Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Getting More Out of Moving From One Scene to the Next - Transitions 1

In fiction, transitions don’t get much attention. Unless they fail in the basic duty of orienting the reader when one scene becomes the next, they pass by unnoticed. With a few exceptions, noted below.

Which is odd. In life, transitions are everywhere, deeply explored and often ritualized. Christening. Coming of age. Graduation. Marriage. Death. With science, we’ve added gender reveal to the list.

In architecture, we have vestibules (and I can clearly remember my disappointment when, as a child our new church did not have a space for welcome, casual community, and transition to the sacred). We celebrate the changes of the seasons, licenses, new jobs, and retirements. We have voting and inaugurations, and even draft days for sports. Champions and kings are crowned with pomp and circumstance. Inflection points shape our lives and are celebrated in fiction, but largely ignored in the writing. To my knowledge, there is no book dedicated to how to write effective story transitions. (Though there are some effective articles. Noted below.)

This is odd because story transitions fulfill many important roles.

  • They orient, clearly and simply alerting readers to the location, time, and participants in a scene.
  • They may prepare readers for what’s coming next, especially in terms of tension, stakes, and goals.
  • They direct attention, setting up what’s important in the scene.
  • They often remind readers of what has already occurred, providing a context for what follows.
  • They verify information that may have been intentionally ambiguous earlier, but now must be definite.
  • They create anticipation through questions, concerns, or charm.
  • They often provide satisfaction by resolving the tension of the cliffhanger at the end of a previous scene.
  • They may provide a “yes, but” situation, turning the focus of the story while finishing an earlier concern.

With all the ways transitions support story telling, it seems strange to me that there aren’t courses detailing when transitions should be used, which kinds are most effective for different story situations and how to revise your transitions to make them more effective. Why don’t they get the same treatment as marriage, graduation, and death? (I don’t know.)

By the way, the exceptions (which you may have guess by now) are titles (which transition readers into the story), openings (which catch interest and raise questions), and, perhaps, cliffhangers (which take people out of chapters). Each of these can be explored almost as much at plot and characterization. Hooks and cliffhangers (which need to create anticipation), have uses not just at chapter beginnings and ends, but for many scenes as well (especially if you’re looking to create a page turner).

So, with all the value, the questions become:

  • How are transitions created?
  • How do writers choose between options?
  • How might they be subverted in beneficial ways?
  • What should be avoided?
  • And how should revision be approached?

That’s a lot to cover, so more will be discussed next week.

Articles on story transitions:
http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/16/mastering-scene-transitions/
https://www.instituteforwriters.com/the-process-of-novel-writing-transitions.aspx
https://www.theopennotebook.com/2018/09/25/good-transitions-a-guide-to-cementing-stories-together/


Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Legacies - What characters want to leave behind shapes their stories

I just reconnected with a set of writer friends after many years. A few of that group has passed on. I poked around and found the obituary for one to be singularly unsatisfactory. Luckily, I kept at it and found his wife’s obituary. It was much more revealing, noting their long, loving marriage, his service in Germany, and the 100,000 miles the two put on motorcycles, touring Europe and the US. It brought him back to me for a moment, not the leas of which because I believe he was he author and every word reflected what made life matter to him.

For fiction writers, obituaries have many uses, including providing touchpoints for character perspectives (as detailed in an earlier post of mine). But one thing I haven’t focused on is what characters want to leave behind. That seems like an essential bit to know, and I don’t recall seeing “Hoped for Legacy” in any forms used to profile characters.

I suspect most people want to provide, in one way or another for family. In America, about 40% of adults have wills. My guess is that those who care for disabled family plan extensively. The one thing they want is to make sure they aren’t cut adrift, which, sadly, can happen in my country where safety nets are pretty frayed. Providing a future for small children is probably a to concern, too.

All that shows the common concerns. But, of course, there are other goals. Leaving a gold watch to one and an ugly lamp to another. Or cutting someone out entirely. The material distribution can be the message.

