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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.

Publishing's Dirty Little Secret

My motto is, "Life is too short for bad fiction." 

There is nothing that makes me happier than finding a new writer whose world building and plotting submurges me on page one and does not let me breathe again until the last page is turned. There are images from stories that will haunt me for life. Exquisite word usage is icing on the cream cake.These are the books I hate to leave for a moment, the ones I will stay up until the wee hours of the morning to finish, the kind of series I binge read more than once. Sadly, they aren't as common as I'd like.

The Story Building Blocks series is the result of my research into what it takes to become one of those skilled authors. It's a selfish thing. As a book addict, I want more reading highs.

Editors and agents fight over brilliant wordsmiths and unique storytellers. Skillful writing is damned hard work. Writers flock to classes and workshops, eager to become those authors, the only kind gatekeepers admit to opening the front door for. I worship those willing to do the work. So many give up when they realize a first draft isn't the key to fame and fortune, even though they have a natural gift.

I have discovered indy-pubbed authors I'd place in the brilliant category that were ignored by traditional publishers. I am truly thankful they found their own launch pad and happily promote them every chance I get.

There are snobs who can debate what constitutes "literature" for days. Some of those books are snooze-fests. The majority of stories that sell well are written simply, but they have a unique story world, character, or plot twist that makes up for their flaws even if they aren't Nobel prize material.

But here's publishing's dirty little secret: shit sells.

It has always sold. Publishers have a dark, dingy back door that lets authors in as long as they can churn out a constant stream of mediocrity to feed the demand. Unpolished schlock from bodice rippers to gore fests to plodding mysteries have always sold like hotcakes in the form of melodramas of old to cheap paperbacks to fulfill genre demand. These authors make a comfortable living. I don't begrudge them the money. If there wasn't a demand, they wouldn't sell a single book.

In addition, publishers are guilty of guilding some serious turds. They put a lot of money into marketing them and, if a little bit of the gilt falls off, they have already made their profit. Those millions often help launch other projects they love that have less reach. So, more power y'all.

When those stinking dumps of excrement rise meteorically, aspiring authors think, "What the heck? What is all this fuss about writing well when this dreck makes millions?" I share your confusion and disdain. Then I remember low-brow reality television shows get more ratings than quality screenwriting.

You don't have to invest months, perhaps years, of honing skills to become a first-class writer to make money. Nowadays there are book feeding frenzies, usually sparked by a best-seller. By carefully tracking the chum of the week, an author can make a small fortune writing and uploading a first-draft novella or two a month. It still involves a lot of elbow grease, just a different kind. You have to be on topic, prolific, master the formatting and uploading process, and know how to promote online.

Self-publishing didn't create the phenomenon. It just made the process easier and cut out the pimps who sneered at the illicit trade but were all too happy to pocket the money.

If you aren't concerned with quality, there has never been a better time to pinch your nose and start shoveling.

Confining Your Characters

No one likes feeling trapped and the desire to escape is an intense motivator and speaks to a universal need for safety. Readers root for characters to escape catastrophic or horrific danger. By limiting the psychological or physical boundaries, you increase the boiling point of your story cauldron by making it impossible for your characters to walk away.

There are obvious ways to use physical confinement: remote locations or being trapped inside burning a building, speeding train, or airplane. Characters may have to escape an asylum, a prison, a sinking ship, or a dying planet. At scene level, they may have to overcome other obstacles such as manacles or laser alarm systems or crawl through tight tunnels. Life or death stakes ratchet up the tension. Add a ticking clock, and you’ve escalated the conflict to Thriller level. 

But let's step outside obvious physical limiations to look at a few examples where confinement is psychological. Emotional life and death stakes can be just as effective.

Dick might need to escape from a confining belief system, societal rules, or cult. This type of conflict fuels many dystopian and Science Fiction plot lines. It also works in literary and coming of age stories. She might literally have to escape to save her life or the lives of others.

Sally can be confined by a family, a tribe, or a gang. The situation can be an abusive or an intolerable person she needs to flee from.  She may simply need to escape to pursue the career she loves or marry the man of her dreams.

Confinement can force a character to deal with a person or situation because they can’t escape from them.

Dick can feel trapped in an airplane seat. Add an obnoxious rowmate and his discomfort increases. Replace the obnoxious stranger with an angry spouse and your characters are strapped in for a few hours of heated debate or icy silence.

Being confined in a car can have the same effect. Characters often have intense and important conversations while strapped inside. Being confined in a train, elevator, or waiting room can provide Dick with ample time to think something through as well.

Dick might want to break free of romantic relationship or marriage. Depending on his personality type and childhood wounds, he might find commitment suffocating. It can be as simple as Dick not liking that his romantic options have narrowed or been eliminated, so he refuses to propose to a girl he loves. He’ll live with her but he doesn’t like the prison bars that marriage suggests. 

If Jane sees marriage as a desirable bond, a sign that Dick values their relationship and promises to always have her back, she won’t understand his reluctance. This provides terrific tension in a romance or romantic subplot. Dick and Jane, as well as the supporting cast, can argue whether marriage entraps or frees them. Dick can overcome his internal resistance and give in. Dick and Jane can agree that their commitment to each other is more important than the piece of paper. Or, their differing belief systems and needs are a deal breaker and they end the relationship.

