Saturday, July 18, 2009

Not At Nationals - Common Romance Writing Mistakes Pt 8.


Missed Part Seven of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here.

  • Scene Structure:

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes starts this chapter with the nitty-gritty of it; “The tense, conflictive sections of your story are the parts that most intrigue your readers. For that reason you should play out these parts of your story for all they’re worth.”

What we’re talking about here is dealing with PACING or what we refer to as the PAGE TURNING quality of your story. As readers you know what this is; it's what keeps you turning the pages into the wee small hours of the night, even when you know you have to get up early in the morning or that keeps you in the bath until the water turns cold and you end up looking like a prune. As writers, one of the biggest compliments anyone can ever pay us, is when a reader says they couldn’t put a book down, and a lot of this will come down to the ACTION and REACTION that I keep talking about. By setting up a chain of events that flow from one to the other, we slowly drag the reader deeper into the story. But what we have to do from time to time is up the ante, raise the stakes, so that the outcome (the HEA) is frequently put in jeopardy in the mind of the reader. As the book says:

“To have conflict, you have to have two people with opposing goals. They have to want the same thing, or Character A must want to thwart Character B’s immediate goal-motivated quest. Therefore to start a scene, the first thing you have to do is have one of your characters (usually the vie
wpoint character) clearly state or show what he wants. Once that goal has been demonstrated or stated with complete clarity so the reader can have no doubt about what’s at issue, then the other character to be in the scene must say, in effect, ‘Oh, no you won’t’ – and start the fight.”

So what does this mean in romance writing terms? It means first and foremost that your conflict has to be strong. Whatever the goal of your characters (or the thing that gets in the way of that goal) may be, it has to throw constant doubt on the HEA. But there’s a fine line here, because too much conflict, or characters that refuse point blank to bend, will lead the reader to believe there’s no way these two can end up together or - worse still - think they'd be better off without each other. This, my friends, is where we enter the territory of the EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER.

Remember, the main question your story should place in the mind of the reader is will these two people get together in the end. We all know the answer to that. So we introduce goals and conflicts that place that HEA in doubt. Each SCENE will demonstrate how the goals and conflicts continue to get in the way. We then show glimpses of happiness – brief moments of calm in the storm if you will – so the reader can picture these people having that HEA. Just as they begin to believe that, another scene will throw doubt in the way by highlighting the differing goals and conflicts again. Then gradually, by the end of the story when they may feel the ending could go either way, things come to a head in the BLACK MOMENT – the reader becomes fearful, but wants to see how it’s resolved because they want that HEA (READER EXPECTATION). And right at the end, we give them the resolution and the reward they’ve been waiting for, which after a journey where they had so many doubts, makes the HEA all the more fulfilling (EMOTIONALLY SATISFYING).

Every hero or heroine in every form of fiction goes on a journey. The more challenging that journey and the more obstacles they are overcome, the more we cheer them along and feel they are ‘deserving’ of the HEA. There has to be a feeling they earned it, abut if they’ve been passive and haven’t fo
ught the way we’ve said a wimp never would, we subliminally feel they are less deserving – no matter how nice or lonely they may have been at the start. The book goes on to say: “The fight, the conflict, makes up the bulk of the scene. If it’s over a simple issue, the scene may take only a couple of pages to play for all it’s worth, although most scenes tend to run a little longer than that. In this portion, the characters try different tacks, varying arguments; they struggle for the upper hand. They do not just stand there, in effect yelling at each other ‘Yes, I can!’ and ‘No, you can’t!’”

This brings us to another common error, particularly with a beginner romance writer. CONFLICT is not arguing. Conflict is not an actual ‘physical’ fight or the 'yes, I can/no, you can’t' that the book talks about here. Conflict in a romance novel may have external factors, but as a romance is about an emotional journey, the main conflict is INTERNAL, so any arguments that happen are a RESULT of that internal conflict and what has happened on the page.
Every scene has to play into this in some way. Every scene will have a goal and an impact. An action and reaction that leads into the next scene. So when you read a scene in your manuscript, you have to look at the impact that scene has had. You have to look at the STRUCTURE of that scene. Was there a goal? What got in the way? What allowed that particular goal to be achieved or not to be achieved? What impact did it have on your characters by the end of the scene? In other words what was their REACTION to the ACTION that happened in that scene? The book provides another useful list of questions to ask:

“Any time you start to write a scene, you should go through the following process:

1. Decide specifically what main character’s immediate goal is.

2. Get this written down clearly in the copy.

3. On a separate note somewhere, write down for yourself, clearly and briefly, what the scene question is. Word this question so it can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’.