There are those who leave behind power as well as goods. It was a big deal for Henry VIII, worthy of murder, but business has this, too. Sons take over the family business and may even (as with Murdoch’s News Corp) be groomed to take over a publicly traded company. Sometimes, it’s more subtle. Entertainers build good will or a brand that opens doors and smooths the way for their children. Walter Huston begat John who begat Angelica — all Oscar winners.

So family can be a big deal. For some, a lot of progeny is legacy enough. Is this important for your characters? And why?

Sometimes the legacy that’s sought is to be understood. I have autobiographies of both my father and my grandfather on my shelf. My father’s is full of facts and genealogy. For him, data led to understanding. My grandfather’s has moments that mattered to him. The text is integrity, but often the subtext is coming to see things in new ways.

But biographies can be weapons and explanations. To me, Marlon Brando’s (Songs My Mother Taught Me) was aimed at building his image, defending poor choices, and getting even with enemies. He seemed to want to find meaning, but was always more interested in other things. But I don’t think that was how he wanted it to come across.

The extreme of the tight focus on self excuse and getting even might be the suicide note. (Not ALL suicide notes.) Haunting and guilting those left behind may become the point. If you have characters who are broken or angry, such a note might be the best way to understand what they want to leave behind. Just don’t write it in a way that makes people worry about you, the author.

Sometimes the final moment becomes the legacy. The far better thing done by the humblest of us, such as perishing to save another, may be a way to snag redemption. Or to inspire. Would sacrifice define the legacy of one of your characters? How much would they give up and, if they are willing to die for something or someone, why?

One of my favorite legacies people aspire to is beauty. I suspect this was important to Leonardo da Vinci, since he kept the Mona Lisa at his side. Harper Lee gave us To Kill a Mockingbird, and that was enough. I think the collaborative, anonymous, glorious work of Chartres speaks of what humanity can be.

The artist does not always see clearly. Kafka wanted most of his brilliant work destroyed. As I recall, Ray Bradbury hoped he’d have a handful of poems that would outlive him, but didn’t equally value his prose. Conan Doyle expected Holmes would fade away and posterity would come to appreciate his serious work.

Imagine creating such characters, who want to be remembered or even leave the world better off, but uses the wrong measure of greatness. Twisted dreams make good stories, and they may be revealed through the lens of legacy.

Making lives better for future generations was probably the intent of Madison as he and his colleagues labored on the U.S. Constitution. I suspect Marx had similar notions for communism. Loyola formed the Jesuits who became the marines of the Catholic Church (with one of their number in charge now), intentionally stepping into a raging battle of ideas. Bill Gates said, “A computer on every desk, and in every home, running Microsoft software.”

Their legacies are big and tested by history, but I wonder if they are minor compared to Gutenberg and his movable type. (Was Gutenberg thinking about posterity? Or making a living?) Overt intent to change the world is common in fiction, the DNA of some stories, but could unintended legacies, like butterfly effects, shape your tales in surprising and wonderful ways?

In general, asking characters what they want as their legacy provides a treasure trove of information about them. Figuring out WHY this matters fits this information into your story.




Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Make Room for Nature in Your Stories

"Confront nature!" is the slogan of a society in a story I'm writing. I found myself wondering how often what I read, especially unpublished manuscripts, occurs only in the built world. Characters often seem to be imprisoned in offices, restaurants, classrooms, and their own homes. Plays and older sitcoms had a reason for this. Bringing the outdoors to audiences for each could be tricky and expensive. Nature can be unpredictable.

We, as writers, aren't under house arrest in any medium anymore. And, while not every story calls for birds singing or gardens or bike trails, it's important to keep natural settings in mind — even if you're not writing about getting lost in the jungle or climate fiction (cli-fi), where rising oceans threaten Miami.

