Spark Notes

On August 31, 2015, Jordan W. wrote, I have finally figured out my entire plot and I’m about to start writing my first draft, But there is one minor problem. I have no idea how to make my MC meet the love interest. I know what happens before and after they meet I just don’t know how to go about the actual confrontation. Can anyone offer any inspiration?

Yulia weighed in with useful ideas, some of which make my ears burn: I’m not a romance expert, but I’ve read lots of romance stories, and I can recount how the love interests were introduced there. Gail herself has written many great books, so let’s look at her versions:

In ELLA ENCHANTED, the MC Ella’s feeling bad because her mother died and love interest Char cheers her up.

In FAIREST, the MC Aza sees love interest Ijori at a wedding, and he saves her from embarrassment in the receiving line.

In EVER, the love interest Olus rescues MC Kezi from a mean, creepy guy. (Actually, both Olus and Kezi are MC’s, but you get the idea.)

Some other examples:

In Shannon Hale’s THE GOOSE GIRL, the MC Ani is sitting in a goose pasture when love interest Geric comes riding in on an unruly horse. Ani jumps on the horse and rides around before Geric tells her that it’s not her horse; they have a spat, and the next day he comes with flowers.

In Soman Chainani’s THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL, the love interest Tedros throws a rose (which signifies his love) into the audience of girls. MC Sophie is so desperate to catch it, but she misses.

In books with younger MCs, the romance is a lot slower. Take Emily and Aaron in Liz Kessler’s EMILY WINDSNAP series (she’s 12 or 13 and he’s about 14). They’re just friends for a long time before they dive in.

These are great examples, and they each share a quality: a vulnerable moment. In Ella Enchanted, for example, Ella might have been more guarded with a stranger if her mother hadn’t died recently. Also, I know from sad experience that after the loss of a loved one, people and characters are eager to hear the departed remembered, to know that his or her life mattered. Char, without calculation, does this.

This absence of calculation is a common element, too, in the incitement to romance. If Char were intentionally endearing himself to Ella, he would come off as disturbing, possibly villainous.

So that’s a strategy to keep in mind, to put our MC at risk, not serious risk, because we don’t want to overwhelm the moment. And I don’t mean that the hero has to save the heroine. She can save him, or they can be in trouble together.

Here’s an approach to crafting the meeting: Make it reflect a reason the two wind up loving each other. In Ella Enchanted again, Char admires Lady Eleanor’s sense of humor. As the romance develops, Ella enjoys making Char laugh, and he, the more serious of the two, loves that she can.

So first we think about what elements cause the two to mesh. We can make a list. For example:

∙ They’re both adventurous, even risk-taking.

∙ She’s direct; he’s diplomatic. Each wishes for some of the other’s quality.

∙ They grew up in different cultures, and she loves his exoticism. He loves teaching her about his village.

And so on in large ways and small. When you write your list, go for five to ten elements. Some of the meshing can be physical, so put those on your list, too, but, unless we have strangely shallow MCs, there need to be emotional and probably intellectual traits that attract as well.

Now how can we use what we have? Taking the first one, they can meet on a wilderness adventure. He proposes something the group could do, which the tour guide nixes, nastily. She can support the idea. The first spark has flared. If my second bullet also applies, she can tell the tour guide off. He can admire her fearlessness. If the tour guide has a fit, he can use his diplomacy to lower the temperature, and she can be impressed. Spark two.

Notice that nothing enormous has happened. We’re setting the stage to let their feelings build.

Notice also that we’ve used their characters to create the situation. It isn’t enough to engineer events so that they’re in the same place at the same time. The two have to work together.

Here’s another way to think about it: When we consider how to bring them together, we can use the ways they’re alike and the ways they’re opposite. Characteristics that are unrelated won’t help much. If she loves dogs and he likes to walk on the beach, we’ll have to work harder. But if he hates dogs or is afraid of them and she loves them, ideas stop popping.

Before I go to prompts, I just want to remember my favorite romantic beginning, which comes from Anne of Green Gables: Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe are classmates, each fuzzily aware of the other, but the awareness doesn’t sharpen until he calls her hair carroty and she slams her slate over his head. I love that romantic beginning!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Think of two people you know in real life. If they aren’t near in age, imagine that they are. It doesn’t matter if they know each other. Think about how they might work as a couple. Write the scene that sets off their romance.

∙ Using my third bullet, have her be a tourist in his village and have her commit some social faux pas. Use the incident to incite their romance.

∙ Write the wilderness adventure that I set up.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. MisplacedPoetry says:

    Hmm romance is definitely something I struggled to write. Everything gets so awkward, not just with the characters but the writing itself. But setting the stage out could help maybe.

  2. I haven’t commented on here in a long time! I’ve been reading though, every post. Love them all, Gail 🙂

    I’ve only ever created one romance so far, and the way I went about it might be considered a tad unconventional; my love interest was forced to kidnap my MC. It took a long time to bring them around to liking each other after that! It was fun, though.

