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The Either Or Mentality as a Plot Device

Yes No Either or Mentality Plot Device

Good. Bad. Black. White.

From the typical image of your future as a fork in the road to dating options or even politics (Sorry. Too soon.), humans have a very strong tendency to lock themselves into an either or mindset. Either I can do this, or I can do that. While that’s generally a habit I’d recommend avoiding in real life (when possible), its popularity means that using the either or mentality as a plot device can add conflict and realism in one fell swoop.

Adding Conflict & Realism with the Either Or Mentality

Provide Two Obvious Options

The trick to adding conflict realistically with the either or mindset is to make sure that there are only two obvious options. If there’s a glaringly obvious third choice that Ricky isn’t even thinking about, then it’s hard to empathize when Ricky’s agonizing over the other two options.

Of course, when you’re used to thinking outside the box (or outside the either or mindset), then narrowing the options down to 2 may seem like a gargantuan task. And you may not be wrong. Trying to direct someone’s focus through writing is a bit of a crap shoot at any time.

But, don’t worry, the other tactics will help.

Characterization, Characterization, Characterization

Make the character’s point of view and voice strong, and the character’s focus will pull the reader’s focus along like a spotlight on a stage. Especially in a limited voice or first person where we only know what the character knows – and occasionally not all of that.

That means that the two options you’re focusing on have to be the only ones the character’s aware of. Even a half-mentioned possibility 4 chapters back can detract from that, so you have to make sure that any hints about an additional option have to be fragmented enough that the reader can forgive the character for not putting it together until the last minute. Or after it’s too late.

Pacing & Sense of Urgency

It’s a bit startling to realize that over a year in on this writing blog, and I haven’t talked about pacing or sense of urgency before (I’ll have to fix that.). But since both titles are pretty literal, I’m confident any of you who aren’t already familiar with them will catch on pretty quickly (in fact, you probably already have).

In short, the tactics that give a sense of urgency are what make you feel like the problem is important and needs to be solved now. Pacing is how quickly the scene moves, and it plays a big role in creating a sense of urgency.

Faster pacing combined with a strong sense of urgency can pull the reader through the scene too quickly to second guess the number of options. If characterization is a spotlight pulling your attention, pacing and sense of urgency put that spotlight in front of a racing rollercoaster, yanking you through so fast you don’t dare look away from the light for fear you’ll miss something.

The ticking clock of the decision’s deadline combined with the importance of the decision are part of what rouses people’s emotions to lock them into the either or mentality in the first place, so keeping that sense of urgency will help you with the characterization and add realism, as well.

After all, making a choice between two options isn’t much of a plot conflict if the decision isn’t important or on a time limit.

Outside Forces

Another way to narrow down the options to two is to put outside forces into play. In this scenario, when given a choice of A or B, the character desperately tries C, D, E, F, etc. but is foiled at every turn.

An unexpected storm wipes out one way of escape, someone misunderstands the instructions or panics and does exactly what they weren’t supposed to do (like put down the portcullis and jam it, locking everyone inside the dangerously haunted castle), the enemy already foresaw that plan and took steps to prevent it, and so on.

The outside forces can be forces of nature, supernatural forces, societal pressure, acts of enemy aggression – basically anything you can think of from the list of character vs. ___ . The hard part is to orchestrate it all so that it doesn’t feel contrived. That takes quite a bit of work, and smart enemies and plotting against your characters can definitely help.

If you put these techniques together, odds are good you can lock your character into an either or mentality without having readers raise too much of a stink. Of course, then you have to figure out how to get the character out of it again, but that’s a problem for later.

For now, you’re ready to get started. What either or mentality will you use to derail your character’s plans?

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Who Talks Like That? Book Nerds

A while ago, I talked about how people don’t really talk the way characters do in books. It’s true – mostly. One major exception is people without a lot of experience talking in the real world. People who learned their speech patterns from reading instead of actual social interaction. So if you read something and think, “Who talks like that?” The answer is book nerds. A.K.A. people like me.

So if you’re trying to establish characterization through dialogue for a scholarly-type, you may actually want the character to talk the way people do in books. Here’s a few traits to keep in mind:

  • Proper grammar: It is I. To whom am I speaking? 
  • An extensive vocabulary: I was being facetious. Can we mitigate that?
  • Out-dated words/slang/sayings/politeness: My apologies. Do tell. That’s the bees knees! Would that it were. Huzzah!
  • Jargon (from whatever genre): Oooh, nice alliteration! He did 5 pirouettes, but his spotting was all over the place. Toss it with the dead men.

And, as usual, that list isn’t universal. Depending on the reading habits, a person could pick up some unusual speaking habits but not others. If the person reads a lot of British writing, for example, he or she might start using British slang, speech patterns, or even spellings (I’ve been spelling “color” as “colour” ever since I read The Hobbit as a kid.). Someone who reads books set in the bayou might say things like “cher,” and someone who reads a lot of Shakespeare might say things like “forsooth.” So there’s plenty of room to adjust for what your character’s really into.

People can also lose these habits as they socialize more.

Ever notice how you pick up speech habits from people around you? (I’ve recently realized that I’ve started to use “dude” too much when I’m talking, and I know exactly which friend to blame that on.) If the character makes friends who follow trends, that character is going to end up learning more up-to-date sayings and slang. If the character makes friends who are into medieval history, the vocabulary is going to change in an entirely different way. And that’s not even including the special slang and inside jokes used within a group.

Another interesting fact to consider is that people can also revert to old learned behaviors.

New habits aren’t as powerful as old ones – they’re not as ingrained. And when people are uncomfortable with a situation, they tend to go back to whatever feels most natural or safe to them. That’s usually the way of talking they’ve done the longest. What they learned first. That means that if your character is a book nerd turned social butterfly, her conversation might change drastically when she gets flustered. Or he (whatever).

