Friday, April 24, 2015

Your Choice of Choices

Among the dramatic terms most often associated with story, conflict, misadventure or reversal are the most likely candidates to emerge first, followed by such delicacies as agenda, suspense, and betrayal.  To extend an unlikely metaphorical similarity between story and, of all things, professional athletics, we can observe that the concept of choice is not a first round draft choice.

And yet.

Beyond the classic choice extended to characters, "You're either with us or against us," there are two iconic choices, named after characters.  From a chronological perspective, a Hobson's choice reaches back to the late 1500s, said to have come from a livery stable run by, you guessed it, a man named Hobson.  To his customers, he is reported to have said, "You can take that horse by the door or no horse at all."  Hobson's choice seems open-ended until the alternative, which is of choice.  A Hobson's choice is this one particular thing or nothing.  We don't send out for Chinese or pizza.  We send out for Chinese or we don't get dinner.

The excellent writer, William Styron's 1979 novel, Sophie's Choice, gave us the other eponymous condition in which the protagonist of that wrenching novel is forced to chose between two unbearable options.  As the novel progresses, we are aware of yet another choice awaiting Sophie, cringing as we read on, aware, as surely she must be aware, of how that awful first Sophie's choice has marked her life.

Before Sophie, there was the dilemma, which meant being presented with a pair of choices of equal awfulness or disagreeable outcome.  From about the eighteenth century onward until the present, literature is filled with individuals, faced with the dilemma of choosing what seems to be the least worst of two opportunities, and from the earliest reaches of story, we are used to the plight of individuals who find themselves in positions they cannot seem to avoid, where their welfare is at balance on a fulcrum of choice.

Now, there is Sophie Zawistowska, who is Styron's choice, and the generic phalanxes of choice seen to advance on most women in various stations of their life.  Styron's Sophie will live through the other wrenching choices placed on other women.  Better still, in future works, choices which may not seem to be all that great a wrench will be set in motion with such deftness--say the narrator of the newest Toni Morrison novel, God Help the Child, and her response to the intense blackness of her newly born child--that the reader will experience the moral wrench of the circumstances of the choice the narrator has made and simultaneously rejected.

Another famed choice involving two characters named Vladimir and Estragon connects to a name that, on reflection, involves choice.  They do not have to wait for Godot.  Or do they?  Watching them is a tricky business in which each of us brings a potential choice.  

When you first saw Waiting for Godot, your significant emotion was impatience, until you realized the possibility that this remarkable writer may well have intended that precise response from most of those who watched the play.  Or perhaps his intention was something else.  But you had the choice of how you were going to respond.  And you took it..

To slip into another metaphor, Choice is the speed bump of story, arriving at the least convenient times, when one or more characters has contrived circumstances to suit her agenda, causing the characters and readers to literally and figuratively suffer the interruption while we wait to see how the characters will cope with this newest attack on smooth road.

Yet another metaphor here, in particular because of the ongoing conversation about the decay of the infrastructure.  A smooth surface for the street is fine for the city but not for story.  The infrastructure of drama needs cracks in the pavement, sink holes, and leaky fire hydrants.

When you want to squeeze the moral juice from a scene, give one or more of your characters a choice to make.  The choices may be quite earnest or stem, as so many things in Reality do, from purest of whim.  In some ways, the former will not emerge seeming as serious as the latter, leaving the reader or viewer to make the all-important choice.

The reader has the choice of putting the book down, never to return.  You have the choice of playing it safe, taking detours to spare the reader and yourself any bumps, but you know the kinds of trouble that will get you in, don't you?  That's called a catch-22.

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