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Stirring the Plot: Fish Tales and Whoppers

Fish tales are stories a character relates that have a basis in reality but have been embellished to make the tale more entertaining, to make the teller sound better, or to make the object of the tale sound worse, than they really were.

Everyone tells a fish tale at some point, consciously or subconsciously: not to deliberately mislead or harm, but because it is human nature to flesh out stories. A story told often enough becomes a memory, even if it never happened or didn’t happen in quite the way it is related.

Dick might relate a conversation that didn’t actually take place the way he says it did. Characters tend to think of the funny or wounding line they should have said after the conversation is over, or the threat they should have made, or the punch they should have thrown in a heated situation. If a fish tale is told and embellished often enough, the embellishments replace the truth.

A fish tale starts out simply enough. Dick relates the tale of going fishing and turns his three-inch carp catch into a seven-foot catfish. The other diners will laugh. Jane might point out that seven-foot catfish don’t actually live in the pond in question. Sally might point out that a seven-foot catfish is too big for Dick to pull out alone. Ted might just call him on his crap and say he never caught a fish in his life. 

Dick might laughingly admit that he was exaggerating, but it was a catfish and it was big. The gentle ribbing may wick Dick into fury and the evening could turn ugly. If Dick is trying to warn them that giant radioactive catfish are living in the local lake, his friends will regret that they didn’t listen to him. If he is a serial killer, he will choose his next victim from amongst the dinner guests making fun of him. The ribbing can turn into fish tales of their own. Fish tales can make your character uncomfortable at a dinner party or create massive problems for all involved.

Let’s send Dick and Jane to a dinner with friends or family. Dick relates an innocent tale of something rather mundane that happened at home that morning. It can be something Jane did by accident (maybe she dropped a skillet full of food) or something she said about a situation or a person. If Dick embellishes the tale, he can unintentionally (or intentionally) humiliate Jane by exaggerating the outcome of the event or the content of the conversation. If he puts words in Jane’s mouth that come across as insults or puts a negative spin on her actions, he could get her in trouble or place her in danger. Dick was just trying to be funny but in Jane’s mind he made her look bad. The ride home will not be pleasant. Jane may sit and stew and plot a payback. Jane may start a tirade about all the stupid, hurtful things Dick has done. If Dick counter-attacks, the argument can escalate and lead to the demise of their marriage or to a really frosty winter of discontent.

If Dick embellishes a story about his skills or experience, he may be asked to do a harder task at work than he is prepared for. He may be asked to utilize his talents to solve a mystery or stop a crime. Dick’s fish tale can land him in waters way over his head.

The embellishments of Dick’s fish tale could be lethal if they mirror something that actually occurred. His comments may make someone at the dinner party squirm and change the subject. His exaggerations could turn lethal if they get too close to a crime that has been committed or imply that he has seen or heard something he didn’t and should not have.

Siblings sitting around a dinner table listening to a family member relate a story from their past might not remember the situation in quite the same way. This can spark friendly, or not so friendly, arguments. It could spark a mystery that needs to be solved. The same is true at a business lunch or a social get together among friends. When the false story is perceived as truth, you have unlimited potential for conflict.

As a tale gets repeated, and the embellishments become “facts”, the story takes on a life of its own. It becomes an “urban legend.” The time Dick went into the woods and got lost for five seconds becomes the time Dick went into the woods, was missing for a week and found his way home after seeing Big Foot. Family urban legends can reveal a lot about your characters. They can reveal what others think Dick is capable of, guilty of, or ashamed of. The arguments about what did and didn’t happen can be funny or extremely tense and very revealing. If the family urban legends hint at a darker truth (they’re all vampires) in front of a guest, the evening can end abruptly. If Dick takes his new girlfriend to dinner with friends or family and they use the urban legends to embarrass him in front of her, there will be plenty of conflict.

Conversely, fish tales could be used to make Dick look like a true hero. He saved a baby from a burning building when all he really did was put out a small blaze caused by a candle falling over. If Dick is a superhero and really did save a baby from a burning building, that’s an entirely different tale. He may squirm and worry about his family blowing his cover.

