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Stirring the Plot: Absence and the Return

There are many types of absence: voluntary, forced, temporary, perceived, sporadic, and permanent. Wherever there is absence, there is conflict. Let’s examine ways in which absences can be dramatic, frightening, thrilling, or funny.

The absence of a loved one can create pathos, longing, and sadness. When a loved one leaves temporarily or permanently, it leaves a vacuum that needs to be filled. It may not be filled with healthy endeavors, or the absence can open a door to new opportunities.

Absence can cause a momentary annoyance at scene level. Jane had plans to go somewhere with Sally or Dick, but had to cancel. Dick and Sally choose to go together without her. Jane is then wounded because she is so easily replaced. If Jane cancels frequently, then she is no longer considered trustworthy. Dick and Sally might exclude her from future plans and it will make Jane angry.

Voluntary absence from work creates headaches for coworkers. If Dick calls in sick, his work is not getting done. Someone else has to temporarily pick up the slack. He might go to extravagant lengths to hide the fact that he wasn’t really sick. If Jane sees him in town during her lunch hour, he will have to explain his absence. He will either tell the truth or lie. If Jane has it in for him, she will enjoy exposing him and Dick is forced to come up with a deterrent fast. He may agree to do something for Jane he does not want to do. He may take over an assignment for her. She might make him give up his parking spot.

It keeps the plot moving when a scene is resolved in a way that creates a new and more difficult goal. Once Dick has lied to Jane, he will have to maintain the lie. Lies lead to more lies. Dick might have called off to spend one last day with his dying mother. He might have called off to help someone track down a terrorist cell. He might have called off to go to a job interview for a new job. At the end of the day, he will either succeed at hiding his reason for calling off or admit that he was playing hooky. It could be comedic, thrilling or tragic. The reason he called off can be momentous, silly, or simply that he was tired and needed to recharge his mental battery. His absence can have profound consequences or barely make a ripple in the story overall, depending on what you need it to do.

At the scene level, Dick could leave the room and give Jane an opportunity to replace or remove something. When he returns, he can notice that his desk has been disturbed. He can either mention it or wait until Jane leaves to search his office. He might shrug his suspicion off, leaving the clue to raise its head later in the story. He might keep tearing his desk apart until he finds the bug or realizes an important file is missing.

Dick could leave the scene of an accident and create a story problem, or a complication to solving the story goal that comes back and bites him later. His reasons can be unthinking, an attempt to protect himself, or malicious.

Dick leaves a bad date at a restaurant because it was easier to disappear than tell the girl her laugh made him cringe. When he runs into his hapless date later, it will be awkward. If she turns out to be his boss’s daughter, it gets extremely awkward. If he has to work with her, it becomes horribly uncomfortable. If he finds out she is a werewolf, he is in danger.

A character can be voluntarily absent from a conversation, a room, a building, a job, or a planet. There are multiple outcomes to a voluntary absence, but at some point the person typically returns.

Jane jetting off to Aruba without Dick for a month in an attempt to “find herself” creates an overall story problem. When Jane reappears, Dick can be happy about it, unhappy about it or have mixed emotions. Jane’s return can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you want to play it and the genre of your story.

In a romance with the typical happy ending, Dick and Jane will overcome the conflicts her voluntary absence and subsequent return create and live happily ever after.

In a literary tale, Jane can return, find out nothing has changed and realize she should have stayed in Aruba with the cabana boy. Dick and Jane can desire to come together again, but realize they really don’t work as a couple, ending on a sad note.

In a mystery or thriller, Jane can return and Dick realizes he preferred life without her. He takes steps to make her absence permanent so he can keep Jane’s inheritance.

Let’s say Jane returned from Aruba after finishing a work assignment that lasted a month or a year. She can return to a spouse, a friend, a child, her parents, a house, a neighborhood, or a job. Her return will affect all of them. Life continued to move on while she was gone. Her return will force her to renegotiate all of her relationships. Friendships and alliances shift over time. Jane’s return can spark jealousy or ignite buried resentment. It can result in renewed love or friendships. The obstacles Jane faces are in trying to fit in again, to redefine her place in the lives she left behind.

Jane might have to move back in with her parents or have her ailing parents move in with her. It can spark a battle of wit and wills. The situation could be comedic, tragic or a sweet literary story of acceptance. This makes a terrific overall story problem or personal dilemma for a protagonist.

Jane might find the balance of power in the company shifted in her absence. She will have to redefine her place in the pecking order. Her coworkers might not appreciate her return, or they might celebrate it because the person who took her place was a jerk.

There are many fun and poignant ways to play with absences.

For more information on using obstacles to create tension, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book.

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