Your Protagonist Must Decide

by Joe Bunting | 73 comments

“A human being is a deciding being,” said Victor Frankl.

My dad and I have been talking about his novel. It's a fantasy novel that takes place in a mythical, magical realm. The story involves love, intrigue, and war. I actually believe it has a lot of potential.

The problem is, it's 650 typed, double-spaced pages. That's a long novel!

From San Antonio to Houston we talked through the plot, and it wasn't until we were almost there that I realized the problem.

His hero didn't make any decisions. He never took up the quest. Time after time different characters offered a greater purpose, a mission, a project bigger than himself, but he rejected them all. He was content to stay there, accepting the status quo. He was unwilling to make decision.So instead we wait for hundreds of pages while the hero rejects one meaningful story after another.

At the end of the day, a story, like a life, doesn't have to be perfect. You just have to choose something.

Decide

Photo by Nagesh Jayaramen

The Need for Something Bigger

A story where the character isn't sucked up into some greater purpose, a quest, a mission, a love affair, is a boring story. Their story must be bigger than them, bigger than their own personal survival, bigger than making their own name, career, or fortune. Otherwise, we the audience won't be interested.

Humanity is hardwired for quests, for projects bigger than ourselves, and as writers we have to tap into that need, shoving our characters into quests, missions, projects whether our characters want it or not.

Your hero must decide to sacrifice his or her comfort, safety, stability, and peace to go on one of these missions or else her or she isn't a real protagonist. Her or she is just a dreamer with a disappointing, narcissistic life.

Your characters must decide.

If they are invited to a quest or mission by another character, they must say yes. Or if they say no, it has to be because they have a different plan and want to do things on their own terms.

If they have a passion, they must follow through and give it all they have, even through the disappointments and pain. Otherwise they are not truly passionate.

If they say no, do not decide, they are not heroes. They are a side character only tangentially important to the plot. Ignore them until you find a character interested in making a decision.

PRACTICE

Your protagonist decides to do something.

What ist it? What are the obstacles to making that decision into a real thing.

Write about their decision for fifteen minutes. When you finish, post your practice to the comments section. And if you post, please comment on a few others pieces.

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

73 Comments

  1. Tom Wideman

    Joe, you are so gifted at this! I know you’re only in your 20s, but you have the soul of a seasoned storyteller. Your insights go deeper than mere academics. In other words, it’s more than just book-learnin’ for you. Thanks for offering these daily encouragements to a group of strangers. I assume this blog isn’t making you rich, but it has certainly enriched my life and my writing. Thanks so much!!!

    Reply
    • Christy Boston

      I second that. I have not been on this blog long, but in the short time I have been here, I have learned and grown as a writer. I am working on a novel that I want to get published when it is complete, and have gone back and started rewriting it -again- (lol) based on what I have learned from being here. And the writing prompts are great! When I feel stuck, the daily 15 minute deviations from my WIP are a great way to unstick me.

    • Joe Bunting

      That’s so good to hear, Christy. I hope it works!

    • Joe Bunting

      Your thanks is superfluous because of the millions of dollars I’m making on this blog, Tom. 😉

      Seriously, though, thanks. It’s such a pleasure to learn with strangers and friends like you.

  2. Chihuahua Zero

    “Your char­ac­ters must decide.”

    As a writer whose stories depend on the characters, this is important to me. I want a protag that make decisions and take actions, and I’m still figuring out how to do that more and more, even taking to account the fact that the other protagonist is prodding him around in the sneakiest ways.

    I really need to write another Post-It not with a message like this.

    Reply
  3. Suzie Gallagher

    “Got it!” She shouted with glee at the wall this time whilst jumping up.

    “The old bat down by the river with all the cats, she’ll give me a roach if I feed her moggies, genius!”

    Mary set off in the glow of the orange street lamps, striding purposefully. It was seven and would take an hour to feed the gazillion or however many cats were there tonight.

    There was a light shining from the window so she knocked and opened the door . The stench of cat piss hit her as she opened the inner door and the noise of mewing kitties enveloped her.

    “ Nancy, it’s Mary from the estate. Will ye be wanting yer cats fed Nance?”

    But Nancy wasn’t listening; in fact she hadn’t listened all day not since dawn when she drew in her last breath. She stared at Mary, and conversely Mary stared back. She momentarily wondered should she call the doctor or the ambulance or something. Something she decided and poked Nancy who was sitting immobile in a green frayed fireside chair. No response. She slapped her across the face as hard as she could. The head moved to one side with the momentum but came back to stare once more.

    Something else she thought, scanning the room. Nancy’s hash box was always kept in the centre of the mantelpiece, it was an old tobacco tin that had been covered in sanded down and varnished matchsticks, like parquet flooring. Mary knew all this because her dad had one and she used to stroke the glossy top. He took it with him when he left, not that he was much there as he spent more time sent down than out for good behaviour. That was where he made the tin, she had thought to ask Nance who made the tin for her but she’d forgotten. Who cares she thought as she stuffed the tin down her knickers and went in search of Nancy’s handbag. She knew where that was because Eileen and her used nick the odd bit out of it every now and then. She emptied the purse out onto Nancy’s lap, making use of the tweed skirt she was wearing that was taut across the thighs making a perfect table for change gathering. In the notes compartment she found a fresh crisp €20 note and grabbed all the silver from her lap leaving the copper in a sagging pile. Stuffing the coins into her jeans and stashing the note inside her bra. She would have chips on the way home.

    “Thanks,” she said to Nancy. Still inert. Still dead. She scuttled out of the house leaving the door open as she rushed into the night.

