Or if not fun, at least rich material for writers.
My most recent blog, Embracing Death, touched on this topic tangentially, but really, given all they can do for a story, funerals need their own focus. So, how can writers use funerals?
Burial rituals reflect culture, socio-economic class, and time period—without having to specify such things in the narrative.
Within those broad parameters, many decisions need to be made. What if the relevant relatives disagree on things? Music, prayers, cost of the casket, who speaks at the service, what happens at the graveside. . . What if there is no grave? (The same could apply to memorial services.) Where will the body be buried or the ashes scattered? And so we have the possibilities of coalitions forming. Maybe these reflect already existing ties or loyalties.
What if the deceased person’s wishes to donate organs—or the whole body to a medical school—horrify the survivors? Who will have the final word? Will s/he just announce, or work for cooperation and consensus? And will that succeed?
Often a funeral will bring together people who haven’t seen and/or talked to each other in years. This makes possible happy reunions, but also the resurgence of past rivalries, jealousies, and grievances.
Heirs may start squabbling over their inheritances before the funeral even happens! And it doesn’t have to be millions at stake. In my novel Nettie’s Books (forthcoming), the hostilities erupt over quilts, stoneware pitchers, and a cake plate!
I often find the fun in funerals. My story “The Red Glove” features a drive-through funeral home in Maine. “Wanted” also features a father lying in state at Herschel Southern Drive-Thru Mortuary, resting peacefully behind plate glass.
What about you? If you’re a writer, have you looked on the light side of funerals, or do you write about their inherent tensions?
TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS
As with other aspects of good writing, the stakes need to be high. What’s to be won or lost? And after you write the scene, ramp it up, push it to the extreme.
What is at stake for your character(s)? If nothing important is at risk, why should the reader care what happens? Why read on?
Virtually everything has a dark side. Finding it is well worth a writer’s time. One of the maxims for writing tension and conflict is to make a situation bad and then make it worse.If you can do this in an unexpected way, so much the better.
For example, a single strand of hair can tell scientists not only a person’s gender and ethnicity but also where s/he lives, what’s been eaten, and whether the person has been taking drugs or ingesting arsenic. Hair grows up to .02 inches (.5 mm) every day, so the record can extend over several months and tell not only what but when!
For another example, consider deadly diamonds. Commercial services are available to extract carbon from cremated human remains and turn it into a diamond using intense pressure and high heat. Up to 100 diamonds can be made from a single dead body. Consider the possibilities! Is it love? Or is it a way of flaunting the fact that she got away with murder? What if the dead body was the murderer and someone decides to present a diamond to the family of each of the victims?
If you think about it, you could find a dark side to the Air Guitar World Championships (September in Oulu, Finland) or the Woolly Worm Festival (October in Banner Elk, North Carolina).
What? You say your character is already starving? So, have him stumble into a potato field and eat green potatoes, sprouts, stems and leaves—which contain poisons that can be lethal. (Potatoes, like tomatoes, are members of the deadly nightshade family.) Bottom line: find the darkest side and make it even darker.
The basis of conflict and tension are obvious when two (or more) characters are competing for the same goal, such as a promotion, or when a character is beset by physical danger such as a life-threatening cancer or an approaching hurricane. A threat of any sort to the character or to someone (or something) the character cares about is an excellent source of conflict and tension. But using internal conflicts can add just as much power to your plot.
You can’t have your cake and eat it, too = approach-approach conflict
The character has multiple appealing options but can take only one—e.g., two marriage proposals, only one dessert from a tray of twelve, only one new car, etc. This type of conflict creates the least tension because there is no real downside. It’s all good.
Between a rock and a hard place = between the devil and the deep blue sea = an avoidance-avoidance conflict
Will the character get back surgery or live with the pain? Wash the car or rake leaves? Stay in an unhappy marriage or get a divorce? The reader may feel more sympathy than tension. The level of tension depends partly on the pain the character suffers while weighing the alternatives, and partly on how bad the options are. For example, Sophie’s Choice: to save herself and one child at the price of choosing to send one child to the gas chamber, or refuse to choose and sentence all three of them to death.
