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!

The Love Express

First off, best wishes to all of you who are taking on NaNoWriMo! You are my heroes!

I stay away from politics here, but I can’t resist saying that if you’re old enough to vote, I hope you will.

And third. Last post I asked for words that make you cringe, and I relished reading your picks! How about words that you adore? I love palimpsest, both sound and meaning, which I’ve read is the favorite of many, possibly to the point of cliche. I’m wild about grok, which was invented by sci fi writer Robert Heinlein in his classic Stranger In A Strange Land (high school and up). Grok is a verb that means to understand fully, with all the nuance, complexity, and context that any situation can have.

On June 20, 2016, Martina wrote, I am kind of doing a retelling of the fairy tale “Manyfurs” and am mashing it with “Snow White.” My MC is very stubborn-minded, because in the story, when her father wants her to marry a preselected prince, she refuses. (Well, she accepts on the conditions of three impossible items being given to her.) My problem is, later on in the story, she promptly falls in love with another man, and he is instrumental in helping to rid her of the other prince. How can I make her love with the second man not seem forced or abrupt?

Christie V Powell weighed in with, I think that one of the big things in building a romantic relationship is that you focus on things beside romance. Sure, they’re attracted to each other, but just like any other relationship they also need friendship, trust, respect, fun (think sliding down banisters!), and especially selflessness. Pet peeve: romances where the guy is forceful and makes her do things. Sorry, that’s not love, that’s abuse.

One thing I’ve been playing with is the 5 love languages. Everyone speaks and hears love through different ways. My romance in my WIP hasn’t gone far yet (it was barely hinted at in the first book because I wanted the MC developed on her own first, then they’re just learning to be friends in the second), but when I get to the romance stage I’m planning on using all five of them, so it speaks to the reader no matter which the reader likes best. The five are: words of affection, giving gifts, quality time, service, and physical touch.

I agree! True love in fairy tales is usually inexplicable–or unpleasantly explained by beauty and power. I’d add to Christie V Powell’s five the sixth element she mentions in her first paragraph: fun. And a seventh or maybe part of the sixth, a sense of humor.

Here’s something else to consider in this particular fairy tale, if we want our MC to be sympathetic: the rejection of the first suitor. Our MC, and everyone in the real world, has or should have an absolute right to turn down a suitor. She doesn’t need a reason–but she will be more understandable and likable if she has one and the reader gets it.

I’m dealing with this in my WIP, Ogre Enchanted. Fee (short for Phoebe) says no to Wormy (short for Master Warwick) in the first scene. As I kept writing, I realized that even I didn’t like her, and part of the reason was that I identified with Wormy, who felt terrible, and she caused his unhappiness. So I worked on him and made him less appealing.

Now, because I’m embracing complexity, I’ve doubled back and made him more appealing again, although I’m hoping her reasons will still be clear.

So, if we’re dealing with two romantic prospects, we want the reader to understand our MC’s choice.

I do believe in love that comes on pretty fast, if not quite at first sight. I met my husband when I was just eighteen, and he was the first boy I felt totally comfortable talking to. I didn’t yet know I was a word person, but I think that clinched it–along with his other sterling qualities, especially of kindness, sensitivity, and humor.

And I’ve seen it happen with friends. Something in this one hooks into something in that one, like jigsaw pieces. There’s a shared recognition.

So abruptness may work, but not forced-ness. The reader has to get the reason for the romance–and will be able to if we open up our MC’s emotions and thoughts. I think the inner life of our MC is the key. Narrative distance can’t bring love to life.

Not that it always happens fast. Many years ago–I think we were in our thirties–a friend told me about his ambivalence regarding his girlfriend. I was mad at him and probably told him he should go all in or all out. He married her, and, near the end of his life, I reminded him of our conversation, which he didn’t recall. He said that marrying her was the best decision he’d ever made. But it came on slowly.

We know this MC is stubborn. We can use that characteristic to make a speedy connection believable. Maybe something in him can connect to that stubbornness. He may be compliant, and she may think, At last, here’s someone who isn’t always giving me an argument. Or, he can be stubborn, too, and they can enjoy bumping up against each other. We can think about the other traits that we can give each one that will help them fit together, some that are in opposition and some that are complementary.