    Reply
    • Christy Boston

      Well done! Nice decriptions, I got a real feeling for the characters, both the crass nature of the living Mary as well as what must have been the disagreeable personality of the dead Nancy.

    • zo-zo

      Really good story… You create such a vivid moment with these lines – ‘But Nancy wasn’t listening; in fact she hadn’t listened all day not since dawn when she drew in her last breath. She stared at Mary, and conversely Mary stared back.’ Great descriptions too.

    • Marianne

      I like this Suzie. This may have been one really stupid decision for the protagonist to make. I can just picture the place too, with the all the cats and dirt. Thanks

  4. Kathryn Braithwaite

    That is very interesting.. thsnk you.I never thought like that before

    Reply
    • Marla

      What a great twist. Good writing, full of action and emotion.

  5. Sophie

    Roger closed his eyes and listened. They weren’t the sounds he wanted to hear, but nonetheless, they were there. The audience roared in anticipation as the cheerleaders screamed for the team to come out.
    Roger rubbed his head, trying to think, trying to hear that still, small voice through the crowd. All he heard was the steady stomping against the bleachers and the calls of, “Bryson, Bryson, Bryson!” But he knew it was there, in the quiet, in his heart; he’d heard those words so clear, he knew it was what he should do. And yet…
    “Bryson, are you recovered yet?” Coach Hawley stood over him, the heat of his body stifling any breeze that might have escaped into the locker room.
    Roger bit his lip, mentally trying to focus on the game. “Yessir, I’m good.” He stood, his body now towering over the middle-sized coach.
    “Good,” Coach Hawley chewed his gum between words. “Get out there.”
    Roger’s heart sank as he neared the door–he put his hand on the post and mentally shook his head. I can’t do this, he thought. I can’t… “Coach?” the words were dry and almost timid.
    Hawley raised his brow. “What is it Bryson?”
    Roger looked at the team, their faces elated, their eyes exposing their trust and faith in him. He shook his head, “Nothing.” He turned back around and took a breath, “Let’s go, guys.”
    The noise of the audience rose to a roar and the team barrelled out onto the field.
    Roger tried to the think that he’d succeeded in leaving his emotions in the locker room, but he continued to feel guilty for ignoring his father’s repeated texts.
    Finally, it was half-time, and he took a seat, pouring water down his dry throat and all over his sweaty chest. He sighed and nervously turned his head to see the seats where his family sat. His mother wasn’t there, of course; and his father must be with her at the hospital. Emma, his sister, sat holding her boyfriend’s hand and caught Roger’s eye. She waved, smiled, and pointed to a small figure leaning over the rail.
    Roger smiled as he recognized the blue scarf and hat. He jumped over the bench and went to meet her.
    Pollie smiled, but her eyes were sad. “Rog, you did good out there. But your mother…she needs you.”
    Roger shook his head, “She told me to play. This is my chance. There’s a lot of guys here tonight that could get me a place. Coach says I’ll get in the NFL, if I keep this up.”
    Pollie shook her head, “I know, Rog. You could do this. But…you have to follow what you know is right. I thought the other night you really heard the call.”
    Roger looked away. “It was so clear, the other night, Pollie. But I thought about it.” He grabbed her gloved hand. “I want to make a go at something that I love, but I have to make money too, baby.”
    Pollie squeezed his hand. “Just as long as you know it’s the right thing, Rog. You can’t just follow your heart.”
    He nodded, “I’m not.” But his heart felt heavy and his head spun as he walked over to his coach.
    There were three other men beside Hawley, all of them with their clipboards and clicking pens.
    “Coach, can I sit this one out?” His voice was completely hoarse by now.
    Hawley looked at him like he’d just told him he was from Mars, grabbed his shoulder and whispered, “Bryson, you’re walking a thin line here. I don’t know what’s gotten into you, son, but you need to get a grip. This could be it, the real deal for both of us.”
    Roger took a breath as Hawley brought him back to the other men. He tried to listen as they rambled about his agility and potential, but his mind wandered to the girl in the bleachers and the mother dying of cancer.
    Suddenly, a blond woman and a red-head with a camera were right in his face, holding a microphone right under his chin.
    “Roger Bryson, can you tell us how it feels to be making this decision? I’m sure it’s tough for a college senior to choose between teams.”
    Roger stared blankly.
    The woman continued, “Do you have any idea which team you’ll choose, Mr. Bryson? Rumors have spread that you’ll choose your home-state, to be closer to your mother and fiance.”
    Roger blinked and he forced a smile. Pollie was staring at him from behind the woman, her eyes sparkling with tears.
    She shook her head and said something he couldn’t hear. But her eyes said it all, “Do the hard thing. What you know is right.”
    Roger looked her straight in the face. “I’m going to China with Pollie.”
    The woman paused. “Oh, for vacation?”
    Roger grinned as Pollie turned back, her face beaming. “It’s no vacation. We’re going as missionaries.”
    The look on the woman’s face couldn’t have been more priceless.

    Reply
    • Suzie Gallagher

      Sophie this is brilliant, well done

  6. Hope Clark

    Nicely done, Joe. Very nicely done. I see this issue in so many unpublished stories, and the author fails to understand. I also go through this in all my first drafts. Glad to see the issue addresses here.

    Hope Clark
    http://www.chopeclark.com
    http://www.fundsforwriters.com

    Reply
  7. Alison Schultz

    Decision Prompt

    “Roy didn’t make it in,” Katie whispers. “He told me yesterday.”

    Roy is nothing short of a twenty-first century Einstein, by far the smartest kid in our grade. Possibly our school. Usually he sits, bent over his desk and pencil dancing across the page, two seats in front of me. That seat will be empty for a few days.

