Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

The Writer’s Way: Decisions, choices and moral dilemmas

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 16•20

The cornonavirus pandemic news is nonstop and unnerving as death tolls rise and the federal government’s woefully weak response is causing panic buying and mass confusion. I’m not going out much these days, but when I’ve ventured forth in the past few weeks the eerie, nervous atmosphere is unsettling.  A spooky, living-in-a-sci-fi movie state of mind.

Meanwhile, timing be damned, I’m reading Chuck Wendig’s apocalyptic  novel Wanderers about an epidemic of sleepwalking. Well, it’s not exactly sleepwalking, but a group of people are flocking together on a silent, trance-like, mystifying quest. They cannot be stopped; their blank-faced stares are as vacant as empty tombs, their condition a mystery, their destination unknown though they’re heading west. Did I mention it’s almost 800 pages?

The wanderers don’t eat or sleep and attempts to gather blood samples are unsuccessful because their skin can’t be penetrated. If someone attempts to stop them, amid soul-shattering shrieks, their temperatures rise and they explode. As in unthinkable bloody splatters.  Did I mention the story will not ease your worries, because as you read (it was published in July, 2019) the plausibility is skin-prickling and the science well researched?

I’m mentioning Wanderers because it has multiple viewpoints and the main characters are revealed and defined by the decisions they make in response to moral dilemmas. Because fiction tests characters. These difficult  choices between right and wrong, opposing desires and options cause tension and drama.  Because fiction provides no easy answers.

Moral dilemmas reveal:

  • backstory influences
  • convictions, positions, and beliefs
  • loyalties
  • characters’ investment in outcomes
  • character growth, arc

Back to Wanderers, because weighty decisions are made throughout the story. Compassion, common sense, and human rights are on the line. Scientists are struggling mightily with understanding the frightening behaviors. Hysteria and bigotry fuel the whole.

I’m mentioning Wanderers because moral dilemmas shape and deepen so many good plots.

The story begins with Shana waking to find her younger sister Nessie missing. The girls already have enough problems since their mother walked out on them. Nessie, 15,  is walking along a road as if in a trance, but there is no waking her, no touching her, no stopping her. As she trudges along barefoot other walkers begin joining her, mostly one by one.

Benji is a disgraced former CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) scientist and virus-hunter. His backstory is key: while investigating the conditions in a giant hog-raising operation, he skewed his findings to stop the horrendous conditions he finds. Readers learn about the crowded, diseased animals living in a nightmare, the potential for a disease outbreak seemingly inevitable.

He’s pulled into the story when a computer called Black Swan insists that he join the scientists and government agencies attempting to solve the situation. Can he redeem himself and learn why the wanderers are afflicted before its too late? Since he’s broken the rules before will he break them again?

Shana, terrified for her sister,  chooses immediately to stay close to protect her mile after mile. At first her father begs her to return home, back to the obligations of their farm and cheese-making operation, but she insists Nessie needs her and the police escort cannot keep her safe. Even though her sister is unreachable, even though she’s scared. After Shana and her father argue and she tells him they feel abandoned by both parents, he buys a ramshackle RV and joins Shana and the shepherds. Shepherd is the term applied to family members and others who accompany their loved ones.

Then there’s Matthew Bird, a small-town pastor who is inspired to preach about the wanderers, connecting them to the End Times and satanic influences.  Unfortunately the conservative preacher has played into the hands of right-wing extremists.And who will stop the extremists who want to take out the wanderers?

A brain-injured former cop is drawn to the pilgrims and immediately risks all to stop a shooter.  An aging rock star comes aboard. He has a deeply-held secret that threatens all aspects of his life. In fiction, it’s important to force characters to choose when he or she would rather avoid it.

A few more thoughts on tough choices:

  • Principled choices and decisions will always create actions and consequences. They always drive the story forward.
  • Unprincipled choices and decisions typically cause chaos, pain, and also propel the story ahead. An example from Jurassic Park happens when the park employee-computer whiz leaves the grounds to sell off dinosaur DNA. His actions, taken during a horrendous storm, opens a Pandora’s box of disasters and life-and-death consequences.
  • The ramifications from all important decisions should be long lasting.
  • The higher the stakes, the higher the drama.
  • The choices often underline the genre type. A suspense story is often based on finding justice so decisions will hold a lot of weight and consequences.
  • Don’t provide characters easy answers. Corner them, stress them out, push them past their limits.
  • Know your fictional casts’ moral codes.

Search out the important dilemmas in stories, noticing the enormous variety and possibilities. Are there shades in right from wrong? Is the crime story about sorting real justice from mob justice; truth from lies? Are actions based on loyalties,  faith, science?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep washing your hands

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