I’ve said this before, but I will again: We can look for romantic models among happy couples and even happy friendships we know. What makes the two people click? We can set two pairs side-by-side and consider the different ways they make their relationships work.

I read or heard on the radio a while back that relationships that last don’t bury their irritations. That dish left in the sink or that unicorn left ungroomed will rankle if it’s never discussed. Eventually, the dish will sail across the kitchen and the unicorn will be driven over a cliff and the love will corrode. Dire. So I’d add one more element to Christie V Powell’s list: arguing–in a good way.

Anger is also lively. Just billing and cooing gets dull. A little squawking on the page will wake up a scene.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your romantic duo meet in a prisoner-of-war camp run by the dread Sir Mank. They fall in love plotting their escape. By day, they help each other survive the awful conditions; by night, they plan. Each brings a set of skills to the mix, and they become a mutual admiration society. The escape goes flawlessly. They reach the safety of their own forces and now have to find a way to be together when they’re not in danger. Write a scene from the time they’re imprisoned together and one from the time after. Figure out a way for them to stay in love without outside opposition.

∙ Rewrite the second scene and have them split up.

∙ Write the happily ever after of a fairy tale. Snow White and her prince, for example, are married. The evil queen is dead or permanently imprisoned. Write a scene. You can keep them happy or make them miserable.

∙ She’s a groom in the castle stables. He’s the prince who rides his unicorn daily, leaves it in the stall on his return without even putting out a pail of water for the poor thing. She’s furious. She thinks he’s worthless. Make them fall in love.

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!

Subplots and Slow-Cooking Romance

On March 29, 2014, maybeawriter wrote, I noticed that I tend to rush through subplots. For example, in one story, I have my two MCs falling in love. They meet the first day, then they’re already friends with hints of romance by the end of the second. I know shared life-threatening experiences tend to help people bond quickly, but it seems somehow too fast to me. In the same story, I have a (fundamentally good) character who considers himself a super villain, and I think he abandons his life philosophy too quickly. I think both subplots need to be slowed down. Any thoughts on how to pace subplots so they don’t get rushed?

And Eliza responded: It isn’t unbelievable to fall in love after two days. Just to act on it. Hints are okay, things like MCs looking at each other for too long, going out of their way to help each other, and giving compliments. Readers pick up on hints. Just hold off on things like kissing for a while. The longer you hold off, the more readers will want them.

Let’s talk about subplots first, because I recently gained a new understanding in that area. I used to think that a subplot had to be an entirely separate side story. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, is full of this kind of subplot, set off when the fellowship splinters. Various characters leave Frodo and have complete adventures on their own. These subplots come together in the grand resolution of the ring, but they work themselves out in isolation.

Stolen Magic has this kind of subplot, but most of my books have a simpler kind. Let’s take Ella Enchanted as an example. The main plot is Ella’s quest to rid herself of the curse of obedience. Her experiences with ogres would be a subplot. So would her run-ins with Hattie. Her father’s romance, if we can call it that, with Dame Olga would be. Even her relationship with Char would be. Ella, as the POV MC, is there for all of them, but they’re still subplots, which braid together to make trouble for Ella and to finally contribute to the story’s resolution.

I agree with Eliza. I’m on board with quick-developing romantic feelings, because I think they often arise this way. Electricity sizzles between two people, and they like each other, too. They’re both their best selves when they’re together, at least on the first few occasions.

If our story is a romance and we want it to be longer than five pages, we do need to slow it down. What are the possibilities? Can we bring in subplots?

Complications can be external or internal or both. Let’s call maybeawriter’s romantic duo Ginnie and Max, and the guy with delusions of super villainy Warren. And let’s imagine that Ginny and Max enjoyed each other so much on their first meeting that they agree to a repeat the next day at the local historical museum, because they’re both history buffs. Here are a few external events that might intervene:

• Max’s mother is in a car accident. Things look dicey for her. Max is so involved, waiting in the emergency room with his dad and comforting his little sister, that he forgets the date. Ginny waits an hour for him with rising feelings of disappointment and anger.

