Critical choice and character agency

HareBrain

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I mentioned this in a crit this morning, and it got me thinking about my own writing, and writing in general.

Critical choice is one element of the eight-point arc, which, for those who don't know it, runs thus:

1. stasis
2. trigger
3. quest
4. surprise
5. critical choice
6. climax
7. reversal
8. resolution

This can apply to a whole novel, or a scene, and within the grand arc of a novel or series you will have major arcs, and within those, minor arcs, etc. The idea is that each element is a consequence of the one before it, with each arc being a process of significant change. (Reversal doesn't mean a 180-degree turn, just a significant consequence.) I've found it a useful tool not so much in planning, but in working out why something doesn't feel as dramatically satisfying as perhaps it should.

Interestingly "critical choice" is an element missing from at least one other drama analysis tool, Freytag's triangle, and I've come to realise that I perhaps pay lip-service to it rather than implement it well, and maybe quite a lot of others do too.

Common sense tells us (I think) that the most interesting path for a character is one where they have to make hard decisions. Not only do we have the consequences of the choice they take, but as readers, we also get to think about the foregone consequences of the one they didn't (and maybe the character gets to angst about it too). But quite often, my characters are faced by choices where the decision is pretty obvious -- the path they choose might be hard and dangerous, but the one they reject might clearly be even worse, or would take them away from their goals. Or the alternative is to do nothing and stay safe, which might be an option in reality, but not in fiction, where it would often make the story grind to a halt.

I'm not sure how much of a problem this is. A story in which a character is faced with terrible, difficult dilemmas every chapter (save your own child or millions of strangers) would quickly get wearing, and if a choice leads a character in an interesting direction, then the reader possibly isn't likely to carp about the decision having been an obvious one. I still love Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, even though the last time I read it, it struck me that the main character Will doesn't really make any choices at all.

And in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo's decision to take the ring to Mordor, made at the Council of Elrond, feels almost a spur-of-the-moment thing, and is in its way very obvious, but feels much more powerful than, say, Aragorn's dilemma over which way to go after the breaking of the fellowship, the consequences of which are almost as large.

So how important is this aspect? Does the important impression of character agency depend on it? Discuss.
 

goldhawk

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I'm not sure what you mean by stasis. You have to either introduce a problem in the opening or foreshadow it. Take Toy Story, for example. It starts with Andy playing in his room. He then leaves and the toys come alive. This shows the major differences between the story world and ours. Then the toys talking about Andy's upcoming birthday and how worried they are about being replaced. This foreshadows the entire conflict of the movie. And like any good foreshadow, it doesn't exactly foreshadow what happens. Turns out the toy with the least worries is the one likely to be replaced.

I'm not sure how this is stasis. Stasis means nothing is moving and something clearly is. Not that fast, perhaps, but moving none the less.
 

The Big Peat

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But quite often, my characters are faced by choices where the decision is pretty obvious -- the path they choose might be hard and dangerous, but the one they reject might clearly be even worse, or would take them away from their goals, or is not consistent with their self-image and ideology. Or the alternative is to do nothing and stay safe, which might be an option in reality, but not in fiction, where it would often make the story grind to a halt. Or to dither until the plot forces their hand.
With the addition of the bolded, I think you can describe pretty much any character choice I've read, not just yours. Just some authors disguise this a lot better than others; some you have to stop and think about it after its happened (but you're not stopping because you've got another page to read), others make you go "Hang on" and stop reading...

To be fair, the choice between hard and dangerous and even worse is difficult, because we rarely have perfect information from beginning to end and are having to deal with out fear during the process. Its why a ton of characters make decisions between the two with it feeling meaningful. Particularly as it's often a choice on who they are, and people deciding who they are is almost always meaningful.
 

HareBrain

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I'm not sure what you mean by stasis.
Stasis isn't my word. It just means the relatively stable situation at the outset, the "Once upon a time". In some stories it exists only before the narrative (if the character is already on the quest stage, for example).
 

HareBrain

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What I was trying to get at was whether a story is necessarily stronger for the choices a character faces being more balanced? (I.e. an actual decision has to be made, rather than the right course being fairly obvious.)
 
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The Big Peat

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What I was trying to get at was whether a story is necessarily stronger for the choices a character faces being more balanced? (I.e. an actual decision has to be made, rather than the right course being fairly obvious.)
I think this is best answered by Goldilocks syndrome. If they're too obvious, then everyone will guess what's happening and be bored. If there's big unobvious choices all the time, then there's either too much story to resolve or the character's character isn't obvious enough or readers are going to feel betrayed by an unclear premise or something. There's a reason we're all told to foreshadow; we're trying to lead the reader down the garden path into accepting our version of events.