Take the bitter with the sweet = an approach-avoidance conflict: one goal with both positive and negative aspects, ultimately resolved in favor of the stronger
Virtually all relationships as well as many other aspects of life fall into this category. One factor affecting the amount of conflict or tension is how nearly the positive and negative aspects are matched (the closer they are in strength, the greater the tension). If an otherwise perfect spouse has one annoying habit, probably no big deal, the marriage is solid; if a buyer is drawn to a white picket fence but the house is practically falling down and overpriced, no-sale is a pretty safe bet. But if a deeply flawed spouse has nearly as many annoying habits as good ones—if the house is in a perfect location with a great school district and enough yard for the seven dogs—it could be a game changer. Comparable positives and negatives will create lots of tension.
A second factor is how important the ultimate outcome is. If I want a Ph.D. to qualify for a college professorship but don’t want to spend the time, effort, and money to go for it—not to mention the risk of failure—big decision, lots of tension potential. If I want a bag of chips from the vending machine but think $2 is an outrageous price—not much tension.
The positive (which pulls the character to approach) and the negative (which pushes the character to avoid) are what psychologists call “valences.” Both diminish with distance—time, physical distance, space. Something far away will affect the character’s immediate behavior and feelings less than something that is imminent.
Love and approach-avoidance conflicts
Love is always a high-voltage relationship, so let’s consider the special instances of approach-avoidance conflicts reflected in absence makes the heart grow fonder; out of sight, out of mind; and can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.
Absence makes the heart go fonder when, with distance, the negative qualities or aspects of the date/lover/spouse exert less influence and the push-away diminishes; the person doesn’t seem so bad. If you aren’t actually hearing the obnoxious laugh, smelling the bad breath, or arguing about politics, the heart grows fonder—though maybe not fond enough to renew the relationship.
Out of sight, out of mind is the opposite: positive value diminishes with distance until the original attraction may have no more pull at all. The sweet kisses don’t mean so much when you aren’t getting any! Ditto sense of humor, help with chores, being a good listener. This is often the source of the “Dear John” letters received by people in the military, in prison, in college far away, etc.
In terms of conflict and tension, can’t live with ’em and can’t live without ’em is the best. One brief detour into psychology: negative valence declines more sharply than positive valence. Soooo, when both valences are significant, the case sometimes evolves in which the sharp decline in the negative crosses the slower decline in the positive valence.
The point where the valences cross is the point of vacillation: closer, and the relationship is so negative that one or both parties withdraw. With greater distance, the positive stays strong longer than the negative and the couple gets back together. These yo-yo relationships can go on for years. This could happen with any type of relationship—playmates to spouses. Whole books have been written by and about couples who marry, divorce, and remarry.
Takeaway for writers
Good writers need to be good psychologists whether or not they ever studied the discipline or use the lingo, just be sure the positives and the negatives are believable for the character and appropriate to the conflict.
Characters in conflict within themselves can provide plenty of page-turner tension!
In recent blogs, I talked about toxic mother-daughter relationships, toxic relationships in general, and toxic people.Toxic anything is good for writers! But once you’ve introduced these negative relationships and people, you cannot—satisfactorily—leave your reader wondering why s/he puts up with that. After all, there are planes, trains, and automobiles—not to mention boots that are made for walking!
Even if your characters don’t recognize their motives, you—their almighty creator—should know what they are AND should let the reader know.
So, why does s/he put up with it? The short answer is, it’s the best perceived alternative! People are very rational creatures, and they always make that choice. The complexity here is in the word perceived. Not everyone sees a situation the same way.