    “How could Roy not make it in?” I whisper. “If he can’t get in, no one can.”

    “My dad said that Carmel’s looking for more well-rounded students. They’ve got some smarts, but they want kids who are pretty diverse. And their athletes don’t really get good grades.”

    Makes sense, I guess. “But if kids like Roy aren’t getting accepted there, their freshman class is going to be about five students.”

    She shrugs. “It’s an exclusive school. Not as exclusive as five students in a class, but still.”

    Mr. Fisher peers over his computer at us and we immediately busy ourselves in our work. At least, she does. My mind is racing and I can’t focus on the worksheet right now.

    I want to get into that school BAD. More than I wanted to make the A team even, though of course that’ll factor into whether I’m accepted. Call me snobby and self-absorbed, but I want to go somewhere where I’m not surrounded by stupid kids who only care about their money and their popularity. I guess there’s also that other private high school a few miles from here, but Will and Justin already said they’re going there. No way am I getting stuck with them again.

    I eye my scribbled, half-completed work. This class is tedious and boring. But if I want to get into that school, I’m going to have to work harder. I sigh as I erase the past half-hour of writing on my paper and start over. I’m a decent student and a good ballplayer, but I’m going to need to be the best. And whether I like it or not, I’m going to get there.

    Reply
    • Marla

      I love this, especially this line. “Usually he sits, bent over his desk and pencil dancing across the page, two seats in front of me.”

    • Suzie Gallagher

      Alison, I love this. What I like most is the idea that a child thinks that far ahead, I know they exist – my friend was a battered, bruised, abused lonely girl and is now a prof of Eng at uni, (and she would tut at my abbr!) – I just wasn’t one of them, I was the gifted kid at the back trying to be cool – too geeky to be cool but not geeky enough to stick my head in the books or “Usually he sits, bent over his desk and pencil dancing across the page”

    • Marianne

      As far as decision making goes this is interesting in that it shows even when one has made a decision (of this kind anyway) there may be more to do to achieve what is desired. This could be an interesting piece for you to continue with.

  8. Marla

    Dog Long Gone

    The dog was not Scout, that was for sure. This dog had a wonky walk, and there was no stripe down his back, like a skunk’s really, when you thought about it. But Almeda had come this far, clutching the Lost and Found column in her hand, the entry circled in red. “Terrier-like dog found wandering on Rye Hill Road last Saturday night. No collar. No tags.”

    When the man answered the door, he looked Almeda up and down, like a dandy in a bar looking to get lucky, she thought. He leaned into the doorframe, filling the space, and she thought for a second about running, but she hadn’t seen the dog yet, and she needed the dog to be Scout.

    “Your dog’s out back,” the guy said, as he stood aside so she could enter.

    “I don’t believe we’ve established it’s my dog,” Almeda said.

    “Well, tomatoes, tah-mah-toes,” he answered. “Let’s just take a look.”

    The grubby little mutt was nosing around an above-ground pool, sniffing so hard it sounded like snoring. When he looked up, his chin was muddy with little flecks of grass stuck here and there. His legs shook – from nerves or some contagious disorder, Almeda thought.

    It had been almost a month since Scout went missing. He was just shy of 14 – she’d gotten him when she turned 21 – old for any dog, ancient for a schnauzer. Almeda thought she might go mad, jogging from house to house in her neighborhood, clutching Scout’s picture she’d had taken with Santa at the mall one Christmas. But he was nowhere. She called the TV station, begging for coverage, “He’s on medication,” she said, and her voice broke. The woman she was talking to said. “Lady, we’ve got a bus crash out by the water plant and a drive-by shooting on Dickson Street. You really think I’m going to send someone over to interview you about a damn dog?” Almeda felt a kind of shame when she hung up the phone, though she couldn’t say why.

    That night she didn’t sleep, nor the next. She started seeing Scout in odd places, in the hedges for instance, and she’d get down on her knees and call out to him. She left kibble in a trail from the sidewalk to the doggie door and replaced it every morning.

    And now she was here, in the bad part of town, with a man who towered above her and a dog that was sniffing her shoe.

    “I didn’t mention the reward,” he said, rubbing his chin. “But I figure for a fine dog like this one, $300 would be fair. I bought him food,” he said, pointing to the Cool Whip container that was slick with the remains of something dark that Almeda hoped was dog food.

    “And the ad, well, it was free, but I took off work to go down to the paper and get it in.”
    Almeda wanted to challenge him, but she was bone tired, and at that moment she realized Scout wasn’t coming back. She leaned down and pulled a dog treat from her purse. The mutt pulled himself up on his haunches and took the treat.

    “I’ve got $50 dollars cash,” she said, pulling the money from her purse. “Not one cent more. I’ve been off work too, looking for this little guy, so I’m stretched thin.”

    The man shifted his feet and ran his fingers through his shock of dark hair. He seemed to consider whether he could get more, but he knew as well as she did that this dog was not Almeda’s. He took the money from her hand, rubbing his thumb across each of her knuckles in a way that seemed almost pornographic. Almeda felt she was watching it all play out from somewhere far above them both, so she smiled back at him, darkly, then gathered up the lonely mutt and headed home.

    Reply
    • Suzie Gallagher

      Marla, I really like this, I like the decision, I like the non-decision. Good writing. WD

    • Marla

      Thank you Suzie.

    • zo-zo

      I love how there’s a pause in this story, a waiting, the whole way until the end – coupled with the dark man – works really well.

    • Marla

      Thank you. These exercises are so much fun.

    • Marianne

      I like the decision here and I like that it represents her knowing Scout was not coming back. I think it might have been stronger if you had not said that she knew Scout wasn’t coming back, just let the readers surmise that.

