On July 27, 2021, i  writing wrote, Quick question about clichés—or one in particular—the MC of my middle-grade novel meets her love interest by literally crashing into him. They both fall over, she gets a look at him, stammers her way through an apology, and walks off in a pleasantly surprised daze. Is this a super-cliche way for two love interests to meet?

Christie V Powell answered with this: It’s certainly a well used trope, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s clichéd. You can find a way to use it, especially if you play with it a bit.

This is TVTropes’ page for “Playing with Crash Into Hello”, which defines different ways that the trope could be used:

I love Christie V Powell’s link. My fav is the wallet one.

And I agree with her all the way. Whether a trope will be tired or not depends on the way it’s handled. Here’s a super early prompt: Read the ones on the link and then list five other ways to fool with the collision-meets-cute romcom starter.

One way we can use a trope—any trope—in a way that will boost its originality and lower its profile is to make it do more than one thing in our story.

Character development: Matt bumps into Sara. She apologizes. He says, “Whatever.” With great economy, we’ve revealed a bit of the characters of each of them. Our plot gets a boost too, because, if these two are going to fall for each other, we sure have a story arc to think about.

To develop our characters, we consider what we want this encounter to reveal about them. How can we make the crash show them at their best, their worst, or their most typical?

To develop our plot: Sara is a werewolf whose shifts are set off by the unexpected. When Matt bumps into her, she begins to transform.

Here, we use the meet-cute to reveal what we know about our story.

To develop our setting: Matt has been wandering through the minotaur’s labyrinth for days. Sound travels weirdly in here. Several times, the minotaur has almost been upon him before he heard its booming steps. Now, he thinks he hears lighter—human?—footfalls, but where? Oof!

Here, in the lead-up to the collision, the reader learns about the quality of sound in the labyrinth.

This is fun!

In each of these, readers may not even notice that this is a meet-cute-by-collision device at all.

But if I ask myself whether it’s best to avoid tropes entirely so we don’t need to think of workarounds to make them original, I’m not sure. The whole meet-cute thing is a trope too, but how many romances start by two people reading Kierkegaard in a Philosophy class? (As you may have read somewhere because it’s a good (true) story, David and I had a cute—sort of—moment when he set his hair on fire during our first date.)

Tropes become tropes by being repeated, and they’re repeated because they’re good. They may even go back to a primordial story shape that satisfies humans like nothing else. We complicate them to bring in originality, and the complications are part of the plot process. A story arc could even be described as a pattern of rising complexity—up, up, up—‘til we reach the crisis, and then lowering—down, down, down—until what’s left comes into sharp focus in the resolution. I don’t know if we can avoid tropes—so why worry?

However, if we want to try, we can start to think, as we should anyway, about the characters of the two. What’s going on in their lives? What are the conflicts, the trajectory of the story they’re already on that romance hasn’t yet entered?

Let’s suppose that Sara joined the debate team at her high school in hopes of reducing her terror at public speaking. Matt uses the auditorium to study because his friends don’t go there, and he can tune out whatever is going on onstage. He’s not doing well in his European History class because he can’t keep straight all the little countries and the wars and the dates.

To Sara, Matt is just there during her debate practice, a helpful presence because she can see he’s oblivious to whatever she says and how badly she says it. He’s not aware of her at all. His family is very invested in his education. An F will put a serious dent in their hopes for him and his hopes for himself. Both run in different crowds, and their friendships bring in other conflict that are part of the story. The reader cares about the two characters but doesn’t see a connection between them, which when it comes, is gradual. They stand next to each other in the cafeteria line in a moment when their friends aren’t around. Matt, who isn’t comfortable with silence, tells her he likes the pea soup. She nods. And so on. Their brief contacts are always pleasant. When he flunks his History midterm, he sees her at the school lockers and says something, just because she seems nice. That’s the meet-not-especially-cute, but it grows from there.

A great example of no trope at all is in Jane Austen’s Emma, because the eponymous heroine has known the future love interest her whole life. There is no meeting.

Here are four prompts based on the scenarios above, plus one that isn’t:

  • Matt bumps into Sara. She apologizes. He says, “Whatever.” Write the scene that follows and the whole romance, if you like.
  • Write this one: Sara is a werewolf whose shifts are set off by the unexpected. When Matt bumps into her, she begins to transform.
  • And/or this one: Matt has been wandering through the minotaur’s labyrinth for days. Sound travels weirdly in here. Several times, the minotaur has almost been upon him before he heard its booming steps. Now, he thinks he hears lighter—human?—footfalls, but where? Oof!
  • Or the non-trope one of the debate-anxious Sara and the history-challenged Matt.
  • Your MC meets the villain of your story by colliding with her. Write the scene. If you like, continue to write the whole tale.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Meet Un-cute

On May 6, 2020, Christie V Powell wrote, If you were reading a book with two POVs, a girl and a guy of comparable age, would you expect them to become a couple? The genre is fantasy.