4. In your story, after the goal has been shown, bring in another character who now states, just as clearly, his opposition.

5. Plan all manoeuvres and steps in the conflict between the two characters you have set up.

6. Write the scene moment-by-moment; no summary.

7. Devise a disastrous ending of the scene – a turning of the tables that answers the scene question badly.”


Imagine a love scene. The question at the start of the scene may be as simple as: Will they or won’t they? On the page you show the doubts the characters have about what may happen. One may be determined it will happen while the other tries to resist. Step-by-step the scene shows us the answer to that question – they either do, or they don’t make love - and why it happened. Throughout that process, we will know the thoughts and feelings of the character whose POV the scene is written in. By the end of the scene we will know how it has impacted their thoughts and feelings and the thoughts and feelings of the other character when we come to the next scene in their POV. Then we throw a spanner in the works. It may be as simple as now that they’ve given in and made love, they’ve realized just how much is at stake emotionally and they have to guard themselves even more because they still don’t believe everythin
g can be resolved . The CONFLICT remains, but the stakes from the POV of how much heartbreak might be involved, are raised.

For an example of this, let's say for the heroine in that love scene, her goal is absolutely NOT to make love with the hero. She knows once that happens things are irrevocably changed - it would be a 'disaster', emotionally speaking. But it happens nevertheless - they make love - and now the ante is upped from her POV because there's even more at stake than there was before. Now her goal isn't just to avoid getting involved, it's to survive the fact she IS involved. So while her heart was guarded before, by making love with this man, she is literally stripped naked emotionally as well as physically. She has 'surrendered' in more way's than one, and as we all know in a romance novel, there are always emotional repercussions once the characters make love. The original conflict (to guard her heart) remains, but the stakes are raised because she has let her guard down and gotten involved emotionally (putting her heart in jeopardy). The GOAL of the scene from her POV was not to make love with him, through the ACTION of the scene she does make love with him and the end result of the scene (REACTION) is that she has to do something to guard her heart even more than before (new GOAL that leads to a new ACTION). And once again, all of this will follow a logical path that the reader can understand.
Sometimes the GOAL will be a thread that runs continuously throughout the story, while a scene will have a more immediate goal. The main goal will have been planted in the mind of the reader from the beginning, what we then do as the story continues is have things happen that make the reader realize that goal is in jeopardy...

If you start the scene with the heroine's goal and switch POV to the hero's before the en
d of the scene, the reader will STILL know that the heroines goal has been effected (and vice-versa). The next time you jump back into the heroines POV, you can then show us her REACTION to what happened, and so on and so on until we get to the resolution. Each individual scene will still have done what it needed to do and moved the story forwards, the result and reaction from that scene threaded through into the next scene in a long chain of events.

Task Twenty-Four: Take a look at a romance novel from the line/category you’re aiming for and look at a scene. Read it through, then ask yourself what was the main question in that scene? How were we taken through the step-by-step process that led to the answer? Did the answer open more doubts or add to the conflict in some way or highlight the conflict that already exists? How did the author show us that?

If there isn’t a purpose and STRUCTURE to a scene then it stalls the story; it has no point and there is no room
for it within the restricted word-count. By stalling the story or not adding anything to it you have effected the PACING. Something you should once again be looking for at the editing stage of your manuscript...

  • The Plot Device:

A bad ‘twist’ to your story, or a ‘disaster’ of some kind, should not be a PLOT DEVICE. It is simply a natural REACTION or OUTCOME to something that has happened to the characters in your story. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes refers to this as 'dropping an alligator through the transom', saying; “It is said that somebody once provided a ‘disaster’ at the end of a detective-client story by literally dropping an alligator through the transom.

In the
fabled detective yarn, there sat our Sam Spade clone, interviewing his beautiful client in his grubby office. His goal, clearly stated, was to learn the name of the man who had threatened her life. Thus the scene question clearly was: Would he discover the identity of the man?