    • Marla

      Thank you Marianne.

  9. Pjreece

    Joe… you’re on a quest yourself! One true to my own heart. Of course, protagonists must decide… otherwise they can’t reap the reward of their victories or be blamed for their defeats. And if not, then it’s not “their” story.

    My current protagonist (a spy) decides decides decides to play it safe safe safe because he’s been hurt in the past. He choses the low road, not the high road. Now here’s the thing… all his decisions and their subsequent actions lead to failure and disillusionment. His belief system starts to crumble. I’ve been studying hero’s trajectories and it seems they only adopt their highest goal once their old strategies prove hopeless. (So human!) So, I’d say that the hero must have, above all, the determination to keep making mistakes and keep going. Only then will she ultimately open to those goals that emerge from her higher nature.

    More! I want more of this kind of thing, Joe! You’re hot!

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      That sounds perfect, PJ, and I agree with you about the heroic arc. It sounds like your hero had to learn self-sacrifice. Thanks, PJ. You’re the best.

    • Yvette Carol

      PJ you’re a hero for writers too, just like our heroic leader, Joe. Which reminds me, you started something suggesting if I started my own blog…etc. I had a dream which gave me an idea for a post. Then I saw a film ‘Inside I’m dancing’ which gave me more juice for it. So now, I have a first post ‘what is your purpose?’ and no blog. Therefore I am pondering a second post ‘the power of permission’ and if that comes together well…I feel I’m at a crossroads. Teetering on the brink of a new horizon as it were. And all because of a few words you happened to write. You never know what your words will do, or how they will influence…(someone said that here once or was that also you?) p.s. thank you for freaking me out, man!

  10. zo-zo

    OK, this was definitely more than 15 mins, but I got engrossed…

    Nkosi twisted his face into a grimace and stuck his hand as close to the car window as he could.

    ‘Please, ma’am,’ he whined, tilting his head. ‘Just fifty cents for bread.’ He motioned eating, one hand towards the mouth swiftly, back and forth. There were red spots all over his face, and his ears stuck out, the only thing on his body that had grew.

    The woman in the car shook her head, no, and rolled the window up. Nkosi shuffled to the next car.

    It was daylight. Time for cupped hands and hot tar and a contorted face. Time to work. He’d stumbled into daylight at 11, the sun too bright, the previous night still thick upon him. Last night started with sore feet and ended with a bottle of glue and his patch of grass, far away from the night gangs. But he wouldn’t allow them into his daylight.

    He counted his money. There was exactly two rand and thirty cents, not even enough for half a bottle of glue.

    Nkosi lifted his head above the seething traffic and looked at Senzo. Senzo was lying on his side on the grass watching the cars. But he wasn’t really watching – his eyes blinked not seeing, and his head tilted on one side. Senzo was OK today. But Nkosi kept his distance. When it was gluetime, he got angry at everything, angry at nothing. Senzo did nothing but glue.

    Out of the corner of his eye, Nkosi saw a man approaching. Nkosi looked towards the others milling around the cars, and nobody ran away, so he didn’t either. The man walked towards him, a lopsided grin and nodded.

    ‘Yes,’ the man said, as if Nkosi had answered a very important question. ‘Hello my friend.’

    Nkosi didn’t move.

    ‘I’m Jabu,’ the man continued. ‘You’re new, eh?’

    Nkosi didn’t reply. He was not stupid.

    The man sat down beside him on the grassy patch near the road, watching the shining cars float past. Nkosi stared at the man. He could be from a gang, but he didn’t look like it. His smile took up too much room. His eyes hadn’t seen the things that gangs do in the night.

    ‘Where are you from?’ Nkosi said.

    The man nodded. ‘My name is Jabu Mkhize. I live in Umlazi. I work with a -‘

    Senzo appeared out of nowhere, and he was angry. Furious. ‘Get this man away from you. He is a glue thief!’

    ‘Hey?’ Nkosi said.

    ‘Ja,’ Senzo pointed at the man with his fat finger. ‘He will take away your glue and take away your clothes, and give you strange new ones, and try to tell you that life can be better if you leave the streets. Crazy dreams, he tells you. Like you can go back to school.’ Senzo spat, disgusted at the thought.

    Senzo’s jaw hung open, his slurred words still hanging in the air. The man was laughing into his hands, a laugh like a child’s, and shaking his head. ‘Glue thief,’ he was muttering. ‘Hey! Glue thief!’

    Nkosi watched the boys begging, their bare feet touching the hot tar, car windows automatically sliding when they approached.

    ‘What kind of new clothes do you give?’ Nkosi said, looking at his feet.

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      This is great zo-zo! I love the grave reality of the situation, the blunt first impression, and hope undertone at the end. If this piece ever turns into anything more, I’d be interested in reading it!

      Katie

    • Marla

      The tone is perfect in this, and the main character so sympathetic. Great work.

    • zo-zo

      Thanks Marla! 🙂 I think I’m addicted to this website! 😉

    • zo-zo

      Thanks Katie! I think you’d really be interested in the organisation that I’m basing this on – I-care – http://www.icare.co.za. This based on a streetkid outreach in South Africa – they have a volunteer who goes to the kids and tries to introduce them to a place called ‘The Hope Centre’ – love that name! Well, you go read all about it – AMAZING ministry! 🙂

    • Marianne

      I like this. It flows well and you get a lot in for such a short amount of space. I can picture Nkosi and Senzo very clearly. I particularly like the shiny cars floating past, and the description of Jabu when he smiling and hasn’t seen the things gangs do in the night. Are you from South Africa?

    • zo-zo

      Thanks Marianne!! 🙂 I am – how do you know??!! You too?

