Sense of Urgency Is Like a Splinter

sense of urgency is like a splinter

No, not the rat.

It wasn’t until discussing the either or mentality a few months ago that I realized that I had somehow overlooked talking about sense of urgency (In a writing blog – how is that even possible?). Immediately, I put it on my list for later. Today, later is here, and it comes with a simile: sense of urgency is like a splinter.

Sense of Urgency:
Importance, Attention, & Deadlines

Talking about a sense of urgency has grown more and more popular not only in writing but also in business. Books must have a strong sense of urgency to be more gripping and fast-paced, and people must have a strong sense of urgency to make their businesses take off.

Ok. But what does that mean?

What Is a Sense of Urgency?

Well, in business, it’s your motivation and your level or intensity of caring. The elusive emotion drives you to get tasks done and tackle more. In years past, it would’ve been called “ambition.”

In writing, it’s fairly similar; however, you (the reader) are not the one feeling a sense of urgency – the main character is. Yes, we as readers respond to the main character’s need to succeed at a goal, but it isn’t our need (although, for extreme fans or those with major empathy, it can be hard to tell the difference…).

Uh-huh. And it’s like a splinter how?

Gotcha covered. It’s time to take this simile to the next level: the analogy. Don’t worry – all silliness aside, the comparison does actually make sense.

What Do Splinters and Sense of Urgency Have in Common?

I’m glad you asked. Here are a few of the items I’ve put together. Before I get into them, however, I’d like you to stop a moment to think about the splinters you’ve had over the years. From least to most memorable. Think about the irritation, the random pain when you first discovered it was there (How do they get there without being noticed?!), the intense concentration of operating on yourself to get it out – you know, the whole shebang. Got it in your head? Ok. Here we go.

Sense of urgency is like a splinter because both…

  1. Vary in size and importance (A small wood splinter versus bamboo under the fingernails. Big difference. Oh, and ever get a metal splinter? You know, the type Bruce Willis pulled out of his arm to use as a lockpick in Die Hard with a Vengeance? I have. Believe me, a normal splinter’s got nothing on that!)
  2. Hold your attention (even when you’re trying to focus on other things)
  3. Have a deadline (However vague – such as “before I type anymore because ow” or “before gangrene sets in, and I lose this finger”)
  4. Grow in importance the longer the issue remains (AKA, the closer you get to the deadline or the more side problems crop up because of it. And you thought it had your attention before it was red and swollen! Ha!)

Yes, a sense of urgency does all of those things.

Take #1, for instance. When a teacher tells you that your book needs a sense of urgency, you think of the main goal – the problem to be resolved in the climax. But there are plenty of little problems and conflicts that need a sense of urgency, too. A scene where a character has no driving need to do anything is a scene that’s dead in the water. Even if it’s as simple or small as a need to entertain themselves while waiting for someone, the character always has some motivation.

And, don’t forget, the character’s the one driving the plot, right?

As far as number 2, a sense of urgency is a splinter in your brain. Instead of pain distracting you, it’s ideas or a feeling that you need to get it done. It’s like having trouble concentrating at work because you have a million things to do at home. Or how artists tends to find ideas for their art in everything – because their art is never far from their minds!

Oh, and as far as #3, if you’re a procrastinator, you’ll understand the next sentence perfectly: you can’t have a sense of urgency without a deadline. If you can wait to do it tomorrow, why would you do it now? What’s in it for you?

The ticking clock is a cliche because it works. Having a deadline automatically creates at least some sense of urgency. In fact, the only way the ticking clock doesn’t work as a tool is if the character doesn’t care about the consequences.

Speaking of consequences, that’s also a way of heightening a sense of urgency, and it’s part of why the deadline is important as well as the variation idea (and #4). What’s the difference between homework due tomorrow and stopping a villain from destroying the Earth? Well, other than genre or trope, namely the scale of the consequences.

That’s how you differentiate between your conflicts and increase the sense of urgency for the climax. As a general rule, the main conflict should not only have more deadly or frightening consequences, but those consequences should also increase or get worse the closer the character gets to the climax. That can be simply because the result will be much worse if not taken care of before the deadline, or it could be because the situation grows increasingly complicated, resulting in worse dangers.

It’s particularly powerful if the actions that the main character takes to stop the dangers actually increases them (or, at least, the ancient Greek writers thought so…).

Hubris aside, though, that’s how motivation is like a splinter.

Speaking of which, *may your personal sense of urgency to write be like a long, nasty metal splinter that aggravates you so thoroughly you have no choice but to face it down (AKA: I hope you write.)

*A little Ray Bradbury-esque, but I meant it as a blessing.

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12 Examples of Ending the Either Or Problem with a Third Choice

Examples of Ending the Either Or Problem with a Third ChoiceWhen I listed different methods for ending the either or problem with a third choice, I didn’t give any examples because, honestly, the article was long enough already. So if you wanted some examples of each type, you’re in luck! Here are 12 examples of ending the either or problem with a third choice.

Warning: there may be a lot of spoilers.

Examples that End an Either Or Problem with a Third Choice

Outside Intervention

Here are some examples of how this technique has been used.

  • The Fellowship of the Ring: Frodo is fleeing to Rivendell on Glorfindel’s horse, and the Nazgul are catching up. He can either be caught as he tries to flee or turn and fight. Suddenly, the river rises up and sweeps the Nazgul away thanks to Elrond.
  • Speaking of Tolkien’s Middle Earth series, this technique is also used when the Eagles arrive to take them from the fiery trees (every time the Eagles arrive really), when Gollum takes the ring back at the end, and probably a number of other situations that I’m not remembering.
  • The Lion King: Simba and Nala are cornered by angry jackals. They have to fight, and they’re either going to win or die. Then, Mufasa appears and sends the jackals running thanks to Zazu, which Simba and Nala didn’t even know was an option.
  • The main characters are taken captive, but just as they are about to be killed, their captor’s enemies attack. So… they’re free of the first group (mission accomplished). Unfortunately, now they’re someone else’s captives (which generally leads to an opening that wouldn’t have existed with the first captor). (Yes, I know it’s not a specific example, but you can think of a couple, right?)

Actually, these should all seem pretty familiar.

