4 worst words

March 12, 2018

If you watch much tv, you hear these words all the time in almost every series.

Some tv shows, you hear them every episode.

Writers use them to create conflict. Not just conflict but high stakes. They use them to have a character act out of their nature; to pit allied characters against one another. To warp the character to fit the story.

“I had no choice.”

They’re almost always rooted in extreme conflict (and tv writers have to create conflict again and again, episode after episode). The conflict is sometimes interesting, sometimes contrived, usually designed to force the character into creating even more conflict with the fallout of some terrible choice.

  • The villain has threatened the life of someone they love if they don’t do this detestable thing.
  • The world is set against them and it’s lose their integrity or lose lives.
  • Choose between this person you love and that one.
  • Choose a deal with the villain to have the thing you want most.

The choice itself is a moment of conflict when they’re forced to decide.
Then there’s the conflict of actually carrying it out.

Followed by secrets that create tension between the characters.

And the fallout on the other characters and the trajectory of the story from this terrible thing our character has done.

And then the writers ruin all the tension, all this delicious conflict when the secrets are revealed, our character is confronted and utters… “I had no choice.”

Here’s the secret to protect your own writing from the 4 worst words in any story:

Choice is power. It makes life interesting. It makes stories interesting.

When you create the sort of conflict described above, they may only have bad choices, but choosing between two awful things is more interesting than having no choice at all. Because, in these stories it isn’t really that they “had no choice” it’s that they absolve themselves of responsibility with those 4 words. You lose the resonance of your conflict and that awful choice as the character cries and the person they betrayed or disappointed walks away.

How much more interesting would it be for them to own that choice? To stand at the podium and say I decided this was the path I could live with as terrible as it is. How much more does it hurt then watching the person they love walk away?

How does it change the character to not just live with the guilt of that choice but who they’ve become in making it?

How does it change a relationship to confess you chose this life over that one? To apologize and still have to look them in the eye and face how little their words can do to repair this thing they’ve done.

That’s conflict that has depth rather than being a ploy for the sake of conflict.

That’s conflict that requires forgiveness and redemption which are more powerful than trying to absolve themselves of responsibility.

Don’t sacrifice strong characters for the sake of conflict

When people advocate for “strong” women in film and tv and books, they don’t mean physically strong. Or even rigid and undefeatable.

They mean women who make choices and act on those choices which drives the plot. Rather than a heroine who is driven by the circumstances of plot or by the choices of men in the story. It’s often referred to as a character having “agency.”

“I had no choice” eliminates agency completely.

Because by her very words, she is literally unable to make a choice. She is forced into a set of circumstances, unable to determine the course of her life or of the story for herself.

It doesn’t matter if she’s wielding a sword or kicking ass in a brawl, or if he is suave and smart and undefeatable. As soon as the writer puts those words in a character’s mouth, they become weak characters tossed here and there, only ever reacting to the plot. And not very interesting to read about (or watch).

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9 responses to “The 4 Worst Words in Any Story

    • Annie

      thanks! They totally are. And the consequences sometimes very neatly create plot – which you know is the tough part for me πŸ™‚

  1. James

    I smell a bit of bologna.
    Sure, “I had no choice,” in those situations, is an evasion. But everybody does it, when what they really mean is that the decision is already made.
    And of course just for spice you could easily have somebody justify a heroic decision that way.
    “I can’t believe you gave up your arm to save us, putting your hand in the Fenrir’s mouth?”
    Tyr: “I’d no choice, did I? None of you were going to do it.” Grunt. “Pass me a bit of that mead, will you?”

    • Annie

      You make a really interesting point. You could have the hero say they had no choice, but storytellers don’t do that, do they? No one has their hero say “I had no choice” because heroes own the decisions they make, they don’t dismiss them. If they had characters take responsibility for their bad choices in the same way they do their good choices, what kind of a story would that weave?

  2. Carmel

    While this is valid, it can’t always apply, unfortunately. As somebody who uses mind control maybe a little too often in my writing (I write sci-fi and I like the aftermath… Who can blame me? It’s something I want to see more of.), I’d think I get to say that. Sometimes the character literally has no choice, and it can be impactful when the other characters come to the realization of what exactly happened, when they realize how helpless their friend or colleague was. I find this especially true when it’s paired with something like ‘You don’t understand, he’s still in my head.’ (So that example’s not my best work, but I think you could get the point.)
    Generally, this makes sense, and it’s a good point, but just- Only in certain circumstances.

    • Annie

      Yes, I think exceptions could be made for mind controlled characters. But that also raises a new dynamic to the discussion. When one is mind controlled they are literally a victim without choices. And there are circumstances in realistic fiction, outside of sci-fi, where characters are also victims with no choice in the course of events. That has its place in our stories. But I think it should be an intentional place where we are knowingly victimizing our character. If that’s not what we’re doing than to casually dismiss the action where other choices were available not only diminishes the character, it lessens the impact of the true victim.

  3. Whitney

    I think you make an excellent point all around. And it is a point that, by and large, should be used, and it’s not one I thought of. The exception I think of would be using the phrase as an excuse, a segue to show deeper internal conflict. Let me explain:
    A character makes a choice; it’s a hard one, and it’s not the right choice (it could be a situation where no choice is truly ‘the right choice,’ because both have negative consequences). Other characters are mad about it and take their anger out on the main character. Or the main character himself immediately starts feeling the consequences of his decision, and it’s tearing at him. Either way, he justifies it by claiming, “I had no choice.” But really, he KNOWS, deep inside, there was very much a choice, and he made the wrong one (or at least, the worse of two evils). It can be a HUGE revealer of character, both for the main and those around him.
    And I know, this isn’t REALLY what the post is explaining, and it must be used carefully–I still think it’s a wonderful post, and will apply it. But it’s giving me new story ideas… πŸ˜‰

    • I’m so glad you like the post! And you bring a new element to the conversation πŸ™‚ If you know what you’re doing, and you’re doing it intentionally than even the 4 worst words can be tools you wield to create your story. They can shape a character and influence how the other characters or how the reader reacts to that character. They can be deployed on the surface but, as you suggest, dive into a deeper emotional layer where it’s revealed even that character knows those words are a lie. I love the idea of taking something that other writers might use carelessly and have it weaken their story and you use it on purpose to make your story stronger!