    • Marianne

      No I have a nephew who is from South Africa. Started dating my niece in high school, and now they are married. His mother was British I think. I want to go there one day. It looks beautiful The light in the photos he takes there is incredible.

    • Suzie Gallagher

      Is it real and genuine, like is Jabu real, does he work for a NGO or something. Or is it something more seedy?
      Great writing – well done zo-zo. I like the characters, Senzo and Nkosi, wary of Jabu.
      Love the telling of the tale.

    • zo-zo

      Thanks Suzie!! Ja, it really is real!! Characters loosely based on real people – street kids and staff. Based on an non-profit’s work, helping get street kids a future. 🙂 Very exciting!!

    • Christy Boston

      That was very well written! Very descriptive of details because I got a clear picture of everything, and still so interesting where I just wanted to keep reading. I like how you portray the characters with the ‘show, don’t tell’ method. Good work!

    • zo-zo

      Thanks Christy! 🙂 This makes me think that I may just need to make a story out of this.

  11. Marianne

    They’d told Andy the last time he got a DUI to call a cab if he’d had too much to drink. They told him that at the school where they sent people who got DUIs. It was a school for learning about alcohol and the people who got killed by drunk drivers.

    He called a cab just before the bar closed. He stood by the back door of the bar, waiting for the cab, trying to light his cigarette. He could not get the flame to meet the end of the cigarette. It had been a good night, he’d seen a lot of old friends, played a little poker.

    The bouncer from the club came up to him and helped him light the cigarette. He seemed like a nice guy at first. Then he said.

    “You got to go on home now buddy. I have to make sure all the cars are off the lot before I leave. That’s the bosses rules.”

    “I called a cab,” said Andy.

    “Yeah well if it ain’t here in a few minutes you’re going to have to drive home, because I can’t let you stay here.”

    “Well I can’t do that,” said Andy. He heard his voice. It had a kind of sneer to it. He hadn’t meant to sound that way but he was kind of blurry.

    “This is private property and you can either leave or I’ll call the police, and have your car towed,” said the bouncer.

    Andy took out his phone and tried to remember the name of the cab company.

    “Come on man. I don’t want to call the cops, but I got to get out of here. It’s time for me to go home,” said the bouncer.

    Andy headed for his car. He lost his balance once and fell down, but he got back up, made it to the car, unlocked it and got in. Then he must have fallen asleep, because he woke up to the face of the bouncer at his window. It was red, and ugly.

    “I called the police. You need to leave now,” he said.

    Andy panicked. He didn’t want to see the police. He would do jail time if he got another DUI. He got the key in the ignition and got his foot on the pedal. He started and took off.

    Reply
    • Marla

      Strong writing, and a good look at how bad decisions get made. The only part that I thought could be reworked was when Andy looked at his phone, trying to remember the number. The last number he called should have been easy to find. But maybe I’m overthinking it. Your characters are so believable.

    • Marianne

      Oh I didn’t even think of that. Thanks!

    • zo-zo

      Oh my word, this is worth the wait, Marianne!!! i really love this – you build the tension slowly and steadily, and leave the reader hanging and praying!! I love how he realises after he’s spoken how he’s sneered, because he’s ‘blurry’ – haha, SO true!!!

    • Marianne

      Thanks Zo Zo. I’m glad that came though. I’m not sure if blurry was exactly the right word but I couldn’t think of another one that he might use.

    • Suzie Gallagher

      Marianne, I like this, there is a slow steady build up to the decision and then –

      you leave us hanging…. does he die? does he crash? does he get a DUI? does he crash into the police? does he kill the police? does he get home safely? does he stop drinking? does he do rehab?

    • Marianne

      Thanks Suzie. That’s the kind of ending I like.

    • Christy Boston

      Wow! I read this and felt such strong emotions. I got so angry with that inconsiderate selfish bouncer who cared more about going home than this man’s life. And how the man was trying to be responsible and now might end up in a pickle or worse, dead or mangled because of that stupid bouncer…. did I mention I want to slap that bouncer a few times across the head and box his ears in? lol!!! Very good job, a very stirring piece.

    • Marianne

      Thanks Christy. I hated the selfish bouncer too. He could have just let the guy sleep in the car.

    • John Fisher

      Great suspense writing, Marianne! He takes what seems to him the lesser of two evils, risking his life, possible injury or death to himself or to others, vs. getting pounded by the impatient bouncer or going to jail for sure if he’s still there when the police show up. It’s not a responsible choice he makes, not a good choice, but what’s he gonna do? place himself at the mercy of others or try and tough it out. I’ve been right there and done exactly what your character does here, and am I ever glad THOSE days are over!

    • Marianne

      Thanks John. I do think people are often forced to make a decisions that aren’t optimal and are still responsible in a way (he was drunk) but are not in a way (if he’d been able to sleep in his car he wouldn’t have driven). Decisions build upon each other.

  12. Yvette Carol

    Over on Writers in The Storm today Laura Drake said something great. You have to figure out your protag’s greatest fear and then throw them in to the middle of it. However if your protag decides to sit on her hands you still have no story! You’re so right Joe, the decision is everything!

    Reply
  13. mlhatcher

    Been out of the picture for a few days. I have been under a lot of issues that are taking place with my family. But, this has given me a chance to get back into the game and take in some well needed writing knowledge. I can’t thank you enough Joe, for your inputs to others out there who desire to make their stories known. The way I see it, if you have a story to be told, tell it, as a matter of fact yell it! You never know who may connect with that story line in the moment. Never be afraid to tell the story, but be willing to accept the results.

    Reply
  14. Angelo Dalpiaz

    Marla,
    For some reason I just knew she was going to take that dog as hers, or maybe I was hoping she would. But when she did I was still surprised.