In The Birds, Hitchcock pulls back from disaster to show how small people are. It provides us with a powerful perspective and a reminder that people need not be at the center of everything. Also, that we are vulnerable. Using nature, even just with reference to weather, leads to a deeper and fuller engagement of the senses. The first snowfall chills the air, taps the crisp leaves, and blankets everything with white. Category five storms aren't needed to get our attention and immerse us in the moments of stories.

Nobel laureate Richard Feynman wrote about how observation of nature was essential to his development as a keen observer. He said his father did not do what other fathers did — name the birds and plants and flowers. Instead, he encouraged his son to see actions, and changes, and behaviors. Though precise language has a value for writers, my noting how woodpeckers chase away other birds to snag peanuts or chickadees deftly keep themselves away from larger birds by quickly grabbing snacks or male cardinals bring seeds to their mates and feed them is more interesting than listing the names of birds that visit my feeder.

Da Vinci used nature as a source of answers. Of course, many of us relax by hiking or gardening and allowing our minds to subconsciously work through problems as we do so. But da Vinci actually looked for answers about flight by observing birds and about anatomy by watching animals and people move. He certainly emulated nature in terms of directly copying aspects for components of his devices. But he also looked for balance and contrasts and flow, and those found their ways into his paintings. The Mona Lisa is surrounded by nature, suggesting her life in a larger context.

With all due respect to William Faulkner — who famously said, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself” — the world we live in, the planet we need to protect, and the web of life that nurtures us are much larger than his vital theme.

If you can escape from the building–car–building paradigm for story locales and include scenes that take place outdoors, even in an urban pocket park (as long as it's big enough for animals), your story will be bigger and more emotional. And, if such scenes include a quiet embrace of nature, they may even evoke wonder.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Courageous Writing - Eight ways to get out of your comfort zone

The new things, the interesting things, the surprising things all wait for us just past the familiar and safe. The only path to fresh knowledge and understanding is on the other side of what’s expected and accepted.

But it’s a lot easier to fall back on cliches. Language is rich in similes and metaphors that get a head nod, but never touch our hearts. The same for all the characters (some offensively stereotypical) who have popped up in stories with no effort at reimagining. Throw in (or better throw out) all the car chases, first kisses, explosions, and pies in the face that could have been grabbed from 100 other stories and substituted in without calling attention to themselves.

Besides, the price the writer pays for cliches is low, and short cuts can be very tempting to writers who are discouraged, lost, or under pressure.

Resolve to pay the price. Don’t ruin your stories because you lack the commitment or courage to make them your own. Reach beyond exhaustion and fear and discomfort to create something wonderful.

How?

Write what you don’t want anyone else to read. - Some of the most disturbing stuff we have access to is deep within ourselves. If you don’t want to share it, it will take courage to do so. But it will probably provide fodder for a story that has more to offer. Many writers who journal have access to lots of thoughts and experiences that fit here. If you don’t my 50 Rude Questions post might prompt answers that fit this category. Especially if you are good at follow-up questions.

Set high standards. - I tend to alternate between classics and contemporary works when I read. This helps me to recognize quality writing. Not surprisingly, much of the impact of fine stories comes from making insights and deep truths clear and emotionally resonant. It is not unusual for me to read such work and to conclude the author had (or has) courage that is rare. (They certainly cover issues that would take me out of my own comfort zone.) Such examples both become references (did I go far enough?) and models for my own work.

Know what you avoid. - This may be the most difficult. Dodging truth can become a habit. Facing truth can be painful. Armor can get so comfortable, you forget you’re wearing it. Reading the work of others critically, imagining scenes pursued further, can help create questions and checklists to analyze your own work. I’ve actually found that I am more alert to dodging when I read the work of peers, so I collect questions and comments aimed at helping them bring more meaning to their works, and I bring those to my own drafts.

Write until you get an aha. -  My usual practice is to get three to five beats per scene. Since I’m looking for conflict in the scene and a shift in power for each beat, this often pushes one of the characters into something unexpected. I call those surprises ahas, and they frequently take me into subjects that challenge me be being taboo or beyond what I assess to be my normal skill set. But sometimes the scene has no ahas and nothing very courageous. So… I may continue writing the scene. Often I do this in revision, keeping the tension high and making the characters more demanding until one of them blurts something out.

