Thursday, July 16, 2009

Not At Nationals - Common Romance Writing Mistakes Pt 4.


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

  • Stimulus And Response:

More commonly known as ACTION AND REACTION, this follows on from everything making sense and the characters not being wimps leading to the action that drives your story. Think of act
ion and reaction as the ‘push me/pull me’ of a romance novel.

In this case The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “Readers will also usually need to see a specific stimulus that causes a given response right here and now.

The law of stimulus and response dictates that your character must have an immediate, physical cause for what he does. This immediate stimulus cannot merely be a thought inside his head; for readers to believe many transactions, they have to be shown a stimulus to action that is outside of the character – some kind of specific prod that is onstage right now.”


You know that scientific law that says for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction? Don’t kn
ow why that has stuck in my head from high school, but it’s a phrase that is often used in romance writing to add to the conflict. In Manhattan Boss, Diamond Proposal, Quinn comes up with a plan to get Clare to stay (action) in reaction to the fact she might be leaving (the threat). But his great plan has the opposite effect as the story progresses. Clare thinks he’s serious about wanting her to find the right woman for him (the threat), it makes her realize if he moves on with his life she should do the same with hers and consider speeding up her plans (action) – which would lead her further away from him the way he’d initially thought she was moving (opposite reaction to what Quinn had intended). Each threat they face has a reaction that leads to an action. Each action they take then has a reaction from the other character and each of those reactions adds to the emotional conflict to become part of their emotional journey.

When it comes to the stimulus/action not merely being a thought inside the characters head the book is right too. Because if it was a sudden thought without a reason or a logical thought process in reaction to something that was said or done, then it doesn’t make sense to the reader. Remember, everything has to make sense! So there has to be an immediate cause - the THREAT. There has to have been an ACTION. The character can then think about it some in the narrative but they will then REACT to it. There will be an ACTION based on their reaction. The other
character will then go through the same process, ultimately leading in another ACTION and so it goes on and on from chapter to chapter until we reach the resolution and the HEA.

As the book says; “The law of stimulus and response works at the nitty-gritty level of fiction, line to line, and it also works in melding larger parts of the story. For every cause, an effect. For every effect, a cause. A domino does not fall for no immediate reason; it has to be nudged by the domino next to it.”

This is where the whole external conflict must lead to internal conflict rule in a romance novel comes into play again. On it’s own, Quinn daring Clare to find him his perfect woman using her matchmaking method is an external conflict. When it leads to both of them looking more closely at their feelings it becomes internal conflict. Conflict leads to action. Action leads to reaction. Reaction leads to action. Action leads to conflict and the dominoes fall until the resolution. Each step of the way adds something, the characters learn something about themselves or each other, sometimes they’ll grow closer as a reaction, sometimes their reaction will push them further apart – the push me away/pull me in closer I mentioned. The book also says;

“Backgroun
d, as we have seen, goes to earlier actions affecting the characters life. Motivation has to do with the characters desires and plans, which grown out of that background, as well as out of what’s been going on earlier in the story. Stimulus is much more immediate: it’s what happens right now, outside the character, to make him do what he’s going to do in the next few moments.”

So background or BACK-STORY makes the characters who they are, it forms their personality and makes sense of why they do the things they do. MOTIVATION is what drives them towards their GOAL, and in the case of the romance novel we’ll expect a portion of that motivation to be attraction and desire that then grows to deeper emotion and love. Stimulus leads to the ACTION they take to pursue that goal, deny it, or fight for it, but it happens now – it’s the ‘live at the scene’ aspect of the story – and it drives the story forwards.

  • Remembering Whose Story It is:

More commonly known as POV (point of view), this one can be a minefield for beginner writers. Heck, I read some of my early books now and I cringe. Because when you get it wrong, too many changes of POV can lead to the unforgivable sin of HEAD HOPPING.

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “I’m sure you realize why fiction is told from a viewpoint, a character inside the story. It’s because each of us lives our real life from a single viewpoint – our own – and none other, ever. The fiction writer wants her story to be as convincing and lifelike as possible. So she sets things up so that readers will experience the story just like they experience real life; from one viewpoint inside the action.
Each of us is the hero of his own life. The next time you are in a group of people, take a moment to realize how you see everything and everyone around you as interesting – but essentially as role players in your life. Then try to observe others around you… try to imagine how each of them sees the scene in exactly the same way, from their own unique and centrally important viewpoint.

If fiction is to work, your central character has to experience the story action this way too. How do you as the writer make it happen? Very simply by showing all the action from inside the head and heart – the thought, sense and emotions – of the person you have chosen as the viewpoint character.