    Good writing. You portrayed the man well. Without saying it outright, I understood he was not someone who I would want to leave a stray with. Your portrayal of Almeda is also very good. The picture of Scout with Santa tells the reader so much about how she loved her little dog.

    Well done. Lots of “showing” instead of “telling.”

    Reply
    • Marla

      Thank you Angelo!

  15. Lena

    ” If they say no, do not decide, they are not heroes.”

    While I was reading your post, I said exactly the same thing to myself ! Great post Joe.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Ha! That’s awesome.

  16. Angelo Dalpiaz

    I’m having trouble using the reply function and posting here, but I’ll give it a try.

    Reply
    • Yvette Carol

      Me too Angelo! Since yesterday it might let me post a reply once and then nada!! Wanted to respond to your story and it said no can do. We’ll see if this one works. Just wanted to say, sweet story, loved the snow falling….evocative

  17. Angelo Dalpiaz

    Here’s my practice.

    I found the small package on the kitchen table and realized it must have been left there by my once-a-week housekeeper. Seeing the Italian postmark brought a smile to my face, but it quickly disappeared when I read the letter inside.
    Mio, Capote, it began, the handwriting shaky and slanted. I fear we will never meet and it saddens my heart.
    The letter went on to explain that my aunt, my father’s sister and a woman I had never met, was dying of cancer. I dropped into the chair and finished reading. Inside the package was a lady’s earring and a black and white photograph of a young woman holding a small baby in her arms. The note attached to the small box was in the same handwriting.
    The earring belonged to your mother. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve kept its twin, I want to have it with me when I leave. The earrings were special to your mother, my aunt wrote, she wore them on her wedding day. The earring was a small, gold heart with a red stone in the middle. As I studied the photograph I felt the metal grow warm in the palm of my hand.
    On the back of the picture I read what my aunt had written. Your mother, and you, on the steps of her home in Cis. She was very happy the day this picture was taken.
    In the box was another short note, written by my cousin, Nicholette. The note said that her mother had died before they could post the package that now sat on my kitchen table. Although I had never met my aunt, I felt a profound sadness fill my heart. I had been scheduled to visit her six months ago, but postponed the trip for business reasons. Now I knew I would never meet my aunt.
    I looked out the window and watched as snow fell, softening the hard edges of the city. I knew I could wait no longer. There were still members of my family living in a small village in Italy. People that I had become connected to through our letters and postcards; people I wanted to know. I knew I could wait no longer.
    Arranging the flight was quick and easy. I would leave in three days, just enough time to contact my cousin and let her know. When the travel agent asked for the date I planned to return home, I hesitated, then told her to leave the date open. I would stay until I knew all I could about the mother I had never met. And pay a visit to my aunt’s grave to tell her I was sorry.

    Reply
    • Marianne

      That’s good Angelo. Sometimes I think people do need to get shook up a little to make a decision. It reminds me not to put off visiting my uncle this summer.

  18. Angelo Dalpiaz

    Here’s my practice.

    I found the small package on the kitchen table and realized it must have been left there by my once-a-week housekeeper. Seeing the Italian postmark brought a smile to my face, but it quickly disappeared when I read the letter inside.
    “Mio, Capote,” it began, the handwriting shaky and slanted. “I fear we will never meet and it saddens my heart.”

    The letter went on to explain that my aunt, my father’s sister and a woman I had never met, was dying of cancer. I dropped into the chair and finished reading. Inside the package was a lady’s earring and a black and white photograph of a young woman holding a small baby in her arms. The note attached to the small box was in the same handwriting.
    “The earring belonged to your mother. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve kept its twin, I want to have it with me when I leave. The earrings were special to your mother,” my aunt wrote, “she wore them on her wedding day.” The earring was a small, gold heart with a red stone in the center. As I studied the photograph I felt the metal grow warm in the palm of my hand.

    On the back of the picture I read what my aunt had written. “Your mother, with you, on the steps of her home in Cis. She was very happy the day this picture was taken.”

    In the box I found another short note, written by my cousin, Nicholette. The note said that her mother had died before they could post the package that now sat on my kitchen table. Although I had never met my aunt, I felt profound sadness fill my heart. I had been scheduled to visit her six months ago, but had postponed the trip for business reasons. Now I knew I would never meet my aunt.

    I looked out the window and watched as snow fell, softening the hard edges of the city. I knew I could wait no longer. There were still members of my family living in a small village in Italy. People that I had become connected to through our letters and postcards; people I wanted to know. I knew I could wait no longer.

    Arranging the flight was quick and easy. I would leave in three days, just enough time to contact my cousin and let her know. When the travel agent asked for the date I planned to return home, I hesitated, then told her to leave the date open. I would stay until I knew all I could about the mother I had never met. And pay a visit to my aunt’s grave to tell her I was sorry.

    Reply
    • Suzie Gallagher

      Angelo, love your decision, we wait and wait until it is too late and then we jump up and go.

  19. John_Fisher

    His sense of elation at being asked to light the chalice at Sunday’s service begins to be edged with anxiety. His allergies many times get in the way of his speaking voice; his innate shyness and shaky self-confidence make their presence known once again; what if he trips walking to the podium, dragging his big feet as he is still prone to do?

    But then, gnawing at a fingernail, he reminds himself of why he basically walked in off the street and joined this congregation three years ago: he was tired of playing the lone wolf, and not all that adeptly. He needed to be part of a community, and here was one in which people spoke a very different language than those of other churches he’d known in the past: “We affirm the dignity and worth of every person” — with no qualifiers attached to that statement. And, as he needed to remind himself every time he looked over his fellow congregants, that statement was for everyone who brought themselves — not just for him.

