Five (and One Silly) Ideas For Avoiding the Paradox of Choice in Writing

This post, by Jeremiah Tolbert, originally appeared on his site on 4/22/09.

I have often written about a concept pioneered by Barry Schwartz called the paradox of choice.  Basically, the idea is that the more choices you give people, the more likely they are to be paralyzed with indecision.  It’s easier to make up your mind when you have fewer choices.  

In yesterday’s post, C.S. Inman asked the following question:

When I begin a story, I do a good job with characterization, with setting up engaging conflicts, with possibilities for compounded problems and solutions. From what they tell me, people generally want to keep turning pages.

Unfortunately, when I’m writing past the “beginning” I have difficulty choosing which plot options should take up those subsequent pages. The “middles” of my stories are a crossroads where I feel like no matter which path I let the protagonist take, I’m missing something better on one of the other paths. It doesn’t help when I sometimes finish a short story (or a chapter of a novel) and realize I have to delete 2,000 words and go a different direction because it’s totally awesome, and how didn’t I see it before I wasted all that time?

Do you have any ideas about how I can either 1. Stop being a pansy and just pick one and like it or 2. Discover which path is going to be the most satisfying BEFORE I write the wrong one?

1. First of all, keep in mind that there’s no “best” solution. You’ll like one more than another one day, and the next day, you’ll think the opposite. It’s of course all very subjective. So relax about it and just get your first draft out. As other ideas occur to you, keep a parallel document running, and jot down your alternative paths that come to you. After your first or second draft, go back and see if exploring any of those notions will be any better.

2. It can help sometimes to not only have a beginning to a story when you start writing, but to also have an idea of an ending. I used to think this was impossible for me to do, but the more I write now, the more I realize that most stories only have a few satisfying endings available to them once you know the setup. It’s much harder to write a story in which the protagonist fails at succeeding against their central story problem. It’s not impossible, but you need to know you’re going to do that when you set out writing the story, because there has to be some satisfaction to the reader in their failure–they have to succeed at something greater, something they didn’t even necessarily know they wanted–but the reader should have had an inkling along the way even if the protagonist did not. Foreshadowing is much easier to do if you know what you’re foreshadowing. You can always write to the end and then go back and add the foreshadowing in in a later draft, or– 

3. Maybe you shouldn’t think of those 2,000 words you cut as wasted. Some writers (not many) can write a story in a single draft, and make minor edits, then send it off and sell it. Me, I have found that I write anywhere from 3-10 drafts of a story before I get it accepted somewhere. Without fail, the more drafts I put into a story, the more I stand a chance of succeeding in my ultimate goal, which is seeing the story published. The key here is to adjust your expectations and to give yourself room to experiment. The 2,000 words that don’t make it into a final draft of the story can be just as important, if not more important, than the ones that do.

Read the rest of the post on Jeremiah Tolbert’s site.