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Minding Your Manners

I give credit to an article in Parents magazine for inspiring this one. Are etiquette and chivalry truly dead? In your story world, you decide. 

Tweet: Mores and manners change with the times, but everyone has a set of rules. #writingtips

From knights in clanging armor, to Victorian parlors, to the craziness of Hollywood, every story world has a set of rules for how people are supposed to behave and whether or not your characters choose to.

How comfortable Dick is in terms of asking for something depends on his personality type and whether he likes the person he is asking. The polite way to ask is, "Please may I ...". If Dick says, "Please taking a running leap off a short pier," the game is on.

How comfortable Dick is in terms of receiving things also depends on his personality type and whether or not he wants the item received. 

Thank you's when used appropriately, are the oil that makes life run a little smoother. An insincere thank you can mask anger when Dick would really like to let those rude words fly and can't. "Why thank you! However did you come up with such a creative solution to our current predicament ...Sweetie." If he says, "Thank you for not breathing," the game is on.

When a character interrupts a conversation, even to tell Dick that Timmy is in the well, he is being rude.

How often do your characters interrupt each other? Is it well meant, deliberately intrusive or because the situation requires it? Is it timed to deflect an important or revealing conversation?

Cell phones are rampant. Forcing the people around him to listen to Dick's conversation is rude. Listening in on other people's conversations is considered rude. This can also have unforeseen consequences. People aren't careful when they talk on their phones in public. They aren't careful when dining with their friends in restaurants. Clues can be dropped, sensitive information revealed and a person's true colors exposed.

"It's better to ask permission than forgiveness" is a current favorite. But is it? Sometimes Dick should ask permission, like before he raids someone else's refrigerator. He'll pass on asking permission if he is raiding their safe. Taking something innocent without permission may seem harmless, but may push the wrong button. How does Dick feel about having something taken without permission? Is he amused or furious?

Jane should keep negative opinions to herself. Or between her and her friends and out of earshot of other people. In which case, they can discuss freely and at length over their favorite beverage. Refer to the previous "there's no privacy while dining" scenario. This is especially true when commenting on other people's physical characteristics, clothing, possessions and children. It isn't considered acceptable to offer an insult as a compliment: "My, those tattoos are so colorful." Or "It must have taken hours to do that to your hair." Southern women are queens of the insult/compliment smashup. "Well, bless her heart, isn't she precious? It must have taken a month of Sundays to come up with that outfit."

Jane should take a hostess gift to someone's house when invited for dinner and thank them for having her over and for the good time she had. If Jane is lying through her teeth, you have conflict. If she takes them a present intended to insult, the game is on. Is she thanks them for the most riveting evening she's ever had, the insult might fly right over her host's head.

Sally was taught to knock before entering. This could avert a potential disaster if her husband is in bed with someone else. If she is doing something she doesn't want anyone to know about, locking the door would be a great idea. If Sally never locks a door and suddenly decides to lock the door, there is conflict. Locking the bathroom door could mean the child/person knocking better be bleeding, the house on fire or someone dying. If not, the game is on.

When making a phone call, Dick should introduce himself and ask for whoever he wishes to speak to. With the advent of caller ID this is going out of fashion. The conflict occurs when Dick doesn't bother to ascertain who he is talking to before he speaks. It also occurs when Dick answers someone else's phone, particularly if he pretends to be that person. Wrong numbers and misunderstandings are rife in these situations.

What are your story world rules about profanity? It is considered bad manners to use foul language in public, particularly if sensitive little ears are around to hear them. There are still factions of society insulted by words that other factions of society use as versatile adjective/noun/verbs. Profanity is generally considered crass in business and social functions. If Dick does so, how much trouble will he be in? Is Jane offended by profanity or does she swear like a sailor?

Dick should never call other people names or make fun of them. Until they are out of earshot and can't hear him or retaliate. Unless he intentionally wants to start a fight. Even good natured teasing can be taken the wrong way.

Jane should sit through a play, assembly, lecture or business meeting quietly and pretend she is interested even if she is bored silly. What happens if she doesn't? We've all been in boring business meetings, school music programs or dance programs that - other than our little darling's five seconds of fame - bore us to tears. You may be at a lecture or a workshop. This is where the cell phone issue comes in. The light from the screen is distracting. Jane may be bored, but the parent/participant sitting next to her might not. What happens if Jane is forced to sit there? What happens if she breaks free? What happens if she breaks out her Blackberry?

Sally should cover her mouth when she coughs or sneezes. These days it's an act of terror to spread germs in a public place or airplane.

If he sees someone struggling, Dick should offer to help. This is lovely if an elderly person is struggling with their groceries, a mom with a stroller, or someone drops something and doesn't notice. These situations can be hilarious or deadly. What could a little act of kindness lead to? What could Dick gain by pretending to be helpful? There's the old joke about the boy scout who helped the old lady across the street only to find she was headed the opposite direction. Good intentions rarely go unpunished.

When someone asks a favor, Jane should do it without grumbling, unless the favor is inappropriate. Favors can be dangerous. If Jane asks a favor, she should preface it with, "Would you mind." If she follows that up with "Would you mind sodding off?" the game is on.

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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