    He stills his slightly unsteady hands, reaches for the keyboard, downloads the script the worship leader has e-mailed him, and goes to work. He gargles with warm salt-water several times and makes a note to do it once more in the morning before he leaves for the service. He picks up the printed-out script and begins reading aloud in his best voice, stumbling repeatedly on words but going back and working those words, coming to be at home with them after many, many repetitions:

    “This morning our chalice lighting words are those of Reverend David Usher:

    ‘We light this candle as a symbol of our faith.
    By its light may our vision be illumined;
    By its warmth may our fellowship be encouraged;
    And by its flame
    May our yearnings for peace, justice and the life of the spirit
    Be rekindled.'”

    That Sunday morning, he gets in his car knowing he is not the same person who wandered in three years ago.

    Reply
    • Suzie Gallagher

      love decisions that allow redemption

  20. RD Meyer

    Everyone looked at me. It was at this moment that I understood what was meant by “command is the lonliest job.” I had no one to turn to myself for guidance. These 125 Soldiers were looking for me to make a decision.

    The building up ahead had a sniper in it somewhere. The guy had missed with three shots, but that wasn’t likely to last. And the intersection this building overlooked was a key link in the brigade’s logistics route. Without it, supplies wouldn’t be able to move through and reach the guys in Karbala.

    I wiped from my face the emotions churning in my gut. Grabbing Lieutenant Stevens and Sergeant Steed, I said, “Okay guys, this is what we’re going to do. Sergeant Steed, take one of your Abrams and knock down the wall around that place. I want you to put .50 cal fire into every window, but you can’t use your main gun because we need the building intact. Provide some covering fire for second platoon.

    “Matt, take two of your squads and clear the building from the bottom to the top. Make sure you have extra smoke grenades and wire your stacks tight. The rest of the company will pull security and cover the enemy’s avenues of retreat. It’s on you now, boy. Make it happen.”

    He nodded to me and headed off. I radioed Lieutenant Shiemore and told him to have the medic track ready to go just in case. The combat lifesavers were with my First Sergeant, but I needed them safe and ready to respond.

    Every instinct told me to lead the assault, but then I thought back to the beating I’d nearly taken from First Sergeant Dennis. “You’re the damn commander!” he’d shouted at me. “You’re not a private. These guys trust you to make decisions, not be a moron.”

    I watched the tank crush the wall with its sloping front and the barrier crumbled into chunks. Steed sprayed the front of the building with his .50 caliber machine gun, and the fragments created so must dust that it was like we’d popped a smoke canister already. Soldiers rushed into the door and I heard a lot of shouting. What was going on? I swear it was the now knowing that was killing me.

    Finally there was a cacophony of shots. I wanted to race inside, but I knew that I had to trust Stevens to give me a situation report. Meanwhile, the radio crackled to life.

    “Cobra Six, this is Strike Five. You got that intersection secure yet?”

    The battalion’s executive officer. He could be damn annoying at times, but he had a job to do as well. My RTO put the mike in my hand and I responded, “Not yet. Stand by.”

    Lieutenant Stevens finally got in contact. “We got him! Nothing left but a bloody mess. I’ve got guys overlooking the intersection now.”

    “Good work,” I radioed back. “Make sure you’re covering the back alley as well. I’ll let the battalion know that they can start bringing stuff through.”

    “Roger that.”

    I couldn’t show the temporary relief I felt because that would also affect the Soldiers. Plus, in the back of my mind, I knew there’d be many more decisions in the days ahead, and not all of them would turn out as well.

    Reply
  21. Julieann Couture

    I know mine’s a little late and took longer than fifteen minutes to write, but I thought I’d share it anyway. Here goes.

    Jethro was alone in the middle of the forest with only the nocturnal creatures around him to witness perhaps the first act of bravery in his life. It was the rare person that would ever go this far in on purpose, especially after dark. That was exactly why he’d chosen this spot. This way, his father wasn’t likely to ever find his body. “I can at least save him from that pain.”

    Peering downward past the toes of his boots, the height made his head spin. Adrenaline coursed through him like lightning bolts as he inched further out, the branch dipping and creaking beneath him, threatening to give under his weight at any moment.

    “Is this high enough to do it, or will it just leave me mangled?” He shook his head, trying to wish away the following images of himself being slowly eaten alive by the wildlife, paralyzed and unable to do a thing about it. It was just a risk he’d have to take.

    He was under no delusion that this would fix the state of things, nor was he unafraid of dying, but he dreaded what further suffering his life would bring if he did not.

    Jethro bounced a little on the branch, hoping that it would break or that he’d just fall off and be saved from having to choose to jump.

    “Coward.” A real man wouldn’t be out here, hoping that gravity would do the job. A real man would have turned himself over to the other side or have stabbed himself clean through out of self-loathing long ago, but Jethro couldn’t bring himself to. Then again, a real man wouldn’t have made the choice that he did. The choice that he could no longer live with.

    Taking a deep breath in an attempt to settle his nerves, he willed the tension in his body to drain away, but it remained, like a small voice in the back of his skull whispering ‘you don’t have to do this.’

    “Yes, I do.” He murmured in response to that selfish, persistent voice, his mind drudging up images of all the people whose lives he helped to ruin. This time he was not going to run, would not save himself.

    Closing his eyes, he stretched out his arms at his sides and for a moment all went still and quiet as though the whole forest were looking on. Leaning forward, he let the emptiness engulf him, the sensation of wind rushing against his face feeling so very much like flight as he plummeted down.

