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Stirring The Plot: Who's The Boss?

I have to thank a friend for inspiring this one, though I’ll withhold names to protect the innocent. My friend, let’s call her Jane, works in an office where the boss’s wife comes in periodically to make sure things are done her way. She isn’t actually an employee, nor is she an expert in the business he conducts. She just likes to meddle and throw her weight around to feel powerful.

Tweet: Family run businesses can be an entirely different breed of viper’s nest. #storybuildingblocks #writingtips 

Unlike the cogs in the corporate hierarchy that are easily removed and replaced, the family run business is full of emotional landmines. 

If Dick’s father is the nominal head of the business, theoretically he should be in charge. But what if he isn’t? 

What if Dick’s Mom wears the corporate pantsuit even though she doesn’t actually work there? It will cause aggravation if not outright abuse for all who work for them. It is a very uncomfortable work environment. The rules can be disregarded at whim and the hierarchy ignored when the untitled boss gets involved. The changes she makes are implemented without warning or consideration for those who actually have to show up and do the job every day. They are enforced even though they create headaches for those who have to perform the tasks.

Jane will go to the office every day primed with anxiety. When will the saboteur show up next and what impossible demands will she make? Because the reward system is illogically skewed, Jane won’t be certain that her hard work and dedication will be appreciated, so how hard should she try? Should she stay or go? Depends on her situation and how good the pay and benefits are. How much is Jane willing to sacrifice for material reward when every day feels like a swim in a shark tank? How much abuse is she willing to endure before she quits or pulls out a revolver?

How does the uncertainty affect the son Dick? How frustrated will he grow with his spineless father when he witnesses his mother’s torture of the employees? How firm can he get with his impossible mother? Will Dick grow and learn to stand up for himself against the female bully or will he repeat the enabling pattern?

What if Dick’s sister Sally also works at the firm? They have grown up being pitted against one another. Who is the favorite child for which parent? The dynamics shift depending on the answer. If Dick is Dad’s favorite and Sally is Mom’s favorite, then Dick has a real problem. His succession as head of the business isn’t assured. Mom may choose Sally to take over. If Sally is Dad’s favorite and Dick is Mom’s favorite, then Sally has a problem. She can have Dad wrapped tightly around her little finger, but if Mom wields the power and isn’t too fond of her simpering daughter, Sally is in a no-win situation. If the parents continually play out their antagonism toward one another through their son and daughter the waters get hurricane choppy. If Mom dies, then Dad is free from her oppression and the work environment can become an entirely different place. If Dad dies, and Mom takes over or the business is turned over to Sally instead of Dick, the situation can disintegrate further. If the siblings enter a turf war over it, the conflict heats to a boil.

How many employees will abandon ship? How many will stay? How can the company survive if the internal structure is unstable? 

The addition of sibling and parent dynamics to any story situation raises the stakes and changes the playing field significantly. 

The conflict could be a mild distraction while Dick is trying to save the planet or find the kidnapped girl.

The conflict could be the core of a literary tale of deadly dysfunction. 

The conflict could be the source of an intense thriller or suspense. 

The parent/child scenario could be a factor in a YA novel. The parents could be running a gas station, a major corporation, a village, a country, or a wolf pack.

In your story, who is the boss? Who are the powers that be? Who makes the ultimate decisions? The more dysfunctional the situation, the higher the story stakes.

For more on crafting conflict to create tension, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict available in paperback and E-book.

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