Sudden Epiphany or Reveal

Only 2 for this one: one book and one movie.

  • In Disney’s Moana,Te Kā rears up thanks to the fight with Maui, and Moana sees the spiral pattern on the demon’s stone chest, which makes Moana realize what she needs to do to return the stone to Te Fiti.
  • A Wrinkle in Time uses this, as well. At the climactic moment, Meg’s two choices are to join IT (something she is struggling against constantly) or to continually fight to figure out how to defeat IT. She has no idea how to defeat IT until IT (through Charles) makes a comment that inadvertently reveals to her what she has that IT doesn’t (Thanks, IT!).

That’s enough to give you an idea, but if anyone wants to add more examples in the comments, you’re welcome to.

Secret Skills

I know this has been used in spy movies, but I can’t think of any right now. So these 4 examples are what you get!

  • River’s ability to shoot in Firefly is the perfect example: a character is in desperate straights (fight and die OR don’t fight and die), and a character with no background in shooting appears and saves the day. Thanks to River’s already mysterious abilities (who knows what was done to her?), this doesn’t mess up the characterization.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird: To Scout, Atticus is a smart father that she obviously adores but is also a bit embarrassed by because he is a bit older, wears glasses, and prefers to read rather than hunt. When a mad dog comes into town, the obvious options to the children are completely derailed by Atticus being asked to shoot the dog with a rifle because they had no idea that he was a crack shot (a slightly vague example as far as an either-or choice; however, the secret skill reveal was too good to leave it out).
  • In Ghost Hunt, Ayako is established as pretty useless – until the last storyline of the tv show where she saves them all from a horde of spirits and leaves them all wondering, why on Earth haven’t you ever used this before? She had an excellent answer, so it works as a plot device (and doesn’t make the rest of the series seem like a lie).
  • For Trigun, Vash gets out of deadly situations because of skills the audience (and other characters) doesn’t know about for a long part of the series. It’s an intriguing use of the technique because it uses the secret skill to save the characters yet manages to keep the skill secret for quite a while – not an easy feat!

All the other examples I can think of at the moment come from anime. Hmmm… interesting.

Art of the Unexpected

Oh, that crazy unexpected. Here are 2 characters that thrive on it.

  • Miles from the Vorkosigan Saga: His claim to fame is his brain and ability to think of things no one expected. Granted, it gets him into a lot of trouble, but it also often gets him out of said trouble. For example, when he finds himself in a bad situation where the obvious options are 1. surrender and beg for mercy or 2. run, he picks option#3: taking over the mercenaries against him through fast-talking.
  • Then, there’s Peter Quill. At the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, he can either try to fight Yondu or hand over the stone. He chooses one of the best third options – appearing to make one of the obvious choices while actually doing something else.

There you go! Examples of each kind. I’m sure there are plenty more out there. You probably thought of other examples while reading this.

You know where those  should go? In the comments. Lets make this a major resource, people!

The Clothing Makes the Character

clothing makes the characterI’m betting you know the old saying, “The clothing makes the man.” I can’t honestly say what brought it to mind, but for some reason, I started wondering whether it translated for books: “the clothing makes the character.” Is that really true?

So I tried applying the idea to some famous examples:

  • Would Drizzt Do’Urden be a different character if he wore bright, cheerful colors? Say, extravagant silks embroidered in gold and covered in gems and seed pearls?
  • What about Bilbo Baggins? Would he be the same in a floursack tunic and plain pants?
  • Would Ender Wiggin be the same if he wore tights and a leotard for training at the Battle School? Preferably in a soft pastel with a delicate pattern on it. Like weapons re-interpreted as flowers.

It’s ok. I’ll wait ’til you stop laughing and wincing.

Hard to imagine, isn’t it? In fact, it’s hysterically wrong. Those clothes are so different from how we think of those characters that it’s hard to even picture. So the clothing must have something to do with making the character, right?

The Clothing Makes the Character
Because the Character Makes the Clothing

No, literal-minded people (like me), I’m not saying the characters weave and sew their own clothing (well, some of them might but not most). Most characters, on the other hand, usually choose their own clothing.

That’s why it’s strange to think of those characters in unusual clothing – it’s not clothing they would pick under normal circumstances. Bilbo was upset about not having a pocket handkerchief for goodness sake! He would not pick something plain and rough when given other options.

And that’s actually my point. The clothing a character chooses reveals a great deal about that character’s personality and situation.

Clothing Shows More Than We Think

Practicality v. status. Personally flattering v. appealing to fashion. Career-based v. comfort-based. Culture. Region. Socio-economic status.

All these facets of characters and their lives influence their choices of clothing, personal grooming, and accessories. An extremely practical person isn’t going to prefer an outfit made of an easily-wrinkled, itchy fabric for everyday wear. Or something that impedes movement or has to be tugged back into place all the time. On the other hand, someone who loves fashion isn’t going to pick a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, dark socks (knee-high), and sandals. Not in modern-day U.S., anyway.

As a rule, people pick clothing that portrays an image that they feel comfortable with. Something that suits their needs for the day but also reflects their personality, their values, and who they want people to perceive them to be.

And isn’t that the point of the original saying?

People make fast judgments about everyone they meet – based on behavior, yes, but also on appearance. Think about all the dos and don’ts we’re given for dressing for a job interview. Well, this is the reason, and it works the same way for your characters.

The clothing you give your characters gives automatic hints at what that character is like and what that character values. It’s a great way to add quirks or reveal hidden depths. Plus, the other characters are going to make assumptions about that character because of their looks as well as their actions. And, don’t forget, so are the readers!

It’s implicit characterization. That’s what it’s for.

So when you’re building a character, think not only of what the character would pick but also of what impression you want the character to give other characters – and how to tie that into your plot!

Use the clothing to make the character what you want it to be.

The Concealed Carry Writing Prompt for Fashionistas

concealed carry writing prompt for fashionistas

That dynamite is not going to hide in that vest. Not without a pocket of holding.

Guns, knives, garrotes, guillotines – some weapons are more easily concealed than others. And unless you want to use the “Where was he hiding that?!” joke, it’s something you want to think about before writing the scene, and the concealed carry writing prompt for fashionistas will walk you through the basic considerations required.

