Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What Would You Do?

I swear this post has nothing to do with religion, believe it or not.

I remember one, and only one, Sunday School Teacher. He wasn’t particularly nice; he wasn’t particularly mean. It was second grade, and we had to earn a brand new Bible with fun little stickers that tabbed the books of the Bible. (We just wanted to play with all the stickers, I bet!) The way to earn it? We had to memorize the whole list of books, in order, and recite them to the class. We worked all year to do it, and boy, when you got your Bible, you were PROUD of yourself!

He asked a lot of us, and I think that’s pretty cool. I’m sure some people today would say, "Second-graders can’t do that!"

Anyway, he also spent a Sunday asking us one question that has stuck with me for over thirty years. It’s one of those stories with one of those tough questions that really make yourself and what you would do.

I just did an internet search on it, and it seems to be told as if it’s true, sometimes. I have no proof either way. It’s usually used as a Christian story, but I prefer the more literal story/situation. Here’s the BDSRA (whatever that means, LOL) version:

This story happened in 1936, when a drawbridge operator took his young son to work with him. The father and son were enjoying a typical day, raising and lowering the bridge to let the boats pass.

Late in the day, without warning, a passenger train appeared in the distance, speeding toward the open drawbridge. The man and his son raced down the catwalk to pull the lowering lever.

With the train quickly approaching, the son slipped, getting his leg stuck in the drawbridge gears. Horrified, the man quickly realized that he could either save his son, or lower the drawbridge to keep the passenger train from plummeting into the river below.

Who would live? His son? The unknown passengers? Who would he kill? His son? The passengers?

The man pulled the lever to lower the bridge. He watched the train pass over the lifeless, mangled body of his son, caught in the gears below. The man sacrificed his son’s life so that 400 railway travelers, oblivious to his sacrifice, could live.

See? I love those kind of questions. They’re heart-gripping, soul-gripping, and gut-grabbing. Jodi Picoult does a fabulous job of finding those situations where you lose your breath and think, "Ohmigod, what would I do in that no-win, horrible situation?"

I’m working on a synopsis this week, for a little homework challenge from our local RWA group. Ugh. It’s hard. But I thought, what if I center it around three of those type of questions as the major plot points?

I hate coming up with plot before I’ve written it. What about you? Do you have any cool stories like that? Situations that grab you in the gut? Any evidence that the above story is true or false? Does it matter, LOL?

7 bonus scribbles:

lainey bancroft 4/19/2007 08:38:00 AM  

Eeesh! Gives ya goose-bumps, doesn't it?

But its certainly something to think about. If you can include even a single gut-grabber like that and work it, you've got a much better chance of remaining of someone's keeper shelf some day.

Great little kick in the pants, Spy. Thanks.

Hmm, wanders off thinking about how to further psychologically torture her imaginary friends....

Bernita 4/19/2007 09:06:00 AM  

A balance of evils?
When there is no true moral choice? Value by numbers? Difficult to satisfy reader with this sort of conundrum, because the writer cannot just throw it out there and let it hang, without cartharsis.

Bill from had a similar, (but possibly worse) one up, regarding Idi Amin. You'll have to scroll down.

JeffG,  4/19/2007 10:45:00 AM  

Ah, the old Kobayashi Maru test from Star Trek II :-)

I agree, Bernita, that it might be unsatisfying alone (as the ultimate plot point) but it would seem to me this is a beginning and not an end.

As a tribal thinker, I would have no problem choosing my son's life. Indeed, there would be no choice for me. Likewise, if my name were Abraham and God asked me to barbecue my son in sacrifice, that's a test I'd race to fail. But the hell I'd have to pay for both choices might make a story, mightn't it?
(Albeit a potentially unhappy one :-)

In re-reading my post, I think I used Captain Kirk's cheat and took us away from the intractability of the problem. My apologies.

spyscribbler 4/19/2007 07:24:00 PM  

LOL, Lainey. I don't know how our characters survive us! Yeah, I'd be thrilled to come up with one gut-grabber, myself!

You're so right, Bernita. I just finished a wonderful novel, but it didn't have a happy ending. It had one of those "this is how the real world works" endings. Well, I know how the real world works. I want fiction that makes everything nice and neat and happy at the end!

Jeff, I used to be a big Trekkie. :-) My memory's hazy, though. My very fuzzy memory says that he wanted to save the one over the all? And then he got away with saving everyone?

As Bernita pointed out, that's possibly the only satisfying solution to such a conundrum.

The no-win choice has so much meat in it, though!

Honestly, I fear that I would freeze and kill the train passengers merely by my horror. Or maybe not. One never really knows what one will do in such a situation, unless one is faced with it. Sometimes I go to a very analytical, unemotional place. Not often, though.

If I did kill her (suddenly it's a her, LOL), I don't know if I'd ever recover. As you said, Jeff, that would be a hell of a beginning!

Therese 4/20/2007 08:37:00 AM  

The dilemma is the hook, but the story surrounding the hook is what makes a book worth reading...

This kind of hook requires a redemptive story. Otherwise it's that sort of "real-life" downer you described, and I'm not crazy about those stories either. :)

jeffg,  4/20/2007 03:39:00 PM  

I just realized how horribly ambiguous my post was (even though my personal choice doesn't matter as far as the point goes). But when I wrote "I would have no problem choosing my son's life", I meant to say "saving" my son's life. I felt compelled to correct the record in case he grows up and discovers this blog someday :-)

writtenwyrdd 4/20/2007 04:18:00 PM  

Hands down, my kid lives. I'll deal with the guilt later.

I hate these so-called moral dilemmas. They completely disregard teh human measure of a situation and treat the participants like chess pieces. That is not how these things play out. In a choice of terrible things, saying what you ought to do versus making the sacrifice you can live with are not the same.

Because, on paper, I'd say save the passengers. But I'd be thinking I'm sorry to them as I saved my kid.