Go there. - Sometimes, you stumble upon a possibility that is absurd, unbelievable, naughty, uncouth, or politically incorrect. These are easy to dismiss. Blink and they’re gone. Don’t blink. Don’t give yourself reasons not to explore them. Don’t put off the journey. Jump in, make mistakes, scramble, respond — to these gifts from your muse — with full commitment and no holds barred. You may end up with useless pages. You may end up with something special. You’ll always finish your writing session with more power and capability as a writer.

Give the story its dignity. - Important subjects find their ways into stories. These can touch on the issues of the day, on critical life decisions, on tragic mistakes, and life-changing experiences. Never trivialize them (what Gardner calls the sin of frigidity). Traumas that have wounded fellow humans deserve time, space, thought, perspective and emotion. They should not be mentioned as a way to justify a character’s behavior. They must be more than plot devices. Do them justice. It is likely to lead to challenging, difficult work and, perhaps, memorable scenes. But taking care of these elements also shows respect for those who suffer misfortunes.

Take a stand. - If you’re a people pleaser, this is tough. Creating conflict and inviting arguments probably are not your thing, so there’s a tendency to always add, “on the other hand.” This is the rhetorical version of adding junk words (somewhat, nearly, about). Limiters don’t add clarity, they just hide strong words. Not taking a position hides strong, well-argued opinions. Sadly, readers react to evenhandedness with “meh.” But a clear statement that is backed up, is apt to be found engaging and received with respect, even by those who disagree.

Write in a different voice. - This is my fall back position. It never fails me. I have a collection of very different writers whom I respect, and I can step right into their styles and perspectives and take no issues that terrify and dismay me. If you can do this, it’s provides something marvelous in terms of getting past your inner censors to dig into subjects that are difficult. (After all, it’s not YOU writing it.)

It’s fine to wait until a draft is done to make it fresh. There is value to be found in inserting placeholders to maintain momentum all the way to “the end.”

I believe in stage fright. I believe in wincing. Getting too close. Being so emotional, it’s frightening. The minimum for any scene I write is that I get so jumpy writing it that I have to abandon the keyboard and walk around. Tears and laughter are better, but if I don’t a least have a moment where I’m overwhelmed, the pages need revision or deletion.

There must be danger.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

How to Lose Readers (or Audience) - How not to

You can offend, disgust, anger, or appall readers, and, often, readers keep reading. What you can’t do is bore them. Thus the sage who made me a writer in high school said. It’s true. But boredom comes in many forms and it isn’t the same for everyone.

Audience - The main reason writers drive people away is because they see communication as one way. That’s how it can feel when you’re cleaning out adverbs at one in the morning, but who are you sprucing up your prose for? Someone who will appreciate the poetry of your words? Someone who wants a window into the world you’ve created? Someone who empathizes with your character’s struggles?

Probably yes. But who is this mythical someone? Not a mob. Not “young adults.” Not “people who like romances.” Vonnegut recommended writing to a specific person. (He always wrote to his sister.) The value of that is having a sense of who might care about the story you’re writing, worry about your characters, and bring the knowledge and perspective to understand and be interested in the world you’re creating. “Everyone” won’t. And writing for yourself may be fun and save you the work of learning about readers, but it can be limiting. Were you ever at a gathering where someone talked at you, with no interest in who you were? That’s practically the definition of a boring experience.

Anticipation matters. Expectation matters. Surprise matters. How can you use these in your story to engage readers, if you don’t know these people?

The audience also tells you the level. Vocabulary for a young adult novel may need to be simpler than what you put in an adult literary work. Explanations may need to do the job without talking down to readers. (Same with repetition.) Humor is especially dependent on audience. “Too smart for the room” is a well-known experience for standup comics. A joke for which the audience does not have context falls flat. Similarly, “too soon?” is often tagged on jokes that cause people to squirm because other emotions (grief) may block out the humor.