For example, the objective reality might be that a battered woman would be better off out of that marriage. But if she doesn’t see that, it ain’t gonna happen. So consider what her point of view might be. Suppose she came from a family with spousal abuse and accepts it as part of the package. Perhaps she fears for her life, or the safety of her children, if she leaves and he finds her. What if he threatened to commit suicide if she leaves and she couldn’t stand the guilt? Maybe she thinks it’s her fault—and/or, her self-esteem is so low that she thinks she deserves it. Maybe she doesn’t see a way to keep a roof over her/their children’s heads and food on the table single. Perhaps she loves him and lets him beat her because for his own twisted reasons, he needs to do so. Perhaps leaving/divorce goes against her religious beliefs. Etc. All of these reflect beliefs or values not universally held—andbeliefs or values not universally held often apply to perceptions about leaving a toxic situation or relationship.
Additionally, consider the legal constraints on minors, military personnel, prisoners, employees, etc.
Perhaps your character is highly motivated to avoid conflict, criticism, gossip, embarrassment, rejection by family or peers—or even fears the unknown.
True? True—in your writing if not in your life. You may recall that last month I wrote about the types of toxic mother/daughter relationships, and how the patterns could hold regardless of who the two people are. You’ll find that this blog is related.
Lillian Glass profiled 30 types of toxic terrors, and just the labels are thought-provoking: cut-you-downer, chatterbox, self-destroyer, runner, silent but deadly volcano, gossip angry pugilist, gloom and doom victim, smiling two-faced backstabber, wishy-washy wimp, opportunistic user; bitchy, bossy bully; jokester, unconscious social klutz, mental case, bullshitting liar, meddler, penny-pinching miser, fanatic; me, myself, and I narcissist; Eddie Haskell, self-righteous priss, snooty snob, competitor, control freak, accusing critic, arrogant know-it-all, emotional refrigerator, skeptical paranoid, instigator.
Translating this into writing: the presence of a toxic character immediately raises tension and conflict. That is their role, to make other people’s lives miserable. But spread the glory: don’t make one character carry the entire burden of toxicity. Consider a couple, apparently happy together but each toxic to other people in different ways.
Glass’s book is basically a self-help book, so she also offers 10 techniques for handling toxic people: tension-blowout (deep breathing), humor, stop-the-thought, mirror (reflecting the behavior back), direct confrontation, calm questioning, give-them-hell-and-yell, give-them-love-and-kindness, vicarious-fantasy, unplug (the person from your life).
Translating this into writing: have your characters deal with the toxic person(s) in different ways, with varying degrees of success. And the inappropriate behaviors that she advises you never to do in real life (e.g., physical violence) are perfectly appropriate—and often effective—in achieving your writerly goals.
Glass offers an exercise for identifying the types of people who drive the reader nuts. As the author, you could complete this exercise for your main characters. Identifying the consistencies might even provide insights about how to make your character(s) richer and more real.
My edition of the book was published in 1997, but toxic people are timeless! This and several of her other books are available on Amazon, and I urge you to consider whether it would be helpful to you.
In my blog about writers on writing, I gave you Elmore Leonard’s first rule: Never start a book with the weather. His expansion on this said that unless you are writing about a character’s reaction to the weaker, keep any weather mentions minimal.
Advice to writers: any time you write about weather, ask yourself why. What is it contributing to the plot, tension, conflict, threat?
Combining this with insights touted at the recent James River Writers Conference, I offer this additional advice: whenever and whyever you write about weather, make it as extreme as is reasonable for the scene. Sometimes this can be done with word choice. For example, a cold wind vs. an icy wind, wet roads vs. roads awash. You get the idea.
Consider truly extreme weather. I have two favorite books about this. (Of course I do!) Both are by Barbara Tuffy and include info on natural disasters other than weather.
Of course, you can also research extreme weather online. Advice: if you are writing about something you haven’t actually experienced—say a hurricane or a flash flood—searching online for videos of actual events is extremely helpful (pun intended).
Last but not least: consider weird weather. I just ordered a book by Joanne O’Sullivan titled Bizarre Weather. It purports to present true stories of such freakish events as showers of worms, watermelon snow, gory storms. Should be fun, could be inspirational!