Well, required for fiction. I have no actual experience *concealing a weapon.

Fashionistas & Concealed Carry:
The Writing Prompt with Something for Everyone

This is what math people might call a bidirectional writing prompt – the main steps can go either way. You can start with clothing and spot check your weaponry options, or you can start with your weapon of choice and design your clothing around it.

For the sake of the article, we’ll use the order below, but you can switch 1 & 2 if you prefer.

  1. Choose the character’s clothing.
  2. Consider the weapon options.
  3. Check whether the weapon can be believably concealed in the chosen clothing. (The “believably” part is important!)
  4. If it can’t be concealed believably, fix it. Or use the lack of concealment to the enemy’s advantage or in the protagonist’s strategy.
  5. Write the scene.

That’s the basics. Now, let’s talk a bit about the details.

Step 1: The Outfit

If you already have a character in a story, odds are you’ve picked at least one normal outfit or style for that character already. Something that reflects the character’s personality and lifestyle as well as the rest of your worldbuilding.

Assuming that the scene you’re writing involves your character’s normal clothing, then, you’re done with step 1.

But what if it doesn’t? What if your character is stuck in prison clothes, a new uniform, or a ballgown? Consider the scene and see whether an outfit change makes more sense than going with the same style.

Step 2: The Weapon

Like the outfit, if your character is a warrior of any kind, then he or she already has a weapon of choice. And if the character already has a normal weapon and a normal outfit, those two should go together although that doesn’t mean the weapon has to be concealed. After all, not all situations or stories require hiding weapons. A knight going into battle is going to carry weapons openly and within easy reach. If not already bared.

Even if your character does not normally conceal his/her weapon, however, we’re assuming that now it’s suddenly necessary. That means you have a couple of options:

  • the regular weapon being concealed in the regular outfit
  • the regular weapon being concealed in a new outfit
  • a new weapon being concealed in the regular outfit
  • a new weapon being concealed in a new outfit

Pretty obvious and little math-y, but these are ideas you have to consider. If the character carries a huge weapon that can’t be concealed, is he/she smart enough to adapt, or is the character going to try anyway.

Always consider the options in relation to your character and the situation. That’ll keep you on a better path.

Step 3: Check

If you’re like me, you may automatically do this in conjunction with step 2. That’s fine. For the sake of clarity, however, I’m going to pretend we picked an outfit and a weapon without considering whether the weapon can be hidden. Maybe, its the only weapon and outfit the character has, and now we have to figure out how to make it work (whatever).

Details to think about when trying to conceal a weapon on a character in a story:

  • Measurements (of the weapon, person, and clothing – if the weapon is taller than the person, it had better fold!)
  • Flexibility (Rigid weapons are going to be harder to hide, especially bigger ones.)
  • Reflectivity (If it’s shiny silver, it may show through thin fabric. If it’s dark, it might show through light fabric.)
  • Fabric weight (Both for drape and transparency)
  • Cut (Where the clothing is tight, where it is loose, and how it attaches to the body)
  • Safety (Is the wearer likely to get hurt hiding the weapon there – like sticking a sharp knife somewhere without first putting a sheath on it)
  • Movement (Will it noticeably affect how the character moves?)

These ideas should get you thinking in the right direction. Again, it doesn’t need to be 100% realistic unless that’s your usual writing style (and in that case, interview a cop or someone with actual experience concealing a weapon) – just real enough to make the scene seem believable.

Step 4: Adjust

If the weapon won’t work with the outfit, change one or the other. Keep the one most important to the scene or change both. Whatever works best (although, remember: the less you can change to make it work, the less your previous work is wasted. Not always the best solution, but sometimes, it is.).

Some weapons may not be concealable on someone’s person or in someone’s clothing or accessories, so be creative. Maybe, something in the setting needs to come into play.

Step 5: Write the Scene

As always, once the background work is done, it’s time to write. Write the scene, and if at any point, the concealed carry option seems unbelievable, think about the previous steps. You can use them to find the simplest part to change to make the scene work.

Ok. You’re ready to write a fashionable but deadly scene. I can’t wait to see the results.

*These instructions are intended for writing only. Please, do not use them as instructions for actually concealing anything.

People Don’t Listen: 7 Dialogue Tropes to Give Them Away

people don't listen dialogue tropes ear plugs

“la la la la I’m not listening!”

People don’t listen. You know it. I know it. We’ve probably even heard it but didn’t realize because we weren’t listening. And since we’re so familiar with people who don’t listen, using that idea in our stories adds a lot of realism. That makes these 7 dialogue tropes really handy for giving them away. So handy, in fact, that I’m sure you’ll recognize them from books, movies, etc.

7 Signs for When People Don’t Listen

These signs or tropes are really reflections of why the people aren’t listening. It’s a sign of their motivation and relationship with the person who’s talking. And how much they care about the subject. Ergo, which one you use is all about characterization, setting, and plot.*

 1. The Clueless Question

A.K.A. “Sorry. What?” Best said with that vague, re-focusing air.

Stereotypical of husbands tuning out their wives, this technique is used when the person in question was unaware that someone was talking to them because they’re

  1. in a crowd when the question could’ve been directed to someone else,
  2. focused on something really intently (to the exclusion of other sounds and their surroundings), or
  3. really tired (it’s easy to tune out when you’re exhausted).

Granted, wives do the same thing. Husbands and teenagers just have a worse rap.

2. The Circular Credit

Used in every comedy ever, this trope occurs when a duo is plotting, especially if a dominant character has already been established. The situation goes something like this –

Strong Character: What should we do? Hmmm… What about – no.
Weak Character: We could always try Plan A.
Strong Character: No, that would never work. … I know! We’ll try Plan A! Genius!
Weak Character: [mutters] I’m so glad you thought of it.

Examples include everything from Once Upon a Mattress to Inside Out, etc.

3. The Talk-over Takeover

This one comes up when a person isn’t listening because he or she won’t stop talking. It could be from arrogance, nerves, or a garrulous nature.

