metteharrison (metteharrison) wrote,

Choices and Consequences

As I was teaching my college class about Hamlet, we spent some time making a list of “how things could have happened differently,” basically all the moments when Hamlet made a choice that he could have made a different choice and had different consequences that were not so tragic, ie. everyone dying.

Now, some of the choices didn’t “work” for me, because I felt strongly that Hamlet’s character was already set by the time the play begins, and he has qualms about cold-bloodedly murdering Claudius, no matter how much evidence he has against him. And I don’t believe he would have gone off with Ophelia no matter how much you want Hamlet to be a kinder, gentler version of Romeo and Juliet. But there are other moments when things might have changed. If he hadn’t killed Polonius, if he’d challenged Claudius directly to a duel, if he’d spent some time talking to his mother, and so forth.

Why does Hamlet matter to you writing your novel? Well, it turns out this kind of analysis is excellent for creators of story because it allows them to see the novel in a condensed way. It’s one thing to talk about a novel in terms of scenes or to be working with a 7-point plot structure. But if you think about it as a series of choices and consequences, you can make a neat little list and then stare at it and ask yourself what other choices might be possible, which might lead to other consequences.

You do this when you’ve had readers report back that they don’t like the ending, or they feel like things went off track at a certain point. Sometimes this doesn’t pinpoint exactly where things went wrong, and you have to go further back. You can think about your novel as a tree of diverging choices. Your novel only goes down one line, but what about all the other lines? There are dozens of others stories, maybe hundreds that you could tell, beginning with the same characters, the same world, and the same unfolding dilemmas.

You, as the author, get to decide which ones happen because you are in charge, even if you’re trying, like most of us authors, to disguise how much of a hand you have in how the story plays out. Sometimes the choices are tiny ones, the butterfly’s wings that change the course of the hurricane two thousand miles away. But you are choosing every branch of the tree that follows from the setup. You must acknowledge this to be able to effectively revise. The ending is not inevitable, nor is every unfolding consequences. You as the author have a certain worldview and your story reflects that. But you can also change your worldview and change your story.

What if Hamlet had gone back to school in Wittenberg? What if there hadn’t been pirates that boarded the ship and brought him back to Denmark? What if he’d landed in England and had to figure out what to do then? There are always ways to do things differently and still keep true to the characters and the story. Look behind the words to the mechanics, and your revising will be transformed.

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