Let’s suppose that someone in your family says something negative to you, something that undercuts your self-esteem and spoils your day.
“You’re not wearing that dress again are you? It adds 20 pounds to the way you look.”
“I see the XYZ company got that contract you wanted. If you’d worked a bit harder you could have got that contract.”
You might snap back or, being a mature person, you might bite your tongue and leave unsaid the words you wanted to say.
You tell yourself that perhaps they were having a bad day, that their life is difficult right now and if you had their problems you might speak without thinking too. You make allowances because in a family it is important to get along.
But in your story words like that are a challenge and as a writer you are required to come up with a reaction. not equal and opposite as in physics, but unequal – greater, a more challenging response that ups the tension in the story.
Revenge, it is said, is sweet. I don’t believe that is true in life but it’s sweet in a story because it creates action and reveals character. The man might land a punch and start a fist fight. The woman might go for verbal aggression –
“Well, you should know, you’re 20 pounds overweight yourself.”
And each of those responses would result in heightened reaction in return.
But the reaction could be slower – a quiet seething that leads to a delayed, and probably more severe reaction. All sorts of retaliation could be planned.
But the reaction need not be revenge. Suppose the woman hears the criticism and bursts into tears, runs off and is hit by an on-coming car. Suppose she diets compulsively until she either becomes an internationally famous model or anorexic.
What about the businessman? They say living well is the best revenge. Suppose he works harder, becomes successful and takes work away from the speaker who loses his own business. Suppose there is a feud between the two companies that leads to price cutting till both companies suffer.
If the hurt or anger are not displayed overtly right away it is still your privilege, as a writer, to observe the tiny signs of those emotions that a casual observer might have missed. The woman might bite her lip and look down. She might shrink back, suck in her stomach, or try to look taller. She also might toss her head in a “Who cares what you say” fashion.
How might you respond if you weren’t constrained by politeness? OK. Multiply that by ten and give the reaction to the woman. Give full rein to the venom you’d feel. (Feels good, doesn’t it?)
How about the businessman’s anger? Men’s emotions are tougher because they tend to hide them better. The slight curling of the fingers to make a fist, tension in the jaw, a scowl, the deep breath and gritted teeth. The overt emotion – the fight response is easier to show.
Whatever the reaction is, it will lead to another reaction – this one from the original speaker. Again, depending on your story, this can be either big and overt or small and subtle. But if your characters wander along with not much happening to them, and paying not much attention to what others do or say, then you don’t have a story that causes a reader to say, “I gotta read fast. I gotta find out what happens next.”