Here are some situations where this might be familiar:

  • The talkative, nosy type who can’t resist “fixing” someone and telling someone what to do or what he/she is going to do to help that person (you know – those favors you don’t want?). Aaand doesn’t stop talking long enough for that person to really object. In fact, it’s the type who interrupts any objection and assumes what the poor “helped” soul was going to say…
  • The arrogant, narcissistic type who interrupts because whatever you’re saying can’t possibly be as important as what he/she is saying, so stop wasting time blathering and let him/her talk. (Grrr.)
  • The nervous date or job interview who talks so much that everyone else eventually gives up on getting a word in.
  • The focused person so intent on telling a story or talking about a favorite topic that he/she doesn’t realize the surrounding conversation has moved on (and left him/her behind – still talking).

So… great for annoying, enraging, or funny characters!

4. The Deceptive Dismissal

Here’s where a show of politeness mixes with a lack of caring. People do this all the time when they want to appear that they care about what the person is saying but actually don’t. It’s a two-step process:

  1. Start with a sympathetic phrase. A.K.A. a platitude: “I know what you mean.” “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” “How awful.” All said with a kind of tsk or a sigh.
  2. Segue into what you want to talk about. Generally, it’s something about you (“You” meaning whoever’s doing it. I know that you would never do such a thing.).
  3. Pretend that what you’re talking about is related to what the other person says. People who do this might even believe it’s related – after all, they weren’t listening!

Don’t have characters you want the reader to like do this unless there’s some excuse. Like being distracted by something really important. And they’d better apologize when called out on it.

5. The Fuzzy Faker

This person actually does care about what the other person thinks. Maybe, not enough to actually pay attention (for this moment) but enough to try to hide that he/she wasn’t paying attention. Inevitably, however, vital details get crossed or overlooked and out the person’s lack of listening skills.

This dialogue trope is useful for

  • employees trying to impress/pacify a boss who’s especially boring and tends to monologue
  • spouses who want to avoid getting in trouble for not listening
  • students caught not paying attention in class

Sounds familiar, right?

6. The Redundant Reveal

To me, this one is an everyday kind of accidental slip that busy people make. You’re doing something, you’re moving fast, and you end up saying something before your brain catches up with what you heard. You know, when the brain assumes someone is going to say one thing and responds before you realize, nope, that’s not it (like a variation of the talk-over takeover but on a smaller scale).

Here’s an example from one of my favorite websites, Not Always Right.

(My mom is offering my little brother a snack, but she’s in the other room and he doesn’t quite hear her.)

Mom: Do you want any popcorn?
Brother: No, just popcorn.

How many times have you said, “You’re welcome,” when the other person said, “Have a nice day.” It’s that kind of brain glitch. Also known as autopilot.

7. The Taciturn Tune-out

So… back to conceit (Conceit and not listening go well together, yeah?).

In this situation, one person is giving instructions, and the other person is ignoring every word. Usually, it’s a case of arrogantly assuming that he/she knows better and doesn’t need to listen. This person may not even bother to respond or says, “Yes,” “right,” and “uh-huh,” at appropriate intervals.

Unfortunately, this is extremely common with customers and business. Businesses will pay lots of money for consultants, It departments, trainers, etc. And do people listen? Sometimes. Sometimes, they just do their own thing, break stuff, and then blame someone else. (Read not always right if you don’t believe me.)

Even thinking about it is frustrating.

Of course, that’s the point. Frustrating, funny, enraging – when people don’t listen, it causes an emotional response. I’m sure you have stories you could share for all of these dialogue tropes.

So why don’t you? Change the characters and put them in your stories. Believe me, your readers will empathize.

*Something about the word, “ergo,” feels pretentious. But it fit the sentence. I’m so conflicted…

Ending the Either Or Problem with a Third Choice

ending the either or mentality with a third option

Think I’m taking a path? Well, think again.

The either or mentality is a bit like a famous Robert Brown poem – you have two clear options, and you pick one (well-traveled or not). Which means that ending the either or problem with a third choice has a couple inherent problems. Namely, it can be difficult to do while keeping two clearly defined options. After all, if there are 3 options, it’s not really either or, is it?

Building, Then Defying the Either Or Mentality

I talked about how to create an either or mentality a while ago, and one of the rules was that the character can really only see 2 options or all the other options have to be taken away somehow.

So how do you provide a third option if there are only 2? Or if the others are already gone?

Outside Intervention

One of the most common solutions to this situation is outside intervention. A character who has not been with the main character during this dilemma shows up and provides a way out by

  • removing a barrier to one of the previously blocked options
  • bringing a tool, spell, etc. that changes the original evaluation of the situation (like bringing someone a spell component they didn’t have or tossing a jailed warrior his/her weapon)
  • joining forces unexpectedly to turn the tide (yes, I’m being deliberately cliched and vague)

Of course, there are rules for this. At least, there are rules if you don’t want the intervention to be horribly jarring and unbelievable. *cough* deus ex machina *cough*

  1. The intervening character needs to have been introduced already. Either the character needs to have been present in a previous scene or have been talked about. This can be the type of character instead of a specific character (a Jedi, for example). You need to have at least hinted to the reader that this is person or group exists.
  2. The main character cannot know until it happens. Whoever’s perspective the story is told from can’t know ahead of time, or the reader should’ve known ahead of time. See the problem?
  3. If any of the main characters did know, their previous behavior should hint that they knew something they weren’t saying. There also needs to be a strong reason for not saying anything – like having the enemy eavesdrop.
  4. Ideally, the sudden intervention shouldn’t make the situation super easy. Readers like a sense of urgency and effort. If everything goes too easily for the main character suddenly, it feels like a copout even if the outside forced was previously hinted at. (Plot against your characters, not with them!)

This technique can be used in smaller conflicts (not just the climax). In fact, it’s probably better in small conflicts or as a mere fraction of the climax (IMHO) because you want the main character to be at least partially responsible for the climax (isn’t that the point?).

Sudden Epiphany or Reveal

This is another common solution. In essence, the main character suddenly puts together information in a new way to reveal an option that he or she hadn’t considered before. Or forgot or didn’t think of in that context.

