Create Choices that Matter

This brief lesson is a continuation on the last lesson about your protagonist’s choices.

As important as it is for your protagonist to make choices that decides her own fate, it’s just as important to make those choices hard.

Which choice creates more drama:

Option One: Thirteen dwarves visit a hobbit named Bilbo to invite him on a quest to defeat a dragon and take its treasure. He readily agrees and they skip off.

Option Two: Thirteen mangy dwarves unexpectedly visit a fat, comfortable hobbit named Bilbo. They eat him out of house and hobbit hole, while he watches on frustrated. Then they invite him on a quest to kill a dragon who once destroyed an entire city and steal its treasure, a quest that will likely involve his death and will certainly involve discomfort and constant fear.

He immediately chooses not to go on the quest. Why leave the comfort of his cozy hobbit hole? Even when the dwarves tell him he will receive more treasure than he could possibly imagine, and Gandalf makes a heartfelt plea, showing him how the adventure will improve his live, he says no.

However, at the last possible moment, he decides as cozy as his hobbit hole is, the adventure offers something his life is missing (namely excitement and companionship), and he decides to join the quest.

How to Create Dramatic Choices

This isn’t a hard choice, right?

The best stories rarely involve the protagonist making instant decisions. Instead, protagonists must debate over their choices, waffling from one option to another, sometimes for quite a long time, before finally choosing to pursue their goal.

This process of debate creates the drama your story desperately needs. It creates drama in two important ways:

  1. Inspires Doubt in Your Readers. The process of debate makes your reader ask, “Is she going to choose the adventure or stay stuck in the status quo?” 
  2. Raises the Stakes. The process of debate involves considering the consequences of the choice. It reveals how difficult achieving the goal will be. No one wants a story to be easy, and increasing the stakes will increase the reader’s interest.

If you’re writing a romantic comedy, don’t have your characters fall in love easily. If you’re writing a detective novel, don’t let your protagonist readily take on the case. If you’re writing fantasy, don’t let your protagonist begin the adventure without waffling over the dangers.

Instead, make it hard.

Story Audit

Audit the story you chose in the first lesson with the following questions:

  • Does your protagonist go through the process of debate, waffling over her choice?
  • What are the consequences of your character’s choice? Are they severe enough? How can you raise the stakes?

Let us know how your audit went in the comments section below.

Ready for the next lesson? Click here.


    Speak Your Mind


  1. These questions really made me push my protagonist’s debate further. It was great to gain a new perspective, simply by asking a question about the choice in front of him.

  2. Great advice … yet I’m finding it tough to keep the story at 1,000 words. Tolkien had a few more words at his disposal 🙂 Any further advice?

    • Understandable Lisa. If your story needs more than that, feel free to expand it. For a story that short though, even a few lines of debate will increase the drama.

  3. Ann Stanley says:

    This is really helpful. I spent way too much time setting the scene and then, presto, the character makes her choice. I completely left out all of her internal conflict and waffling. It’s in my head, just not actually on the paper. I can tell that it will make the story much more interesting to put it in there.

  4. Mirelba says:

    Hmmm. Does making several choices before hitting on the right solution qualify as debate? My piece deals with a couple grappling with Alzheimer…And I was really good and kept it to the 1000 words you asked for, which is very limiting in scope. How many words was Hands, let’s say. Or The Hobbit?…

    • Maybe. But that sounds more like rising action material, where the protagonist fails again and again before the climax and the final correct choice in the resolution. Solutions usually come later. This part is more about whether the protagonist is going to hunt for a solution in the first place.

      • Mirelba says:

        I don’t know. The whole thing is about a man dealing with his wife’s Alzheimer. In 1000 words. It’s more like a “day in the life of” than climax. Or his trying different things showing that he’s making a choice to deal with it?

  5. This is great. In my story, my character immediately went to action when his first option failed.

    In my head, I thought it would be a great way to speed up the story and get to the “fun.” However, I need to get the reader to CARE about getting to the action.

  6. Ok. When applied to memoir, this (and the last point) are incredibly profound. I’m planning to elaborate on this when I post my exercise in the forums.

  7. The character in my novel simply accepts the quest. There is so much other terrible things going on in his life at the time that he doesn’t think it even matters. He doesn’t waffle over the dangers, instead he debates on tossing himself off a cliff.

    • There is a critical shortage of inarmoftive articles like this.

    • "Una foto del genere, associata al proprio nome e cognome, potrebbe causare non pochi problemi per anni, per esempio durante una ricerca di lavoro. Al potenziale datore di lavoro basterebbe una Googlata per trovare un quadro molto chiaro e aperto della situazione"In Italia, con una foto del genere, non ci sarebbero problemi a trovare lavoro, anzi… probabilmente si aprirebbero le porte per diventare deputato o ministro. 🙂

    • Wow, that’s a really clever way of thinking about it!

    • "New YouTube channels are coming soon. Click here to learn more". Ignoring the amount of people that want to switch back to the old channel design, it is perfectly possible to count the number of people who have CHOSEN not to 'upgrade';The percent of people who have CHOSEN to keep the beta channel is well over 70%. Eight out of ten of Youtube's top subscribed channels (Of all time) have the old design.I'm not trying to say that everyone hates the new channels, but the statistics speak for themselves.

  8. “What are the consequences of your character’s choice? Are they severe enough? How can you raise the stakes?”

    I may have laughed evilly. Just for a few seconds, though.

  9. Chase Glantz says:

    I don’t really know how to “raise the stakes” in my story. Most of the stuff he sees are events that have already happened.

    • Here’s how Aaron Sorkin puts it:

      “When a character is shoved against a wall, shove them against a wall harder.”

      Two further thoughts: If you’re character is just watching as things happen, he might not be a protagonist because he’s not making a choice. If he’s not getting slammed against the wall, you might not have enough conflict.

      Do either of those sound true?

  10. This is something I really need to work on.

    I think it links back and expands on applying the analogy of “sketching the tea cup 100 times.” In order to take readers through my characters’ process of debate and decision making, I really have to know my characters. One way to know my characters well is to sketch them 100 times so I know every crease and crevasse of their personality which will bring the best debate possible onto the page.

    Good lesson for me. Thanks Joe.