You can use the concept of fish tales and urban legends in any genre to develop plot, to reveal character, or to complicate the scene.

For more on how to motivate your characters based on personality type, check out:

Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in paperback and E-book.

Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook in paperback and E-book.

Stirring the Plot: P!nk goes into a bar

I have to thank P!nk (aka Alecia Moore) for inspiring this post with her song, "You and Ur Hand." Superficially, it's a feel good, girl power, bar anthem with a good beat. I imagine it gets frequent club play.

I like P!nk, not so much her punk girl persona, rather the woman who sings with her heart in her teeth, whose words and voice give me chills, in a good way. Glitter in the Air and Run Away are a couple of P!nk songs on my frequent play list.

Her song "You and UR Hand" is a perfect example of hidden motivation. The premise of the song is: a woman, let's call her Jane, dresses up and goes to a bar or club with her friend, let's call her Sally. Jane asserts that she just wants to drink and dance and be left alone. "We didn't get all dressed up just for you to see..." Which sounds good ... on the surface.

The expressed motivation is that Jane and Sally want to go to the bar to dance and drink and be largely ignored by the male population. This is a justification. There's no need for Jane and Sally to dress up in provocative outfits and go to a bar if they don't want to be bothered. They can drink, dressed in softy sweats, and bitch about men at home on the comfy couch. They could dance to music in the living room without being molested, and the alcohol is a whole lot cheaper if you buy it at the grocery store.

Subliminally, these girls want to go out and see and be seen. Jane is probably an extrovert. If Sally is an introvert, she will likely hate going to the bar with Jane. That will be the first conflict. Maybe Sally is the voice of reason and tries to talk Jane into staying home.

They don't. Jane and Sally go to the trouble of dressing up and doing their hair and drive to a club: "Looking tight, Feeling nice, It's a cockfight, I can tell, I just know, That it's going down, Tonight..."

This is another justification. Jane could wear softy sweats to the bar and leave her hair oily if she really wanted to repulse men. The second important clue from this line is that Jane goes into the bar with a chip on her shoulder. In fact, she is spoiling for a fight. Why? Maybe she just broke up with her boyfriend. Does she expect him to be there? Maybe her self esteem is at an all time low and she wants guys to hit on her to make her feel desirable. Maybe she hates men at the moment and wants to entice then reject them to make herself feel better, not a very healthy thing to do. Maybe Jane wants to release her aggressive urges by picking an actual fist fight with someone, an even worse thing to do. Jane could end up in jail for drunk and disorderly conduct.

"At the bar six shots just beginning, ... Midnight, I'm drunk, I don't give a f—" Getting plowed is a self-destructive way to deal with grief or anger. It usually turns Jane into her worst self. So Jane is primed for conflict walking in the door then fuels her rage with excessive alcohol.

Uh oh.

Let's say hapless Dick goes to the bar too. Maybe Dick wants to get drunk either as a response to a momentary, situational trigger or he's an alcoholic. It's highly unlikely that he wants to dance by himself.

Maybe Dick is there to make a love or lust connection or simply to meet up with friends to discuss football. If he runs into Jane and Sally, poor Dick won't know what hit him. He'll take the bait. He'll see a scantily clad Jane and assume that she is equally on the prowl. That's where the conflict starts.

"Don't touch, Back up, I'm not the one, Buh bye, Listen up it's just not happening, You can say what you want to your boyfriends, Just let me have my fun tonight, Aiight. I'm not here for your entertainment, You don't really want to mess with me tonight."

Dick won't understand Jane's incendiary reaction to his innocent, or wolfish, flirting. He may be a gentleman and simply shrug and move on and think, "Wow, what a ...." (fill in the descriptive term). He may get angry in return. He may offer insults to salve his wounded pride. If Dick is also drunk and decides to get verbally abusive, the night will not end well.