• Ginny discovers when she gets home that her father wants her to go fishing with him the next day. He rarely has time to spend with her and she doesn’t want to disappoint him. She calls Max and gets his voice mail. She leaves a message and also texts him. He doesn’t get back to her because he left his cell phone on the bus on his way home. He waits for her for an hour the next day. He’s worried, rather than angry, because he realizes she may have left him a message, and he thinks something may have happened to her.

• One of them is in a car accident on the way to the museum.

• Stuart, an old friend of Ginny’s shows up unexpectedly. She reaches Max, and he suggests the friend come along. He does, and his presence throws off the chemistry between Ginny and Max. By the end of the day neither is sure there ever was a spark.

• Max is abducted by a ring of diamond smugglers, or he’s carried off by a hungry dragon.

• Ginny falls, strikes her head, and has amnesia.

See if you can add three (or more!) more external interrupters to my list.

For internal forces we have to make decisions about these two. There are lots of possibilities. Here are a few:

• Max is thorough. When he gets home he googles Ginny. He finds her Facebook page, where he learns about her hobbies, sees her friends. Thinking he’s just expressing interest, the next time he sees her he quizzes her on what he saw. She feels spied on.

• Ginny is enthusiastic. When she gets home she texts Max to say what a great time she had and how she told her girlfriend what a great guy he is. Max is reserved and not sure he likes being discussed with Ginny’s friends.

• Max tells his friend Jay about liking Ginny. Jay knows Ginny and opines that Max can do better. Ginny isn’t cool enough for him. Max, who cares far too much about the opinions of others, feels ashamed of his feelings for Ginny. His hesitation shows the next time they meet.

• Ginny doesn’t trust her luck. She can’t believe how nice Max is, and she worries that he’s going to stop liking her, because great things just don’t happen to her. She works herself into such a state that she cancels the date, not wanting to be there when he loses interest.

There. Your turn to write down three or more internal obstacles.

Note that these delaying elements can give rise to subplots. For example, we can develop subplots involving the families of Max and Ginny. Likewise, one about a ring of diamond smugglers. Or a hungry dragon! On the internal side, the relationship with Jay can be a subplot. Or Ginny’s easily discouraged state of mind can be.

As for Warren, the character who misguidedly believes himself to be a super villain, I’d suggest some scenes that confirm his idea of himself and some that confound it. A friend can try to prove to him that he’s a decent person but he refutes the arguments, bolstering his opinion of himself. Another friend, who actually is evil, can act badly, and Warren finds himself angry with her. His friend Ginny can beg him for advice about her relationship with Max, and he tells her he’s too busy to help. After she leaves he feels awful, but he tells himself that he doesn’t have time for such a trivial thing as love. Then he goes to a store for equipment he needs for his YouTube filming, which will prove his badness. On the way, he’s the only witness to the car accident involving Max’s mom. He calls 911 and stays with her until the ambulance comes. Then he hurries off to complete his purchase, ignoring his contradictory actions.

Ginny can be a subplot in his story. So can the car accident and its aftermath. Also the other friend who tries to reason with him. And let’s not leave out the YouTube performance and what comes of it.

This post is full of prompts:

• Write a story about Ginny and Max. Try several of my suggestions and your own for slowing down the momentum of their romance.

• Write a story about the confused non-super villain Warren. Write the scene in which he makes his YouTube video. Write the scene of the car accident and the scene with Ginny.

• Write a story or novel that combines Warren’s confusion about himself with the romance between Ginny and Max.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Love’s labor

On Feb 4, 2012, Clare wrote, Romance can be difficult for me to write variations of. My romance is generally all the same, with two people starting out as friends who tend to smack each other a lot and then they fall madly in love through a series of unfortunate events. I currently have an idea for a really good story, but the plot is going to need to be moved forward by unlikely romance.
    The relationship between hero and heroine starts out when they need to pretend to be engaged to save the hero from being embarrassed in front of his whole hometown. How could I painlessly move them into actual romance? Would a meddlesome minor character be a good idea?
    I really want it to be realistic, and not tacky. I guess it’s difficult when you’re young and inexperienced when it comes to romantic situations. It looks and sounds so good in my head, but I’m having trouble figuring out the execution.

