X-Box Go Boom

My husband and I were out to dinner tonight and overheard a conversation between a mother and her son, who I would guess was around 10. The boy was upset about something to do with a friend named Joe. I heard the mom say, “Well, you just tell him, you say, ‘Joe, I know it was an accident when you knocked the X-Box off the table, but my mom says you have to tell your parents or she will.’ ”
And this is where the boy became particularly distressed. He responded, “But I already told him that, sort of. And he said that I should let him talk to you. He said he can be very persuasive. Joe can be very persuasive, Mom.”
“Oh please,” the mom said. “Joe can’t persuade me to do anything. No, he needs to tell his parents or I’ll do it for him.”
And they left shortly after that. I was fascinated by their discussion. It was an unfinished story that I needed to know the ending of. I was imagining this poor kid and how anxious he must be about confronting his friend; what would the repercussions be for him if he did or didn’t.
I mentioned this to my husband and he said, “That kid’s not worried about confronting his friend. He’s worried because he’s gotten himself stuck in a lie. He probably broke that X-Box himself, or at least had some part in it.”
I think I may have actually gasped when my husband proposed this. It just hadn’t occurred to me, but once voiced, the explanation rang so true. I liked my husband’s interpretation of the scene because it both surprised me–I’d been reading this kid (or character) totally differently–and it was a very satisfying surprise. Everything fit. The details had already been laid that made this “caught in a lie” assessment seem so accurate. The boy’s restlessness, his resistance to his mom talking to his friend’s parents, how he said he didn’t feel well and was so antsy he left to go sit in the car before his mom had finished paying the check. Signs of a guilty conscience? Perhaps . . .
This was a much more interesting conflict to me than what I had been imagining. The way I’d interpreted the scene initially, I had characterized this kid in a totally sympathetic way. He was the victim. There’s still conflict there–how will he tell his friend? What happens next? Will his friend refuse to be friends with him any more? But in that scenario, the boy doesn’t have much control. Everything has happened to him and he’s just reacting. His friend broke the X-Box, his mom is telling him what to do. It’s not unrealistic, but the other scenario is dramatically much more interesting because the kid got himself into this mess, and now he has to get himself out. But how? Does he tell his mom the truth? That’s going to take some serious guts to admit he’s been lying to her. Will he change his story a bit with an explanation for why Joe maybe isn’t totally to blame? Or does our hero dig himself further into the lie by telling his friend what’s going on and ask him to take the fall? And how would he go about doing that? Bully him? Create a new lie that would convince Joe it’s better he get in trouble than our hero? Or does he try to come up with the money for a new X-Box somehow and say it’s from Joe?
Thinking about this was a good reminder to me with my WIP. It’s not enough for my characters to find trouble. If their actions create the tension in the story, it will be a more compelling read. And if the stakes are high, even moreso.
If the wind blows open the gate and Skippy gets loose and the main character has to go find him, that’s fine. It’s a story. It’s not unrealistic. But the tension would be amped up that much more if the main character left the gate open and Skippy got out. And maybe taking care of Skippy was a test of responsibility and if he passed, the main character would be able to go to a concert with his friend, unchaperoned. Now he wants to resolve the situation not only because he’s worried about his missing dog, but because his reputation with his parents is at stake, as well as this concert he wants to go to. This could still be part of the scenario with the wind blowing open the gate, but if the character’s actions have brought on the conflict, it raises the question to both the reader and the main character, Is he really responsible enough? And seeing how he chooses to respond to both the problem and that question, I think, makes for a much more interesting story.