A quick show of hands: how many people bit their lip today? Or maybe the inside of their cheek? Okay, how many of you bit it again because now it was swollen? Quite a few, I see. What's that? Related mishaps? Who was stabbed in the gum by a rogue tortilla chip? Burned their tongue on hot coffee? Got one hot pepper seed right on the back of the throat?
Now, who did any of those while sneaking a bite during a lunchtime Zoom call? ... Only to have somebody ask you a question mid-food crisis?
"Hey, Bill, what are the projections for next week?"
As you turn the camera back on and catch yourself on the video feed, you notice that one bit of salad you thought dropped to the floor is draped over your ID badge and riding your head like a spinach toupee. Oh look, the CEO is averting his eyes.
We've all had something like this happen to us. Maybe it was on a first date ... or the first time meeting the Significant Other's parents. Yeah, there's kind of a story about that one...
So when did you make it happen to your character?
In every scene we write, we're not just pushing the plot or uncovering key character tidbits. We're moving the reader. We're pouring tension into the scene, pushing or pulling the character, opening them up to the audience in a way that builds a connection. If [THAT THING] has happened to you, it's happened to somebody who's reading your story.
Inflict that thing on your character ... and share the moment with your audience.
It doesn't have to be a major mishap; you don't want to derail the action. Nor does it happen in every scene – otherwise it becomes predictable and loses tension. As a tool, though, small mishaps make the rest of the action believable. The action hero dives out of the way as bullets spray down the hall, but dust from the exploding wall gets in their eyes.
On a related note: what's a major problem that, sooner or later, strikes every writer? Right! Writer's Block. There has never been a better place to set one problem against the other. Build yourself a little story lab: drop your character into the scene where it's stalled, and give them a problem. Dig up all those personal Health & Safety moments, especially the painful ones. These mishaps make the perfect experiment: write how that character would suffer through it.
Have you inflicted personal mishaps on your character? How did it turn out? Share your favorites in the comments!