A conversation followed:

Erica: Unless they were related, already interested in other people, younger than about ten, or vast distances apart, yes. On the other hand, I like to be surprised. Do what you feel like is best for your story.

Katie W.: I would expect them to, but I would also be happy if they weren’t, because I get tired of having every story I read be a romance. I think the comment thread about romance vs. friendship a couple posts back made some good points about this.

Melissa Mead: Yes, but I’d love to see more books that subvert that expectation.

Raina: If it’s a MG book? Maybe. In that case, though, unless it’s really upper MG (bordering on YA, like the later Percy Jackson and Harry Potter books), I wouldn’t expect there to be a lot of romance, even if they do end up together. More like subtle crushes or really strong friendships that develop into something more, not “you’re the love of my life and I will spend the rest of my life with you” type of romance found in some YA books.

If it’s YA? Yes, almost certainly. Not so much because I personally need to have romance in all of my books (honestly I’d love to see more strong, platonic friendships in YA), but because 99% of YA books have some kind of romantic relationship between the main characters, and it’s pretty much a genre convention at this point. I can think of one book that subverts this–THIS SAVAGE SONG by Victoria Schwab, which is also a Fantasy featuring dual male/female POVS who go on an adventure together but end up as close friends, not lovers–but that’s an exception among the norm.

That being said though, you don’t have to purposefully follow OR deliberately subvert genre conventions by any means. Romance is great when it’s well written, but platonic male/female friendships are also something I’d love to see more of.

Christie V Powell: This one is supposed to be adult. There are definitely romance subplots, but they each have one with someone else, not each other. They’ve mentioned that they might be related, but I haven’t decided if they are half-siblings, or if they aren’t, or if I just leave it a mystery and no one ever knows for sure.

SilverSky: Me and my friend are actually going to do this and each write a P.O.V! They definitely won’t be interested in each other. They are around the age of 14 and 15 I think (haven’t started writing it quite yet. Quarantine got in the way of getting together).

If I were reading the book, I think I would still have them just be close friends. If you’re talking adult characters then I would probably expect a closer bond.

Of course, if one (or both) is gay, the reader won’t expect romance.

I once asked a dental hygienist if the first thing she noticed when she met people was their teeth. She said Yes! and added that when she and her ex-husband got serious, she told him she couldn’t marry him unless he dealt with the disaster going on in his mouth–which he did, and the marriage lasted long enough for their daughter to grow to adulthood.

(I wondered how she could tolerate working on me and my tan teeth, caused by my weird habit for many years of chewing cinnamon sticks.)

To me, the heart of Christie V Powell’s question is how we create and manage reader expectations, especially about characters.

In our narration, we can quickly shut down a romanic expectation with something like this: Stacey’s friends were always intense, tightly focused, twitching with energy. But for romance, she preferred laid-back, go-with-the-flow types.

Then, when Brian, wound like a spring, shows up, the reader understands he’s only friend material.

For each of our two POV characters we can think of what would be romantic deal-breakers. Evie in Ogre Enchanted, for example, couldn’t fall for someone with a weak sense of humor.

The deal-breaker could be physical, though we have to be careful with that, because we don’t want readers to feel bad about the way they look. My first date, maybe at the age of fourteen, was with a boy who was at least six-feet-two and I never made it to five feet. I had to reach up to hold his hand. Nerds that we were, we went to a museum in New York City, and on our way there, people from two blocks away pointed at us and laughed. This isn’t to my credit, but I was too embarrassed ever to date him again.

Again from Ogre Enchanted, which explores romantic attachment, Evie asks her mother what made her mother fall in love with her father, who died before the beginning of the book. Part of her mother’s answer is about the tingle she felt with him. We can use absence of some variant on tingle to let readers know that love between two characters is not to be.

In my beloved Pride and Prejudice, any thoughts the reader may have of romance between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Collins, heir to Mr. Bennett’s estate, are dashed even before he shows up, by his letter, which is pompous and odd. This exchange between Elizabeth and her father follows his reading of the letter:

        “‘He must be an oddity, I think,’ said she. ‘I cannot make him out.—There is something very pompous in his style.—And what can he mean by apologising for being next in the entail?—We cannot suppose he would help it if he could.—Could he be a sensible man, sir?’
        “‘No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him.’”