At the end of the scene, according to legend, the writer realized she needed a disaster. So kerplop! Over the transom of the detective’s office door came a live alligator, wetly hitting the floor beside the desk and opening wide in a decidedly nasty mood.

The development was pretty stupid in that story. Why? Because it didn’t answer the scene question.”


When the book refers to a ‘disaster’, it isn’t an actual disaster; no horrific car accidents, no hanging onto a cliff face by your fingernails, no kidnappings (although in a Suspense or Intrigue book some of those things may happen as part of the external plot). So how do we define what a ‘disaster’ is? Well, as always, we have to go back and look at our characters. Let’s say we have a storyline where the hero has assumed at the beginning of the story that the heroine is nothing but a gold-digger or a clever woman with a hidden agenda. Then let’s say something happens to make him realize how very wrong he was in that assumption. This could be considered a disaster. His go
al might then be to get an answer to the question; Is she who/what I believe she is? He may be stubborn enough to say; I’m going to prove she is who/what I believe she is. But if everything he has said and done is based on his initial assumption and he’s proved wrong? From the hero’s POV that would be a ‘disaster’, because the one thing he may have held close as a ‘shield’ around his emotions - his reason not to get emotionally involved - no longer exists. He now has to confront his emotions. His initial motivation may have been revenge or to bring her down a peg or two, his goal may have been to prove he was right, maybe he backs her into a corner or provides some kind of ‘trap’ that will prove that fact (ACTION) – and discovers along the way he was wrong (DISASTER) – meaning he has to face up to how he feels (REACTION.) This turns the story on it’s head from the hero’s POV. It ups the ante. It means there’s more on the line than there was before. Was there the equivalent of an alligator to show us that? Someone who popped up out of nowhere to tell the hero he was wrong? No. Something happened during the action that allowed him to learn the truth on his own (by a process of SHOW not TELL). The chances are, in a well told story, during the emotional journey there will have been moments of doubt and misunderstanding when ‘logic’ wars with emotion and firmly held convictions will be tested. It’s that whole head versus heart thing. But if everything you believe and base your actions on is suddenly proved wrong, that's could be considered a ‘disaster’. So when in doubt, we go back to our characters. We look at who they are before the story begins and the motivations, beliefs and internal conflicts they bring to the story at the beginning. Then we think of the worst possible scenario for them and have it happen.

For example, in Manhattan Boss, Diamond Proposal, I could say that the worst possible scenario for Quinn is to have fallen in love with a woman who believes in honesty. Why? Because he’s been keeping secrets from that woman for a long time. When he finally realizes he has to reveal those secrets, he knows there’s a very good chance they will push them apart. But we have another problem. We have a woman who has been badly hurt in the past by a man who kept secrets from her. She needs reassurances from Quinn that he loves her the way she loves him. She’s scared of being hurt again. And Quinn? Well Quinn has real problems with expressing his emotions because of his own past. Can you see how some of these things are going to lead to problems? Can you see how some of the things I’ve mentioned put them at odds with each other? Would you agree that they are INTERNAL CONFLICTS rather than EXTERNAL CONFLICTS? I hope so...

Each of the characters at some point will have to make a leap of faith. When they do, they put everything on the line emotionally. This is the BLACK MOMENT. This is when everything literally rests on a knife edge, when painful emotions can cloud the characters judgement and make them say and do things in the heat of the moment that push them apart. The reader fears for the happily ever after. The characters may part feeling hurt or heartbroken or unable to see how things can be resolved, and having made one leap of faith that ended badly, are they likely to want to make another? This is the moment when all their inner fears are realized: When they may think about the walls they erected around their hearts at the beginning of the story and believe they were wrong to have lowered those defences. For a brief moment they may regress, take a very large step backwards to regroup and look at things mo
re clearly. But then, as we all know, one or the other, or both of them, will do something that makes them fight for that happily ever after - and we have our RESOLUTION and HEA.

