I stared at my sheet of notebook paper, completely dry of inspiration. March had defeated me. I needed an idea for how to use the month as writing inspiration, and I came up empty. March is such a boring month. I’d already written about Lent, St. Patrick’s Day, and March Madness. I could think of nothing else, so I hit on boredom as writing inspiration.
That sounds like an oxymoron. Writers don’t want to bore readers. But boredom can serve storytelling as a comic element and character motivation. I just have to write it in an entertaintng way so that while my characters experience boredom, my readers do not.
Author Patrick F. McManus wrote several short stories focusing on boredom. He exploits the problem as a way to propel his characters into comic situations.
Mr. McManus shared my loathing of March. He uses the boredom of the month for his humorous short story, “Brimstone” from the book How I Got This Way. As a teenager and outdoorsman in rural Idaho, he laments how he can’t hunt, fish, or camp during the miserable muddy weather of March. His sole hobby is staring vacantly out a window. When a deputy sheriff arrives at his house looking for someone in his family to guide him to a neighbor’s shack, the teenager’s mother forces him to go with the deputy. The rest of the story relates how March and its mud can thwart even the long arm of the law.
In “Another Boring Day” from the same book, eight-year-old Pat and his best friend Crazy Eddie can’t find anything to do on a summer day. They’ve already built their own scuba equipment, constructed an airplane, and dug a pit for wild animals. When they tell their mothers about their boredom, both women grow alarmed. If the boys find a solution to their boredom, their parents will become unbored very quickly, too.
Character Motivation. Part 1
If I need a character to make a radical change in her life, boredom is a perfect engine to steer my character onto a new road. In many books, tragedy forces characters to change. While we all face our share of tragedies in this life, most of us won’t lose a spouse to a drunk driver, have a fiancee dump us for our best friend, or have a child murdered.
But all of us have faced boredom. This universal problem should make a character wrestling with it instantly relatable to readers. When I worked at a public library, I found myself trapped in a meeting with two supervisors who were locked in opposing views like the Zax in the Prairie of Prax. My boredom grew to such a level that my only hope of escaping with my sanity was to broker a peace treaty. My director complimented me on finding a solution. But I had acted out of self-pervation. I didn’t want to go mad at twenty-seven.
I can use a meeting like that to instigate a character to quit his job and try a new career. A bored, stay-at-home mom volunteers at an animal shelter, meets new people, and finds a new passion. A teenager stuck babysitting younger siblings all summer makes friends with an elderly neighbor. Boredom is a plausible reason for all these characters to try something they normally would not.
Character Motivation, Part 2
Although amateur detectives are an old tradition in the mystery genre, getting them involved in a case in a believable way is difficult. A character’s boredom is a perfect excuse to start them snooping.
The classic example of this is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window from 1954. A photographer is laid up with a badly broken leg in his small apartment during a hot summer in New York City. Out of extreme boredom, Jeff begins watching his neighbors who live in the apartment building across the courtyard. He notices the unhappy marriage of one couple. When the wife disappears, he’s convinced the husband has killed her. After the police refuse to investigate, Jeff enlists the help of his girlfriend and his part-time nurse.
I can turn any of the suggestions from the previous section into a mystery. The stay-at-home mom meets another volunteer, who seems troubled, at the animal shelter. That volunteer later turns up a dead. The teen and elderly neighbor are suspicious of a family who has just moved onto their street.
How would you use boredom as writing inspiration?