The situation you describe sounds plausible. Van is vulnerable because he’s embarrassed that he doesn’t have a fiancee. We see that Nell is kind because she’s willing to help him out. Pretending to be in love leads naturally to thoughts of actually being in love. And if they’re pretending to be engaged, they would have to be physically close. Let’s imagine the event that occasioned the charade is a high school reunion. Van would probably put his arm around Nell’s shoulder. She might adjust his tie or dab chocolate sauce off his chin. If there’s any physical attraction, these little intimate act, will get the romantic wheels turning. If there’s no physical attraction, the whole thing is probably sunk, so you’re going to need to get into the physical side at least a little. Depending on the kind of story you’re writing, a few hints may be enough: a racing heart, trembling hands.

What’s set up so far may actually be too easy if this story is to be a happy-ever-after romance. If falling in love is just a prelude to separation – they’re divided by war, kidnaping, natural disaster, whatever – and the real story is the adventure that ultimately will end in tragedy or reunion, then you’re set. But if you’re writing romantic comedy or straight romance, then you need to create trouble between the two.

What are some of the possibilities?

A bad romantic history. Maybe the love of Van’s life broke up with him a month ago. Or Nell keeps falling disastrously in love with law school students, and Van is a law school student, so the red flags are up.

Unrealistic expectations. Van’s romantic ideal is an artist, and Nell is as practical and un-artistic as toothpaste. Nell wants her man to be athletic, and Van is gangly and apt to trip crossing a room.

Bad timing. Nell is leaving for two years studying agriculture in Siberia. Van thinks he won’t have time for romance until he finishes grad school.

Or something intrinsic to the situation. Nell helps Van, but she’s a tougher character than he is. She thinks he’s weird for needing to pretend to be engaged. Why can’t he just tell the truth? And he’s so embarrassed by his pathetic plight that he just goes through the motions and doesn’t focus on Nell at all.

The options are endless. Van might need Nell because an old girlfriend will be at the reunion. The girlfriend renews her interest in him, and he dumps Nell. Or another man at the reunion gets interested in Nell and she dumps Van or he behaves badly. It’s fun making these up! There are eggs in the canapes. Nell is allergic to them and breaks out in huge hives, and Van laughs. To make conversation, Van tells Nell about a constitutional case he’s studying, and she feels unintelligent. To combat the feeling, she spouts about agricultural practices in Siberia in the most technical terms.

It’s a juggling act, because, although matters aren’t going well, the mutual appeal has to remain. You need to keep the two apart until the climax when the misunderstandings are untangled or when some event causes the eureka moment that finally unites the two.

For romance to work, we (readers) have to enter the inner life of Van or Nell or both. We have to know their thoughts, feelings, physical responses, and the rationales for the irrational things they’re driven to do. For the POV character, if you’re writing in first person, you have direct access to all of these. For the non-POV character you have actions, dialogue, emails and text messages between the two and maybe Van can glimpse Nell’s diary or something she’s written.

The romance is likely to fall apart if we come to hate one of them. If Nell deliberately disregards Van’s feelings, we’re going to want him to get together with his old girlfriend or to turn into a frog. They can be foolish or awkward or misguided and we’ll probably go along, but hateful or obnoxious behavior may make us jump ship.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that we the readers upon encountering two single characters will speculate about, and most likely wish for, romance between them. A lot of your work is already done just by putting Van and Nell in the story. The suspension of disbelief writers work for is willingly bestowed by readers. When we pick up a book and start reading, we’re eager to enter a new world. If you’re inexperienced at real-life romance, you can lay that inexperience on your characters and we’ll buy it. Van or Nell or both can be doofuses about love.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write about Van and Nell. Use any of the scenarios that Clare and I laid out. Van doesn’t have to be a law student, and Nell doesn’t have to be an agricultural expert.

∙ Invent a romance between Gretel of “Hansel and Gretel” fame. She’s smart and fearless. He can spin straw and who-knows-what-else into gold.