Obviously it has to feel like there's a decision, that we're watching something unpredictable, but I think genuinely totally unpredictable isn't actually a selling point. I think that in a lot of circs, you want it to feel unpredictable in the lead up in the decision but obvious after.

Also... I feel like we're in a similar space to why people talk about "Whydunnits" rather than "Whodunnits". A lot of the time its obvious that the hero's going to go on the quest and who the hero is. If the WHY of the decision is interesting, the obviousness or not of it is less relevant.

I'm not sure I'm making sense here.
 

Brian G Turner

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I've found it a useful tool not so much in planning, but in working out why something doesn't feel as dramatically satisfying as perhaps it should.
I've not yet been able to plan a character's emotional arc, but it's definitely something I now find myself looking at technically after "finishing" - especially after prompts from Teresa's editing. :)

I also remember with Gathering, when trying to write a synopsis, I realized one of the main characters was missing a key moment of agency - so I wrote that in and a static moment became a dynamic one I thought worked much better.

Anyway, cheers for the heads up on this eight-point method - I'm going to look at my WIP and see if I can apply any of it. :)
 

Jo Zebedee

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What I was trying to get at was whether a story is necessarily stronger for the choices a character faces being more balanced? (I.e. an actual decision has to be made, rather than the right course being fairly obvious.)
I think that depends on the story being told. I don’t like forcing things into boxes
 

scarpelius

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Your 8 point arc looks like the phases in The Hero's Journey, Different names but same structure.
I had to google "character agency", didn't encounter this before but I found this article and I am totally agreeing: a character with agency will make the story more vibrant.
As for critical decisions, I feel that one decision is enough in a story, no matter the length. Forcing the character to choose a path for every minor aspect might create the impression that the character is undecided, lacking the strength to accomplish his quest.
 

Cathbad

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"The Obvious", doesn't usually make for a good story. I like the drama of agonizing over a decision - or even the agonizing of a decision taken, which makes room for 'spur of the moment' decisions.
 

CTRandall

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One alternative to the critical choice is a situation where it is obvious what is going to happen. This can be effective when you want a sense of pathos and tragedy. Greek tragedy is excellent at this. Consider Oedipus. From the moment we hear the prophecy at the beginning, we know none of his decisions matter. Nothing Oedipus does will prevent his fate. Candide is another great example that's (kind of) not a tragedy, as is Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (definitely tragedy). And every Hollywood film based on a well-known historical event.

In these cases, it strikes me that surprise and reversal become the main means of telling the story.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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I'm not sure I'm making sense here.
I think you are. Because ...

There's a reason we're all told to foreshadow; we're trying to lead the reader down the garden path into accepting our version of events.
... that's one of the clearest explanations I've ever seen—not just for foreshadowing, but for preparing the way in general, whether it's through foreshadowing or just dropping clues that aren't supposed to be obvious at first but will be later.
 

HareBrain

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Great responses everyone.

Your 8 point arc looks like the phases in The Hero's Journey
I think the hero's journey can be seen as a more detailed example of the eight-point arc (and probably as an example of any other narrative structure). Which is hardly surprising, as both schemas describe how storytelling has evolved over a long period of time.
 

Dan Jones

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I've not come across this eight-pointer myself, but the steps do make a sort of obvious technical sense. Like HB, I'm interested in th mechanics of storytelling, the foundation of myth and so on, and its true that stories that endure, such as folk tales, fairy tales, religious stories such as in the Bible and so forth, do possess structural and thematic and psychological similarities.

Whether a modern writer is conscious of it or not, these mechanical elements are going to feature in their stories, especially if they've paid attention to the telling of the story. That's because these fundamental elements are passed on through stories, and whether your story is consciously echoing Star Wars or Genesis, or Sleeping Beauty, similar elements, or at least the ghosts of those elements, will be there.

I think the really great writers do give serious consideration to this stuff, because it's unfathomably complex.

're: the critical choice thing, in Man O'War I didn't consciously apply these pointers (at least, not under these names), but I did spy them in the text when I looked back. Most characters have one or two critical choices where both outcomes seem the worst possible one.

I've just finished my next WIP, Hole In The Sky, and I've applied more of the theory and fundaments of storytelling in it, ie I've thought very long and hard about the creative process; that's partly because the story is partly about the creative process itself, but as I've learned more about what makes the truly enduring stories tick, the more I understand about how to apply them.

This is all very nebulous, and possibly slightly pseudy, and as Jo and Mouse say, they just want to write a story the way they see it. But the way they see it is both idiosyncratic and not idiosyncratic to them; it's filtered through a prism of texts and stories and films from time past immemorial, making it universal, but the prism ends with No, or Mouse, or whichever storyteller at the end, making it unique to their perspective and experience.