Mr. Collins’s goose is cooked!

By contrast, let’s look at this from Jane Eyre, following her first meeting with Mr. Rochester, when he’s fallen off his horse and she doesn’t yet know who he is:

    “The new face, too, was like a new picture introduced to the gallery of memory; and it was dissimilar to all the others hanging there: firstly, because it was masculine; and, secondly, because it was dark, strong, and stern.”

Oh, my! The reader is primed in a single sentence for the cosmos-shaking love that follows.

(Just saying, I adored Jane Eyre in my teens, but when I revisited it decades later, my opinion of Mr. Rochester plummeted.)

So, we guide reader expectation in romance just as in everything else, like world-building, and, like world-building, the sooner the better. Our introduction to Mr. Collins and to Mr. Rochester don’t come early in the respective novels, but they come early in their entry to the story. We don’t want to give the reader a chance to form a different idea, which we’ll have to labor to reverse.

I don’t mean there can’t be surprises. Jane Austen doesn’t guide the reader’s idea of another possible romantic interest, Mr. Wickham, immediately. She wants to surprise the reader. That decision will depend a lot on our plot.

As always, we convey expectations to our readers through narration or thoughts or dialogue or feeling, or a combination of more than one. Anticipation about Stacey’s romantic interests are set up in my first example through narration. We can even use narration to address the reader the old-fashioned way: Dear Reader, do not expect love to spring up between these two. Yes, there will be mutual respect, but their romantic destinies lie elsewhere.

The P&P example uses dialogue, the Jane Eyre one thoughts (or narration–I’m not sure). But we can use thoughts. Here’s Brian: I walked home and ran over the afternoon in my mind. Stacey was nice, sure, but every five seconds she scratched her neck or her arm or rubbed her nose, like an itchy dog, except dogs are adorable no matter what they do.

Not promising.

Here’s Stacey’s feelings: Brian ordered spaghetti and dug in. Stacey’s stomach turned when he slurped, when spaghetti strands wriggled from his mouth, when red sauce dribbled down his chin.

Hard to get past that.

Christie V Powell, if you continued with your project since you asked your question, how did it turn out? Was there a romance?

Here are three prompts:

• Dr. Watson has broken multiple bones in a fall from his horse. He sends in his sister to sub for him as Sherlock Holmes’s assistant. Write their meeting from his point of view and show that he’s drawn to her.

• Using the scenario above, now write their meeting from her point of view and show that, while she admires Sherlock’s mind, she finds him romantically unappealing.

• Write the scene that follows the one above, in which Holmes deduces the impression he’s made and works to change it. Decide whether or not he succeeds.

Have fun, and save what youwrite!

Stalled in Love

A reminder for those of you in my neck of the woods: I will be at the Ridgefield Public Library in Ridgefield, Connecticut, on Saturday, November 10th at 2:00 pm–even though elsewhere on the website it said 1:00 pm until yesterday. Oops! I would love to meet any of you who can come!

To all those on the first leg to NaNoWriMo, hang onto your hats, and all the best!

On August 31, 2018, newtothis set off quite a discussion with her question: So, guys, what are your thoughts on love triangles?

Christie V Powell: Well, you asked for it

Personally, I’m not a fan–at least, not the most cliche version with one “ordinary” girl who somehow catches the attention of two equally hot guys, one brooding and mysterious and one a good friend.

Besides the cliche, I’m not a fan of having the girl be so indecisive: I feel like the point of a romance, subplot or otherwise, is watching the two characters grow closer and learn to work together. You can’t really do that if you’re vacillating between love interests.

Song4myKing: I don’t usually like them either, but thinking about it, it all depends on how it’s done, and why. I read one book with a love triangle that would sound very cliche if summed up, but I liked it anyway. There was way more to the story than only the romance stuff, but the MC’s reactions and thoughts about the two young men were part of the whole story theme. It all worked together and was decently believable (rather than “oh, she’s mad at him now, because the romance was going too obviously in his direction”).

I generally don’t like the whole indecisiveness. It often feels contrived. And we as readers often have a good idea of which way it will go, and it’s annoying when the MC doesn’t “get it” for so long.

I also get annoyed at the too-many-suitors aspect. Maybe it’s just because I totally can’t sympathize. But I think it also rings of the unrealistic to me: I do have friends who have too many would-be suitors, but so far none of them have told me about having two equally nice guys chasing them at the same time.

Another reason I don’t usually like love triangles is because I don’t really care for romance in general. Which means you can take my comments about it with a grain of salt! What do I know about it anyway if I don’t read it?

