The Sadistic Choice

— November 30, 2011 (8 comments)

One of the things that can make fiction compelling is an impossible, sadistic choice. Like in Hunger Games, when you want both Katniss and Peeta to live, but you know only one of them can. Or like I said about Open Minds, where Kira has to decide whether to lie about having no mind powers, to mindjack everyone she loves, or to tell the truth and put herself in serious danger.

An impossible choice keeps you reading, because you don't know what you would do in that situation, and you want to know what happens. BUT, there are some guidelines.

Erasmo must decide whether to eat mango or papaya for breakfast. If he chooses the mango, the papaya will go bad, wasting his money. But he hates papaya. What will he do?

Compelling? Not so much.

Erasmo recognizes the cab driver as a convicted serial killer, but if he doesn't take the cab to work he'll be fired. What can he do?

How about call a different cab (and the police)? Nobody likes a dumb protagonist.

Once at work, Erasmo's boss forces him to clean the bathrooms with a toothbrush or he's fired!

Neither option is pleasant, that's true, but it's not hard to figure out what he'll do.

Erasmo reads Hunger Games to see who Katniss will choose: Peeta or Gale. He waits. And waits. And waits...

Putting off a decision is valid and practical, but there should be either a reason ("We're at war! Now is not the time!") or consequences ("I didn't choose either and now they both hate me.").* Don't expect your compelling, sadistic choice to carry the reader through your story by itself.

* For the record, Hunger Games did both of these, but I still felt like Katniss was leading the guys on unnecessarily.

After everything he's been through, Erasmo takes the day off. He'll have to make the same decisions the next day, but I don't want to write about it.

I guess this could be a wacky literary ending, but I've never been a fan of those. If you do leave things unresolved, do so very, VERY intentionally (see Inception; seriously, go see it).

At this point, it's important to mention how the Sadistic Choice is usually resolved: with a previously unconsidered Third Option. It needs to be said, because it's easy to drop a Third Option out of nowhere and think you are, by default, being original. You're not.

As soon as you present the choice, your very intelligent readers will be looking at all the options, including the ones you haven't presented as possibilities. Especially the ones you haven't presented as possibilities. This makes it very hard to do something they don't see coming (which is, after all, the goal). How you do that is up to you.

Or else it's another blog post. I don't know. I haven't decided.

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  1. I suspect some TV tropes .org influence in this post. Good stuff.

  2. Seriously, don't make me pick between Jean Luc and Chris Pine (which strangely is close to Christopher Pike and tweaks my brain every time I think of it).

    Somehow the Sadistic Choice is more compelling (to me) than the Bliss Choice (between two irreconcilable goods). Or maybe I'm just evil.

    p.s. Comparing Kira to Katniss AND linking to my guest post all in one post vaults you to the top of my crit partner list for Closed Hearts. And makes me love you pretty much forever.

  3. Why can't we just fly eagles over Mt. Doom and drop the ring in?

  4. I think Katniss should have ended up alone. And that right there is good for readers because things that piss me off in the choices of the characters keep me reading.

    Lol Tim.

  5. After watching Inception 4 times, I've finally figured out that the end is NOT unresolved. It's actually pretty clear when you pay very close attention. It's all a matter of what you DON'T see. I won't spoil it though, not unless you want me to.

  6. Good words. I'm thankful for my critique partners who will hopefully catch any EASY THIRD OPTIONS I'm missing. Ugh, I think that's my worst nightmare. When a reader is smarter than me and just says, "Uh, duh? Why didn't she just take this logical step to solve her problem?"

    I always wondered why in The Lord of the Rings trilogy Frodo didn't just ride one of those big eagles to the volcano and drop the ring in from on high. Wouldn't that have been worth a shot at least? I mean, they came and got him out at the end.... You can probably tell me why that wouldn't have worked, can't you, Adam? This is something I've been pondering for years.

  7. for the record, I'm not sure why I found this post so amusing, but I do know I agree with you here. impossible choices are incredibly compelling to me, and I hadn't even realized it. yes, third option is always the answer, and readers are going to know the 100000 different third choices you could possibly have, so when #51 is what happens, they're not surprised but not disappointed either.

    that's why you shouldn't give your readers all the necessary information (and thus, probably not your MC either or it would seem cruel your MC knew all along but failed to mention it) to solve the problem. reveal it at the last moment, when you finally present the third choice. I just realized I tried to do that in my WIP, but now I've messed that up by changing the beginning. crap.

    this writing stuff just isn't easy enough.

  8. I love this post. It's easy to see how it applies to my second novel, but I'm having a harder time with my first. Everything seems to be harder with my Star Swans. Poor thing - it has first child syndrome.