How to Knock Your Characters Back to Square One

28 Nov

Kelly Davio’s essay collection It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability led Sheila Black to write, “If you want to know what it feels like to be a person with a disability in the 21st century, read this book.”

Here’s another maxim of workshop: Stories are built out of broken routines. It’s a true and useful piece of advice, but when taken too directly, it can lead to a thousand versions of “A funny thing happened on the way to the ____.” While many stories eventually reach a sentence that rephrases that line, what happens before they do can make or break what comes next.

A great example of building and breaking routine in an interesting way can be found in Kelly Davio’s essay “I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio.” It was originally published at Change Seven Magazine and is included in her new book It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability.

How the Essay Works

The essay begins with a straightforward presentation of a routine:

I’m pretty good at falling. Over the past few years of living with a progressive neuromuscular disease, I’ve learned how to come down on the flats of my hands without jamming my wrists, and even if my knees bruise, I can always wear something that covers the worst of the marks so I don’t look like the victim of some kind of alarming knee-related crime.

Soon, she adds to it:

Finally, I had to admit I needed a cane; there were times when I had no shoulder to hang from, and I needed a better strategy than hoping I’d magically stay upright every moment I was alone.

So, I did it: I ordered myself a green paisley cane. Fifteen bucks, two days, and some free Prime shipping later, and I was in business.

Between her practice at falling and her new cane, Davis is doing pretty well. But then she attends AWP, the big conference for writers. She’ll see people she knows, people who will be surprised at the cane and her appearance, and so a wrench is thrown into the gears of the routine:

Heaving myself out of the car with my cane, I felt like a grade school kid worrying about what the schoolyard bullies would say about her coke-bottle glasses—my new accessory was a necessity, but something that made me uncomfortably visible.

Things at the conference go well. She even gets quoted at a panel discussion she’s attending, a writer’s dream exceeded in pleasure only by seeing a stranger reading your book. She’s feeling good…and then the routine gets broken (or remade):

It was while shuffling through the corridors with my renewed sense of confidence that I felt the fist in my back. A man walking behind me had, for no reason I can imagine, punched me between the shoulder blades.

I flew forward. I came down, knees cracking hard on the concrete floor, trying to fall so that I wouldn’t injure myself, but failing in the brute surprise of it all.

The usual order of a routine break goes like this: routine, introduction of some new and disruptive element, no more routine. But Davio has done something that is at once more realistic and more interesting. She develops a routine and then adapts it to her surroundings and changes she cannot control. She rolls with the punches, so to speak, until one literally knocks her down. That punch also knocks her back to the conditions that existed before her routine began, when she was not yet “pretty good at falling.” The question for the reader becomes this: What will happen now that she’s back at square one?

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create, break, and remake a routine, using “I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio” by Kelly Davio as a model:

  1. Find the conditions that force your character to create a routine. For Davio, it’s the physical condition that causes her to fall. Most of us know our own conditions. For me, I don’t buy chips or candy because I know that I’ll eat it all in one feeding. I have plenty of will power—except around those things. Other people avoid or seek out other items or experiences. This step goes hand-in-hand with the creation of the routine. What does your character (or, in the case of essay and memoir, you or your people) need to seek out or avoid? Why?
  2. Let the routine adapt to failure. Davio needs to avoid falling but cannot. So, she gets better at falling. What she avoids is not falling itself but the dangerous landing. If a routine removes your character from danger completely, it’s probably not a good routine—at least for story purposes. (In real life, it might be a great routine.) How can you make the conditions from the previous step unavoidable or impossible to embrace (if sought out)? In other words, how can you make the routine a matter of dealing with the conditions but not changing them completely?
  3. Continue to adapt. Davio eventually buys a cane. Falling well is no longer sufficient or possible. What happens when your character’s routine no longer works as well as it needs to? What does your character add, remove, or change?
  4. Introduce a moment of doubt. For Davio, this comes when she enters a new place: a conference as opposed to her home and usual surroundings. For your character, what change or shift in setting or situation makes the chronic conditions seem suddenly more intense or more dangerous?
  5. Let the character thrive—at least for a moment. For a while, Davio has a terrific conference experience. It’s a relief to her and also to her readers, who are dealt a reprieve from the dread of wondering what bad thing will occur. As a general rule, avoid ramping up your plot or complications in an orderly or predictable way. If things seem to be getting worse (or better), change up the trend.
  6. Knock your character back to life before the routine. For Davio, this happens literally. She started the essay by learning to fall well, but now she has fallen badly. The pivotal moment in her story, then, is both the introduction of something new and disruptive (the guy who punches her) and also a return to the original conditions as they existed before she adapted to them with her routine. What new element could return your character to square one?

The goal is to create a trend (problem, solution, fine-tuned solution) and then break it in a way that play toward and against the reader’s expectations.

Good luck.

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3 Responses to “How to Knock Your Characters Back to Square One”

  1. writingbiznet November 29, 2017 at 8:02 p11 #

    Hi Michael

    I just found your blog today! I’m only just starting to write fiction and I’ve never considered this approach to building a character before. I like the idea of the routine because that’s daily life and the break to routine creates a crisis of sorts. I guess this could be a catalyst for either a change in behaviour or for the reader to learn something new and deeper about the character as they draw on an old experience the reader didn’t know about to solve the problem.

    I love my professional writing and copywriting role but there’s a novel or two deep within me that’s busting to get out.

    Thanks

    Mel

    • michaelnoll1 November 29, 2017 at 8:02 p11 #

      Thanks for this note, Mel. Glad you found it helpful! A good exercise is to read some of your favorite novels with this in mind. What’s the routine? How does it get set up and how is it broken? Good luck with your writing!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Kelly Davio | Read to Write Stories - November 30, 2017

    […] To read an exercise about creating story by making and breaking routine, inspired by Davio’s essay “I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio,” click here. […]

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