The Diner: Post Five (Detailing Character Job and Mystery)

Last post, I decided that the protagonist would be a man in his thirties and the antagonist would be a middle-aged or older woman. I also decided that the mystery would revolve around the villain blaming the hero for the death of a friend or family member. In this post I’ll decide the hero’s job, how that will tie into the mystery, and figure out how and why the hero is being blamed for this death.

This is the real work, my friends.

Let’s start with his job. Whether the reveal involves the hero’s job or whether that is used as a red herring in some form, I want him to have a career with relatively high stakes. One where it would be believable that a life might be lost due to him not doing his job correctly.

Both doctor and lawyer are out. I’ve seen those too many times in a revenge plot. Let’s throw out law enforcement, as well, and any position involved in emergency medical care. This still leaves about ten thousand jobs on the table. And anything from construction worker to stock broker could potentially be indirectly responsible for loss of life.

There’s too many jobs to choose from, so I’m going to pick somewhat arbitrarily.

Let’s circle back to something in care taking. If we set the first scene at his work, making it meaningful and giving him a chance to show empathy for others instantly encourages the viewer to like him and care about what happens to him.

Now let’s apply some characteristics we’ve chosen for him. He’s forward-looking, hopeful. Determined. Empathetic. What in the field of care taking and/or secondary medical aid would particularly benefit from these traits?

Physical therapy? It’s a little close to doctor, but it’s also two steps removed from E.R. surgeon. I feel like it’s different enough, personally. Let’s see where it goes.

Physical therapy isn’t the first thing you think of when you think “high stakes”. No pulse-pounding music is going to play as the lead makes a snap life-or-death decision. But there are plenty of ways for it to go wrong. And the results could change a person’s life forever.

On top of that, any physical therapy scenes I’ve ever encountered always focused on the patient, with the therapist being either the love interest or a bit part. It would be interesting to see this from the other side. Small differences like these are always a plus in my book.

Since this is a first draft, let’s go with this. We can always change it later.

How does this job tie into the mystery? How could someone suffer a loss so extreme due to physical therapy?

Here’s where just a bit of quick research will come in handy. I put in “Most common mistakes physical therapists make” (or something similar), and I got this link as the top result:

https://blog.summit-education.com/instructor-blog/the-top-11-mistakes-physical-therapists-make/

Let’s take a look and see if a common mistake could do serious damage.

Several of these are good for our purposes, actually. None of them by themselves would work–they mostly seem to be small mistakes, things that overlap in the system might account for–but imagine our protagonist was new to the job. Preoccupied with other things or nervous to the point of making simple errors. He might break a few of these.

For instance, he might miss that critical piece of information because he’s not listening to the patient as closely as he should. That costs crucial time. When he finally starts to suspect something is wrong, he lacks the confidence to fight the specialist on it. He just obeys orders, until something big happens that forces others to see the truth. By then, too much damage has to be done. The patient has to go back in for major surgery, or suffers an injury that leaves them crippled.

Three minutes of research, and I know that it’s perfectly possible for newbie mistakes to permanently damage someone.

But even if the person loses the ability to walk, would that drive a family member to kill? And making this mistake would be memorable on the part of the hero. How much time would have needed to pass for this to be buried and half-forgotten? Years? Five, maybe ten? Why would someone wait that long to seek revenge on the person responsible?

That leads me to what I’ve suspected would be a possible resolution to this mystery for a while now.

The death in question may be the result of suicide.

Here’s my disclaimer: Suicide is an incredibly heavy topic. It’s not something to throw around lightly. If I use suicide as the reason the villain is seeking revenge against the hero, I can’t be cheap about it. This can’t just be for shock value. I have to be willing to explore the real causes and real fallout of a family member or a friend committing suicide.

Let’s talk about why this fits, both the plot and the theme as I’ve introduced so far, and try to decide if this is an issue I want to touch on in my screenplay.

First, the theme. The main character is defined as being forward-thinking and hopeful. That’s to contrast the villain, who is defined by what’s happened, always looking backward. Hope is the single, key difference between them. It’s hope that the main character would have to bring to the villain to save his own life, and possibly hers. Because of this, the heart of the conflict being a result of the actions of a person who HAS no hope, and the villain blaming the hero for taking all hope away from both herself and her loved one, has the potential for real meaning.

Now the plot. We need a gap of time between the main character’s fatal mistake and the villain cornering him at the diner. We need time for it to fade from the hero’s mind, or perhaps for him to be unaware of the full effects of that mistake. The patient committing suicide several months or a few years after the hero made the mistake serves both these purposes.

Last, I’ve been toying with the idea of the villain blaming the hero in order to displace responsibility she might feel for the loved one’s death. Suicide leaves a wound on family and friends. Everyone who cared about that person is consumed by the question, What could I have done? They at once feel personally responsible and want to find some single cause to alleviate that sense of responsibility.

As I have it built right now, suicide fits as the resolution to this plot, the reveal that explains the villain’s actions. It fits the themes and the plot and the characterization we already have in place. More than that, it feels real to me. It feels like a story that needs to be told.

However, because of all this, I’m demanding something of myself. This is not going to be a red herring. This is the true reveal at the end. This is what we’re building backward from.

That means that next post is finding the false trail that keeps this from being discovered for the first two-thirds of the movie.

Breaking the Rules

This post is only about a month overdue. Been busy editing and writing (mostly editing).

This year I decided, relatively at the last minute, to do an informal NaNoWriMo. Many of the habits it’s said to help teach—turning off the internal editor, writing quickly, and devoting hours to writing on a regular basis—are a few of my particular weak points. So for this month, I’d aim to write fifty thousand words.

But since I was only doing it for myself, for the formation of good habits, I told myself, I could break a couple of the rules that I felt didn’t apply to me. In doing so, I committed a fatal error.

My first mistake was that I didn’t start a new project specifically for NaNo. I didn’t understand why it’s advised that writers start a brand new project for the month. I didn’t understand that it’s easier to build and keep momentum on a new novel than it is to build momentum anew on a current project. I didn’t understand that the enthusiasm for a new project helps to push through when you don’t feel like writing.

The other, and more fatal, mistake that I made was not limiting myself to working on one project. I poured the words into whatever project I was inspired by that day. Because of this, I’m unable to easily track how many words I’ve written over the last month.

As a result of my mistakes, I only wrote about 25K words for NaNo. I call that a failure. But it was worth it, because my mistakes taught me a lesson. Or rather, taught me that a piece of advice I’d internalized for the writing itself applies to related processes as well.

Brandon Sanderson has advised in the past (and I’m paraphrasing rather than running through the entirety of the Writing Excuses podcast again to find the quote), “You have to know a rule before you can break it.” You need to know the reason a rule is in place, know what breaking it will cost you, and then make an informed decision about whether it’s worth it to break the rule in your particular case.

Not following this advice has cost me, so I thought I’d pass it on.

If anyone’s interested, I might explore some popular rules in fiction and reasons I’ve found for breaking them!