∙ The craziest romance in all of fairy tales, I think, is in the traditional telling of “Snow White.” He falls in love with her although he thinks she’s dead. She wakes up madly in love with him. In Fairest, I gave them a back story to make it work, but in this case, just try writing their meeting when she wakes up.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Start the heart throbs

Back from vacation in sunny Tucson. Thanks for keeping the blog going last week!

Before the post starts, here’s a great, over the top review of my upcoming book, Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It:

In August, M.K.B. wrote, ….I’m having some difficulty showing romance in my story. I mean, I can easily show that they like each other, but it’s kind of difficult to decide when it happens and all that. How do I decide when it’s right to show it?

If your story is primarily a romance, you probably want the reader to get that pretty quickly. The two lovebirds don’t have to start cooing as soon as they meet, but the idea should be introduced, not necessarily by the main characters. For example, Jack can be with his friend Kath when she says, “I see you as Romance Guy in a movie.” Jack, astonished, blurts out, “But I have cowlicks!” Kath responds, “Cowlicks are nothing compared to intensity. You are a laser. When you choose someone to focus on, there will be combustion. Trust me.”

Then the story can return to whatever the subplots may be: Jack’s difficulty mastering geography or his general lack of self-confidence (which could affect the romance later on), Kath’s running argument with her older sister, anything. Maybe we glimpse our heroine Wanda alone in the school cafeteria, hunched over a volume of Shakespearean sonnets.

The point is, the reader should know early on what genre he’s wandered into. The book jacket will tell, but we can’t rely on that. If the romantic element is delayed for forty pages the reader is likely to feel confused, maybe even cheated by the hype on the cover.

Then, how quickly the romance develops will depend on your story. Everything can move along at a fast pace if big problems are on the way. The reader will see 200 more pages ahead and steel himself for trouble. Will an old love interest show up? Will Jack’s family be relocated from Cincinnati to Belgium? Will Jack, because of his low self-esteem, doubt Wanda’s affection? Or the romance can be beset with trouble from the start. It can be one-sided, for example, as in Pride and Prejudice. The two can be separated by distance, as in the movie, Sleepless in Seattle, or by misconception, as in the movie While You Were Sleeping, or by a curse, as in You-Know-What. There are myriad devices you can use.

If your story isn’t primarily a romance, you can take your time. Lots of readers like a little love enrichment to another kind of tale. Jack’s problem may be his hyper self-criticism rather than his love life. The climax will center around that. Wanda, who can be introduced on page 112, helps him see himself more positively, and she may provide relief for the reader who is suffering because of his self-negativity. But the primary problem is his to solve.

Or Jack is Prince Jack setting out to reconquer a rogue province overrun by the mole people, and coincidentally his regent’s daughter is being held hostage by the mole folks. There may be merely the slightest hint of romantic possibilities between the dashing Jack and the pulchritudinous Wanda. Nothing has to flower ever.

In a related question, Alex wrote on January 5, 2012, So I have a question about cliches. I know some of them are inevitable, but I want to stay away from them as much as possible.

In my book, I guess you could say the romantic plot starts off as cliche (he’s the new boy in town). But it ends in a way that I don’t think is cliche at all – it’s complicated, but it ends sadly. My question is this – how should I make it so that the beginning, even if it is cliched, keeps readers hooked and not groaning at yet another cliched book? Or is there a way to introduce a male character as someone the MC has never known before in a non-cliched way?

Later, Alex added, ….The thing is, it doesn’t start off as a romance, not really. The romance starts around 27k in. And the romance is just a subplot. I’m just worried that people will think it’s like all the other Insta-love YA romances there are today, when it’s not.
I mention the reader a lot on the blog. I’ve even brought him up a few times in this post, but I think we tend to worry about him too much sometimes, and we don’t give him enough credit. If he’s reading Alex’s book and he’s 27k in (not sure how far in this is, but I’m guessing it’s beyond the first chapter), he should know by now that the story isn’t cliched.

People travel. Boys and girls arrive in towns, are treated well or badly, fall in love or not, stay for years or leave quickly. There’s drama in a new personality acting on the old cast of characters, either from the POV of a long-time resident or of the newcomer. If we avoid writing about this for fear of introducing a cliche, we’re cutting ourselves off from an important subject.

