SAY WHAT?




A few weeks ago, I was at the grocery store when I crossed paths with a man wearing a hat that said Vietnam Veteran. I always try to thank military personnel and veterans when I encounter them; I feel like it's the least I can do. Something interesting happened this time, though. When I got the man's attention and thanked him for his service, he shook my hand (which I would've initiated myself if not for COVID). Then he said something that struck me to my core:


"When you see a Vietnam vet, don't tell them 'thank you.' Tell them 'welcome home,' because we never got that when we came back."

That really hurt my heart. I'd heard and read about some of the things that Vietnam vets faced when they came home, but this made it real. How could people be so cruel to those who'd sacrificed so much? So I told this man, "Welcome home." I'll definitely remember that for future encounters with Vietnam vets. In a roundabout way, this experience reminded me of one of my favorite pieces of writing advice. In Save the Cat!, author Blake Snyder talks about a useful tool that helps writers get readers on the protagonist's side early in the story. Essentially, the author needs to have the protagonist do something that makes him/her likable. It doesn't have to be actually saving a cat (though, for example, The Incredibles takes this advice literally)--it just has to be some action by the protagonist that gives the readers a reason to care about and root for him/her. It could be as simple as opening a door for someone or as heroic as saving a child from getting hit by a car.  This moment is also useful for revealing character. If, for example, we gave my veteran-greeting practice to a protagonist, exactly what that character does in such an exchange can show a lot about them:

  • If the protagonist just makes eye contact, smiles, and nods, they might be shy or uncomfortable with approaching strangers.

  • If the protagonist simply says "Thank you" or "Thank you for your service" and walks on, they might not want to get involved in a long conversation or draw a lot of attention.

  • If the protagonist adds the appropriate title for the person's branch of service ("Thank you, soldier/Marine/seaman," etc.), this might show that the protagonist pays attention to details, such as the patch on a servicemember's fatigues that identifies their branch. Alternatively, if the veteran is wearing something that wouldn't obviously identify their branch to a civilian (e.g., a hat that has 101st Airborne Division but not US Army printed on it), this greeting could show that the protagonist has some kind of military background.

  • If the protagonist is a civilian and salutes the veteran, they're probably not aware of the military protocols for this gesture (see https://www.army.mil/article/182999/traditions_of_honor_and_respect) but want to show respect.

  • If the protagonist offers a handshake, they might like making that physical connection to someone and/or want to show their gratitude with more than just words.

  • If the protagonist uses a special phrase in certain situations (such as "Welcome home" when encountering a Vietnam veteran), this might display military and/or historical knowledge.

The next time you're working on an introductory scene for a protagonist, consider how you could have them "save the cat." It'll go a long way to winning over your readers. Write on, Candice P.S. Check out this article for help with some commonly confused military terms: https://www.military.com/undertheradar/2015/07/8-military-terms-civilians-always-get-wrong (Thanks to Holly Mindrup for sharing their work on Unsplash.)

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