, revving it on. These occur around the first quarter of the book, midway through, and the three-quarter mark of the story, before the big finale. Whether decisions drive actions or actions drive decisions, something has to happen at these points to force your main character on some new, unanticipated path, and spin your story in some new direction. This keeps the story fresh and the reader reading forward.
Romance and the psychological suspense I write tend to require that decisions lead to actions. Internal conflicts drive the action and determine the outcome of the external conflict.
The first complication occurs about a quarter of the way into the story. Here the inner and the outer conflicts collide. The collision of want and need raises the stakes and defines the goals. It asks a question and forces the main character to make a decision. This decision leads the main character further into trouble, because, at that point, he’s still operating from his old view of the world. He tries to resist the push the conflict makes on his life, and tries to get things back to normal. But something’s got to give. He can’t go with the way things are, because nothing will get solved and the story will stagnate. The first decision point occurs when he decides to do something, but does it for the wrong reasons or uses the wrong tools; he’s still working from a flawed perception.
The midpoint offers a preview of how things could be if he could get over his flaw or his fear. So the lovers kiss for the first time, or make love for the first time, or share some form some sort of emotional connection. Or he acts in a way he never has before and gets good results. We see his strength. But the power of this moment scares him, so he pulls back in some way. He isn’t ready for heaven yet. His fear gets in the way. But for that one magic moment–before the antagonist put on more pressure–he saw a different way of living.
Here, part of the main character realizes that there is no going back to the status quo. Even if he could at this point, he’s had a taste of something different, so the status quo won’t feel as comfortable as it had before.
This decision and the story-spinning action that follows helps prevent that middle-of-the-book sag.
The third major decision occurs right before the final action. Here the stakes reach their highest point. The romantic relationship jeopardizes the hero’s chance to succeed at reaching his goal. This is the point where the hero is forced to choose something untested over his original goal, or sacrifice what-could-be to get his goal. Neither decision feels good, but he doesn’t feel he can have both. He’s asked to take a leap of faith.
Because romances and psychological suspenses are character driven, decisions are what pushes the action forward. Here he’s going to have to make a decision, but he’s still not making it from that true place, so it won’t yield the results he wants. In fact, it’s going to push him to the biggest trouble he’s ever faced, leading to your story’s climax.
Your main character will make many decisions throughout your story. By placing these three story-spinning decision points at critical moments, you’ll preserve your story’s forward momentum.