There's an even darker undertone of contempt to the song:"Just stop and take a second, I was fine before you walked into my life, Cause you know it's over, Before it begins, Keep your drink just give me the money, It's just you and your hand tonight."

It's one thing to tell Dick to keep his drink. A deeper motivation is revealed when Jane says, "just give me the money." For what? What has she done to earn money? Maybe Dick is her ex-boyfriend and he has been leeching off her for a while and she thinks he owes her money. Maybe Dick isn't her ex but, since she's had scummy boyfriends in the past, Jane thinks all men owe her money. Either way, those are fighting words. The word prostitute might get thrown into the conversation. The dialogue is likely to get ugly fast.

The evening could end in a verbal brawl. It could end with an arrest. It could end with Jane and Dick making up to go home and repeat the dysfunctional cycle all over again the following weekend.

In summary, something as simple as song lyrics can inspire your story conflict, especially when the lyrics reveal faulty thinking, dysfunction, and hidden motivation. You can "show" the hidden motivation by attitude, dialogue, and action instead of "telling" your reader the psychological motivations.

And if you hit a writing slump, just turn on your favorite playlists. I'm sure something will inspire you!

For more on how to motivate your characters based on personality type, check out:

Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in paperback and E-book.

Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook in paperback and E-book.

Stirring the plot: Inheritance & Entitlement

In Seville, Spain a vibrant and active 85-year-old duchess, who owns way more stuff than any human needs to, defied her six children and married a 60-year-old man. She had to sign over part of her vast estate to her little darlings to shut them up.

Most of us don’t have to worry about estates, entitlements, and trust funds, but I've seen this a lot with elderly parents and their kids (and second marriages). No matter the financial status, children will fight over ugly knick-knacks, and dad’s scruffy robe, and dog-chewed slippers. I’ve heard stories of children who have stolen things out of their sibling's car after a funeral because they wanted some inexpensive tchotchke that had sentimental value.

The death of a spouse or a divorce and remarriage raises questions of who gets the family jewels. This is juicy conflict for a writer. The thematic question has no easy, or clear-cut, answers. It will invoke emotionally charged responses in your readers.

Who gets to decide what is left to whom? Legally the answers are pretty clear: whatever Dick has legal ownership of can be disposed of in any way he likes in his will as long as what he owns isn’t tied up in a trust or must legally to go his spouse. Emotionally, it is a potential field of land mines. If there is no will, it can become a cat fight.

Do his children have a valid claim on Dick’s stuff? Is he obligated to leave them his stuff? Should he leave it to his second, third, or fourth wife? Why should Dick leave his entire album collection to a floozy with a tin ear instead of his darling children who grew up listening to, and loving, those albums? What if they already have all the songs loaded on their IPODs and will probably sell the albums at a flea market?

If there are multiple sets of children, should they all share equally or should Dick leave everything to his favorite charity to avoid conflict?

What if Duchess Jane does not like her children, or a specific child, does that change the level of obligation?

If Sally runs up outrageous debt before she dies, are the children responsible for paying it back? Legally, usually, no. Whatever Sally owed is deducted from what she owned. The rest of her creditors are out of luck. But that might not keep an unscrupulous fellow from coming after her children for it. Her children will be upset if they expected something (particularly a windfall) and find they are to receive nothing.

Kids tend to have an outrageous sense of entitlement to their parents stuff, especially when it is lots of money and half of a small country. If Dick’s children hand him a list of everything they think they should have on the night before his wedding to his new love, there is going to be perpetual conflict.

What if Sally asks her children to go around the house and put Post-Its on all the stuff they want when she dies? There will be intense emotional conflict. They may not want to think of their mother dying. They may not want to admit that they’ve always coveted the ceramic dog that reminds them of evenings spent watching Lassie. Fights are likely to ensue.

Should Jane’s children feel entitled to her stuff? Whatever the parents have worked to amass is surely theirs to do with as they please. We tell our children, "What we have worked for is ours. What you work for is yours." Do those rules change when the parents own half of the Hamptons?