Clarity - This is so hard to get right because you know exactly what you’re trying to say. You abridge and edit because describing everything is both impossible and tedious. Good writing means selecting what to describe, reflect on, or illustrate and requires taste and judgment. Unfortunately, leaving things out means making assumptions about what people know (was something critical missed?). Words can literally mean more than one thing, but also may be read more than one way (depending on emphasis). And, if the vocabulary (or syntax) isn’t quite working, the best ideas can be reduced to gibberish.

What do readers do when prose is impenetrable or incoherent? They stop reading. Heinlein said his best training as a writer was a Naval Academy lesson on writing orders. If anyone in the class could come up with an alternate meaning, you failed that day. So the first step is becoming alert to possible misunderstandings. My best training has been reading a lot of other people’s manuscripts. Finding their errors builds sensitivity to how things can go wrong. Beta readers, editors, and even reading out loud can help with this, too. I found fiction podcast writing (radio theater) especially challenging with regard to clarity. People can’t reread audio. They hear, misinterpret, and it’s on to the next thing. With the help of another writer, I ended up creating a clarity test that I still use for every fiction podcast scene I write.

Confusion - Even if the words are right, there can still be confusion. The most common sin here is describing action that doesn’t flow in the right order. It’s amazingly easy to do. My training on that was writing detailed sequences for producing over 100 biochemical products. Write enough of those to be used by people for whom English is not a second language, and the skills are set. But the simple way to solve this is to be aware it can happen. Visualizing each step isn’t difficult, but many writers skip the test. Don’t.

There are other ways that people can get confused: Too many characters. Too many with similar names. Too many that are too similar. Too many who talk the same way (especially when attribution is missing).

Transitions are easy to fumble. Time and place need to be established because WHEN thing happen matters and a location that hasn’t been established puts the scene into a void in which no one can be immersed. And readers want to be within the story, not just spectators.

Who is in the room also comes under this. Anytime a character I don’t know is there suddenly speaks up, I’m tossed out of a story. (How was that character reacting earlier in the scene?)

Indelibility - Anything that’s vital to understanding a story needs to be memorable. This does not mean that every clue in a mystery needs to be underlined and boldfaced, but it should be interesting in some way. Surprising but apparently unimportant works. So does amusing. Humor is a great way to make vital details memorable without distorting the story.

Many times, places, characters, and actions come with emotional content or are emphasized by time devoted to them. Choices usually stand out by virtue of identification with the protagonist. But, no matter how naturally elements are unforgettable, I’ve seen writers make them disappear by (unintentionally) creating distractions. I’ve read different interpretations of “murder your darlings” (usually attributed o Faulkner, but I find on checking it’s from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch). I think of it as removing those bits of fact or fine prose or side trips that, not being necessary, distract. While a careful plant delights, hiding elements of a story only gets readers lost. They usually don’t forgive that.

Handholds - People like to participate. That’s one reason why empathic characters are good to have in a story. People live through their experience. But questions also provide ways to participate. I suspect few people read mysteries without wondering who the murder is or which clues matter. And though it’s expected that love will triumph in a romance, worry about the relationship (because of failures, wrong turns, and dark moments) invest readers in the story. In classic science fiction the premise will get readers wondering about all the “what if?” possibilities.

Fair play - Deus ex machina, since Aristotle’s days (and probably before) has been the mortal sin of storytelling. Having a savior of some sort sweep in with no preparation and solve all the problems both infantilizes the protagonist and makes all the choices and actions that proceeded it irrelevant. In mysteries, an unmotivated confession can kill a story. Odd coincidences and hidden relationships (that matter to the story) can be deadly. Foreshadowing is expected and needed. To me, the biggest strike against opera (love the music, hate the stories) is its offenses against story logic. Readers do not forgive cheating.