An old post is about cliches. You can reread it at But that post is about cliched language not cliched ideas. What’s important about ideas is how they’re expressed: what the writing is like, how the idea is developed. One might make a case that romance itself is cliched, but zillions of books, poems, movies, operas, plays have been written on the subject and people keep finding something fresh to say.

I don’t mean there isn’t work that’s unoriginal. We’ve all started books or movies and known what’s coming next. The problem in these imitations may be a failure of invention or timidity, but I doubt it’s simply the new guy in town.

Of course, you can change the newness. Sean can be new because he’s returning after an absence. Maybe he suffered a long illness or an alien abduction or two years at a school for acrobats. He’s old but he’s new. Or he can be old but changed. He’s had an epiphany. He’s out of pig wrestling and into Edwardian novels. Or he had a quick, overnight alien abduction. Or his mother died. So he’s different. Or Amy is changed; she perceives Sean in a new way because she’s given up pig wrestling or been abducted by aliens or her mother died.

Here are four prompts:

∙    Challenge yourself. Think of unusual ways to separate your lovers. Write a list of ten possibilities. Pick one or more and write a story.

∙    Here’s what I think may be an unusual pairing: She’s a dryad who’s been in her tree since ancient times. He’s modern, a techie, forest phobic. Write their romance. Try it from one POV and then switch.

∙    Write a scene between Jack and Wanda if the story is about his lack of self-confidence. Allow the romance to develop but don’t let it solve his problem.

∙    Amy returns to school after a weekend in a spaceship with aliens from Alpha Centauri who impress her with their civilized ways. She finds herself viewing her own classmates as savages, except for Sean, whom she now sees in a new light. Write a lunch scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Un-sappy Romance

On March 24, 2010, Marzo wrote, I’ve always wanted to try incorporating romance into my stories, but I’ve never really known how to write a romance well without it seeming, I don’t know, too sappy?  I don’t know if you’ve answered this in a different post, but do you have some tips for writing romance?
I’ve never written a book that was only a romance.  Most of mine are fantasy adventures with romance as one of the plot threads.

There must be many approaches to love and romance, and I hope other writers reading the blog will post theirs.

Even if you’ve never fallen in romantic love in real life, I’d guess you’ve fallen in like and in other sorts of love many times – with a new friend, a pet, a person you’ve known forever but have just come to appreciate.  How does it happen?  How did it happen to you?

Often it’s an accretion (if you don’t know the word, look it up!) of incidents and character traits that produces like and love.  Somebody says something that expresses exactly how you feel but have never been able to put into words, and you feel a deep connection.  This may be trite:  a smile that lights up a face can flip my heart.  Humor, as long as it’s not at someone’s expense, draws me in.  Maybe the smile is a tad sappy if all there is is a smile, but along with other details, the sappiness fades to unimportance.

Details count in writing love as in writing everything else.  The reader needs to know exactly what the heroine said that flew straight into the hero’s soul.  And the reader needs to be told enough about the hero to understand why he felt so touched.  For example, my late and much missed friend Nedda often told stories on herself and laughed uproariously.  I adored the stories and the loud belly laugh, but someone else might have been embarrassed by one or both.

When I want people to fall in love I think of them as jigsaw-puzzle pieces that need to fit together.  This bit of him has to satisfy that place in her that’s been starved, and vice versa.  Maybe I see it this way because of my parents, who remained in love for forty-nine years until my father’s death.  My mother finished college (at the age of sixteen); he didn’t complete high school.  He loved having a brilliant wife.  My father was smart, too, but very modest.  My mother loved my father’s innocence and sweetness.  She could be a wee bit tart.  He loved her complexity.  They argued sometimes, but fundamentally they filled the aspects of each other that needed filling.

