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I am currently writing a short story in which the story's climax revolves around the protagonist making and carrying out a decision to take action.

I have come to realise that the decision I originally set up is a win-win situation for the protagonist – there is a downside to the decision, but it's not personal to the protagonist, which drains out the tension and makes the protagonist's choice too easy.

I would like to raise the stakes and make it a genuinely difficult decision for the character. I have some ideas about sacrifices that this decision would force on the character, but I would like to get some tips and insights on raising the stakes and heightening the reader's interest in the decision. Any resources on the topic or examples of short fiction that does this well would be very much appreciated!

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As you rightly perceive, this is about sacrifice. It is about loss. It is about how much the character is willing to bleed for this.

The implication of this is that much of the story has to be dedicated to making it very clear how much bleeding would be involved for the character in this situation. It is why so many quest stories spend so much time at the beginning on the joys of home. Think the beginning of LOTR and how much time it spends on establishing Fordo's love of the Shire. Think about how much time the Spriderman movies spend on the romance with MJ before Spidy has to choose between her an a bus full of children.

The stakes are not established in the moment. The whole of the story before the climax are spent establishing the stakes, so that in the moment the reader knows exactly what the decision will cost the protagonist, just how much they are going to have to bleed for it.

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  • Good point about the importance of setup. That will be tricky in shorter fiction (probably novelette length), but I do like a good challenge! – manyaceist Jan 15 '17 at 9:34
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Humans are not distinctly rational or logical. If your characters were vulcan from the Star Trek universe, their devotion to logic might shield them from some emotional backlash of their decision's down side. ...but they are not.

Making a decision which affects the outside world, comes with the potential for negative consequences for the decision maker, even when no direct cause is visible.

If your protagonist is a moral person, guilt over the damage they have done to others may haunt them. The memory of a previous decision's consequences to strangers may haunt them, even before the new decision is made.

If the protagonist is a loving person, horrific anguish can rise from causing harm to someone they love. Love is recursive, so the harm may jump through multiple hearts before reaching your protagonist. If the decision harms the spouse of your protagonist's lover's brother and the brother suicides over that loss, both your protagonist and their lover are in for more anguish than their relationship can possibly survive. If the brother is already in a precarious emotional state before the action, fear might prey upon the protagonist, even before the decision is made.

Ego plays into these kinds of situations as well. If your protagonist prides themselves on some attribute or strength of character; and if the choice which is to be made would contradict that beneficial self image, nebulous hesitation and anxiety may precede that actual decision. This anxiety may seem to have no source as the story starts, but slowly clarify as the decision approaches, possibly adding a powerful subplot to your story.

The trick to any of these possibilities involves the subtlety of their insertion into your story. You can't just tell the reader that something emotional is going on. Emotions, especially complex emotions are one of the places where a delicate writing hand can weave magic. "Show, don't tell" is never more true than here. It is okay if some of your readers don't understand why your protagonist is disturbed by the choice, as long as the rest of your readers are carefully guided to a place where they can understand and relate to how complex and perplexing it can be to live in our world where decisions often affect and harm others.

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  • Thanks for your thoughtful response! I'll churn some of those ideas around in my head and use them to work on the story. – manyaceist Jan 15 '17 at 9:32
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Stories, either written or on film, get boring when logic dictates what does and does not happen. We don't empathise with logic, we empathise with the human elements of choice, namely strong emotions.

We see someone cry, we get upset. We see someone kills the dog left to you as a gift from your dying wife (John Wick plot)-- just fuck 'em up mate. All of 'em. Now. Go.... and then we get pulled along as the story kicks in, learning more about the world.

I have come to realise that the decision I originally set up is a win-win situation for the protagonist – there is a downside to the decision, but it's not personal to the protagonist, which drains out the tension and makes the protagonist's choice too easy.

I recall the phrase, "If there's something wrong with the third act, it's really with the first act."

  1. The decision I originally set up is a win-win for the protag

That's where your "first act" problem is; this is relevant to short stories too, the advice is targetted to the telling of a story no matter it's length. Don't show the reader logic, show them emotion. Show them the character MUST commit to an action --any action--.

The decision you speak of, is there any conflict you can introduce that makes it -seemingly- impossible? Any further obstacle the protag must get through so he can commit to the Decision? Why is it your protag who has to make the decision in any case? If the decision is in itself mundane we'd wonder why no one else thought of that, especially as you said it makes the choice easy?

We want to read about Bjorn StrongMoral. He's a curious character thrust into XYZ circumstances (conflict arises). The stakes --somehow-- become personal: he MUST do X or else Y or even Z could happen! But Mr StrongMoral cannot even do X, he must suffer lowercase y's and z's even to achieve it, but by jove he does and at great cost God rest him... Good old Bjorn StrongMoral etc etc...

Just try to enthuse asense of urgency and agency so we know where we're going, why we're going that, and what the stakes are if we don't make it. But THIS is the story about the guy that did...

  1. There is a downside... but it's not personal to the protag.

There are instances of characters being more observer than operator within conflicts, however in my experience they tend to be more philosophical, using the conflict(s) as a means to introduce new introspective concepts. If it's not personal to the protag, maybe you have the wrong protagonist for this particular conflict, can you change it to anyone else?

Maybe you need to elevate the level at which the story operates; instead of a drama whose impact affects only a village, it will impact millions of lives and cause irrecoverable harm.

3....and makes the protagonist's choice too easy.

That prospect does not make for a rivetting story. However, it may be that you are underestimating your story. Try getting a beta-reader or pay someone to edit your work. They may be able to spot glaring mistakes. When they're done ask them questions for further feedback?

Good luck.

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  • Changing the first act is exactly what I need to do – good point about making sure the emotional stakes are clear and are the drivers of the story. And thank you for the point about obstacles – somehow, in the tangle of elements in the story, I have completely failed to put up sufficient obstacles. These are useful things to have in my head while I do another re-read and prepare for another re-write. – manyaceist Jan 18 '17 at 20:36

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