In romance it’s slightly different from the majority of many works of fiction, in that we have two character viewpoints to deal with - two 'heroes'. Not that there aren’t times when a story is told completely from one POV or a much larger percentage of one than the other. I recently did one myself where the entire story was from the heroine’s POV with the hero’s inner thoughts and feelings not revealed until the very last chapter. I can tell you, it wasn’t easy, simply because it's not the way I normally write. I think one of the great things about seeing both POV’s is that we can do that one thing we, as women, have wanted to do since the moment we hit our early teens; we get to s
ee inside the man’s head and know what he’s thinking and feeling. How useful would that be in real life?! Plus with two POV’s it can help with that back and forth action and reaction we need to move the story forwards. Find you’re getting stuck in one POV at the creative stage, then swap to the other POV - show their reaction to what’s happening and what they’re going to do about it – and suddenly you’re unstuck again. The heroine or hero might not understand why their opposite number reacts so badly to something they’ve said or done or completely misinterprets it, or why they continue to shut themselves off emotionally – but the reader does. As much as it might make the reader want to bash their heads together at times, it helps add to the action of the story and in making sense of it all.

As the book says; “When you change viewpoint – if you must – it should be only when the change in viewpoint serves to illuminate for readers the problems of the main viewpoint character.”

Have a look at the romance novel from the line/category you’re aiming for and see if there is mor
e of one viewpoint than the other. There are no set rules for this these days. When I started out I think there was still a tendency to believe that a Romance line book was more from the heroine’s POV and a Modern/Presents from the hero’s. In the Romance line it was because the reader was supposed to feel like she was walking in the heroine’s shoes. But I think readers tend to do this regardless of the line or category. When they pick up a romance they want to feel the rush of falling in love, and many readers will comment on how they fell in love with the hero as they read a book. So from that point of view the story is always approached from the heroine’s POV, with the reader at least partially taking on that role. The hero’s POV then becomes an added bonus we wouldn’t get in real life. So when the book refers to illuminating for readers the problems of the main viewpoint character, in a romance the main viewpoint character tends to be the heroine (the character the reader experiences the rush of falling in love with the hero through). Change the POV to the hero and it should show us what is complicating things from his perspective.

If you stick to the heroine’s POV the way I did in His L.A. Cinderella, then the only insight the reader has into what’s going on with the hero is through his physical reactions and dialogue. Exactly the sa
me as it would be in real life. The reader will know the heroine’s thoughts and feelings, she will ask the same silent questions the heroine will. But unless the heroine comes out and asks these questions and the hero answers her, the reader remains as uncertain as she is. It certainly adds to the conflict, but from a writing point of view there’s no escape route if you get stuck because you can’t suddenly jump into the hero’s POV having written the bulk of the book in the heroine’s. If you do switch then you have to follow that path, otherwise it’s there for no apparent reason – it doesn’t make sense. And since we’ve established everything has to make sense...

The book gives a list of points to work from;

• “Every story must be told from a viewpoint inside the action.

• Every story must have a clearly dominant viewpoint character.

• The viewpoint character must be the one with the most at stake.


• Every viewpoint character will be actively involved in the plot.”

Now again, we need to translate it some for romance writing. For starters, remember we’re more often than not dealing with two viewpoint characters. So what we have to do is remember all these points for both of them. What we also need to remember is that any other character who appears on the page – the one’s commonly know as SECONDARY CHARACTERS - never have a POV. Not unless it’s spoken or shown in physical reaction. And even then they’re only on the page to help us learn something about the main characters. If they don’t do that, or move the story along then they shouldn’t be there. Full stop. Throwing them in randomly every single time we need to move the story forwards or to add exposition makes them a contrivance, one of those 'fateful' meetings we talked about earlier. They not only take away from the main characters (particularly if they're large than life or the author can see a sequel with them), they also eat up some of the word-count we need for the main characters and their story. They can certainly add something, and making them colourful or distinctive or exaggerating their personalities can help them to stand out with very little time on the page, but they shouldn’t take over the story. Many a story has been seeded by a secondary character who sparks a writer’s imagination, but we need to remember whose story we’re working on and keep the focus on them.

Task Nine: Take a look at a romance novel from the line/category you’re aiming for and look at how the author utilizes ACTION AND REACTION and how it drives the story forwards. Whose POV was the leading voice in the scene? How many times did that POV change? Was it clear when it did? (Keep that in mind for the next part...) Then look at how it deals with secondary characters. How much time do they spend on the page? What did you learn about the main characters while they were there? Did something happen while they were there to move the story forwards by the end of the scene? With that in mind then look at your finished manuscript with a more critical eye and ask the same questions. If they spent lots of time on the page, you learned nothing about the main characters while they were there and nothing happened by the end of the scene to move the story forwards… well, then they shouldn’t be there, should they?

  • A Clear Viewpoint:

Remember all that preparation work you did getting to know your characters before you started your story? This is one of the places where all that hard work pays off. Your characters will have distinctive ‘voices’ of their own that are easily recognizable to the reader as the story progresses and they get to know them better. Who and what they are and how they think will come through from beginning to end. It will make sense. There will be a pattern to it that the reader can understand. How does the writer achieve this? By stepping inside the head of the character they are writing about every time they change POV.

