The Essential Ingredient Of Hard Choices

I knew a guy named Gil who faced an incredibly difficult decision: his wife and his teenage daughter were both in the hospital at the same time with failing kidneys, the wife from cancer, the daughter from the trauma of a car accident. Grim coincidence, indeed. Both required a kidney transplant, both put on the list requiring donor organs. But Gil, of course, was a perfect match for his daughter, and as it so happened, also for his wife. Trick is, Gil only had two kidneys — he wasn’t like, loaded down with extra fucking kidneys, so he could only give one away. He could give a kidney to his wife, or he could give the organ to his daughter. The one whom he refused would be consigned to wait, ideally getting a kidney from a donor, but that person could also potentially die in the interim.

This was complicated by, well, complications. His wife was older, in her 40s, so was it wiser to give the kidney to his daughter, who had so much more life to live? But the daughter also had other trauma from the accident, and a kidney would not entirely ‘fix’ her — whereas the wife’s cancer had not yet metastasized, and so his kidney would go a greater distance, so to speak, if transplanted into her. Then one wonders, what are the emotional responses? If both survive, will one resent him? Could both? If one died, what would the response be from the survivor?

Needless to say, it’s a lot to weigh.

It is a very hard choice.

Which did he choose?

Neither, because Gil isn’t fucking real. I just made him up. I don’t think anyone is even really named Gil. That’s just folklore, like Bigfoot. We’ve all told the campfire tales about CREEPY GIL THE KIDNEY DONOR, haven’t we? THE KIDNEY IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE CAR, oh no!

But really, who gives a shit? The point remains the same:

Hard choices are interesting to us. And they are interesting to us in the context of fiction, particularly. Which means they are incredibly useful to you, as an author. Hard Choices provide an excellent, versatile tool in your narrative toolbox.

(Also, I’ve gone and tattooed HARD CHOICES across the knuckles of both of my hands. Whenever I lead a writing workshop, I jump through a paper sheet of bad prose dressed in a wrestling onesie, and then I punch the air with both fists — *punch* “HARD” *punch* “CHOICES” *kicks the air* “LET’S WRITE SOME MOTHERFUCKING STORIES,” I yell. It’s really successful and you can hire me to motivate you.)

Consider, if you will —

A hard choice provides:

a) conflict, because it puts the character in conflict with herself and with whatever consequences will come

b) mystery, because we the reader do not know what the character will choose, and what calculus will lead to that choice in particular

c) drama, because it will generate scenes of discord between characters, not all of whom will be happy with the choice or the decision

d) lingering questions, because the reader will be left wondering what exactly she would have done in exactly the same situation

e) fun for you, because not only do you get to grapple with the choice on behalf of the characters, you also get to imagine how implementing this choice will make the readership squirm as if their butt is infested with pinworms

Of course, there are tricks to using hard choices in fiction, and you might find it useful to hold onto a few key guide-ropes in the process —

a) hard choices cannot exist on every page or you dull their impact, it’s not like Gil can have a LIFE OR DEATH, WIFE OR DAUGHTER, HOLY SHIT WHO GETS THE KIDNEY moment every chapter, sometimes the fiction is about building the narrative infrastructure that gets you to the hard choice

b) the choice has to be sensible in the context of the story, and the story should feel like it’s leading up to it, not that it’s dropped out of nowhere like a fucking anvil onto the reader’s head (clong)

c) it should also be tonally appropriate — if you’re writing a light-hearted comedy then suddenly switch gears to some tragic gut-ripping Sophie’s Choice, the reader will have narrative whiplash

d) the hard choice should actually be complicated — it’s all-too-easy to bunt that wiffle ball and offer the character a false hard choice, and trust me, the reader will smell your weakness like poop on a shoe; if the choice is, GIL CAN EITHER SAVE THIS BASKET OF BABIES OR HE CAN INSTEAD EAT A BURRITO, one assumes that unless Gil is a raging burrito-hound, he’ll make the right choice and skip dinner to rescue the baby-basket

e) a hard choice speaks to the character, and isn’t just external plot

f) a hard choice always, always has consequences — emotionally, yes, but also consequences that resonate outward from the world or from other characters

g) further, those consequences — the stakes (as in, what can be won, lost or incurred) — must be known at least in part before the character makes the choice

So, there you go.

Whether you’re doing NaNiWriMo or just writing a book because, goddamnit, you can, feel free to use HARD CHOICES to juice your narrative and give it some teeth-gritting oomph.

*punches the air*


*punches the air again*



*falls down*

*breaks coccyx*

Let’s write some motherfucking stories?

P.S. that photo at the top of the post is not Gil the Kidney Guy, but rather, author Matt Wallace, whose fists are not named HARD and CHOICES but rather, LIPBALM and LOZENGE for reasons that remain utterly unknown to mankind; regardless, please be aware he is a very good writer, and he has the newest Sin du Jour book out today, Gluttony Bay, which for me is an instafuckingbuy and it should be for you, too, damnit.

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DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative

What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.

Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.

Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.

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