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Why You Should Eavesdrop

I was having lunch with my girl child one afternoon at a McDonald's (don't judge).

The lady behind my daughter was feasting while talking on her cell phone. It seems she thought she was being treated unfairly at work. In reality she was the one (by my observation) expecting special privileges. Why should she have to use vacation days for doctor's appointments? It's not like she wanted to go! Once a week. For several months. She griped and justified  her boorish behavior for a solid twenty minutes.

In the olden days when people had manners, eavesdropping was considered rude if not criminal. In the modern age, if you are blasting your business in public instead of in private, the content is fair game.

So, why would I encourage bad behavior? Because it gives you material to work with in a number of ways.

1) Speech patterns and use of language.

The advice to writers is to make your characters sound unique so your readers can tell them apart. Listen to the way other people talk. What are their verbal ticks, rhythm, and cadence? What are their pet phrases? Ya know? Oh, yes you do.

2) Justifications

It's fascinating to listen to people justify their behavior. It's never their fault, but they usually reveal their part in the problem. Apply this to your characters.

3) Triggers

People on cell phones are often angry, especially in grocery stores. Go figure. They usually state at high volume what really pissed them off. Take notes. Maybe you can use the trigger in a story.

4) Age-Appropriate Dialogue

Nothing irks me more than a child character who sounds like a ninety-year-old granny. There are children all over the mall and in fast food restaurants. If you don't have a toddler or youngster of your own (or if it has been a while since you've had one), listen. Pay attention to what the child babbles about. Children are hilarious. It's not only informative, it's fun.

5) Relationships

You can usually tell if people are coworkers, friends, or relatives based on the dialogue. I once overheard a job interview and a guy trying to sell someone on a business idea.

I love watching couples in restaurants. Is it a first date? Are they feeling each other out and sharing basic information?

Have they been together a bit too long? What do they talk about? In one restaurant, I observed a woman reading a book while the guy focused on his laptop. Words were never exchanged except to the waitress when it came time to give their orders.

If you ever see me in a restaurant, fair warning, I am a writer. I may be listening and your conversation could be used in a book. You do, after all, have the right to remain silent.

Mob Mentality

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The term "mob mentality" immediately conjures visions of an Italian mob boss. However, mob mentality is a factor in everything from street gangs to dictators like Kim Jung Un and Fidel Castro. Any regime (secret society, cult, government) can utilize mob tactics to control its members. Here are ten key elements of the mob mentality.

1. One Big Family

You know they love you, don't you? Sure they do. You're family. This is the easiest way to draw members. They use acceptance, loyalty, and love to bait the trap. They offer Dick protection and connection.

2. In or Out

They ask for a commitment, a blood oath, or a small sacrifice. There is always a price for entry. Dick will be confronted with this choice. Is he in or out? They make coming into the fold look really attractive. Or they threaten to kill Dick if he refuses.

3. Secrets That Bind

Once Dick is in, he is privy to secrets they are willing to kill to protect. There are many skeletons rattling around their closets or bodies buried in deep graves. Whether it is drug deals or sacred rituals, Dick is now an accessory. He may have secrets of his own that they threaten to expose.

4. No Exit

Dick can check out any time he likes, but he can never leave. Dick may be horrified by what he learns once he joins the family, but he will have to remain silent. He can't leave the family, unless it's in a coffin.

5. Protect or Kill

They will kill to protect Dick. That makes him feel all warm and fuzzy, until he realizes they also expect him to kill to protect them. Dick has joined a band of brothers. He must protect the family even if it means sacrificing his life for the greater good, or evil.

6. Circles Within Circles

There is always a central figure that everyone revolves around. Just like high school, there will be cliques and factions. The figurehead will have his close inner circle. Usually the closer to the central figure Dick grows, the more he knows and is involved in. The noose tightens. The closer Dick is, the less expendable he becomes. The figurehead always protects those closest to him the most. The further away the members are, the more expendable they are.

7. Nothing Goes Unpunished

Members are kept in check by the threat of torture and/or immediate execution. They may use the leverage of Dick's loved ones. Either way, the threat is implicit: step out of line, Dick dies. Betray them and everyone Dick knows dies.

8. Most Violent Rules

The most sadistic person is usually the ringleader. I'd say they are almost always a sociopath because sociopaths have no empathy. Occasionally someone who isn't a sociopath may inherit the position. They won't last long. They have to be just as cruel and violent as the leader before them or they become the weak link.

9. No Weak Links

Weak links are pruned, period. Leaks are plugged and the bodies are never found. They can't afford disclosure or infiltration.

