Shaking Up the Week

Yesterday, I talked about the uses of a weekly routine in grounding a story or its characters in their world. The advantage, of course, is that it creates a set of predictable yet limiting events, gives people a feel for what the patterns are like. But there’s one other trick that can be done, once people are used to a nice solid routine: break it.

At the very least, a break in routine is likely to be disorienting. I recently had a personal experience with this; my “weekend” is Sunday-Monday, but this week one of the other library technicians got back on Tuesday from a family event, so I worked Mon-Wed + Fri-Sat and she’s working Tues-Thurs + Sat onward rather than having a Thursday-Friday “weekend” like she usually does. So there we are on Tuesday: I’ve just finished Monday, so I’m feeling like it’s Wednesday, while it’s her first eight-hour shift of the week, so she feels like it’s Monday.

But disorientation isn’t the only effect a shake-up of the routine can have. People naturally tend to associate the break in routine with something going wrong. After all, if everything was normal, things would be going the way they’re supposed to, right? As a result, minor unannounced breaks in a routine can be used as a form of foreshadowing before whatever’s going wrong is actually explained: if a character who’s always right there, right then, rain or shine or wizard-weather, doesn’t show up, something’s got to be off, right?

Coming from the other direction, you can say a lot about a character from what it takes to get her to break routine. It’s one thing if she isn’t too established, or isn’t permitted to be too established, so her schedule’s fluid. But if she’s set up as someone for whom the routine is important, whether for the comfort value or the strength of obligation or whatever it is that keeps her in that pattern, then it’s going to take something equally important to turn her loose of it. Will she break it for a minor injury to one of her relatives? What about a major one? If so, how major? If she has multiple routines to which she’s dedicated, do they have different thresholds? If it’s a fact about physical limitations, like a roadblock in her path, to what lengths is she going to circumvent the limitation or ensure that the job gets done anyway?

Of course, this isn’t limited to a weekly schedule; monthly, yearly, and similarly regular routines can also be affected. It’s just easier with a weekly or even a daily routine, since you can get them established a lot more quickly; sure, canceling a huge holiday is a bigger deal, but it also requires more explicit setup of the holiday, rather than the subtle taken-for-grantedness of the weekly routine, and explicit as opposed to offhand setup tends to get people’s attention.

So bring in your routines, then break them. Won’t it be fun to see how people respond?

3 comments

  1. UZ says:

    I played with daily schedule once (as a symptom of a broader problem). I was attempting to fit as much environmental culture shock into one moment as I could… it went something like this.

    There were underground people – they migrated underground centuries ago and had lived there since (aided by magic in certain necessary particulars). Out of sight of the sun, they developed a device called the “Great Clock” which was supposed to provide a common time for convenience’s sake. Everyone carries a chronometer which tells them the “Great Clock” time.

    They’ve been underground long enough that the surface is dimly remembered as a poisonous hellworld, and the sun is spoken of in legend as the “Stinging Circle in the Sky”. All of this culminated in a bit of an embarrassing moment when one of the underground types visited the surface world for the first time (explaining that the whole “miserable hellworld” thing was allegorical in their opinion). But upon coming out into the noonday sun for the first time:

    Underground Person: Aaaah the burning! My eyes! I’m blind! They were right! I should have listened to them, should have listened… hey, I can see again. What the hell is going on here?
    (checks watch)
    UP: Wait, isn’t it supposed to be night-time?

    It turned out that the Great Clock was fairly wrong (it had drifted to about 1/3 faster than intended) and that everyone’s age was drastically different from what they thought it was. But I wasn’t really playing that story straight anyway…

  2. Ravyn says:

    Awesome.

    Though there is one thing I don’t quite understand: wouldn’t he have seen that there was light streaming into the cave entrance before he stepped out, and checked his chronometer then?

  3. UZ says:

    The he in question (a she actually) was in the middle of a conversation at this point – in any case it’s an issue of comedic timing.

    For a bit of perspective, the main character’s relation to this person is that she thinks they’re a demon she summoned (which they aren’t, mostly), and she keeps wondering why there’s this *other* demon that’s following her around and bugging her all the time.

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