The usual causes for this are

  • The uncovered detail: This one centers on a physical aspect of the situation that was overlooked before (seeing a rope tied to a chandelier, noticing that the villain is standing in water, noticing how a switch or lever works, etc.). Usually, someone or something moves, and the main character sees something he or she couldn’t see before.
  • The villain’s monologue: You know what I mean. The villain starts talking about the plan and accidentally reveals something that helps the hero. Or the monologue inspires a stupid henchman (or henchwoman?) to blurt out the one thing the hero wasn’t supposed to know.
  • A stray comment: Somebody who doesn’t have a clue how to fix the situation or doesn’t even know the whole situation says something in passing that inspires the main character to figure out the answer.

If you put your mind to it, you’ll find that it’s really easy to think of examples of this one.

Secret Skills

As a plot twist (and solution to the either-or problem), this works best when the character with the secret skill is a side character – not the perspective the story is told from. If it’s the main character, there had better be a narrator, or it had better be established as an unreliable narrator or liar. Otherwise, you have the same problem as using the first option that way: broken promises.

You see this most in three cases:

  1. When the character is new (you don’t know much about his or her abilities yet)
  2. When you have a spy character who was working for the other side but decides to rescue the heroes (often for reasons of his or her own)
  3. When someone is hiding a skill for some other reason (avoiding racial prejudice, wanting to be left alone in retirement, a scarring experience, etc.)
The Art of the Unexpected

Other methods rely on the character’s ability to think outside the box. If that isn’t already part of the characterization as being a character trait or something that the character is trying to learn, this tactic will totally break whatever characterization you’ve built for him/her (so don’t use it under those circumstance, right?).

The great thing about this method is that it often surprises the readers, as well – without breaking promises because they expect that character to surprise them. The downside is that writing a character who constantly thinks outside of the box can be a wee bit challenging (to say the least).

So it’s still following the rules for the first option. Actually, all of these options should more-or-less follow those rules (always follow the heart of those rules). So I probably should’ve put them somewhere else. Oh, well. Too late now. *cough*

I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve rambled on about this long enough. Anything you’d like to add?

Why Do I Like the Trolls Movie? [Warning: Spoilers]

why do i like the trolls movie

This one. The one modeled after the creepy children’s toy and featuring famous singers.

This is a serious question. I saw the Trolls movie a week or two ago, and I keep getting the urge to watch it again – one problem: I have no idea why! I’ve been asking myself all week, “Why do I like the Trolls movie?” And I don’t know the answer. I DON’T KNOW. (It’s sooo weird.)

If you’re new to this blog, you’re probably wondering why I’m freaking out about this. Well, the truth is that I’m a super-analytical dork, especially with writing-related stuff. So if I like something, I usually know why. In fact, I can generally break down why into a detailed article (and sometimes do). In this case, I find myself enjoying the movie, multiple times, without knowing why.

So What’s So Great About the Trolls Movie?

That’s the thing – it isn’t a great movie. No, I’m sorry, but it’s not. It has plot flaws. It has flat characters. It has odd/even creepy hidden messages (casually setting someone on fire, anyone?).

Honestly, it’s easier to think of reasons why I shouldn’t like it.

Why I Shouldn’t Like the Trolls Movie

At first glance, there is a lot of 2-dimensionality going on with this story. 2D characters (say, everybody except the main 4 characters…who only start to flesh out halfway through the film). Holes in the plot, unanswered questions, and logical fallacies (see bel0w).

There are also some seriously creepy and/or disturbing underlying messages being sent. The characters accept them, so we focus on the storyline and don’t really dig deeper. Once you start digging deeper, however, oh my.

Here are some specifics (if you don’t want spoilers, skip ALL the bullet points in the article, k?). These are in no particular order.

  • Stereotypical Colors: Poppy is pink, and Branch is blue. Seriously? Did you have to go with such stereotypical boy-girl colors?
  • Cheap Jokes: The butt pun, glitter farts, and every one-liner by a background character (usually Cooper) that shows zero understanding of the situation: that’s what we call cheap shots, folks.
  • Genocide/Cannibalism: The primary concept of the story is that the Bergens trapped an entire race of PEOPLE and ate them once a year. We’re talking slow genocide here. Or treating a race of people like cattle – pretty disturbing, yeah?
  • Sociopathic Actions: Cooper casually sets Chef on fire, doesn’t even look at what he’s done, and then smiles into the camera. WTH? That’s seriously disturbing right there. And I did not need visions of sociopathic trolls to help me not sleep.
  • Voice Acting Ethnicities: Speaking of Cooper, did anyone pay attention to the distribution of ethnicities in the voice acting? Anyone else feel slightly uncomfortable with that? (Or worse?) Or am I being oversensitive?
  • Breaking the 4th Wall Badly: Remember those cheap shots? Those one-liners where Cooper grins into the camera? That’s breaking the 4th wall, but the story isn’t getting anything out of it. Except a cheap joke.
  • Dark & Disturbing: Children trolls playing by jumping in and out of steel traps. Oh, and what about the Bergen who is committing suicide by burying himself alive? That’s pretty dark and disturbing. “Here lies me.”
    • Creepiness: Some of the hugging gets creepy. Like the horde advancing on Branch as he screams. What the other people say as they hug him, the glitter guy hugging himself, the creepy cloud joining a hug without being invited, etc. Hugs are great – unless they’re from someone you don’t want a hug from. Then, they’re creepy or frightening (or a type of assault… just sayin’).

So I could stop there and still have plenty of reasons to not like the movie, right? OR… I could go on and list every uncomfortable or less-than-amazingly written moment. And that’s not even including the broken promises.

There are lot of broken promises. Since this blog is about writing, I guess I should talk about some of those.

Broken Promises

They set up rules for the world, but then they break them. Or kind of break them (actions that don’t entirely make sense with those rules).

Now, I know that suspension of disbelief is needed for movies, especially animated movies. I don’t have a problem with that. I’m pretty good about suspending my disbelief. Usually. Unless I’m slapped in the face by contradictions or questions. In this movie, I felt slapped in the face by them sometimes. Other times, they were like being poked in the shoulder (less distracting but still).

