Tag Archives: creating and breaking routines

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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How to Set Up and Break a Routine

24 Jan
In the Language of Miracles is Rajia Hassib's first novel. You can read two great essays about being an American Muslim in response to the novel at Books Are Not a Luxury.

In the Language of Miracles is Rajia Hassib’s first novel. You can read two great essays about being an American Muslim, written in response to the novel at Books Are Not a Luxury.

If you have writer’s block and can’t break out, there’s one trick that is almost guaranteed to help. You probably know what it is: set up a routine for a character and then break it. Story will inevitably follow. Watch: Every day she went out alone to pick flowers, but then one day someone was waiting for her… Or Every day he ate dinner alone at the corner restaurant where no one else ever ate, but then one day it was closed, so he… As writers, first we must learn the basics of how the strategy works: the set up and the twist. Once we’ve developed that piece of our craft, then we can begin to play with it, adding variations. It’s partly true, as one of my high school English teachers used to say, that writers have been telling the same stories over and over since Shakespeare. There are only so many types of stories. The art is in how we make them our own.

Rajia Hassib does exactly that with the strategy for establishing and breaking routines in her novel In the Language of Miracles. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel follows the Al-Mehshawys, a Muslim couple who immigrates to the United States from Egypt, establishes a medical practice and home and family, and then watches it all fall apart after their son murders the girl next door. After a prologue, the novel begins by establishing a new routine following the murder:

For almost a year, the Bradstreets and the Al-Menshawys practiced elaborate avoidance tactics, living next door to each other yet hardly crossing paths. Khaled noticed his parents’ change of habits right away: Samir, after years of leaving for work at 8:00 a.m., started heading out a full half-hour earlier just so he would not run into Jim Bradstreet. Coming home, Samir no longer parked his car in the driveway and walked through the front door but squeezed his Avalon into the cluttered garage then slid through the barely open door and walked into the kitchen. Nagla abandoned her wicker armchair on the deck, moving her ashtray to a bench where she sat with her back to the living room wall, looking away from the Bradstreets’ backyard and hidden from their view. Even Cynthia Bradstreet forsook her gardening and the backyard she had practically lived in for years. From his window, Khaled watched as her irises wilted and drooped and her herb garden succumbed to negligence, the tan spikes of dry dill and cilantro eventually covered by snow, which, once it melted, revealed a rectangular bed of lifeless mud where the blooming garden once stood.

The routine in this passage is clear. Both families do everything they can to avoid encountering each other. We see this avoidance three times: through Samir, Nagla, and Cynthia. Each character’s avoidance is tethered to a specific detail, which is where their routines come from. The reason that the families don’t want to talk or see each other isn’t stated, but we know why.

Then, the routine changes:

Then, just short of a year after the deaths, Khaled answered the door one evening and saw Cynthia Bradstreet standing on his parents’ doorstep. One hand still holding the doorknob, Khaled stared at her, forgetting to step aside to let her in.

The change is so simple. They avoid each other, and now one of them is seeking out the others, a change so unexpected that Khaled is shocked and doesn’t know what to do. As readers, we have to keep reading to find out what will happen. The story has kicked into gear, which is the beauty of setting up and breaking a routine.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and break a routine, using In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib as a model:

  1. Give your characters a compelling reason to behave a certain way. It’s easy to set up any old routine. At the beginning of this post, I wrote this one: Every day she went out alone to pick flowers, but then one day someone was waiting for her… This is fine and serviceable. It will get the job done. But a better routine is driven by necessity and desire. Hassib’s characters really don’t want to run into their neighbors, for good reason. So they behave accordingly. In your story, what is foremost on your characters’ minds at any given point of the day. Try out different times of day. Find a moment when something seems so large that they feel compelled to behave in a certain way. If it’s a recurring moment, the behavior will probably get repeated, turning it into a routine.
  2. Attach the routine to specific objects. Hassib does this with three different characters. Samir parks his car, Nagla moves her ashtray, and Cynthia abandons her garden. It will be tempting to use certain objects (newspaper, coffee cup, alarm clock), but try to think beyond these items. What else is essential to your character’s day? What objects are present in the moment you wrote about in the first step? Pick one and focus on it. Put it at the center of the routine. Describe the object with specific details, as Hassib does with the cluttered garage, wicker armchair, and dill and cilantro.
  3. Break the routine. Who will do it? Which character will behave contrary to expectation? What single act will signal the break in the routine? Hassib uses Nancy: Instead of avoiding the Al-Menshawys, she knocks on their door.
  4. Figure out why that character has broken the routine. In this case, Nancy wants to tell her neighbors about a memorial that will be held in a few days. In other words, an event has broken the routine (as events tend to do). You can also cause characters to change their behaviors by adding external elements: someone new shows up, or something unexpected is discovered (fortune, disease). The bigger the reason for the routine in the first place, the bigger the reason for break it probably needs to be.   

The goal is to creating story and narrative momentum by establishing and breaking routine. You might not do it in the order listed above. Often, writers know what characters will do but not why. Sometimes they know what drives characters to act but not what they’ll do. Either one is a good place to begin.

Good luck.

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