10. It's Lonely At The Top

Because the ringleader must maintain his bully pulpit, he is never truly safe. The situation breeds sharks that are only too eager to take his place due to greed or sadistic enjoyment. He can never truly trust even his closest advisers. If he cares too much about anyone, he has a point of vulnerability that can be preyed upon. He can't easily abdicate thanks to rule #2. Is he in or out?

It is easy to use these ten rules to build conflicts in a story. Use your verbal camera to show them being enforced. Dick is drawn in, disillusioned, then trapped. Readers will root for him to get out.

Story Skeleton: Watcher in the Woods

Genre: Horror/Haunted Mansion Ghost Story

Premise: A girl arrives at a creepy mansion and is dragged into solving the mystery of its ghost.

A Watcher in the Woods was a movie produced by Disney in 1980. In its day, it might have been considered creepy. Viewed from a modern perspective, the acting is wooden, dialogue is clunky with lots of shouting to convey tension, and not much depth or character insight. There were a few “gotcha” moments and attempts to provide an atmospheric setting. Stripped of the details, you are left with the following story skeleton.

Scene 1: (External conflict) Introduce protagonist arriving at creepy mansion secluded in creepy woods complete with mysterious caretaker. Theme stated: What good old mansion doesn’t have a ghost?

Scene 2: (Antagonist conflict) First paranormal event. Conversation with caretaker.

Scene 3: (Interpersonal conflict) Something awful happened. Warning given: leave.

Scene 4: (Interpersonal conflict) Discussion of backstory of ghost.

Scene 5: (Interpersonal conflict) Creepy caretaker talks to the ghost.

Scene 6: (Antagonist conflict) Second paranormal encounter with the ghost.

Scene 7: (External conflict) Hint that danger is ahead.

Scene 8: (External conflict) Fourth paranormal event.

Scene 9: (External conflict) Fifth paranormal event. Introduce creepy man.

Scene 10: (Antagonist conflict) Mortal threat 1. Looks like caretaker is trying to harm but is trying to help.

Scene 11: (Interpersonal conflict) Backstory of the missing girl. Something is out there.

Scene 12: (Interpersonal conflict) Thematic discussion, there is no ghost.

Scene 13: (Antagonist conflict) Mortal threat 2. Saved by the antagonist.

Scene 14: (Interpersonal conflict) Discussion of backstory. Warning repeated.

Scene 15: (Interpersonal conflict) Discussion of backstory. What really happened? Clue revealed.

Scene 16: (Antagonist conflict) Mortal threat 3. Leads to scene of disappearance. Sees ghost. Sees creepy man. Paranormal activity heats up. Leads to another clue.

Scene 17: (Interpersonal conflict) Secondary characters have a discussion. Creepy man warned to stop talking. 

Scene 18: (Antagonist conflict) Sees ghost. Protagonist commits to solving mystery of ghost.

Scene 19: (Interpersonal conflict) Discussion with secondary character. Leave it alone.

Scene 20: (External conflict) False threat by creepy man in the woods. He offers alternative theory and fills in backstory.

Scene 21: (Interpersonal conflict) Protagonist presents alternative theory to the caretaker. Visited by the ghost. Twist: ghost is not who they think it is.

Scene 22: (Antagonist conflict) Protagonist is prevented from fleeing mansion/danger. Mortal threat 4.

Scene 23: (Interpersonal conflict) Protagonist must solve mystery to return to safety.

Scene 24: (Antagonist conflict) Ghost offers hint.

Scene 25: (External conflict) She finds the key to solving the mystery. She must recreate the events of the day. The setting reflects the day of the original disappearance.

Scene 26: (Interpersonal conflict) Caretaker warns her to not do it.

Scene 27: (Interpersonal conflict) Must have cooperation of secondary characters. Meets resistance.

Scene 28: (External conflict) Climax is set up. Everyone is assembled.

Scene 29: (External conflict) Climax. Truth is revealed.

Scene 30: (External conflict) Missing girl returns. Closure is gained.

The End.

There was no internal conflict, personal dilemma, or character change explored in the story. The protagonist stumbled upon the story problem by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was forced by the antagonist to solve the backstory mystery. The stakes were personal safety from implied harm from the antagonist. The antagonist turned out to be benevolent rather than malevolent. The mystery had a twist in that there was no actual ghost and the missing girl had been transported to another dimension instead of dying.

If you borrow this story skeleton, you could improve it by adding internal conflict scenes and stronger stakes for solving the overall story problem. There could be a personal connection to the backstory or some action by the character that brought the danger near. Interpersonal conflict could be intensified.

If you have an idea but feel stuck, find a story that is similar to the one you want to tell. Tear it down into scenes and analyze the plot progression. Then use the magic of your imagination to dress up the skeleton.