Basically, what I think about love triangles is this (it kinda applies to romance in general): Make the story about more than just it. And avoid the opposite ditch at the same time – make it part of the story. Don’t just tag it on as a crowd pleaser. Don’t stretch the whole indecision thing just to make the fans team up for their favorite. Think carefully about whether it adds or detracts from the rest of the story.

Raina: I think it all depends on the reasoning behind them; if it’s a forced love triangle between three people just for the sake of drama/showing how desirable the MC is, then in my experience, it usually feels unrealistic and doesn’t work. On the other hand, if it develops naturally from character relationships (as any romance should), then I think it could work. People are complicated, especially teenagers, and it’s quite realistic for feelings to change rapidly, especially in the beginning stages of a relationship (i.e. when you’re not actually dating, and therefore aren’t formally committed). I think as long as you’re not putting in a love triangle for the sake of a love triangle, but simply have two potential love interests that represent different but plausible (and hopefully happy) futures for your MC, that should be fine.

Bethany: All I’m gonna say is, when have you ever seen a girl who is in love with two different guys in real life?

At my signing last week, a man asked me why I thought “Beauty and the Beast,” in all its variations has survived so long. And I said that I think it’s because, however weak this may seem to some, everyone–man, woman, and child–wants to be loved. In the traditional retelling (not, by any means, in my Ogre Enchanted!), the Beast loves Beauty so-so-so desperately that he will die without her. This is appealing if not emotionally healthy, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be loved. Quite the opposite. Empathy comes partly from wanting to be loved, in my opinion, and a lot of good behavior does, too–loved romantically or in any other way.

Something similar happens in a love triangle. The two suitors at the base of the triangle love-love-love the character at the apex, whatever the gender of those involved. The reader imagines herself (or himself) as the wanted one, standing on tiptoe on that heady peak–while the point tears into her foot, and blood streams down the sides.

I haven’t written a love triangle and probably never will, although Ogre Enchanted has elements in common with one.

Strong emotions are the hallmarks of a love triangle, if it’s taken seriously, if it isn’t a cliche: jealousy, love (real or imagined), hate, anxiety, fear. And sadness is common if not inevitable. The love object, if she lets one of the suitors go, will experience deep loss, because she’s giving up this person’s love, something she’s proven, by getting into a love triangle, she needs very much.

Maybe she wants to hang onto both, but she has to be two different people, one for each. How can she be true to herself? Where is her self-respect? And there are self-respect issues for the suitors. Why are they willing to endure this? The one who drops off will grieve. All three can entirely split apart, too. There’s no law that two have to be left together.

One of the sad aspects of a love triangle is stasis. While the triangle continues, none of them can continue with their lives. Oddly, it makes me think of Hamlet, who is stuck in the indecision that kills him in the end. The main characters in a romantic triangle are like charged atoms, stuck in orbit around each other.

As all of you have said, it depends on how it’s done. Everything in writing depends on that. And how it’s done in a romantic triangle hinges on the characters involved, because this is a character-driven story, which would be the strategy we can use to approach it.

What happened to land these three people in this dilemma? What does each one want? How do their goals intersect and diverge? What ideas do they cherish of themselves? Why is it so hard for them to break free? The stasis is the villain. What other characters and circumstances are keeping it going? How is it defeated? Who does the defeating? Is this a tragedy, like Hamlet, or a romcom?

What is likely to make the dilemma worth it for the reader is the appeal of the MC and the other two. She has to be flawed but lovable. The reader needs to understand why the other two love her and why she loves them.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your MC is given permission by her parents to get a dog. She goes to her local animal shelter, where two puppies in particular shower her with licks. They’re both adorable, and she doesn’t know what will happen to the one she doesn’t take. She has to pick one, because her parents have been very clear about this. Write the love triangle.

∙ Cinderella and Prince Charming are engaged and planning their wedding, when he’s called away on a diplomatic mission that takes him through the forest where Snow White has just been poisoned by the evil queen. He recognizes her, because their kingdoms are neighbors, and they grew up seeing and liking each other when they met on state occasions. Naturally, he kisses her. She wakes up, sees his face, remembers her friendly feelings for him, and is primed for love. His heart is touched, and the love triangle begins. Write what happens.

∙ Your MC has had one boyfriend since eighth grade, and now it’s twelfth, and she, a talented actor, is cast as the lead in the school production of Carousel and finds herself liking the boy who plays Judd–and he likes her. The boyfriend is the stage manager. Write the triangle and how it works out.

∙ Two of the dwarves fall for Snow White, who enjoys being adored. She leads them on and leads them on. Write what happens. You can take the fairy tale in a new direction if you like.

Have fun, and save what you write!