  • The Chef reveals her plan to take over the kingdom, and then those plans are basically ignored. We get a little dramatic irony from time to time, but the captured trolls who heard it never even reveal it, let alone do anything about it. (Plus, if she’s going to feed the others all of the trolls that Trollstice, how does she plan to continue feeding them trolls?)
  • Why did the Bergens only eat trolls once a year? They don’t seem that bright or good at self-control. It really doesn’t fit with the rest of their established background or character. And who would willingly be happy only once a year?
  • The Bergens firmly believe they can’t be happy without eating a troll. Even after a troll talks to them and raises a little doubt in that theory, I don’t see them ignoring dozens of tasty snacks of happiness falling down around them. Does that seem believable to you? I mean, even if they think they might be able to be happy without eating trolls, they know that eating trolls makes them happy. And they’ve missed eating them for a long time. That’s like a dieting person watching their favorite dessert dance around in front of them in scores and having no urge to eat it (not gonna happen).
  • Why do the Bergens have a roller rink or pizza if they don’t have fun? That totally confuses me and breaks from the groundwork and characterization.
  • Think about all the dangers Poppy faces is less than a day. Can you see her father getting the entire race of trolls through those safely? There’s no way. Most of them would’ve been eaten before they ever found their new home.
  • If trolls are so nice and loving, how come nobody took care of Branch or comforted him after his grandmother’s death? How come nobody knew? And why didn’t any of the other trolls whose relatives got eaten react similarly? Didn’t they care?
  • If Bergens don’t know how to sing, then how did Bridgette learn? She knew how to sing before even meeting trolls. I’m cool with the idea that she’s an anomaly, but if the main idea behind the climax is that any of the Bergens can be happy, wouldn’t there be a subgroup that found it on their own? Like an underground society of secretly happy Bergen?

There are plenty more, but that’s more than enough for our purposes. And more than enough to turn someone off the move. Yet I keep wanting to watch it. It’s baffling.

Why I Should Like the Trolls Movie

There are some obvious answers:

  • The music: it’s upbeat and fun (mostly), and it’s integrated very well with the story.
  • The main characters: Poppy, Branch, Bridgette, and Gristle are fun, likable characters. They have depth (eventually), and they aren’t obvious for the most part (or at least, not as obvious as the other characters).
  • The plot: It’s not entirely unpredictable, but it doesn’t go where you’d immediately expect it to go. There are some nice twists and turns.
  • The foreshadowing and irony: “Someday, when the Bergens find us, and the survival of every troll is in your hands, I sure hope the answer is singing, dancing, and hugging ’cause that’s all you know how to do!” Foreshadowing and dramatic irony in one. Nice.
  • Some dialogue: There is a witty, sarcastic trend to some of the dialogue that is fun. I say “some” because it’s mostly the dialogue of the main characters and not the background trolls: “A man’s bib.”
  • My dark, twisted sense of humor: So a lot of that dark, twisted stuff that makes the movie creepy if you think about it also makes the movie funny if you don’t think about it (assuming you’re a bit wrong already).
  • The fuzziness: Ok, no, I don’t have a thing for fuzz. But textures have long been one of the biggest challenges of animation. To do an entire movie that’s mostly the texture of felt? With all that hair? Not the easiest thing in the world. So that’s impressive.
  • The frog rooster: What? It’s funny!
  • The main message: Happiness is inside all of us, and sometimes, we need help finding it. I think that’s a good message (a bit more useful than “love conquers all” and less irritating than “Happiness is a choice.”).

Then, there are the not-so-obvious answers. The ones I had to think about.

  • Characters like Smidge who break some stereotypes for gender colors, styles, and sounds.
  • The fact that the prologue/history is actually told from Poppy’s perspective (and scrapbook). I didn’t really think about it at first, but having it told from her point of view instead of a narrator’s makes all the difference in the world. If Poppy’s telling it, it can be prejudiced or flawed. So some of those broken promises can be resolved by the fact that the story as Poppy knows it being incomplete or slanted.
  • The way the flatness of the characters acts as a strange kind of characterization (Fiyero might call it “deeply shallow.”). Having few or no thoughts beyond singing/dancing/hugging/fun is established as a troll trait. So by being oblivious to a lot of what’s going on, the trolls are actually following the established characterization. The only problem with this is the fact that Poppy and Branch are pretty smart – when they choose to think. Maybe, it’s like Legally Blonde and doing what’s expected (I haven’t quite resolved this thought…).
  • The group’s mockery of Branch, King Peppy’s command to flee, and Creek’s betrayal. The fact that the trolls can be flawed and selfish makes them more human and interesting despite their otherwise shallow mentality.

I think it’s these contradictions that’s giving me trouble analyzing my response – the very flatness of the characters is their rounding (if that makes sense to anyone), the lines are alternately witty or almost annoyingly oblivious, and the humor is spot on or disturbingly creepy.

What can I say? It’s a movie of contrasts. And I’m listening to it in the background as I write.

What Is DISC and Why Should I Use It for Characterization

If there’s one thing people like to do, it’s categorize types of people. Myers-Briggs, a Jung Typology Test, combinations of the two, other variations – there are tons of options. So the short answer to “What is DISC?” is that it’s another of those personality tests. Why should I use it for characterization? It’s simple.

No, seriously, it’s simple – DISC is simpler and in many ways more concise than the other personality tests because of the terms it uses for its 4 characteristics. They’re characteristics that can easily be broken down into terms the average person can understand – and apply.

What Is DISC?

Want to learn more? Here’s a video that explains DISC far better than I ever could.

Seems pretty understandable, right? (There’s nothing better than clearcut and funny for really teaching you something, is there?)

We watched this video the other night in my first real estate training course (Woohoo!), and I immediately started thinking about how to use it in my writing (I guess I have a one-track mind.).

Why Should I Use It for Characterization

Having already thought about using personality tests for characterization, I could easily see the advantages of using DISC rather than other personality tests – you can figure out the character’s main type without taking any tests. Maybe, if you have a really strong understanding of the other tests, you could do that, but if you don’t (like me), then, analyzing all the parts of the character’s personality is probably more intimidating than thinking: My character likes numbers and facts. My character’s a C.

Ok, yes, people (and characters) are going to have overlap into the different types. Maybe, the character’s mostly a C with equal parts D and S, and a weaker I tendency. That’s still useful for figuring out character behavior – it’s like a rough summary as opposed to the detailed analysis (if you’re a strong C, you might not like this version…).

