Monday, September 5, 2011

Expect the Unexpected

So, this Labor Day morning has not gone as I expected. I woke up to the sound -- so I thought -- of someone showering in the hall bathroom. I didn't have to get up right away, so I was still relaxing in bed when one of our children came in. She told me that the upstairs bathroom toilet was overflowing and that the floor was soaked. That sounded bad.

I realized it was worse when I walked downstairs and saw torrents of water running through the ceiling into our kitchen. But, as they say, wait... there's more.

The basement also had water flowing into it from its ceiling.

We've taken a first pass at cleaning up and are waiting for a service company to come out to help with the damage as I type this post. I'm not writing this up for sympathy (though I'd certainly accept any sent my way) but because in considering this morning I realized it provides a valuable lesson for writers. See what I mean, past the jump...

As fiction writers, we put a lot of obstacles in our characters' way. I think there's a tendency, though, to have those obstacles relate directly to the main thrust of the story or characters. Sometimes we can complicate our characters' lives even further by forcing them to deal with the unexpected.

Imagine a police detective investigating a crime. She gets a call from home saying that, oh, I don't know... a toilet has overflowed and there's a rainstorm in her kitchen. She hurries home and deals with the mess.  While she's showering after cleaning up, she misses a phone call. It's from an informant she'd been trying to track down. She gets his voice mail, which is vague. Before they can connect back up, someone kills the informant.

Your character's day has just gone from bad to worse to even worse, right? Not only does it allow you an extra plot twist, but it increases the mental strain the character is under. She can continue to have to deal with repair crews throughout the rest of your story, forcing her to split her energies. One more benefit of this: it can give your readers something extra to relate to about your characters. They may never have had to try to find a serial killer or bank robber, but plenty of people have had to deal with a plumbing crisis.

There are other types of disasters you could throw at characters by surprise. Maybe you have a research team rushing to find a cure for a disease. They're based on the outskirts of Kansas City. A tornado rips through, forcing them to stop their work and killing power to their building. Now they have to race to secure important biological materials before the generator dies.

Like any technique, it's possible to overdo this or do it poorly. I'd probably avoid giving characters more than one major random setback in a story, or else readers might start to feel like they're seeing your hand directing the action against the characters. And if your climax depends on such a random event it could feel like a deus ex machina type of device to readers.

Life doesn't always go where we expect it to. Adding a bit of the unexpected to your characters' lives can enhance your stories.


  1. It's a tough balance between making complications seem believable and not melodramatic. When things just start going wrong one after another for pages and pages, then it needs to be cut back a bit. I like tossing a wrench in occasionally, just to mess things up.

  2. Great example, Michael!

  3. Such a writer's mind. In the midst of your own personal troubles you find the wonderful way of adding complication of plot twists to the lives of your characters.

    How cool is that?

    I do hope the service crews return things to normal and I look forward to hearing more on this interesting topic.

  4. This actually happened to my family a few years ago. My little sister tried to flush a rubber duck and it got stuck, so this was on the second floor and it went through the ceiling, the walls, and it started pouring in the basement. Nightmare! I hope you get it cleaned up!

    Life really does throw some unexpected water at us.

  5. Thanks for stopping by all. The good news is that the house is much drier now. The bad news is that it's noisy (a half-dozen or so giant fans for drying) and the damage was more extensive than was obvious from cursory visual inspection.

    It'll be a long haul, but we'll make it. As I've said about a dozen times today "It could have been worse."

    @Krista, absent the rubber duck, your description sounds almost exactly like what happened here...

  6. Great advice! As writers we have to remember that our characters' stories don't occur in a vacuum. They have homes, families, cars, there's weather, illness. A story feels more real to me if there's something going on besides the mystery/romance/alien invasion/whatever.

  7. So sorry to hear about your flood ;( Had a similar experience 2 weekends ago - not fun! But good news is - you won the name my feature contest! So there is my twist to your story today! Drop me an email shelleykoon at comcast dot net or swing by my blog and let me know your preferred online book seller so I can get you a GC ;)

  8. @Kara, glad you liked the post!

    @Shelley, woo-hoo! Thanks for the good news! I'll stop by right after I post my flash for the challenge.

  9. You are getting sympathy from me, don't even try to argue :)

  10. @Jennifer, thank you, I'll happily accept it. I just keep reminding myself that the giant dryer fans that make it sound like our bedroom is a wind tunnel WILL go away sometime soon.