Pretty much everyone has routines. They are often enjoyable. At the very least, they provide predictability, and thus security. Routines are efficient.
But most people want to get out of a rut. Being in a rut means one’s life isn’t going where one wants it to, but there is no perceived way to escape. Dr. Vance Havner, of North Carolina, suggested that a rut is just a grave with both ends knocked out.
Writers: Mine your characters’ routines and consider the usefulness of ruts in raising tension.
There’s a fine line between a habit and a routine. For my purposes, a habit is something a character does repeatedly, often without conscious intention, and it’s over pretty quickly. For example, most people habitually put the same leg first in a pair of pants, put a sock on the same foot first.
A routine would be a bunch of habits strung together. For example, a woman getting ready for the day.
- Gets out of bed
- Use the toilet
- Take off her sleep clothes
- Wash her face
- Shave those pesky middle age whiskers
- Apply astringent to face and then neck
- Apply moisturizer with sunscreen to her neck
- Apply moisturizer with stronger sunscreen to her face
- Apply deodorant
- Put on underpants
- Put on long pants
- Put on shirt
- Arrange hair
- Puts on jewelry
- Earring first
- Then pendant
- Rings and bracelet last
Thus, routines can extend over time, encompassing multiple behaviors. They can cover days, weeks, months, or even years. Properly planned routines are rooted in meaning and purpose, and they keep us moving in the direction that we think best. They are good when they give order to our lives.
Routines become ruts when they become stale and empty. At that point, they become roadblocks to growth. A rut is a narrow or predictable way of life, set of attitudes, etc.—dreary, undeviating routine.
Writers note: One person’s routine can be another person’s rut.
In 2005 the Chrysalis Reader Embracing Relationships, included my short piece “Solid Line.” Here is the opening of that piece.
Isobel cuts into the fried egg and pushes the bits around her plate. “We need to think of something different for breakfast.”
Ray always makes breakfast. “Like what?” he asks.
“Oh, I don’t know. Something. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday we have an egg. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, we have cereal. On Sundays we have pancakes and two strips of bacon. It would just be nice to have something different sometimes.”
Ray points out that he makes eggs five different ways, including omelets. That they have six kinds of hot cereal and four kinds of cold cereal, plus homemade granola. That he sometimes makes muffins with the Sunday bacon. That they always have fresh fruit—bananas, grapefruit, oranges, or melon, depending on the season—sometimes a fruit cup. That they even alternate coffee with a dozen kinds of tea. That if she asks for an English muffin or a bagel with cream cheese or something, he makes it. “I think we probably have more variety than most people. But if you want something else, tell me what it is.”
Isobel bites into her half slice of toast—Ray always makes toast in half slices. She says nothing. Why does so much variety feel so predictable?
Bottom line for writers: Pay attention to the way habits, routines, and ruts can up the tension and enrich your plot!