    I just wanted to comment because I recently had a huge break through in my current book and I have you, Gail, to thank for it, for always advising to “save what you write.” About five years ago, when I was halfway through my first book, I wrote a crazy, unrelated tangent involving my characters in the worst case scenario I could possibly think of for them (that was actually your fault, too – I started writing it after reading your chapter “Suffer!” in “Writing Magic”). Eventually it turned int about sixty pages of interesting but completely useless adventure. I knew I’d never be able to use it because it would have changed my MC’s lives completely and made the rest of my books impossible, but I saved it anyway.
    However, recently I was at a dead-end in my third book, attempting to bring life into a simple, flat plot, when it hit me! I came across that old sixty-page tangent and realized that a good portion of it was usable, after all! With that little bit of worst-case-scenario, my story has gained life, excitement, interest, and about forty pages, just like that!

    Thanks for advising us to save what we write, Gail! It sure saved my story!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      It’s great to hear from you! Congratulations on all the success you’re having in your writing, and I love kidnapping as a romance starter (in fiction!).

  3. Butterfly Yulia says:

    Hi there! That post was really helpful and I’m happy to see my tips were useful! (I must say I feel very awkward giving romance story advice. Kind of like that PEANUTS character Lucy who gives her so-called “psychiatric help”) 😀
    Now I have a little problem of my own. I’m retelling the story of Les Miserables (high school and up, but a solid literary story nonetheless). Instead of setting it in Paris in the 1830s, I’m putting it in the Warsaw Pact breakup (1991). But the rest of the story is pretty much the same, besides some collective farms and other communisty stuff.
    So now the question is, should I tell the story just like the original (I’m taking out the PG-13 part, but the rest would be the same) or should I throw a wild twist in there? (For those of you who’ve read the novel, I’m thinking about letting Cosette be a Friend of the ABC and Eponine marries Marius). Basically, if I put a spin on it I will be rewriting the entire story until it’s not really Les Miserables anymore. But if I keep it the same, will it be boring?

    Oh, and Melissa Mead, I ADORE the idea about the arrest romance!
    Also, thank you Gail for recommending that we save what we write—I just dug up a 3-year-old manuscript and turned it into something fresh and good.

    • Hmm…I don’t think keeping it relatively the same makes it boring. Personally, I love old stories set in more modern times, and being able to recognize all the elements from the old story that are modernized. And–it’s just my opinion–but I really like Marius and Cosette as couple, and I’d prefer them to stay that way. 😉 However, if you do want to change it up a bit, maybe you could do a sideplot with Eponine, or something? Or one of the other relatively likable characters? Just a suggestion for you. 🙂

    • Butterfly Yulia says:

      Thanks for all the help on the story. If you’re wondering, here’s the skinny on it: Cosette jumps into the revolutionary movement because Marius is into it, and they start up a human rights thing (kind of like Miri and Timon in PRINCESS ACADEMY: PALACE OF STONE). Eponine is actually born a poor girl that the Thenardiers take in and abuse like Cosette, and she’s sour that Valjean adopted Cosette instead of her. So Eponine and Cosette both fall for Marius and Eponine has a grudge against Cosette. Cosette goes missing, and Marius makes a deal with Eponine to give her anything she wants if she finds him Cosette. So she digs up where she’s living and tells him because she thinks then he’ll be forced to marry her (living in the streets has made her very ugly and hard and no one wants to marry her). And the hitch is, while they’re looking for Cosette, she softens up and he starts actually falling for her. There’s where the triangle comes in.

      I originally wanted him to pick Cosette, but I’m having trouble with her. She’s so meek and all, and Eponine is very vibrant and bold. I find myself liking my Eponine better than my Cosette, but of course the story’s all about Cosette. I’m kind of feisty myself, so writing a perfect sweetheart of a character is hard for me. But I agree that Cosette and Marius seem like an adorable couple.

      Any tips, please?

      • That sounds like a really interesting story! 🙂 I can see how you’re having trouble since you seem to relate more to Eponine more than Cosette. Maybe you could tweak Cosette’s personality a bit? Give her some more grit to her personality, or something? I mean, I could probably be considered a pretty meek person, but I can be tough when I have to be, and I can get angry just like anyone else. So, don’t feel like Cosette has to be perfect–you’ll probably want her to be relatively sweeter than Eponine is, for contrast, but she doesn’t have to be Melanie Hamilton from Gone with the Wind, or Lucie Manette from A Tale of Two Cities or anything. As much as I love those characters, they don’t feel all that realistic. Every real person has flaws, and realistic characters need them, too. 🙂

  4. My favorite kind of romance is when the love interest is, well, interested, and the MC is clueless. “The Happy Golden Years” from the Little House books is an example, where she just doesn’t understand why he’s helping her. Makes me giggle every time.

