Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Stop! If you kiss him now ... the world will end!

Yesterday in the comments on Jana's discussion of the romance arc, I noticed most of us seem to follow that arc on instinct. We start out with two friendly/neutral/hostile people and follow a natural progression until at the end of the book they've come together and sorted out their baggage (or at least this book's baggage). The important thing, as Jana replied to me, is the believability of that progression.

But at the same time, we have to think of tension, and keeping the reader through until that very last page. Natural progression can't just be first kiss, first night together, marriage, the end, so we stick in problems, set-backs, character issues, all sorts of conflict to prevent each moment of progress from simply erasing a plot concern and resolving something before we're halfway done.

Those of us who dabble in varying degrees of romance, I think we have good instincts for the overall pacing, what we want to happen when. It's the hazards that can pose a problem. I'm talking about artifice. We know we need to keep the story going, and this is the way things should go, but sometimes we just don't know how to do that. What we stick in doesn't ring true.

Artifice is, in short, anything that creates a roundabout explanation to explain a Why. Why can't they just get together now? Why didn't she just tell him about the abortion and get beyond it? Why didn't he kiss her when he had the chance and knew she wanted him to? The longer it takes to answer these questions, the more Whys that answer produces, the more likely the real answer is, "I wanted to keep the story going."

And readers see through this every single time. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of their lives.

The topic came up during the SRWs retreat weekend, and from everything I heard, I found problems of artifice often boil down to three* things.

Motivation: The character's reason for doing/not doing something hinges on a flimsy excuse, an elaborate justification, or some other faulty motivation. Rather than creating a struggle we empathize with, the character becomes less likable (selfish, weak, arrogant, too stupid to live) and we get fed up. If we can understand and accept with the motivation, we can empathize with the decision even if we don't agree.

The Fix -- Find a new motivation. Explore your character and really learn what makes them tick. Nine times out of ten, there's already something there waiting to be found that can justify that action without requiring multiple sentences to explain, or inducing fridge logic in your reader. Maybe it's not just that he's angry she left him at the altar. Maybe it's because every single relationship since then has been fraught with mistrust after that betrayal, and she's the cause of all that.

Emotion: You know in your gut this is right, the scene should flow this way, but when it's all said and done, you've spent two pages of internal monologue afterward narrating the heroine's reasons for why it was such a bad thing and it still doesn't seem convincing. If the emotion is off, if say you wrote the scene passionate but it should have been conflicted, the characters won't react right and the outcome you know should be there may come about forced. The reader should be able to intuit the reason for something without need to justify it or explain it.

The Fix -- Bring new emotion to the scene. Like motivation, the solution is lurking in the character, especially if you feel the moment is ultimately right. This comes down to execution, rather than content. If I may use a WIP of Helena's as an example, she shared at the retreat a lovely dilemma concerning a crucial note never received, and we talked about the reasons for the oversight. If the character was angry she might have thrown the envelope aside in haste. Distraught, she might have stopped reading before the end and not noticed more inside. Heartsick, she'd search every inch of that message for some explanation. With the right emotion we can understand why the crucial bit of information never turned up. Others might raise questions or force explanations.

Into the Fire: Of course, sometimes it isn't just the approach to a scene that creates artifice. Sometimes it's the whole damn scene. It's the blatant misunderstanding that drags on the whole second act, or the unnecessary cancer subplot that crops up after the real plot's already been resolved. It's the kiss or the sex scene that doesn't happen just because we don't want it to happen. And the whole thing wastes so much time, in the moment and after, to justify, you'd be better off just doing it. We don't buy it at all.

The Fix -- Seriously, do it. Let them have sex, or kiss, or reveal the terrible secret. I promise you, you'll find more problems. Things are never simple and resolved and then that's it. Every progression in a relationship opens up new issues to deal with, new levels of trust and vulnerability that may be tested at any moment. Take your characters out of the frying pan and into the fire. If you can't figure out how, look at motivation and emotion, and see what you can work with after the scene.

*Danger Will Robinson! If you're still stuck, and long-winded exposition and/or attempts to distract from the problem via kittens and gunfights aren't working, then the problem may go deeper than just the immediate scene. Novella length conflict just won't stretch into a 100k format. The characters need more issues, completely different motivations, more subplots affecting their decisions, or may just need a different format altogether. It may even be these characters aren't the ones right for each other. As Jana said yesterday, the pair can't just be good for each other, they each have to be the only one right for the other.

How do you keep the conflict going in your romance arc? What other causes of artificial conflict would you identify? Or just share an example of artifice you've encountered (in your own work or others, no need to name names), or a situation that could have felt forced that the creator handled well.


Jennie Marsland said...

What a great post. These are exactly the issues I'm dealing with right now in my WIP. I've got a big problem waiting for my hero, and I have to decide when to lay it on him. You've given me lots of food for thought!

Celia Yeary said...

Now I know what was wrong with the last novel I read by one of my favorite authors--the "getting together" was filled with artifice, and the ending contrived. The second half of the book was one endless crying jag by the heroine (and she was tough and sassy, so crying all the time did not suit her); and a dragging of the feet by the hero even though he had her in bed several times already. Tacky. Thanks--I needed that. Celia

Vince said...

