Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Build a Bigger Berry

You're in a restaurant supply grocery store, the kind with walk-in freezers and where you can buy 5 lb boxes of strawberries. The produce refrigerator, in which you're standing, smells like old broccoli. As you lift the box of strawberries to place on the cart, the lid pops open, and the biggest strawberry you've ever beheld falls to the gray concrete floor.

What do you do?

* Actual Size. Not part of this complete breakfast.
or, "It's dangerous to go alone. Take this!"

Nothing could be less interesting than a strawberry falling on the floor. Or so it seems. Yet the circumstances  for this event can shape important elements of story: the stakes, character development, plot, worldbuilding, and theme. The first three are essential, but if a writer does her job right, a minor strawberry-fumble scene should convey all five.

Stakes & Tension

This true story (which actually happened to me) only became interesting because of two factors:

1) A strawberry the size of my fist,
2) a floor of the sort my mother taught me never to even walk on without washing my feet afterwards.

The stakes were raised. Not a small berry, a big one. Not a clean floor, a nasty one.

Circumstances had set up a dichotomy for me. A difficult choice. I became fascinated with how I would meet this challenge. In order for your plot to be interesting, your choices must be interesting.

To increase stakes, you can tweak the circumstances. Is the strawberry large or small? Ripe or rotten? Is the character is starving? Was she commanded by the king to find the largest strawberry ever, on penalty of death? (The king will never know it hit the floor... right?)

Character Development

"I'm going to give you the choice I never had."
 Lestat, Interview with a Vampire
Choice defines character. Once you've given them a quirky laugh and a lopsided hat (characteristics), ultimately, your character is made by the choices they make.

If your character picks up the berry with a look of wonder, it tells us she is mesmerized by large berries.

If it's a normal berry and she picks it up, maybe she is a spendthrift and can't let anything go to waste. Or maybe she doesn't care about cleanliness.

If she leaves it on the ground where someone else can step on it and make a mess or even get hurt, maybe she's thoughtless or reckless.

If she puts the strawberry back in the box and places it on the shelf so she can buy a different box, we have all kinds of subtle, and potentially negative, indicators about her personality.

The results of one decision will still leave motives and personality vague, so a series of choices across scenes can compound to paint the broader picture.


A series of decisions constitutes plot. Events can occur randomly or coincidentally, but preferably, the result of the first choice should have consequences to start your plot-chain, each event a result of a previous decision.

Or better, events can be created by choices made by your other characters. Your characters should all have independent and preferably opposing desires. As they attempt to achieve their goals, they work against one another. That's how the plot thickens.

What if she picks up the strawberry, takes it home, and all is well until her child eats it without washing, and gets e. coli?

Or she leaves it in the fridge for three weeks and the whole box spoils, and that starts an argument with her partner?

What if she puts it back on the shelf and someone she admires spots her irresponsible behavior?

What if she leaves it on the ground and someone is injured by slipping on it?

What if she simply cannot stop thinking about the strawberry, and it turns into a blog post?

This is why readers read. This is what constitutes story.


Other details about each experience can show elements of your world without an info dump. In my example, the strawberry fell in a normal grocery store in the ordinary world. Or did it? ...

Show the rules of the magic or tech or culture through the decision and its consequences.

Maybe it's a magic strawberry and the character shrinks and has to live on it under the produce shelf where it's rolled until it gets all moldy and is carried off by a rat.

Maybe the character has a curse that she must eat every strawberry she sees, and a second geas binding her to never eat anything that touches the ground. Talk about raising the stakes.

Maybe it's a genetically engineered strawberry that kills germs. Maybe the floor is kept clean by robots. Maybe her species doesn't even need food and it's just a plastic strawberry.

You can give hints as to the behavior of your world through simple scenes like this. Just remember to keep the stakes and tension high by not eliminating all strawberry-floor problems with advanced technology.)


Why write a strawberry falling into the floor and not a beer spilling in a bar, or a dagger being pressed into the chest of an enemy, or a horse running away?

The props, events, and choices in the scene can reverberate and reinforce, either consciously or subconsciously, a larger, overarching feeling or meaning. Berries can represent many things: life, growth, food, color, freshness, waste, rot, fertility, goodness, sweetness, health, youth, agriculture, consumerism.

A scene with a strawberry, then a horse, then a memory about grandma's farm may conjure a theme of farming, youth, or health. Or all three.

A scene with a strawberry, then a rose, and then a wild sexy romp with a stranger shifts the theme to passion, hedonism, sensuality.

If you want to go with consumerism and decay, have another scene with an overflowing garbage can and a pile of unwanted Christmas presents.

Theme is how we make a story more than entertaining. It gives the story meaning.


If you've written a scene that's fallen flat, maybe you just need to tweak a few subtle elements to raise the stakes, to make the choice hard, to reveal elements of character, to build your world, and reinforce themes.

Just build a bigger berry.

No comments:

Post a Comment