Sally might want to break free of a confining friendship. If Sally is the type of easy-breezy personality that loves to be around lots of people and considers twenty people her best friend, she might befriend Jane who values one tight, soul-sister over lesser acquaintances. Confine these two in an apartment or a college dorm and the conflict increases. Whether physically confined or emotionally confined, their differing needs and definitions of loyalty and trust provide obstacles to continuing their friendship. It can be explored in a sweet literary story about why friendships fail. Jane could cause problems for Sally, the protagonist, in other genres as Sally negotiates her exacting friend’s emotional neediness while solving an unrelated story problem. This claustrophobic dynamic has been explored in horror films about scary roommates, but it can also factor in virtually any plot line. Pairing friends with differing connection needs creates believable conflict.

Jane might want to escape a confining job. She may be afraid to leave a lucrative career but imprisoned by the monotony or lack of challenge. She may love the job but hate her boss or coworkers. The entrapment will either force to her make a life changing career move or renegotiate her reality within the confines of her job.

Family get togethers are rarely the love-fests featured in the sweet family stories of long ago. Reunions are hot beds of festering unmet needs and resentments. Personalities clash and clang and grate, fomenting snide remarks and truth-revealing tirades. The quickest way to exit an undesirable family event is for your character to make statements they know will stir the family pot and storm out during the ensuing verbal brawl. An investigator might stir the pot to get a suspect to reveal himself. 

If going home feels like entering a prison, Jane isn’t going to enjoy going there for a holiday meal, much less a week. She may be forced to return home to take care of an ailing parent. The situation makes her feel like she is being strangled, particularly if irritating siblings insist on visiting. Emotional bombs will burst.

Setting and situation choices can force your character to make decisions or take actions they otherwise would ignore. As the character's social, psychological, or physical noose tightens, the reader's tension grows along with it and they keep turning the page to relieve their own anxiety.

For more ways to utilize obstacles to create tension in your fiction, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book version.

Stirring the Plot with Isolation

Earliest man lived in small tribes. With fewer people, they relied on each other more. Such is the stuff of Historicals, Westerns, and Literary pioneer stories. When people died, especially in large numbers due to disease, famine, or drought, it preyed on the survivors' mortal fear of being alone. These stakes can heighten a story problem or create a scene conflict.

If the population of a planet is dying, Dick has an overall story problem.

If Jane feels alone in her marriage, she has a personal dilemma or overall story problem.

The situation in a dark, spooky mansion is heightened if Dick is alone, as would a perfectly normal forest. A planet would be terrifying if he was the only surviving astronaut.

The smaller the population, the higher the stakes of survival and the more claustrophobic the situation becomes. Put Dick in a city of a thousand people and he can easily get lost in the throng. That makes a good Mystery. Putting ten people in a space station makes a great Science Fiction story. Killing them off one by one makes a great Thriller or Horror story. Post apocalyptic stories explore our fear of being alone and the desire for survivors to find one another. Science Fiction stories explore our desire to not be alone in the universe.

On a personal level, most of us prefer to live with someone. A few thrive on the freedom of living alone.

How far is Jane willing to go to feel connected? Jane may marry someone she does not love, become friends with someone she wouldn’t otherwise, build a robot so she has a companion, join an organization she does not agree with, or draw a face on a football so she has someone to talk to on a deserted island.

How far is Dick willing to go to live alone? He might rent a cabin in the Dakota badlands or buy an island and find out he needs people after all.

Characters who are hurt by something or someone often withdraw from the people around them. Some do it for a week, others a month, at the most extreme end they withdraw from life entirely.

At the scene level Dick may need to be alone to accomplish something but all his well-meaning friends keep dropping by to chat.

Dick may momentarily find himself in an empty house, which creates the perfect opportunity for the ghost to visit.

Isolation adds an element of creepiness to any situation. It is a keystone of Horror stories. The characters must be trapped in a building, a city or on a planet from which there is no escape, so they must turn and face the horror instead of run away from it.

Isolation is critical in a Gothic novel for the same reason. The hapless governess cannot simply walk away from the creepy plantation house. She can’t board a bus or walk into a Starbucks. She can’t have a cell phone – not one that works anyway – or call a cab. She needs to be isolated so that she is forced to unravel the mystery or uncover the secret instead of running away at the first sign of trouble.

Isolation is also a key component of YA because so many teens feel isolated: from their family, their peers, their world. Isolation leads to depression and anxiety and feelings of low self-esteem. The character can realize they aren’t alone after all. They can graduate high school and find their “soul mate” friends in college. They can leave their all-Caucasian neighborhood to live in a predominantly Hispanic one and find themselves at home, or find the new community has its share of issues to contend with.

In a Literary story, Sally might embrace her mid-life crisis by selling up and moving to a house in Italy only to realize the locals don’t want her there. All that high life and camaraderie she expected are denied her. The doors remain shut but the curtains are pulled to the side so they can spy on her. Sally sits in her wilting, rustic money pit an unscrupulous salesman talked her into and realizes she should have stayed at home. It was boring but people liked and accepted her there. If murders start happening, it could become a Mystery and Sally the sleuth forced to solve them. In a Thriller, someone could want her to leave their family home and she becomes the target.

In a Romance, the opposite could happen. Sally could feel isolated in her home town because all of her friends have moved away or moved on. Her family might not be supportive or emotionally connected. She kicks the traces and runs off to a charming seaside cottage in Ireland and finds the circle of friends she desperately needed and a lad with a charming brogue to keep her warm at night.

If Sally’s best friend is moving away, in a sense abandoning her, the situation can cause subtle conflict as Sally attempts to overcome the overall story problem or a momentary distraction at scene level.

You can use isolation to fuel any genre at any story level. 

For more obstacles that create conflict, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book version.