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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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When Sharing in Writing Goes Too Far

Yesterday’s quote was right: you have to share when you write. Whether it’s ideas, ideals, or personal experiences, some of that has to flavor your writing even if you try to keep it out. And it’s a good thing – for the most part. But there is such a thing as sharing too much (You know what I’m talking about.).

When the writing devolves from a fiction story to a rant or a biography, you end up with book problems. That might mean getting too attached to something that isn’t furthering the story. It might mean that you’re characters end up 2D because it’s obvious that you’re telling your own story. Or you might just make the reader uncomfortable by crossing personal boundaries (the TMI problem.).

Here’s an example: remember a time when people decided on something, and you didn’t approve. In fact, you very strongly disapproved of that choice. And you weren’t shy about making sure that everybody knew that. But you all tried to work around it and get along anyway. Then, came the moment a little while later when you tried to make a joke out of it. And guess what? It fell flat. It was met with awkward silence or a little uncomfortable laughter. Why? Because you meant it a little too honestly for it to really be a joke. And it showed.

You don’t want that to happen with your writing.

My rule of thumb is that when you’re using personal experiences or memories, be cautious of using memories that are still sensitive. The ones that still really upset you when you think about them might be too fresh to use. The same is true for any idea or situation that you feel too strongly about. That’s when you can get drawn in and lose track of your story.

Which means that if you really, really want to use a sensitive one, you might just want to keep an eye on it to make sure the memory or idea isn’t taking over your story. Remember: sharing in writing is good, necessary even – except when it isn’t.

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10 Examples of Worldbuilding with Food in Books & Films

Who doesn’t like food? Ok, maybe someone doesn’t, but we all have to eat to live. That means we all have experiences with food (meh or no). That doesn’t mean we have the same experiences with food. What food is available, how much is available, what is common, how it’s eaten, and even who can afford what are all pretty big parts of defining a culture/society/region. That makes including food a powerful worldbuilding tool (and one that can get fans pretty excited).

Here are 10 authors or specific stories that use food for worldbuilding, broken down into 3 tactics – and these are just 10 I could think of off the top of my head.

General Culture Creation

The most basic use of food in any story is to give the reader an impression of the culture of the world. If the foods seem familiar, the world will seem familiar (no matter how fantastic). If the foods are strange and unique, then it emphasizes a difference between the created world and the real world – or between different cultures within the story.

 1. J.R.R. Tolkien

If we go back to The Hobbit, Tolkien introduces Middle Earth with a tea party that’s full of dishes that show a lot of similarities to foods common to Great Britain at the time. This sets a kind of baseline with the Shire as the most normal (the people we are supposed to empathize with most easily). When the travelers eat somewhere else in that book or the later trilogy, the similarities and differences accentuate the varied cultures, and the hobbits’ responses make sense because we already know what they’re used to.

 2. Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Set in 1914, the first food shown is whatever greasy monstrosity Cookie slaps into mounds on the trays for the characters, which is undoubtedly 3 of Cookie’s 4 basic food groups: “beans, bacon, whiskey, and lard.” We get the impression that their food on the trip is very basic and disgusting (hence, the mushroom clouds that appear when it’s dumped in the fire).

To contrast this, the characters are later seen eating some sort of Atlantean dish. Whereas Cookie’s food was unidentifiable globs of something, the Atlantean food is fresh enough to be identifiable (you know, if the water creatures weren’t totally made up), and the implements are entirely different (to the point where Milo gives up and uses his hands). Although it’s something that happens very much in the background, it helps show the audience how very different the two cultures are.

 3. Martha Wells’ Raksura Series

The Raksura are flying shapeshifters in a land with many races that are drastically different from one another. Throughout the story and travels of the main character, Moon, food highlights the extreme differences between the many races and their cultures – not only by what they eat (types of bread, fish versus mammal, etc.) but also by how they eat.

The Raksura are omnivores and eat a variety of raw and cooked dishes; however, they sometimes eat their prey without cooking it while in their winged forms (which shows them to be definite predators), and that can alarm other races. While the Raksura don’t eat groundlings (people who don’t fly), the Fell do, so both the foods chosen and eating methods create a lot of tension between the various races and cultures. Add in that some foods are poisonous to certain races and not others, and food takes on a very significant role in the worldbuilding.

 4. Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli’s animation is renown for its intricate depictions of foods. In Spirited Away alone, the feast that Chihiro’s parents eat is designed to look decadent and delicious. The dishes come from a variety of Asian cultures, and everything is drawn at a scale that is larger than life – but only for the spirits’ food.

Also, each movie shows different foods or foods from different regions (for the most part), which helps give the audience a feel for where each story takes place.

The Scarcity Technique

When a character or culture is very poor or in an extreme situation, showing a lack of food can convey that situation to the audience very quickly.

 5. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Whether it’s the book or the musical, Oliver! (which have some differences, granted), food plays a major role in both the initial worldbuilding and plot of this story. From the moment of Oliver’s birth, the story starts laying down the atmosphere of scarcity by making it clear that the woman caring for him and the other children preferred to pocket most of the money sent to feed them.

When Oliver moved to the workhouse at age 9, the lack of food became coupled with the quality of the food, for he was… “issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays.” These descriptions make us feel sorry for the boys, angry at the adults, and more than willing to believe that the scarcity and quality of the food could drive the boys to take unusual actions (hello, inciting incident). It’s also pretty understandable that Oliver would follow the first person to give him a generous meal. When you don’t have food, getting it becomes a high priority.