Hi Hayley:

I’m glad to see a post on artifice. This is a key issue in romances. What you wrote made me think of a few issues:

I dislike the idea of the hero or heroine ‘completing’ the other. I also dislike the song “You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You”.

I don’t want an incomplete person for a mate and I don’t want to be an incomplete person. I want a fully alive, fully human, self-actualizing person just as that is who I want to be myself. I’m looking for synergy: two complete people coming together to create a ‘more perfect union’; the 1 + 1 = 3 idea. (The hero and heroine do not need to be ‘defective’ – they could just be ‘strong willed’.)

I love the idea expressed by your quote:

“As Jana said yesterday, the pair can't just be good for each other, they each have to be the only one right for the other.”

This does not mean the couple is incomplete but it does express an important point: the uniqueness of the union.

Along these lines: I dislike stories where the heroine can’t make up her mind between two heroes and at the end she picks one of them. It’s like a 49-51 election. How special can the guy with the 51% really feel? The last romance I read like this I didn’t even finish. As far as I was concerned, the heroes should dump the heroine and find someone who would love them 100%.

I think lack of motivation, or proper motivation, is one of the biggest problems in the romance novel. I think experienced authors, who write three books a year, are most likely to do this -- as they rush to meet deadlines. The idea being, the rest of their writing is good enough to mask the motivational problems. (Besides, an unpublished author who tried this would not get into print in the first place.)

Examples of artifice are so common that I’d rather mention two really good examples of motivation.

Donna Alward is an expert at motivation. She wrote a “Baby on the Doorstep” novel, “Proud Rancher, Precious Bundle”, which was very serious and believable -- because of the in-depth motivation employed. This theme is usually tongue-in-cheek and fun. I kept wondering why Donna would go to so much work creating a serious story with genuine motivation for such a light hearted theme. But that is what she does. I think of Donna Alward as the “Motivational Queen”.

Another great example of motivation is, “The Legacy” by Shirley Jump. What is so interesting in this book is that there are two to three different motivations for each conflict. Some of these motivations conflict within the same character. One way to improve motivation is to have multiple motivations -- each one believable. You can see how well this is done in “The Legacy”.

Sometimes more is better! : )


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Jennie, the options are certainly endless when it comes with choosing a time to make things terrible for the character. All I can say is go for maximum damage and ripple effect. Gives you more to work with :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Celia, that sounds like a disappointing experience, especially from a favourite author. When characters do a sudden flip in behaviour, it's such a disappointment. I encountered a book like that as well, where the heroine lost everything I liked about her once Mr Dreamboat showed up. I'd still love to read the book I thought I'd started, with the strong, take-no-crap heroine it started with :p

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Vince, we definitely see eye to eye on this :) I don't like the message in that song either. Don't like the message that some separate person holds the power to define and validate you. That power comes from within.

I like flawed, damaged characters in novels, especially when they're not 100% fixed at the end, but I still have to actually like them. If they're just incomplete and lacking some manner of inner strength, I don't want it coming from some other character instead.

I actually read a good example (for me at least) of the love triangle story recently, in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy. I liked that it wasn't two guys wasting their time on some girl who's inexplicably the only option (like Twilight), or some woman waffling around enjoying the attentions of both men as long as she can. The complications of the romance arc were all very natural and believable, and a lot of it grew out of the characters own issues. The resolution was good too, and avoided the 49% vs. 51% problem (love that analogy).

And I agree, multiple motivations makes things so much simpler to write. It's guaranteed conflict.

Karyn Good said...

Great post, Hayley!

I read a romance book by a VERY well-known author years ago that saw the main characters conflict ending over a Grease type solution. She put on some ridculously skimpy outfit and went to the pub and he bought flowers and learned some poetry. Gone were the smart, confident heroine and the badass hero and instead we got Sandy and Danny.

I don't buy into the "you complete me" theory either. And my favorite stories are about damaged characters who find a way to be as happy as possible without being perfect.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
Yes, lack of good motivation is a problem with romance novels. If an obstacle between the lovers is easily overcome or explained away, it's not a strong enough conflict.

Like you said in your third solution, throw your characters into the fire! Let them burn! This will bring up all sorts of new conflicts. This is one of my favorite devices to use myself or to read in other people’s work.

Take, for instance, a heroine with a terrible (at least to her) secret. She goes to extraordinary lengths to protect this secret. In her mind, what's the worst that could happen? That everyone, especially the man she's in love with, learns her terrible secret. What's the best thing that can happen for the book? That this secret sees the light of day.

If it's a secret baby, a whole new set of conflicts ensues. The hero father will be rightly angry he wasn't told about his child. If the child is old enough he will be angry he was lied to. There's always new ways to end one conflict and create an even stronger conflict from its ashes.


Tahlia said...

Excellent post and great for me just at the moment. I too don't like the, 'the other completes me' trip. It's good to be reminded to come back to the characters and their motivation to check for and resolve artifice. I'm a great believer in letting them carry the story.

The MC in my present work in progress, yelled at me the other day. She said - stop trying to tell me what to do! I did and the book is getting richer, so is the motivation for her staving off their inevitable union.

Motivation is the most important thing in everything - our life included.

Multipple motivations