An 'alligator moment' would be considered as big a contrivance in plot terms as any outside conflict thrown into the story to push the characters apart. It’s a lazy way of making sure your characters don’t have their questions answered, and it’s the kind of sin a romance reader will look down their nose at the same way they would with what we in the business know as the Big Mis. Because a Big Mis – or big misunderstanding – would be the romance equivalent of keeping that alligator in the room throughout the story. Just as the simple solution to the alligator would be to either leave the room it’s in or phone the local zoo to get rid of the damn thing, the easy and obvious solution to the Big Mis would be for the characters to spend five minutes talking about it. A Big Mis is not enough of a conflict to sustain the story, nor can it be randomly thrown in to create conflict the same way as the arrival of that alligator. Think back to what I said earlier about your reader not bein
g an idiot. REMEMBER THAT. With a Big Mis, the reader will more than likely become frustrated with the characters; wanting them to just talk about it and sort it the hell out. BUT if they understand WHY they won’t talk it out – if they understand the inner conflict that goes with it and the motivation to NOT talk things through – they are more likely to be understanding. Take Ronan in The Millionaire’s Proposal for example. He was struggling with losing his sight and was determined not to tell Kerry. By the time he knew he was in love with her, it became frustrating for some readers that he wouldn’t just talk it through with her. BUT they understood WHY he didn’t (hopefully!). What possibly helped them to forgive him was the fact Kerry then threw it back in his face when the truth came out. She said he had no right to make decisions on her behalf without talking to her; whereas Ronan had believed he was being selfless, she accused him of being selfish. Everything that Ronan had believed throughout the course of the story was thrown on it’s head and back in his face. From his POV it was a ‘disaster’. Yes, from the point of view that it could have been discussed and resolved a lot earlier in the story, it could be considered a Big Mis, but because it stemmed from Ronan’s internal conflict and because Kerry then threw it all back at him the way she did during the black moment, it was understood and added to the overall story (hopefully!). In romance writing terms if there’s an alligator thrown into the room out of nowhere, the fact that one or both of the characters has a deeply felt emotional response to that alligator makes sense of why it’s there. But if there’s never been any hint of that emotional fear before and it suddenly arrives out of nowhere… it's alligator shaped...

Task Twenty-Five: Take a look at that romance novel from the line/category you’re aiming for and see how the author handled ‘disasters’. Think about the characters and what could be considered a ‘disaster’ for them. Now look at how the author used that threat to up the ante and add to the conflict.

The bottom line is that it all goes back to what we said about everything making SENSE. There has to be a path of logic we can follow. A REASON for everything happening the way it does.

Task Twenty-Six: Get another post-it note and write: EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON. Stick it to the corner of your screen when you’re writing, and when you get stuck, look at it and think about your characters and their motivations. WHY DO THEY DO THE THINGS THEY DO? Ask yourself that question and then put it together with the words on your post-it note and see what answer you come up with for the scene you’re working on. Then let your follow on scene deal with the characters REACTION to what happened, keeping that in mind as you write…

When you think of ending a scene with a ‘disaster’, don’t think of it being something hugely dramatic each and every time. Sometimes a ‘disaster’ may in fact be a turning point that leads to a change of attitude and a step forwards. Either way, the question at the start of the scene will have been answered one way or another by the end of the scene. There may even have been a series of questions asked and answered inside one scene. The next scene will then pose another question of some kind in REACTION to the scene that came before…


  • CHECK BACK LATER for more of this 'mini-workshop' and remember to LET ME KNOW if you're Blogging something for those of us Not At Nationals so I can add a link to the sidebar! Got questions about anything in the Blog just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
(You can now Move on to Part Nine of this Mini-Workshop here.)

2 comments:

Peter said...

I really liked book too. My book True Love Is Not Common; www.eloquentbooks.com/TrueLoveIsNotCommon.html has similar main characters. I grew up reading this author since high school. Hope that one day my book will reach many people as this author. While writing this book, I did a lot of research on this topic, and events that are affecting our society today

Trish Wylie said...

Hi Peter!

I wish I'd found Jack M Bickham sooner than I did. I really like the way he explains things and how 'The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes' is organized into 'bite size' chapters you can dig into, even when you're busy. (I'll be talking about my likes and small criticisms of the book at the end of the mini-workshop) I've now ordered 'Scene & Structure' and am hunting down 'Setting' to add to my collection.

CONGRATS and the BEST OF LUCK with your book! I shall go check it out :) I must say the research part of the process is a favourite of mine. I've learned so many things I might never have if it wasn't for writing... ;)