 6. Firefly

In the first episode, Kaylee practically has a religious experience (or something) when she gets to eat a strawberry. At dinner, the rest of the crew raves over the food, too. Nothing could have said more clearly to the audience that fresh produce is rare. Also, the packaged food options are mentioned casually throughout the series to establish them as the common food supply: for example, “Genuine “A” grade foodstuffs-protein, vitamins, immunization supplements. One of those will feed a family for a month. Longer if they don’t like their kids too well.” That’s a vivid demonstration of how regular life has changed thanks to space travel, the war, the Alliance, etc.

Additionally, the fact that the main characters on the show don’t seem too driven by a lack of food indicates that they’re at least somewhat successful at their scavenging. That doesn’t, however, stop them from making a profit off of others’ needs for food or from being excited about fresh stuff. So simply by introducing a tasteless/boring-sounding common food that makes fresh produce exciting, Joss Whedon established several different levels of worldbuilding that help make the series feel realistic and unique.

 7. Hogan’s Heroes

Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of this show. Running from 1965-1971, Hogan’s Heroes was a comedy set in a W.W. II prisoner of war camp. As you may have guessed, in order to be a comedy, the series had to be seriously separated from reality. The story revolves around the idea that the prisoners are actually pretending to be captured so that they can run secret missions for the Allies within Germany. To enhance the fantasy of Allied superiority, the prisoners generally eat far better than the guards and use their fine wines, chocolates, crêpe suzette, and so on to bribe the guards, officers, and citizens.

As far as realism goes, this series strays so far into the realm of hyperbole that it could very feasibly offend anyone with actual experience in the war (although, interestingly enough, several of the actors were Europeans who escaped from Nazi-controlled countries). Without the food aspects, however, I’m not sure how well the series would’ve worked. The scarcity that the guards and other German soldiers face  gives the prisoners a level of power that is integral to many (if not most) of the episodes I’ve seen.

 8. The Matrix

The Matrix‘s use of food is another example of how dramatic changes in the world and its cultures requires dramatic changes in the food, as well. With a scarred and environmentally damaged Earth, the rebels’ food is rather like the gruel from Oliver Twist. The bland, disgusting-looking glop served on Morpheus’ ship makes for a stark contrast to what the people plugged into the matrix think that they are eating. That’s a hard transition for people who grew up in the matrix (as evidenced by spoilers) and something that people who were born and raised naturally have never experienced. That alone makes for an interesting contrast in worlds and cultures.

After a Famine, a Fantastical Feast

This technique is commonly used in fantasy stories where the story begins in a fairly realistic world and then somehow transitions to a new, amazing place or world.

 9. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

At the start of this book, Charlie and his family are so poor that “The only meals they could afford were bread and margarine for breakfast, boiled potatoes and cabbage for lunch, and cabbage soup for supper.” Every. Single. Day. Oh, but they got seconds on Sundays.

Now, contrast that with the fantastical candies Charlie gets to see and sample in the Willie Wonka Factory. The difference between the foods makes the candies seem even more exciting. To resist those candies after living off cabbage and potatoes? Charlie definitely earned that prize!

 10. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

With the Dursley’s, Harry experiences a scarcity of everything except abusive language. He is shown to get less food and to be deprived of tasty dishes while Duddley gets them all. Then, he goes to Hogwarts, and, boy, does his life change. Granted the foods of the wizarding world are pretty amazing on their own (the way they move on their own, unexpected and bizarre flavors, plates that fill with whatever you want, etc.), but when we see them through the eyes of poor deprived Harry, they’re much more amazing than seen through, say, Malfoy who’s very much used to it all.

That’s All, Folks!

Well, those are the 10 examples of food in worldbuilding that I could think of off the top of my head. There are tons more (it’s fairly vital in historical fiction, for example). And on the other hand, there are also very successful books that barely talk about food at all. Some genres tend to focus on food more than others.

Like most writing, it depends on whether you like to use food in your stories or whether your story needs it. If you’re trying to create a whole new world or show how different specific people are, however, food is a great way to do that. I mean, if you want your worldbuilding to feel realistic, the people need to eat, right?

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Rewrite the Past with a “What If?” Writing Prompt

We all have moments in the past that we wish we could undo or wonder what would have happened if we’d made a different choice (well, assuming we’re all human). Instead of dwelling on those questions and regrets in a negative manner (ix-nay on the egative-nay), why not use them as inspiration for writing?

Wonder what would’ve happened if you’d said, “Yes,” when that nerd in high school asked you on a date? (You know, the one with his own company now?) Wish you’d taken that risky career opportunity ten years ago? Cursing your fates because you let your parents talk you out of the career you always dreamed of?

Yes, some of those are pretty dramatic. But as a rule, people are dramatic (or do I know too many actors?). That doesn’t mean you can’t use it. Make up a character, pop it in in place of yourself (or whoever’s situation it was), and create a new course. Have the character make a different decision or go a different route. Then, write what happens next.

Granted, the inspiration doesn’t have to be so big and emotionally charged. It could be as simple as: what if the character takes a different way to work that morning? Or what if the character slacked off for once?

Use your own past, use the past of people you know, use moments in history, use the present – there are endless opportunities for rewrites and creative inspiration here. All you have to do is look at a situation and ask yourself, “What if…?”