So Many Choices....

Once again I have a post inspired by awesomeness of Joss Whedon as brought to me by the awesomeness of Netflix Streaming.

Warning! This post includes spoilers for a show that ended 7 years ago...

So, season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer starts with Buffy dead after having made the ultimate sacrifice to save her sister Dawn at the end of season 5. In episode 1 Willow and crew are consumed with grief and are getting ready to perform some extremely dark magic to raise Buffy from the dead. They're successful! Hurrah! But uh oh. All is not well. Buffy doesn't seem, well, right. She's distant. Quiet. Emotionless.

The gang decides she must have been dragged down into some awful hell dimension while she was dead and that the adjustment is simply being difficult for her to make. For several episodes Buffy says nothing about this. People keeping saying how awful it must have been, how painful and terrifying and Buffy is silent. Until one day she finds herself standing in the alley behind the magic shop alone with Spike. That's when she tell us that everyone is wrong. She wasn't being tortured. She wasn't in pain. She wasn't in hell.

She was in heaven.

When she died, Buffy was transported to a place where, for the first time ever, she knew peace and happiness and fulfillment. So rather than saving her, Willow's magic ripped her out of paradise. Now that she's back the difficulties of her life--figuring out how to support her family while at the same time handling the demands of being the slayer--are thrown into high relief.  Once you've been in heaven, the real world feels like, well, like hell.

It's a heartbreaking moment when Buffy admits where she was and it got me thinking about how simply making a strong, arresting choice can make you feel like your story is suddenly writing itself. Make a weak or hackneyed choice and you find yourself lost wondering where the drama is, where the tension is.

This happened to me just this week actually. Around page 180 my WIP  fell flat. No tension between the characters. No urgency. I worked at it as hard as I could but it just wouldn't come into focus. In my frustration I went back and worked on an earlier section, hoping the time away from the problem area would help work the problem out.

That's when I figured it out.

It wasn't page 180 that was the problem, it was a chapter about twenty pages before that. Around page 160 I had come to a turning point in the story and made what turned out to be a weak choice. That was why page 180 wasn't working and,  really, couldn't work. Strong choices are the fuel of drama and because of the weak choice on page 160 my tank was empty 20 pages later.

See, Whedon and co. could have made the choice that Buffy was simply having trouble adjusting after being dead. Valid enough choice.  But look at that choice in comparison to the choice he eventually made. The choice that she had been in heaven reverberates throughout the season. It creates extraordinary conflict within Buffy, it effects her personality, her friendships, her lovelife, her outlook on life and her job, everything.

I mean how is she supposed to feel about her friends now? How does she deal with them? They did what they did because they loved her, but what they did ended the only moment of pure happiness she'd ever felt.  I just sat there marveling at how smart and powerful that choice was. (The choice is also the basis of everything that happens to Willow in season 6 as well. Some powerful and wrenching stuff there too.)

So the point is, when I'm having trouble these days I always look backwards, since there's a very good chance that it's not actually the scene I'm writing that I'm having trouble with, but one twenty or thirty pages back.

Of course, there's no formula for making a strong choice. If only. I just try to go back and look at turning point moments--moments where there is a revelation about character or relationships or a shift in the plot and I ask myself "did I make strongest choice I could?"  Did I make a choice that fired my imagination? One that fueled conflict and tension and opened up new possibilities? Did I surprise myself? If the answer is no, I've likely found the place where the work needs to be done.

Once I went back and made a stronger choice the world just opened up for me and the writing flew by. Whew!

How about you guys? What do you do when your story hits the doldrums?  How do you pull yourself out of it?


Angie said...

Great post, Jeff. That was an amazing and heart-wrenching moment when Buffy admits that to Spike--of all people. I remember thinking at the time it was great storytelling to make such a choice. And it's good inspiration for toughening up the choices in my WIP.

btw, my favorite Buffy episode is Hush--the one where no one speaks for almost the entire episode. That takes some serious writing cojones to pull off.

Windy said...

Again, the powers of Buffy and Joss Whedon save the world!

Unknown said...

On the bright side, it was on page 160 where you found the weak spot to fix...I have a completed, 300 page, hidden-under-the-bed manuscript that fell flat on page 50!!

Julia said...

Jeff - I can so identify! My very first (now drawer) novel was hitting the doldrums. Then, with me forgetting to hit "save" - there was a storm & a power outage. Yep - lost about 6K words. But, when I went back to pick up from there, I realized that a guy who was being "good" was really a bad guy. Changed the entire story! Someday it might get out of the drawer!

Becky Mushko said...

Good post. It's nice to know that you figured out the problem.

When I hit a wall in a WIP, I let it sit for a bit. Then I do some "what if-ing": "What if this had happened instead of that," etc.

Kay said...

Thank you, Jeff. Your post has given me much to think about in my WIP. I'm definitely stuck. Now I have something to go back and look for.

Jeff Hirsch said...

Hi everyone. Thanks for the comments. Sorry I couldn't be around more on Wednesday but I was off on a staff retreat. Darn you, day job! Why must you keep me from my blog friends?!

Yeah Becky, laying off a project for awhile is also a great way to get some much needed perspective. Your what ifing is great too. I'll have to try that!