So think about what your characters need and even crave.  In my Princess Tale, Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep, I echo my parents’ relationship.  Princess Sonora is the smartest person on earth by a factor of ten.  She’s eager to share her knowledge, but no one wants to listen.  Prince Christopher is curious about everything, and people tire of his endless questions.  They are made for each other.  In another Princess Tale, The Fairy’s Return, Robin makes up jokes for which he is scorned by his father and brothers.  Princess Lark thinks his jokes are hysterical.  Everyone treats her with kid gloves, which makes her feel stifled, but Robin doesn’t.  They are also primed for love.

Turning to pets:  Any domestic animal needs care and calls on us for protection.  Protectiveness is part of love, in my opinion, and a mutual part, too.  The boy isn’t the sole protector.  He’s watching out for her, and she’s got his back as well.  In Ella Enchanted, for example, Char arrives in time to keep Ella from being eaten, but she saves him and his knights by making the ogres docile.  A common enemy can help bring your characters together.

Pets again:  Puppies misbehave.  Our Baxter is nine, and he still misbehaves.  Animals can’t hide their feelings.  We know when they’re happy, frightened, stubborn, jealous.  We see them at their worst and love them anyway.  They’re naked literally (unless decked out in a vest or party hat) and figuratively.  Of course, they have no choice, but their freedom makes us free.  We tell our pets our secrets and let them see us cry and pound the pillow.  This kind of intimacy and acceptance is part of love.  In my novel, Fairest, Ijori is aware of Aza’s self-loathing and loves her anyway, and she forgives him and loves him even after he lets himself be convinced that she might be part ogre.  King Oscaro loves Queen Ivi, who is riddled with faults.  When we show characters fall in love despite their frailties, we create depth and move light years away from sappiness.

Another love and like-maker is admiration.  I usually – not always – respond in kind to being highly regarded.  I think better of the person who thinks well of me, and so can characters.  Being loved can be a turn-on.  In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland’s admiration sparks Henry Tilney’s love for her.

Fun can lead to love.  For this post, I looked at romantic moments in some of my books.  The heroes and heroines are having a terrific time together.  They thrive on being together.  Mutual admiration ricochets back and forth, and each feels at his and her best, wittiest, most interesting, handsomest-prettiest, most awake.

Underlying everything is the physical side of romance, the chemistry.  You can be subtle with this, too.  There is the heightened sense of being alive, which readers will recognize.  Pleasure in one another’s company has a physical aspect.  The two can simply stand near each other and feel the air shimmer between them.  Their eyes can meet.  Eye contact is powerful, can be hostile, can be romantic, especially if the gaze is soft.  In a romantic moment one character can notice his breathing become shallow, another can feel warm in a chilly room.  One or both can blush.  I just googled “signs of romantic attraction” and read that hair touching, licking lips (one’s own), dropping the gaze and then looking back, leaning toward the other person – all can be indicators that an author can use.

And you can make up your own.  For example, suppose Maryanne has a scar next to her right eye.  It’s tiny, but it embarrasses her.  When she’s attracted to a boy, she puts her hand on the spot to cover it.  Then she thinks that may look silly, so she takes her hand away and extends her face a little.  You, the writer, put her through this quick sequence a couple of times at a party to introduce it.  (You don’t want to overdo.)  Then, two days later, she sits next to a particular boy at a school play and does it.  The reader understands instantly what’s going on.

Or Jeff becomes clumsy in the presence of someone who interests him.  Stuart pulls his shoulders back and widens his stance.  Sharyn rises on tiptoe.

I heart making people fall in love!

Here are some prompts:

•    Working from the fairytale “Beauty and the Beast,” write an early scene between the two.  The Beast, although severely handicapped, wants to win Beauty over.  What does he do?  Contrive the scene so that he has at least a little success.

•    One half of a romantic relationship has hurt the feelings of the other.  Show the offender winning back the affections of his beloved.

•    It is the night of July 4th.  The graduating seniors of the town high school have collected to watch the fireworks.  Penny and Nick flirted for the last four years, but nothing came of it.  The next morning Penny will leave for an out-of-town summer with relatives, and in the fall she goes to a distant college.  She wants Nick to remember her forever as his lost opportunity.  (Maybe she’s a little annoyed at him for never making a move.)  What does she do?  Write the scene.  She may succeed or not.  Go with what happens.

Have fun and save what you write!