What if Dick dies with no children? Who gets his stuff then? Who should he leave it to? Should it go to nieces and nephews? Siblings he didn’t like and has not spoken to in fifty years? If he does not write a will, it might.

Who has to take care of all the details when Dick dies? His ultra-responsible son or his flighty daughter? The grandchild he never spent time with or the sixth in a long string of wives? There will be conflict either way.

You can reveal a lot about your characters in terms of how they view and respond to this type of situation.

You can show change if Dick refuses to consider such a thing as what he might want when his father passes away. Then, when the event occurs, he finds he does care what happens with his father's tobacco pipe or vintage Rolls Royce. The opposite could be true. He always thought it mattered whether he got the car that took up space in a garage but no longer ran then when his father dies, he couldn't care less about it.

These thematic questions stir up controversy. There are equal arguments for each side. They cause massive conflict at any story level. They have been argued in every genre imaginable and are often the motive in a mystery.

For more on how to motivate your characters based on personality type, check out:

Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in paperback and E-book.

Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook in paperback and E-book.

The Trouble with Money

Money makes the world go around in the most delightful and not so delightful, ways. 

Somewhere long ago and far away someone traded something of limited value (shell, bead, stone) for something of essential value (food, clothing, shelter). From that seed grew tribal chieftains, pharaohs, kings, queens, aristocracy, industry barons, and Wall Street tycoons.

If I had a time machine, I would go back and bump their heads together. What were they thinking?

Once humans formed communities large enough to support a parasitic structure, i.e. those who did not have to work or contribute to survive, there have always been those on the top of the pyramid living off of, and profiting from, those on the bottom. Why did humans ever agree to this system?

If you write Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Historical fiction, you could explore the thematic question: How does one gain control over the many? Why do people willingly offer up things they have worked for, things that have essential value, to people who offer nothing of essential value in return? Some might say protection was given in return. Since the people form the armies that protect themselves, the argument is questionable at best.

Gold, diamonds, and paper currency only have value because we assign them value. Someone, somewhere along the line, convinced us that this was a good idea. All kinds of nonsense followed. 

Why is gold of higher value than bone? Humans tend to value things that are rare, but when the first chunk of gold was found, people didn’t know it was rare, only that it was new. We believe we have found all of the gold, but have we?

Particularly when writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, it is important to decide what your characters value. How do they buy and sell things or trade things. Do they use money as we know it? What are their fiscal rules? What do they value in terms of thrift or extravagance? What happens if their rules are broken? What are the consequences or the cost? Do they have a Wall Street? Do they allow the people at the top to profit from those at the bottom? What is the cost to their society for doing so?

It is even more important in a Historical tale that you get the details right for the time and place. When was the currency put into circulation? What kind was it? If you write about a remote tribe in Borneo, how do they go about bartering? What do they barter? What kind of bartering infractions are there and what is the punishment?

Money is a perceived need. Dick might feel comfortable with a small savings account, or he may not feel comfortable without a very large one. He might cheat, steal, or kill to get what he considers enough. Sometimes there is never enough. Jane might be happy with a little. Put Dick and Jane in a relationship and you have massive conflict.

Some without money resent those who have it. Some with money look down on those who don’t. Some characters work for their money, some inherit it, some win it. Disparities in income cause conflict in schools, social groups, charitable organizations, neighborhoods, families, marriages, between countries, and between friends.

Who should have it? Why should they have it? Should Dick, who spends his days throwing a football, earn more than doctor Jane who spends her days saving lives? Should a pole-dancing Sally earn more than the guy that picks up the trash?

Money trouble is one of the top killers of marriages. It can create an imbalance of power between the one who earns the most or all of the money and the one who isn’t given equal control over it.

When money loans are made, the stakes are raised. You have intense conflict whether you are writing about mob money or the cash dad gave son to help him start a business. The game begins when it can’t be paid back.

For more on how to create believable conflict, check out:

Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in paperback and E-book.