The video even starts to go into this. It also discusses how the main character type can change in different circumstances. That’s my favorite part because I think those differences are an integral tie between characterization and realism. People act differently surrounded by friends than they do surrounded by enemies (usually, anyway).

Is DISC a substitute for fleshing out your character’s background and knowing your characters well?

No. Absolutely not. DISC is a useful tool for exploring your characters – it’s a way to get that vital information, not a way to bypass that information. It’s also a useful reference tool for once you have the information. Instead of reading through the whole character history, you can glance at a character’s DISC  evaluation and use that to figure out an appropriate response.

You could even make a graph of it if you’re visual. Or use an existing graph that you think fits as a reference.

what is disc and why should i use it for characterization

There you go – 4 opposing options

I also like that the video talks about the way these personality traits are distributed in society. It’s useful for examining the overall layout of characters in your book. Although I wouldn’t worry too much if your protagonist group doesn’t match those percentages – it’s not uncommon for similar personality types to wind up in the same field or social groups. So there will definitely be subgroups in society where the DISC percentages are more highly I or D. Just be aware that conflicts and tensions may also be more common or more commonly dramatic as a result (like he said).

Welp, there you go. Lots of different facets of DISC to consider using in your writing. What do you think? I figure the video answered “What is DISC” pretty fully, but did I answer “Why should I use it for characterization?” Are you sold?

Bureaucratic Red Tape as a Plot Device: Can Your Protagonist Get Through?

barrier bureaucratic red tape as a plot device

Coming through!

Bureaucracy, if you’ll excuse my French (why is it French?), is an inescapable facet of real life, and is, therefore, handy for realism. After having my own bewildering struggle with bureaucratic red tape recently (I’ll tell you about it in a minute), it occurred to me that nothing beats bureaucratic red tape as a plot device – at least not for frustration and realism (and absurdity).

The Blockade of Bureaucratic Red Tape: Plotting Frustration

Often, bureaucratic red tape fits in one of two categories: 1. something that seems pointless but is actually useful – to the bureaucracy – or 2. something that was once useful but was taken to extremes or is only useful in very extreme circumstances.

A Real Life Bureaucratic Plot Twist

This week, I took a long lunch break to get some paperwork filled out. It’s the type of paperwork you have to fill out, turn in with a fee, wait for a response, and then sign up to do something else, so while I was out, I decided to drop it off at the government office to expedite matters (instead of mailing it and waiting…). So I drove downtown, paid for parking, and crossed the street to the government building.

When you go in, there’s a desk with a sign saying that all guests to the building must check in with a photo id. I told the security guard I needed to go to the 20th floor, and she said, “I’ll just need to see your license.” So I pull my purse off my shoulder and start to get it out.

“Wait. Does that have two straps?”
“Yes…?” (It’s a backpack purse.)
“You can’t take that into the building.”

That’s right. Nothing with two straps can go into the building, but I could put it in my car and come back. One problem: I had my laptop in it. I didn’t really want to leave that in my car in the middle of downtown (would you?).

Not sure what to do, I called the office I needed to go to. On that busy street corner, I told the woman who answered the situation. She said to come back in to the lobby, and she’d come down and get my paperwork.

And that’s what happened.

This government worker came down from the 20th floor to get my paperwork, went back up to enter it, and came back down to give me my receipt. And I’m lucky she did – 0therwise, I’d’ve probably left downtown, shy the cost of parking and without having turned in my paperwork. She said that with the new security measures they weren’t even letting diaper bags up.

Wow.

I’d say that falls under the 2nd condition – the rule had good intentions and probably decent reasoning behind it (I’ll assume), but the written rule and the intent got separated somewhere along the way. I saw people entering with larger purses (mine’s on the small side), but because of the strap types, they were allowed in where I wasn’t.

I’m trying to picture how the straps alone made the bag more dangerous, but unless there’s some way to conceal something in the straps that can’t be concealed elsewhere, I’m pretty much at a loss. It made me wonder how often government workers have to make trips to the lobby under similar circumstances (which inspired this article).

Using Bureaucratic Red Tape as a Plot Device

The protagonist is one step away from the climactic battle of his hero’s journey when he’s delayed because he didn’t pay taxes on his loot from battle to a walled town they’d passed through. Before the doctor can leave his station to get to the wounded, he has to get permission from three different officers and fill out a series of paperwork. A band of palace guards rushes to save their king, but they aren’t allowed into his presence because they’re wearing weapons. Or aren’t wearing court apparel – take your pick.

Whatever type of story or bureaucracy, there are two major requirements to using red tape as a plot device:

  1. A law or rule (for the main character to have broken or to have to follow)
  2. An enforcer (somebody to care about it)

These two requirements are a bit like the chicken and the egg: it’s hard to be sure which one should go first creation-wise. You’ll have to decide which order makes the most sense to you and your story.

A Law or Rule

I think we’ve all read books where the protagonists come up against a law that seems deliberately designed to keep them from reaching their goals. Granted, sometimes, the law was deliberately designed by their enemy, but it could very easily be the result of an old, outdated law that’s usually ignored (and that said enemy is taking advantage of).

The rule side of it has more flexibility in some ways. For the most part, laws are passed and then a group of unelected officials somewhere makes up all the rules to enforce it (scary thought, right?). These types of rules include but are not limited to…

  • under what conditions you can or cannot apply for something
  • what paperwork needs filled out for anything and everything
  • due dates for paperwork, fees, continuing education, etc.
  • which departments are responsible for what
  • what color your house can be
  • what types of animals are allowed where and under what conditions

And, of course, these rules and laws occur on multiple levels: federal, state, county, city, township, neighborhood, etc. That’s a lot of possibilities for inconveniences plot-wise.

An Enforcer 

Laws and rules aside, the key to making bureaucratic red tape work as a plot device (IMHO) is the pedant. After all, the law doesn’t become a conflict if no one’s enforcing it, and if the circumstances are save-the-world drastic, who’s going to insist you turned in the forms in triplicate except someone overly obsessed with rules and following them?

Only the pedant. Or an enemy. (They’re not the same thing – although the effect may make them feel similar.)

