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Mental Detours

In Story Building Blocks II, we discuss different types of obstacles a character can be presented with. The first type of obstacle is a detour, an unexpected bend in the plot, that forces your character to increase his knowledge, improve his skills, add to his experience, or find new resources to make up for what he lacks so he can solve the overall story problem. There are mental, emotional, physical, and tactical detours. 

Mental Detours condition a character to overcome internal resistance to something or someone he has an aversion to.

I’ll use one of my new favorite shows (Burn Notice) as an example. The protagonist, Michael Westen, is a spy who has been “burned,” meaning fired and dumped in Miami, Florida with his gun-loving ex-IRA girlfriend Fiona, mom Maddie, and former Navy Seal Sam Axe. They work as a crew, helping people in ways the police cannot (i.e. lots of explosions and tactics that border on the unscrupulous and illegal) while Michael tries to figure out who burned him and why. Each season of the show examines a new twist in the backstory intertwined with the “cases” Michael and his crew take on. 

Michael sees himself as a renegade white knight fighting bad people to protect good people. He takes on crime bosses, crazy warlords, kidnappers, gangs, and drug runners without hesitation. The one thing Michael does not do is gun people down in cold blood. He prefers to find a way to turn the tables on them. After all, he is not a psychopath. This is the mental road block that requires him to detour. 

Enter crazy psychopath Anson who created the “secretive” group that burned Michael. The explosive Fiona has the right idea: shoot the evil creep before he can do more damage. She has a sniper rifle at the ready and is willing to do the deed. Michael is more than capable of simply breaking Anson’s neck with his bare hands, but he doesn’t do it. Why? Because cold-hearted killing requires overcoming his mental road block. Michael believes that doing so would turn him into one of the bad guys. So Michael takes a season-long detour to find a way to bring Anson down without gunning him down. Along the way, Michael gathers pieces of the puzzle that led him to become a burned spy in the first place. 

Whether turning gun runners against one another, foiling kidnappers, or stealing information from corrupt corporations, Michael prefers the detour to the direct route to maintain his self image as a “good guy.” 

You can use a detour in any genre. Reaching the line your character will not cross forces him to reconsider. He must detour around the action he does not want to take, the truth he does not want to see, or the reality he does not want to accept. Whatever detour you create for your character, he will reach the end of the story changed and change is good.

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