There are writers (especially humorists) who violate all of the above and still hold readers. That’s because they actively keep readers engaged. B movies could be train wrecks storytelling that enticed people with appealing stars, violence, cool monsters, broken taboos, clever camera play, and pyrotechnics. Philip K. Dick balanced out cardboard characters and flawed prose with brilliant concepts. Page-turning beach reads cover plot holes with dazzle. Writers can keep readers without avoiding things that drive them away. But they probably would please more readers by avoiding the problems detailed above.








Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Drawing Lines, Crossing Lines - Moments that expose characters

We are defined by our limits and redefined when those limits dissolve. The same is true for the world we inhabit — as anyone who has had to baby-proof a house after the little ones learn to walk (or gets taller or climbs) knows.

Limits are often presented in positive terms: law-abiding, honorable, loyal, trustworthy, dependable.
Those who erase conventional lines may be called criminal, cowardly, cheating, lying, shiftless.

I find our attachment of values to these words fascinating (though, being more of a boy scout than an anti-hero, I tend to favor a relatively rigid set of principles). And a challenge.

“Make good trouble” (John Lewis) unsettles me. As a citizen and a human being, I worry about my reaction, but, as a writer I welcome it. I depend upon my work (and art and relationships) to push me out of my comfort zone — past my limits — so my mind opens up to truth. My primary tool for doing this is humility. That’s not self-abasement. That’s recognizing the world is not black and white (which would make it easier to navigate). It’s full of grays. Ambiguities. Competing values. That undermine assumptions and force me to recognize my limits.

Part of character development is coming to understand what matters to them and what doesn’t. In The Godfather, to Michael — and most of the other characters — family means everything. There are also rules that the powerful accept and can reasonably expect others to adhere to. Favors matter and are repaid. There is a process for making a hit that considers witnesses and how they might react. Stick to it and you’ll be safer. Making gravy for the pasta may have less strict limits, but you’d never make it without garlic.

When Michael crosses some lines — lying to his wife, having his brother murdered — it shows a great deal about who he is and how he has changed.

For a storyteller, rules are made to be broken. At the beginning of Casablanca, Rick defines himself:
What’s your nationality? Rick: I’m a drunkard.
Will I see you tonight? Rick: I never make plans that far ahead.
… and, most famously, “I stick my neck out for nobody!”

When he sobers up, when he meets the moment, when he plans the escape, and when he abandons everything and risks his life, he has dared to move past his own definitions and assumptions. He successfully moves into a world that is less comfortable, but a better fit for his true self. Crossing the old lines and creating new ones tied to honor and loyalty and responsibility and love make him a memorable hero.

We celebrate when Chief Bromden throws off the protection of his lassitude to hurl the fountain through the window and escape. (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
The moment that commits Luke Skywalker to becoming a Jedi is when he turns off the targeting computer. The boy who first said no to leaving his uncle’s farm becomes a man. And audiences cheer. (Star Wars - A New Hope)
And for me, the sense of relief when Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) tosses aside his firmly held but distorted view of honor, breaks his vow, and welcomes his niece instead of killing her, has not diminished with repeated viewing of that movie. (The Searchers)

Crossing lines and creating lines are strongest when deliberate (a considered choice) and irreversible. (Or, if not irreversible, only reversed at a cost and with contrition.) The lines may be rules (including the law in, say, Huck Finn’s case). It can be escaping an abuser or bad influence. It can be losing religion or joining an army. Or, after struggling with commitment, whispering “I love you.”

Lines can be discovered in writing or planned ahead. They can be found in characters’ self statements, commitments to loved ones, responsibilities to family and friends, assignments accepted, and community expectations that are internalized. The best ones sometimes need to be excavated before they are visible. Since our language itself attaches (often rigid) values to the words associated with lines, it’s very easy to miss the nuances or just accept lines that could be tested as givens. This, to me, is the hardest part.

