This indecision’s bug­ging me. I’m on the point of fin­ish­ing book 2 in the Ash Grove tril­o­gy, and I can’t seem to make up my mind about some details of how the action cli­max wraps up.

It doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but writ­ing fic­tion is real­ly about mak­ing count­less deci­sions at every pos­si­ble turn. Not just about how to express the ideas—word choice, sen­tence struc­ture, dia­logue ver­sus nar­ra­tive, impli­ca­tion ver­sus descrip­tion, and so on, which would be plen­ty—but also about how every moment plays out.

Say I plan for a char­ac­ter, Alexan­der, to dis­cov­er that he has been giv­en an onion bagel instead of a plain one, and to be vexed by this. This should be a sim­ple thing to write, shouldn’t it?

Not nec­es­sar­i­ly.

Do I need to estab­lish what kind of morn­ing Alexan­der has had to this point? Whether he hit snooze too often, found a hole in his sock, and burned his fin­ger on the cof­feemak­er, and thus was real­ly irri­tat­ed about the bagel error? Maybe the bagel switch was the first sour note in a hereto­fore delight­ful morn­ing. Or do I just go straight to the bagel encounter?

What’s he wear­ing? That might be impor­tant. If he gets onion flakes on his new Hugo Boss suit, he’ll be espe­cial­ly peev­ed. Old Navy chi­nos, not so much.

What does the bagel place look like? How much do I need to describe it to help the read­er visu­al­ize it, or do I take it as a giv­en that everyone’s been in bagel estab­lish­ments enough that I can take it for grant­ed? If I describe it, I’ve got to decide which details are impor­tant. The tables and chairs? (new, old, met­al, wood…) The wall art? (local artists, Pier One, pho­tos of the staff…) The smell of all those dif­fer­ent bagel vari­eties bak­ing?

Who sells Alexan­der the bagel? A fetch­ing young bage­lista? (Fetch­ing how? Height, hair col­or / style / length / bounci­ness, eye col­or, fig­ure, accent, char­ac­ter quirk?) A surly ex-exec­u­tive who’s had to take this low­ly job because of down­siz­ing? (What does he look like, sound like, act like?) Does Alexander’s brief exchange with this per­son start a train of thought in his mind about the vagaries of fate or whether he’s too shy to ask the barista for her num­ber?

As Alexan­der rumi­nates, does some telling char­ac­ter ges­ture illu­mi­nate his mulling? Drum­ming his fin­gers on the table­top, jig­gling his knee, rub­bing the back of his neck, weep­ing silent­ly into a paper nap­kin?

If he express­es his dis­plea­sure, does he yell, mur­mur, hiss, bark, snap, or bleat? Does he say, “Look here,” “Excuse me,” “I beg your par­don,” or “Yo!”?

It’s this con­stant bar­rage of deci­sions, I think, that can make it so use­ful for writ­ers to find a way to pow­er through the first draft with­out per­mit­ting them­selves time to mull over all the dif­fer­ent options: to par­tic­i­pate in NaNoW­riMo, for exam­ple, where the chal­lenge of writ­ing a 50,000-word nov­el in a sin­gle month doesn’t allow the dubi­ous lux­u­ry of con­sid­er­ing the con­se­quences of every sin­gle deci­sion.

Because con­se­quences there are. The fetch­ing bage­lista whose num­ber Alexan­der didn’t ask for may come back into play three chap­ters from now, when the plot calls for Alexan­der to be embar­rassed in pub­lic: she may be just the per­son to scoff at his bad pick­up lines in the bar. But if I’ve gone with the ex-exec­u­tive bagel ven­dor, that’s not going to work—or cer­tain­ly not in the same way. Every sin­gle off-the-cuff deci­sion can have ram­i­fi­ca­tions through the rest of the book, and although it’s easy to go back and change some things, oth­ers will have become so woven into the fab­ric of the sto­ry that they’ll be mighty dif­fi­cult to replace. With a series, every deci­sion will even fac­tor into oth­er books.

So right now I still don’t know how I’m going to get my Ash Grove char­ac­ters out of their predica­ment. The choic­es I make now will deter­mine what I can and can’t do in book 3, which is a bit par­a­lyz­ing. But at least the inde­ci­sion has come to feel like a famil­iar friend, one I can slap on the back and share a bagel with.

 

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