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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