Looking at the implications, the problems created or solved by lines, how the envelope might be pushed, who is impacted, and, most of all, what the lines (created, held, or crossed) say about a character and change begins with recognizing and articulating the lines and what they mean. Once they are clearly understood, story possibilities become visible. And the fun begins.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Learn About Your Characters Through Their Complaints and Regrets

Many writers have a hard time acknowledging their characters’ dark sides. This can weaken their stories because so much—including character arcs—is built on flaws. When I’m teaching, It takes more than a gentle nudge to move writers toward spotting the imperfections. Usually, total immersion in the Seven Deadly Sins is required.

But here’s a gentler way: get the characters complaining. This is almost too easy for comic characters, But it’s only really difficult for the strong, silent types —the ones you can imagine Clint Eastwood playing. I think it works most times because writers like to complain and don’t feel especially guilty about it. Yes, there are a few Saints out there, but most people would look for opportunities to complain about lousy service at a restaurant. Or aggressive drivers. Or rude neighbors.

Obviously, it can be legitimate, even courageous, to bring notice to injustices or suggest ways systems can be improved or to stand up for people who are being oppressed. But, like gossip, telling a story to add to the toxicity of the world rather than to aid in creating positive change is usually a revealing vice. If the story pays you back because you let off steam or gain sympathy or get a moment of feeling superior, it’s probably just complaining and not done for noble reasons.

I remember my dad once saying, “You know, I’ve been offering critiques of these other drivers for over half my life, and they aren’t getting any better.”

That statement was both hilarious and insightful. Note - I have not personally benefited from that insight.

As a starting point, don’t worry about your characters. See if you can get yourself complaining with a few prompts. You might want to warm up by singing along to Gilbert and Sullivan’s politically incorrect, "I've Got a Little List."  (Warning: Here's an especially rude updated version. Watch at your own risk.)

Okay. You are looking for answers that are stories. Not just, I got root beer itnstead of cola. If there is a conversation or escalating interactions, you’re probably in the right place.

Has everyone taken their blood pressure medicine? Good.

    ▪    What’s the stupidest exchange you’ve had with a bureaucrat? This can be government, insurance, electric company… your choice.
    ▪    Which work (or club) activity was the worst waste of time?
    ▪    When were you appallingly disappointed? It’s likely to be something connected to leisure — seeing a movie, going on a date, joining a friend at his or her favorite dive. Recommendations that lead to bad experiences may be memorable.
    ▪    When were you not properly thanked? When you went out of your way, worked to make something perfect, or sacrificed your own joy and pleasure, only to be met by a shrug or a quibble?
    ▪    When were you not justly rewarded? No raise or bonus or recognition for exceptional work?
    ▪    When were you disproportionally punished or singled out for no reason? Given the lousy task? Stuck with the unpleasant duty or person?
    ▪    When did cruel fate afflict you? When did luck fail you? When was something wonderful missed that would have been possible if someone else had made the slightest effort?

I have a much longer list, but I hope one of these jogged a memory that really mattered. And that you captured the whole experience for analysis.

If you got emotionally involved, that’s good. Something is there. Especially if your suffering was not life changing. The more trivial, the better. Because these are the sorts of things that reveal a dark side, something that may be difficult to admit to. If “honor” is involved, in may be almost impossible.

If it doesn’t seem like your answers offer much, even after some time has passed, start keeping track of your complicated complaints (as above, conversations and multiple interactions). Write them down as if told to a friend who’s willing to put up with your worst whinging. Then give it some time and see if there are lessons about flaws you might have. Chances are better with captured complaints than remembered complaints because these are likely to be easier to see objectively over time. Memories can weave themselves into who you are.

Here’s when things get good. If you can do this for yourself, you can probably take questions like those above and get to the truth with your characters. That offers the possibility of raising the quality of your stories dramatically.

But what about Clint Eastwood? Grunts and single word answers don’t offer much. For these stoic folks, it’s better to pursue regrets than complaints. Regrets often are part of the same cloth, but include a level of accountability. And that ownership and acceptance is why the strong, silent types, flawed though they are, provide some of the best loved heroes.