Every choice you've ever made throughout the entirety of your life—every good experience enjoyed, every bad experience endured—has led you to this very moment, reading my blog post. I don't know about you, but, for me, that's pretty amazing to think about. Let's say, for example, you're 50 years old and, for the last 50 years, you've made a million different choices. When you were a kid, for instance, you decided that one day to go outside and play basketball, instead of studying for your test. There was also that one time where your cousin was having a birthday party and, since you didn't have any money for a gift, you gave her your favorite teddy bear. Then there was the time where you very nearly got into a fist fight with your boss and, thankfully, you turned your back and walked away.
All of these choices shaped you as a human being, making you into the person you are today. But, more importantly, they also served to carve your path in the world. We float around this life like pinballs and every choice we make sets us off into a a different direction. Sometimes the angles are sharp and obvious, other times they're subtle and imperceptible. Which brings me back to my original point: every single choice you've ever made in your whole life has led you to the exact moment you are currently existing in. This, in a nutshell, is what storytelling is all about.
Choices and consequences.
There's a brilliant scene in No Country for Old Men when the film's antagonist, Anton Chigurh, goes into a dusty, old gas station. Chigurh engages the kindly old man behind the counter in a conversation; the old man quickly realizes there are dire implications just beneath the surface of the words they're exchanging. At the core of what they're talking about is the notion of choices and consequences. The old man's been making choices all his life, choices which have brought him face-to-face with a psychopath. Chigurh prepares to flip a coin and asks the old man to call heads or tails. While Chigurh doesn't say as much, it's very, very clear that the choice the old man makes will determine whether he lives or dies.
When I write a novel, I try always to be aware of my characters motivation, because that's what drives the choices they make. If, for example, I'm writing a story about a bank robbery, I need to know what my character's motivation was for robbing that bank. Perhaps, the bank robber's child is sick and in need of medical attention, but he doesn't have the money to pay for it. That works for that one moment, but there were other moments—thousands of them—that led to the bank robbery, moments that had nothing to do with hospitals and progeny. Before the child was ever born for instance, the future bank robber was in a bar, having a drink and watching a basketball game. There were two girls in the bar, each of them sitting alone. The future bank robber was single at the time and, while he was never very good at meeting women in bars, he found himself feeling uncharacteristically brave.
He finds both women equally attractive and would like to meet them both, but, for the moment, he can only talk to one. So he chooses. He and the chosen woman hit it off and, almost immediately, begin a whirlwind romance. The romance, while exciting for a brief period of time, ends almost as suddenly as it begins. He doesn't hear from the chosen woman for a number of weeks, until one day she calls him out of the blue to tell him she's pregnant. He'd never planned on being a father and isn't the least bit happy to hear this news. But, nine months later, his son is born and the future bank robber loves him immediately. He holds his boy in the hospital, only a few hours old, and swears that he'll do right by him, swears that he'll spend the rest of his life loving and protecting this child. And then, one day, a few years later, the future bank robber gets a call from the boy's mother. She tells him something about a routine doctors appointment and abnormalities in a blood test and x-rays and surgery and probabilities for survival. It doesn't matter, the future bank robber tells her, he'll do whatever it takes. She tells him it's going to take money. Lots of money. Money that the future bank robber doesn't have. Not yet, anyway.
What the future bank robber is too distraught to think about is this:
What if he'd talked to the other woman in the bar instead?
When I'm thinking about the choices and consequences of my characters, it generally works one of two ways. If for example, I know I have a character who will eventually rob a bank (because I've already decided I want to write that story) then I will work backwards and try to imagine what sort of chain of events might logically lead to that outcome. That's the first way.
The second way is when I have a character who says or does something that I wasn't expecting (which might sound strange if you've never tried writing a story). Say, for example, my character's having a bad day so I put him in a bar to have a drink. I'd like something interesting to happen, so I let him have a conversation with the gal next to him. I had no idea before writing that scene that they would get along so well, but I like the chemistry, so I keep following their story until they have a child who, in a few years, will need urgent medical attention.
There's no one right way to write a story. Talk to 100 different writers and you'll get 100 different philosophies. But any writer worth their salt can tell you that choices matter. If you want to be a writer, be prepared to let your characters make choices. Be prepared also to allow those choices to play out in the most honest and sincere manner you can imagine, even if it takes your story in a direction you weren't originally planning to go.