TL: DR - whether you're thinking about these eight points plans or "rules" or not, if you're taking care of your storytelling, you're probably applying them to some degree nonetheless because you've paid attention to other stories containing them.
 

Venusian Broon

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What I was trying to get at was whether a story is necessarily stronger for the choices a character faces being more balanced? (I.e. an actual decision has to be made, rather than the right course being fairly obvious.)
Simplistically I thought, yes, actual decisions should be made and this would make your story stronger.

But it is nuanced. I think the example you give of LotR is interesting. Personally I think the only moment of actual decision was Frodo deciding that he needed to take the ring alone and actively break up the fellowship. At that moment in time Aragorn (and likely Tolkien himself!) had little idea on how the fellowship was going to get the ring to Mount Doom. As soon as Aragorn accepts Frodo's decision, both he and Frodo gets essentially 'plot driven' through their respective sequence of events right to the end.

So just off the top of my head, it seems that characters having to make actual decisions can and should be used, but probably sparingly. I do think a character agonising over every decision would drive me mad. (But may be possible, I'd be interested if there is a novel that feels like this.)

Also the 'right' decision of which course to take may be obvious to character and reader as presented, but, for whatever reason, may not turn out to be the best course of action - unintended consequences and all that - which can also give nuance to the plot and how the character develops or reacts. ?
 

Jo Zebedee

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When I use this in teaching I use Star Wars as an eg of the 8 act structure (and the Hero's Journey) and I always find it hard to identify the Critical choice as, for me, Luke (as the MC) does not actually take it. It is Ben, choosing to face Vader, who does so, or possibly Han, in choosing to stay and save the day. This, by the way, is much of the reason I think Luke is just about the worst main character in the history of All Things Space Operatic.

1. stasis -- Tatooine
2. trigger -- Help me Obiwan!
3. quest -- Save the Princess!
4. surprise -- one bloody big Death Star
5. critical choice -- to destroy Vader and escape to the rebels/to decide to stay and support the rebels
6. climax -- ka-pow!
7. reversal -- back to the rebels
8. resolution -- cheesy medal ceremony

For LOTR I'd have it like this:

1. stasis - The Shire
2. trigger - Gandalf arriving; the ring being handed over
3. quest -- Destroy the Ring!
4. surprise -- The Fellowship is broken
5. critical choice -- Frodo goes on alone
6. climax -- interminable climbing over mountains; battles: the ring is lost
7. reversal -- back to the shire
8. resolution -- the leaving of the Ringbearers (the best part of the story for me)

But this is complicated further by the trilogy structure. If I was to do the same just for The Fellowship of the Ring it would look like this:

1. stasis - The Shire
2. trigger - Gandalf and the ring
3. quest - form the fellowship
4. surprise - Ring wraiths and their growing strength
5. critical choice - to go forwards towards Mordor
6. climax - The Fellowship being broken
7. reversal -- separation
8. resolution - Frodo going onwards: Aragorn et al commited to causing a distracting chaos.

So, I'm saying both @Venusian Broon and @HareBrain could be right about the point of critical choice depending on whether you see Fellowship as a whole story, or the trilogy as the complete story. Whereas for Star Wars it's easier to pinpoint the point of choice, if not who takes it, as it was always designed to be one story.
 

HareBrain

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When I use this in teaching I use Star Wars as an eg of the 8 act structure (and the Hero's Journey) and I always find it hard to identify the Critical choice as, for me, Luke (as the MC) does not actually take it. It is Ben, choosing to face Vader, who does so, or possibly Han, in choosing to stay and save the day. This, by the way, is much of the reason I think Luke is just about the worst main character in the history of All Things Space Operatic.

1. stasis -- Tatooine
2. trigger -- Help me Obiwan!
3. quest -- Save the Princess!
4. surprise -- one bloody big Death Star
5. critical choice -- to destroy Vader and escape to the rebels/to decide to stay and support the rebels
6. climax -- ka-pow!
7. reversal -- back to the rebels
8. resolution -- cheesy medal ceremony
The critical choice is what comes from being confronted with the surprise, so in terms of the story of the whole film, the critical choice is the decision to destroy the Death Star (which is the surprise, as you say). And I can't remember who actually makes it, and also it's one of those obvious-choice things, so yes, I'm not sure there really is a major critical choice prominent in the film (though there are in Ben's and Han's arcs). And again, it's not clear that such a lack really weakens the story, though I think you're right that Luke's lack of choice-making does render him a bit weak.

I'd say the climax is the attack on the Death Star, and the reversal its destruction. (This is the change in status: the rebels change to being victors, the Death Star changes from being a superweapon to being space-junk. The reversal is often the defeat of the antagonist.)
 

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