  5. (sigh) awesome as always, Mrs.Levine. I love writing romance, just the slow building tension is enough to bring me to tears! Even as a subplot, love can take twists and turns I never expected. It drives my plot eventually and its so much fun!
    Anyways, NaNoWriMo is over, thank lord….. Writing isn’t over, though, so scratch that……

  6. WriterGirl4Life says:

    I don’t really like NaNoWriMo. I’d love to join, but when I called my local library, they said it was only for adults. Maybe next year I’ll join secretly, like do it without anyone knowing or going to the meets.

    • I don’t know what kind of library they’re running! NaNo is for whoever wants to participate(technically 13+, but who’s checking?? ;)) Register online on the NaNoWriMo website and you’ll get all the details. They have camp NaNo coming up April and July of next year if you want to check that out. Have fun!

    • I think what she may have meant were the library write in events or parties. NaNoWriMo is open to everyone over thirteen (although a lot of the younger participants head to the Young Writers Program page which is a little bit easier, but not all), but if your library was hosting a party or write in event, they might have not wanted a bunch of underage kids running around unsupervised due to safety and legal issues. If that’s the case, you’d probably be fine if you talked to the people in charge or got an adult to go with you. But NaNoWriMo online is free to participate for everyone. I believe camp NaNo is comng up in April of you want to give it a shot.

  7. Butterfly Yulia says:

    OK, so I have a tiny question. I’m writing a story set in Russia, and there the last names work kind of funny. The endings on all the surnames change depending upon the character’s gender. So I have a Mr. Morozov and a Mrs. Morozova. Should I call them Mr. and Mrs. Morozov, or should I leave them as Morozov and Morozova like they would be in Russia?
    Thank you!

  8. WriterGirl4Life says:

    I writing my first novel, and I have so many questions! The one that’s burning the most in my mind is probably the most important. In my sixth chapter, I’m making my MC look as if she is about to quit and not help a world in need. (She’ll decide to help later on though.)Anyway, at first that seemed like a good idea. Now, I’m not sure if that will make my readers put down the book.
    Please advise.

      • WriterGirl4Life says:

        She’s going to quit because of fear. She’s just been thrown into this crazy world where there’s danger around every corner and she’s is afraid. So she decides leave.

    • I think that you should just write the scene and give it to someone else to read. Writers can often be most critical of their own writing and if you got a second opinion it may help you to decide what to do with the scene. I know that I’ve read many books where the main character wants to quit early on, and a few where they try not to even start, and some of those books number among my favourites. I do agree with Melissa Mead in that if she wants to quit because she’d rather sleep in, or some other very selfish, spoiled reason it may be a turnoff as opposed to wanting to quit because the stress of the world’s-existence-depending-on-her thing is getting her down.

    • I agree about motive. Also, I think it can depend on what the tone has been like up until this point, and how well the reader has gotten to know and like the MC. If I like the character I’m reading about, and I know she’s golden at heart, and I can tell what direction the author has been heading, I usually go ahead and trust the author and character and keep reading. But in all that, don’t be overbearing. Plan to go over that “leading up to it” section with a fine-toothed comb in the revisions to get the right amount of the right tone. And definitely get a friend’s opinion. I’ve been surprised sometimes about what my friends say.

      • WriterGirl4Life says:

        Okay, thanks. I want to try all of it.

        On an off topic note, I really love this blog. I love getting help when I have hard questions and I don’t know what to do.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I’m so happy about this blog! My favorite part is reading the comments, which are so helpful. And right now, with the Bamarre story titles, I’m the beneficiary!

  9. Hi Gail,
    So I’m working on inventing the world where my story is set right now, and I’m totally overwhelmed with having to invent languages, cultures, religions, political structure, geography, history, all that stuff. I was just wondering, how in depth do you go when you invent the world for your stories, like Kyrria, Bamarre, etc.? How much do you invent about your worlds?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’m adding your question to my list, but mostly I invent what I need when I need it, and I don’t go deeper than I need. You certainly don’t have to make up languages unless you have a yen to try it!

      • Chrissa Pedersen says:

        Oh good, I’m glad you’re adding this question to your list! I’d love to get some advice on world building as well.

  10. Butterfly Yulia says:

    Hey there,
    Two questions today!
    1. So my screenplay’s looking pretty good. It has several scenes with sports in it and there’s a lot of technical sports lingo; is that all right? Should I include a glossary so Mr./Ms. Director understands what each move is?

    2. I’m writing a story with three main characters, but two thirds of the way through, one dies. I’ve grown really attached to her (she’s actually the Eponine I talked about in an earlier comment). I’m not sure if the audience would allow me to kill her, but that’s kinda how the story’s supposed to go. Is that OK?

    Thank you so much!

  11. Help! I’ve been looking at a story I wrote a few years ago and trying to rewrite it, or at least edit it, but I keep seeing the plot evolving from an issue that was in a lot of the books I was reading to reflecting my current life, which has gotten a bit crazy. How do I avoid this?

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