Break the Pattern

Establishing a Cycle – and Blowing It Up

Real life, or at least most of it, is a series of patterns. Those patterns define our reality, our sense of normalcy. They become the baseline by which we know to pay attention when a moment starts to feel like it doesn't fit. Pattern recognition is a survival trait.

The patterns we experience can be different all over the world. The patterns can be large scale or small, joyous for a lucky few, and hell for many. For most, that pattern defines our sense of average.

Here's a pretty average pattern: wake up, a dozen steps in a morning routine, drive to work, a dozen steps in the work routine, drive home, five steps in the decompression routine, sleep… wake up, rinse, repeat.

Now, dear writer, it's time to put a character in a pattern.

This can be the dreary doldrums of a daily rut (see: above) or a time loop sparked by a magic groundhog. If we show this routine, or some representative snippet of it, it drives the point home that the character is trapped in a cycle of sorts.

Here's a sample pattern for you:

  • Step One: Alarm goes off.

  • Step Two: Cup of Instant coffee.

  • Step Three: Business casual outfit, one piece of "flair" to hide a coffee stain.

  • Step Four: Morning traffic on the drive to work.

  • Step Five: Sit at the office chair and fire up email.

  • Step Six: Grip coffee mug with both hands and pray for [a winning lottery ticket/a swift death/blessings from a flying spaghetti monster]

First, build your pattern. Feel free to work with the sample progression above, or if you're feeing some inspiration, we encourage you to make your own. If you're feeling really creative, consider compressing or expanding the time scale.

Next, give us a line of writer's notes. This is an only an exercise, but we'll presume that each point would be its own scene if were a novel instead. So, in your head, how many times would you drag the character through the cycle? Once or twice?

Next, in these writer's notes, how many times do you imply the character has gone through it? Maybe a hundred…? A thousand? That would be just shy of four year's worth of work days. Depending on your favorite genre, a million or so? That would be The Doctor, taking "the long way around."

Break The Cycle

You, the writer, have now spent a few minutes building the pattern.

Now, change a step. Show us the character as something different happens. Does the character notice right away? Does it happen to the character, around the character or does the character make the change themself?

What happens as that one change ripples through the routine?

20 MINUTES: Write the scene where the change happens, and as far into the rest of the disrupted patterns as you want to go.

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