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Bad Choices versus Mistakes

Dennis Brown in his book Rule of Life 101 defines the difference between bad choice and a mistake thusly: 

“A mistake is innocent, a bad choice is not. A mistake is being completely oblivious to the error being made. An example would be telling someone your name and them pronouncing or spelling it wrong. Or giving someone the wrong phone number because you just got a new number and it slipped your mind. These are examples of mistakes. A bad choice is being totally aware of the error being made and choosing to do it anyway. Say for instance your boyfriend or girlfriend was sleeping with your best friend. A bad choice is knowing something is wrong or hurtful and doing it anyway.”

In any story, the critical turning points are either actions or decisions. Bad choices or actions result in goal failure. Mistakes cause conflict along the way. Take a look at your work-in-progress. Have your characters made bad choices or mistakes? How did they complicate the overall story problem?

If the inciting incident is a bad choice, Dick is forced to take steps to repair it. The key turning points will show the progress toward and steps away from repairing his life, relationship, or situation to the status quo.

If the inciting incident is a mistake, Jane will have to make amends. In the first turning point whatever she has tried doesn’t work. She will have to approach the problem from a new angle. At turning point two, that angle didn’t work either. In fact, Jane compounded the mistake, perhaps by making a second mistake. In the third turning point Jane will realize the right course of action that will restore the story balance. In the climax, she makes amends and all ends happily, usually.

The caution I want to offer is this: it is hard to root for a character that continually makes bad choices and mistakes. One or two sprinkled throughout a story can drive it. However, if the story is riddled with them, it becomes abusive.

I’m reminded of a recent television series I watched. After two seasons with a main character who continually made mistakes and bad choices, there was no growth. He never caught on that he was the problem. It made sense that the series was cancelled.

Make sure your characters are not continually making mistakes and bad choices. People who don’t change make poor protagonists, friends, and lovers. It’s okay for the reader to shout “you idiot” once or twice in a story. However, they are likely to burn the book if it happens in every chapter.

As Dennis Brown concludes: “People’s mistakes should be forgiven, and even some bad choices are forgivable, but consistent bad choices should never be overlooked. Know when enough is enough; if you have no boundaries, people have no reason to respect them. A person can’t respect what’s not there to respect. Whether it’s in a friendship, marriage or business relationship, bad choices that lead to adverse circumstances for you should never be tolerated.” 

Even if the characters are fictional.

For more information on using conflict to drive plot, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, available in paperback and E-book.

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