    Reply
  22. Dawn H

    i need your help. my story is about kids in the “normal” world that have to get sucked into a quest to save a “magical” world. but the main problem i have it why do they even have to save that world? is that a gaping whole in my novel? should i be completely embarrassed about that idea that isn’t even an idea because it is completely useless as a novel? thanks in advance!

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Sounds like Narnia. Is that a fair assessment?

      I don’t think you have a problem though. To justify it, they have to have some reason to save the magical world. At, first the Pevensies were less concerned about saving Narnia as they were about helping their friends and exploring the magical world. Deciding to save it came a little later when they realized they had no option other than getting killed and not helping their friends (which is still a decision they could have made). I would spend the first 1/6 to 1/3 of the novel building up their motivation for saving the magical world.

  23. Kelmelang

    He standing at the top of the bridge, watching as the police cars come flying down the highway toward him.  This was really screwed up, and it was all his fault.

    Nothing ever goes as it is planned, he says to no one in particular, looking over the bridge at the swirling water.  It look like a tornado of mud, the storms from the night before swelling the river up close to the bridge, a few branches and logs floating by for good measure.  He wondered what it would feel like to hit that water, was it really cold this time of year?

    The cop cars edged closer, coming down the main street on the water, traveling toward the bridge.  He looked again at the traffic that was stopped, looked over at the water swirling and watched as the cop cars started weaving their way through traffic.

    “Shit,” the voice was beside him.

    “I know, I don’t know what to do,” he replied.

    “Just go for it,” it said making him looking again toward the water.

    “I don’t know,” he replied wondering again if the water was cold.

    The cop car was even closer, he looked over at his car, the big dent in the side of it, then back at the edge of the bridge.  He had no where else to go, the cars were coming up one way of the bridge, the car was pointed the wrong way.  How did a night at Hooters start so great and end so wrong?

    He took a deep breath and figured that he’d really not had that much beer to blow anything off the charts on the Breathalyzer, so he was going to stay with the car.  He just wasn’t going to look over the edge of the bridge, he just couldn’t.

    When the police car finally made up it up to the top of the bridge and came to a stop, he thought about how his wrist was hurting, how he had some bleeding on his head but he was surprised that a ambulance was called.  The officer came out of the car, running over to him then running to the edge of the bridge.

    “Did you see what happened,” the officer called to him.

    Everything stopped for a second and he thought about what the officer just said to him, was it what he thought it was, “Uhh.”

    The officer started talking into his radio, then started toward him.  “Are you OK?”

    He thought about running away then thought about what the officer said, “Uh yeah, I’m OK, I think?”

    The officer looked at him, “let me call over the EMT,”

    He thought about what they would find if they did tests, “No, I’m fine.  I’m just a little shaken up.”

    The officer looked over at him then over to the car, “You have to move away.”

    He looked down the bridge where the officer was pointing, he could start walking away, he could just leave, couldn’t he?  He looked back over to the edge of the bridge, then wondered what would happen if he didn’t?

    The officer was putting flares out around the traffic, figuring out ways to move it around, he started walking but his feet felt like lead.  He looked down at the bloody sneakers and his walking slowed.

    “He’s over there,” he said in a small voice to the officer.
    “What?”

    “He’s over there, over the edge,” he said looking at his shoes again, who’s blood?

    The officer looked over past him, “I know, the Ambulance is on the way, we’ll help him if we can.”

    He stopped and figured that at that point he had nothing left to lose, he’d already lost it all, “He jumped over the bridge after the accident.  I was riding in the car, he’s over there.”

    The officer raced to the edge of the bridge and looked down, then started talking into a radio on his shoulder.

    Reply
  24. Natalie Jones

    Joe, that’s an amazing short article that you’ve posted! Thank you so much for sharing! It is one more sign to me that I am on the right track! But I’ve had a faint hope it may turn into something more. You are the first person I have encountered that has similar mindset and ideas to mine “Their story must be bigger than them, bigger than their own personal survival, bigger than making their own name, career, or fortune”… or “Your hero must decide to sacrifice his or her comfort, safety, stability, and peace to go on one of these missions”… I’ve looked through some other online guides to novel-writing but none of them was so much to the point as yours. And you expressed my thoughts precisely, if a story lacks an edge, what is the point of writing or reading it?

    The story that I have in mind is something that you should be interested in, all the more so as a protagonist of my novel is not quite fictional… it is myself, my real life adventures, broken heart, quest for the ultimate truth, and my living on the edge of survival experiences… So, the problem is as you probably have already noticed that English is not my first language, plus I haven’t quite had a chance to get a degree or at least attend the course in fictional (or novel) writing… But I have a world of other fascinating experiences and a few degrees in Economics 🙂 (Magister, MA, and MRes, one of which was from a British university)… I promise, I have a sharp mind and an ace up my sleeve. So I would truly appreciate if you decide to reach out to me, as I would love to tell you the gist of what I have in mind. Trust me, it’s quite huge and fascinating! I am currently enrolled as a PhD student somewhere in Europe, but this institution has none fiction-writing courses, plus I need to decide whether to take a academic leave for my own research and novel-writing, as I feel like I am bursting with these ideas that have been brewing inside for far too long… 🙂 Help-help-help! I will be/would have been/ infinitely grateful!!!

    P.S. Years ago I published my final MA thesis from CEU (Hungary) with a German publisher and for some strange reason it is still around… for instance, you may find it on eBay at http://www.ebay.com/itm/NEW-Monetary-Policy-Transmission-to-Stock-Markets-by-Natalia-Chetveryk-Paperback-/361420826309

    Reply
  25. DR

    I know this is unrelated, but does anyone have any creative or unusual superpowers for my female protagonist?

    Reply

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