Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Stress and Tipping Points

Self Portrait 1937--Rita Angus I’m one of those people who usually likes to go with the flow. I think that’s because I’m in a writing fog half the day. But once I come down off my happy imaginary high, reality hits. And once I get my hackles up, watch out.

I’ve unfortunately been on a roll the past week of problems that needed to be addressed. The tipping point for each thing, the bit that spurred me into action? My children, each time.

It started with a group my son volunteers for. It was a school night, the day before a test. Pouring down rain, very chilly. He was with some other middle school boys, removing a barbeque pit that they’d help set up the week before for their yearly barbeque sale to raise funds for the group.

He had a nasty cold. Two hours into the mandatory volunteer work in the cold rain, I called his cell phone. “I’m on my way to get you.”

“Mom—they said I’m not allowed to go.”

“Well, I think you’ve done well to work for two hours. I’m going to pick you up and you can work on studying for your test tomorrow.”

“Mom—he says I’m not excused. We have another hour to go.”

A pause.

“Tell this gentleman your Mama wants to talk to him.”

A moment and a quick conversation later and suddenly it was absolutely fine that I could pick up my 12 year old so he could study for his math test.

Ohhh, I hate to act ugly. Why is it that the squeaky wheel gets the grease?

Confrontations or getting ready for a confrontation is stressful to me. I’m a very different person when I’m stressed out or angry.

My characters reach their tipping points, too. Everybody has something that’s going to set them off. In a mystery, that straw that broke the camel’s back could result in a murder.

As I’ve mentioned before, our characters are stressed out. Their lives are completely upside-down. I wrote about the way the confusion they might feel a few posts ago. Yes, they would feel very taken aback at the way their lives were running completely off track.

But what about stress? What kinds of things might a character do under stress?

  • They could say something they shouldn’t have said. This could cause a ripple effect in many ways but could especially create a rift between characters during an argument.
  • Stress could cause them to briefly act out of character. Have you got a well-controlled, polite character? Reacting to a stressful situation could make their temper flare up and open up some plot possibilities.
  • A character might drink too much under stress. This could create a whole host of other problems and conflicts in our plots. They might start a bad habit, like smoking, again.
  • They could react in a very wholesome way—increasing the amount of exercise they’re getting, watching what they eat, and trying to work in more sleep. (But really, what fun is that to write with? :) )

In my murder mysteries, stress causes my murderer to kill again. Naturally, the killer wants to remain unknown and will eliminate anyone who knows his identity.

Stress causes my suspects to point the finger at other suspects—who had been their friends prior to the murder investigation.

Character stress causes arguments and conflicts in my small town settings and old grievances bubble up to the surface again.

Got stress?