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes uses a character named Bob to make it’s point; “The first thing you must do is imagine the story as it would seem to Bob, and only to him. Here you really get to exercise your imagination.

As you write the story, you the writer must become Bob. You see what he sees and nothing more. You know what he knows, and nothing more. You hear only what he hears, feel only the emotions he feels, plan only what he can plan, and so on.”


We talked earlier about how in real life, you are the hero/heroine of your own story. So imagine yourself having a conversation with someone in a room. Now imagine three days later that both of you have to sit down and describe every detail of the room and every word of the conversation. Will both of your memories be exactly the same word for word? Then imagine you have to describe everything from a five senses point of view, an emotional point of view, from the point of view of exactly what you were thinking when you were in that room… Can you do it for anyone else but yourself? No. You can’t. It’s your little secret. And when we open that up to the reader with INNER POV, we let them in on our characters little secrets. So while both characters may see some things the same during that conversation in the room, others will be ‘personal’ – individual to them. It’s exactly the same with POV in a romance novel. It’s a small part of why misunderstandings can occur or why witnesses to a crime will never have word-for-word statements. If they did, wouldn’t the police be suspicious?

By delving into INNER POV we get to the heart of the character and who they are inside. How they act on the surface may be at odds with what they’re thinking or feeling; they may be guarded, defensive, wary, nervous or a dozen other things they can hide if they work hard enough at it. A romance novel shares these secrets with the reader, until the emotional journey comes to an end and those thoughts and feelings hidden on the inside will be revealed. The book goes on to say; “If you’ll stop to ponder it a moment, you’ll see that this imaginative linking with your viewpoint character not only makes the story more like real life, but also makes your creative task somewhat easier. You don’t have to know what Sally in the back room is seeing or thinking. All that kind of complication is out of Bob’s awareness, and therefore out of the story. All you have to do is track along with Bob, and make his experience of the scene as vivid and meaningful as you can.

Having once gotten yourself thoroughly into Bob’s viewpoint, however, you need to go a bit further in terms of technique. You need to keep reminding your readers who the viewpoint character is.


To that end, you constantly use grammatical constructions that emphasize Bob’s seeing, hearing, thinking etc.”

What does this mean? It means when you’re in one character’s POV you make it clear who it is by changing something like, ‘It was a dark’ to ‘Bob could barely see in the dark.’ Immediately the reader knows whose POV we’re in, and if we say things like Bob felt or Bob thought or Bob knew, even if we only use his name once and change it to he felt, he thought, he knew - it’s plain whose eyes we’re seeing the story through at that point in time. Only Bob knows how Bob feels, what he’s thinking and what he knows. Bob is the hero in his own story, just like you are in real life. When we change to the heroine’s POV, she becomes the heroine in her own story; everything is felt, thought and known from her POV and will be shaped by her background and who she is from the back-story prior to the beginning of the book. This is vital in all forms of fiction, but in a romance novel POV is literally half the story. We’re on an emotional journey with these two people, so we need to know how they feel, what they’re thinking and what they know – even if they just ‘think’ they know. So viewpoint can feed nicely off the ACTION AND REACTION that drives the story. One character, in their POV, says or does something that creates the ACTION and in the next scene, or half-way through a scene, we get the REACTION from the other character in their POV. But it’s the changing of POV mid-scene that’s the minefield. Because it’s tempting to switch POV every time we bounce the action and reaction back and forth - like a fast volley in a tennis match (which can be done in one POV and though DIALOGUE ). The sin of head hopping happens every time one character says or does something in their POV and the beginner writer feels the need to show us the other characters reaction in their POV right there and then. The best way to avoid this when starting out, is to stick to one POV per scene – particularly if it’s a short scene. Then, once you get the hang of it, you can experiment with changing POV mid-way through a longer scene. Basic rule of thumb? Less is more!

Task Ten: Carrying on from the last task, take a closer look at the romance novel from the line/category you’re aiming for and see how the author approaches POV. How often does it change? How does the author let the reader know whose POV the scene is in? Do they switch back and forth between POV inside a scene? If they do, how often do they do it? Or do they tend to change POV to show a characters reaction to something that has happened? Do we ever know the POV of any of the other characters apart from the hero and heroine or does the focus remain on the main characters throughout? When you’ve finished your manuscript and you’re at the editing stage, get out some coloured markers, highlighter pens or colouring pencils again and pick one colour for each character. Then highlight when the text is in their POV. Is the colour changing back and forth a lot during a scene? If it is then you’re guilty of head hopping. It would be worth picking a third colour for secondary characters too – highlight when they’re on the page – are they taking up a lot of the text? Have you been guilty at any stage of letting them sneak a POV into the story? Now's the time to fix it...


  • CHECK BACK TOMORROW 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 list! Got questions about anything in the Blog then just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
(You can now Move on to Part Five of this Mini-Workshop here.)

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