The enemy is going to either insist on following the rules as a deliberate means of slowing/stopping the heroes or will pass off the information to the pedant for the same effect with less effort. The pedant, on the other hand, doesn’t care about the heroes or their motivation, just the rule(s). That’s the danger and the glory of the stickler.

Now, in that situation (end of the world), there has to be a reason that the stickler doesn’t care  about the protagonists’ goal. The heroes could’ve been discredited, the stickler could be so isolated in his/her own little world that the end of the world is unbelievable, and so on. Part of overcoming the obstacle could actually be convincing the pedant that the emergency is real.

And it isn’t always a life-or-death matter. It might be something that doesn’t matter to the stickler at all. But it could still block the goal of the story.

For example, at the end of The Muppet Movie, Lew Lord’s receptionist tries to stop the protagonists because they don’t have an appointment. Does she care about their dreams of becoming movie stars? Nope. If they get stopped there, is it going to affect her world at all? Not so much.

Are you counting? Now, we have two types of sticklers: one who doesn’t care at all and one who would care but doesn’t know.

That difference is why some sticklers are likable and some aren’t. The first one is more callous and antagonistic, and the other is a basic rule follower who either doesn’t know or doesn’t believe the situation is that severe. That type will unknowingly block the hero and think that he or she is helping (arg!).

Hmmm. That leaves a lot of options for a story.

Law + Enforcer = Road Block

Pick a law and design an enforcer who’d care about it, or make an enforcer and then design a law. Either way you go about it, you come up with a road block that has the power to delay if not stop your protagonist (or antagonist…), and because we’ve all had similar experiences, it adds a note of realism (and possibly humor).

And it doesn’t have to be the military or some modern government building. History had its share of bureaucracy, too (No reading scrolls without a scholar’s medallion!). Remember: rules and rule-lovers can exist in any setting.

Well, any questions? Are you ready to baffle and outrage your characters with bureaucratic red tape?

3 Types of Appeals as Writing Prompts

What on earth is an appeal? Isn’t that something you do when a trial goes the wrong way? (Kind of, but no). The 3 types of appeals I’m talking about are rhetorical techniques. If you’re unfamiliar with the term rhetoric, think of it as the art of persuasion whether in speech or writing. To use these appeals as writing prompts (or even recognize them when they’re used against you), you need to know what they are and how they’re used.

The 3 Types of Appeals

 1. Logical Appeal

This is the one that gets the most marketing. It’s the one they focus on in schools: using facts and logical processes to guide the audience to the desired conclusion. To make them think that you’re right.

stock data logical appeal as writing prompts

See “data.”

Remember when your English or history teacher made you “support your answer”? You know, using statistics or quotes or evidence from the passage? That’s what this is all about. You use facts to back up every move of your reasoning, and because facts have to back up every move, you can’t skip anything (no matter how obvious).

Think of the argument you’re making as an arch made out of wooden blocks. If you skip a block (and leave a block-sized hole where it would be), then there’s nothing there to hold up the next block, sending the arch tumbling down.

That’s the benefit and the danger of using a logical appeal – if you do it right, it’s a very strong argument, but missing a single step or angle can ruin the whole thing.

2. Emotional Appeal

Really, these are pretty self-explanatory. In this case, instead of using logic, you try to rouse someone’s emotions. You want to make them feel that you’re right.

You do this by using strong adjectives and painting an picture to rouse the audience’s empathy. Art is almost always an emotional appeal. (That’s kind of the point of art…) We buy paintings that make us feel something in response, we listen to music that tugs on our heartstrings, and we read books with characters that we feel for.

emotional appeal as writing prompts puss in boots shrek 2

Pls!!

It’s also one of the best ways to get your way – every child or pet knows this (think the term puppy dog eyes). Other than those commercials for donating to starving or sick children (that go right for the heart), Puss in Boots from Shrek 2 is probably the best example of using an emotional appeal to affect someone’s behavior. He’s goood.

3. Character Appeal

I think of this one as a combination of the other two, but technically, it’s an appeal that relies on ethics or credibility. It’s making someone believe that you know what you’re talking about.

This is an important distinction. If you’re only using a character appeal, then they’re not agreeing because your argument makes sense to them. They’re agreeing because they’ve decided to believe in you.

doctor character appeal as writing prompts

Ah, the lab coat and stethoscope. Works every time.

Think of going to a doctor, accountant, or lawyer. They’re going to give you some advice, and if you don’t know anything about the subject, then you’re not going to decide based on the advice as much as you’re going to decide based on whether you trust them to know what they’re doing.

Using the 3 Types of Appeals as Writing Prompts

So… let’s go back to Puss in Boots. He uses an emotional appeal (+20 cuteness) to get Shrek to take him along and later does the same to take the guards off-guard (oh, the irony). Both of those actions affected the plot, effectively making the emotional appeal a plot device – that’s how we apply them to writing.

Whether the character is a hero, a con artist, a concerned party, or anything in between, he or she might need to convince someone of something. It could even be a key turning point in the plot.

How many times have you read a book where a character has to persuade someone to help? Or give him/her something? Or let them go where they can’t go?

So here’s the writing prompt.

  1. Pick a scene where a character or group of characters has to persuade someone to do or allow something.
  2. Match the characters to the type of appeal they would be most likely to use. Would Spock use an emotional appeal? Would Spock know how to use an emotional appeal? Only as a last-ditch effort when told to (people can use multiple types of appeals either separately or together) or if his using it out-of-character was a major part of the plot.
  3. Decide which appeal is most likely to work on the target. If old Mr. Treg doesn’t trust doctors, is telling him that you’re a doctor going to help? Would a purely emotional appeal work on Spock? Would a purely logical appeal work on Candide?
  4. Write the scene. You’ll have to decide which character goes first. Remember: succeeding on the first try is suspect. The harder the persuasion is, the higher the stakes and suspense.

This is a great exercise to use with an existing story or existing characters. You can use repeated persuasion attempts to show a character’s progress (or lack of progress) in learning to persuade people. You can use ridiculous persuasion attempts for humor or to show dramatic differences in the character’s values (Think Sheldon.).

So basically, it’s a tool for exploring characterization and finding new approaches for resolving plot conflicts. And since persuasion is a big part of everyday life, it helps add realism, too.

Pretty appealing, right?