Sorry to go AWOL last week; between the Nebula Awards and family visits and deadlines and book releases, I was afraid something was going to slip through the cracks, and it ended up being my blog post. Mea Culpa.
While at the Nebulas, I met a writer who’d recently gotten his first pro credit. We ended up getting into a discussion about the different traditions of genre fiction, and how the community of science fiction writers has a tradition of encouraging newbies to start with short stories, even if that’s not their natural strength, while the community of romance writers seems to have a tradition of starting with Harlequin categories. I myself wrote four Harlequin category romance manuscripts before cottoning to the fact that I was a good writer, but not well suited to that format. I was describing to him the guidelines of the various Harlequin category lines, how one was geared toward romantic suspense and another toward small town stories and a third toward glamorous international locals and Greek billionaires and sheiks.
This week, I got an email (excerpted below):
For those of us that are less-than-skilled at building romantic tension in our work, do you have any pointers where to go to polish that aspect of our writing? I thought I understood you to say that specific Romance publishers offer very detailed templates listing exactly what they wanted. I have been looking a little but not finding such things.
I don’t want to write a Romance novel though, (at least I don’t think so not yet anyway). I am writing short stories. But I do get feedback that the relationships my characters get into need work. Is there even a category of Romance short story? What is the pace for those: first smoky glance, page one; first argument, page two, first kiss, page five; first XXX page ten, breakup page twelve, make up at page twenty?
I am not trying to be flip, I really do think I have bad instincts on this stuff and more than half of all readers are women, in genre fiction too. So an inept touch with this stuff might genuinely be holding me back.
I absolutely believe him that he’s honestly curious. But those of us who have spent any time at all in the trenches of the romance genre are going to cringe a little when any question starts hinting around at the dreaded F-word: Formula. “Formula” is a stick that people who look down on romance novels like to beat them with.
(One wonders how often sonnet writers are told that they’re just writing to “formula.”)
Yes, romance novels follow a structure (like the aforementioned sonnets). So do mysteries, thrillers, adventure stories, quest fantasies… and there are lots of places to go to get tips on the structure (here are a few of my favorites). Publishing guidelines, however, are not going to be one of them (they focus more on word length, tone/setting preferences, and other marketing limitations). And, the dirty little secret is, structure is structure is structure.
But all the structure in the world is not going to necessarily make your romance believable, it’s not going to make your readers root for your characters to get together (‘ship, in the fandom parlance), or sigh when and if they do. All you have to do is look at any one of a dozen lackluster romantic comedy films to see that. The structure may be impeccable, but no one is actually rooting for Katherine Heigl or whoever to finish her inexplicable dash through the city to find her supposedly true love that we don’t actually believe she’s really in love with. Or vice versa.
We have to believe the characters are in love. And what makes us believe it is as different every time as the characters and the situations they find themselves in. Sometimes, it takes very little for me, as a reader, to understand that the characters are perfect together. Sometimes, it takes some serious convincing. It could be a shared experience, or a tender moment, or a bit of witty repartee, or a grand sacrifice, or yes, even a chase through the streets (the one in When Harry Met Sally worked for me, YMMV.)
And what all these things are is moments. Moments where the characters (and, by extension, the reader) step back from everything else and just bask in the romance — the potential, the realization, the reality. Moments like:
- The haughty Mr. Darcy going out of his way to be nice and gentlemanly to Lizzie’s middle-class family members (her uncle is — gasp! — in trade) when they show up unexpectedly at his country mansion. (Also, when she realizes through her silly sister’s slip up that the reason he vanished on her was so he could go track down the aforementioned runaway sister and save her family reputation.)
- When Han and Leia are alone in the engine room of the Millenium Falcon and all of Leia’s blustery sarcasm falls aside and is revealed for the defense mechanism it is.
- When Kyle and Sarah Connor finally have a few minutes alone in the hotel room and he tells her the story about John giving him the picture of her and they both start to realize this thing may be bigger than they’d thought.
- The Tramp noses a meatball in Lady’s direction. (It can be very simple, folks!)
- The entire opening sequence of UP. Keep tissues handy..
It’s the moments that add up to us believing that characters are truly in love — whether those moments are big or small. What are some of your favorites?