Lots of books have characters who speak with a stronger accent, change languages, or start speaking scientifically when they’re nervous. It’s a common human trait.

Personally, I tend to go in and out of a lot of different speech patterns (and dialects) depending on where I am, what I’m talking about, and who’s around me. That might be a writer thing (or a theatre thing). After all, the downside to studying dialogue is that all the options get lodged in your head, and you never know which one is going to come out. Honestly, I think most people do that do a lesser degree, but it can be very interesting to write a character who is aware of that.

Imagine that you’re writing a 1st-person narrative, and the main character started out as a book nerd but has since learned to talk more normally. Wouldn’t the way the character thinks be more like the way he/she first learned to talk? And wouldn’t the dialogue require a kind of translation?

That could be really interesting. It has a lot of potential for humor, too – I’m picturing the character thinking something ridiculous like “Oh, no! I befouled the air,” and then making fun of himself for not simply thinking, “I farted.”

I’m probably too amused by these things, but, hey, I’m a logophile with a love of drama, dialogues, and dialect (and alliteration). It’s what I do. I think it’s what most writers do. I guess that means our books could influence the speech patterns of a whole new generation of book nerds.

Uh-oh.

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Literal-Minded People: Add Humor, Plot Complications, & Characterization

Figurative Language : Literal-minded People :: Specific Colors : Color-blind people

It’s a little harsh, but it’s true. And it’s not because they’re not smart. People who are literal-minded take words at face value. They don’t understand puns (bad pickup lines are lost on them), they find loopholes in all but the most specific instructions, and heaven help them if they’re given a vague prophecy!

            Person A: What do prisoners use to call each other? Cell phones!
            Person B: …But prisoners don’t have cell phones. Aren’t those taken away
            when the person is put in prison?
            Person A: Yes. No – it’s a joke. Cell phones. Cell, get it?
            Person B:
            Person A: Never mind.

This is a typical way to show a literal-minded person’s reaction to a pun. Most often, the conversation is happening with a larger group who all understand the pun, and when the literal-minded person inserts the question or comment that shows that he or she has completely missed the point, it’s met with silence and humorously perturbed expressions (followed by laughter, annoyance, or sighs, depending on everyone’s relationship with that character).

Adding an unexpected reaction can make dialogue humorous even if it’s only background for the scene. And unusual reactions are easily formed by taking something literally. Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is a good example of a literal-minded character whose unusual reactions are used to funny effect in the series. Granted, he has a long list of other quirks that also help make his responses unusual and humorous. He also occasionally (if belatedly) realizes that he’s been too literal.

            Penny: Guess what ?
            Sheldon: I don’t guess. As a scientist I reach conclusions based on
            observation and experimentation. Although, as I’m saying this, it occurs
            to me that you may have been employing a rhetorical device, rendering
            my response moot. (source: writeups.org)

This is the type of character who would say, “The ceiling,” when asked “What’s up?” Or who gets confused when someone asks, “How’s it hanging?” or any new variations (Do people still ask that?).

Plot-wise, there are plenty of ways for the literal-minded quirk to complicate things for your characters – not the least of which is by causing reactions with the other characters. Here are few thoughts on how having a literal mind can cause plot complications:

  • Requiring a longer explanation in an urgent, time-sensitive situation
  • Causing a split between characters of a group (leaving the literal person out for convenience sake, getting the wrong impression of the character’s worth, etc.)
  • Taking sarcasm literally and acting on it
  • Misunderstanding a message that used a common phrase that doesn’t have a literal meaning and passing it on paraphrased (based on the literal understanding – it’s a little like the game of telephone…)

You get the idea. Almost anything related to social interaction and misunderstanding is possible.

Making a character literal-minded is also a good way to reinforce an existing character detail or trait like age and ethnic background. Children tend to be much more literal than adults, so making a child literal can make the character’s age more believable to the audience (if you want to see that tied to plot, read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

People who learned English as a second language are often more literal with the language, as well. There are plenty of logical reasons for that: they don’t know all the synonyms, idioms and figurative phrases aren’t necessarily taught in language classes, and not all languages emphasize puns like English does (puns are everywhere in English!). Whatever the reason for the character, it’s pretty common for someone new to a language to only know the literal interpretations, so taking phrases literally helps back up that aspect of the character.

Humor, plot complications, and characterization – there’s plenty for literal-minded people to do in books and movies. Just don’t tell them that because it’s kind of figurative, and, well, that’s not their forte.

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An April Fools’ Day Writing Prompt

Happy April 1st! April Fools’ Day: The day of mild to malevolent trickery, laughter, and hurt feelings. If you’ve ever played a trick on someone for April Fools’, or if you were unfortunate enough to have a major one played on you, then you probably have some strong emotional memories about April 1st.

Time to turn that torment into writing inspiration! Here are a few starter ideas for how to use April Fools’ Day to fire up your writing!

  • Make one of your characters an inveterate trickster. It can cause laughs, break up some friendships, deepen others, and provide ample opportunity for plot problems and creative solutions.
  • Use an elaborate trick as a hook. Many people love the idea of elaborate tricks but lack the motivation/time/energy/guts to pull one off. Starting off a story with one can really  get a reader’s interest. If it’s pulled on the main character, you’re set up for sympathy. If the character instigates it, we can admire the brains/guts or wince along with him/her when it backfires.
  • Add it in as background. It could have nothing to do with the driving plot and everything to do with the everyday details. Remember: holidays and day-to-day minutia beef up a story. They makes the story feel more real.

Got any others? Or any good examples of April Fools’ Day practical jokes? (Successful or no…)