Tag Archives: craft

What Makes A Romance Work? Uncertainty.

You might wonder that I say uncertainty is what makes a romance work. After all, by definition all romances end with a happily ever after (HEA), or at least a happy for now (HFN). The reader knows on page one that everything is going to turn out well for the characters.

That uncertainty is still possible is due to the art and craft of the author. In traditional romance the author creates a curiosity about how the hero and heroine will get together. How they resolve their doubts and conflicts so they can lower their defenses enough to let the other in and become stronger together than they were apart. In most romances a great deal of URST (unresolved sexual tension) develops until, when it is finally resolved, the release for the reader is much like it is for the characters.

Even in erotic romance, where the protagonists have sex early and often, there is uncertainty. In this case the doubt isn’t about when the characters will finally have sex, it’s about when their emotional intimacy will turn having sex into making love.

Olivia Blackburn posted about a psychology study that supports what romance writers and readers have known for some time. Uncertainty creates interest.  Not being sure of someone is even more alluring than knowing the other likes you.  And in a romance it’s particularly effective to have the protagonists almost come together and then be pulled apart by circumstance or dispute.  It’s this pattern that many detractors from romance object to. They often feel this pattern is contrived and artificial.

Sometimes they’re right.

Creating uncertainty is good. Doing it clumsily is not.

I just finished Shannon K. Butcher’s BLOOD HUNT. In it she raises all sorts of questions not all of which are answered in this book. (Making the reader anxious for the next in the series.) Most impressively, she creates an intense attraction between the hero and heroine and a believable reason why they don’t indulge that desire until late in the story. As much as I wanted the two of them to get together, I completely accepted why the hero resisted so long.

This is crucial to a traditionally structured romance. If you don’t make the reader believe deep down that the characters have a good reason to resist the urge, they’ll be annoyed.  You might as well write an erotic romance and have them go ahead and do it on page one. But if you do, you’d better have a good and believable reason the H/H aren’t moving in together and settling down on page two.  If you don’t, you may have mystery or a thriller, or some other genre, but you won’t have a romance. One way or the other, you need uncertainty or you don’t have a story. And without emotional uncertainty you don’t have a romance.




Filed under writing

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Whenever I talk to aspiring fiction writers who are just starting out, I always recommend that they begin by writing short stories.  There are several reasons for this.

Short stories allow a writer to experiment within a small package.  First person, or third? Past tense, or present? Ratio of dialog to narrative to description. High fantasy or science fiction or urban fantasy or romance or mystery?  Character or plot driven? Vignette or full story arc?  Short stories let you test yourself, practice, and improve in a shorter period of time. You can write a short story in a week, a day if you’re a fast writer. It takes most of us at least a few months to write a novel. During the same time you could try out a dozen ideas in short stories.

Writing short encourages you to make every word count. To know what the essence of the story is and not to wander.  It’s a great challenge to accept a very tight word limit, say 500 words, and tell a story within it.  When you do “graduate” to writing novels, you won’t be as profligate with your words.

You can hold the whole story in your mind.  With a novel you have plots and subplots, secondary characters and red herrings.  When you’re just beginning that’s a lot to juggle.  Make it easy on yourself. Start small.  Learn to juggle just a couple of balls before you try to keep half a dozen flaming torches in the air.

It’s easier to get good feedback on short stories.  You’re critique partners don’t have to wonder if you’re wandering off on a tangent or setting up something for later in the book as they might with a novel fragment — it’s all there.  They can tell you if you pulled it all together or if the story fell apart in act three.  And once you’ve got that feedback, it’s quicker to revise a short story.

You can learn most of this from writing novel chunks, but using the short story format encourages you to complete a whole thing, with a beginning, middle, and an end, not just a piece.  Storytellers need to know how to start, sustain, and finish their tales. It’s easier to start learning that with a single plot line instead of a sprawling epic.

For a while, the market for short stories was shrinking; only a few print magazines still bought them, and only in a few genres.  Now with people turning more and more to the internet for entertainment, there are an increasing number of markets online for short stories, some of which pay quite well.  You can even sell your stories yourself on Kindle and Smashwords if you’re so inclined.

On this last point, I’d like to digress a little.  There are some authors who suggest that you not spend too much time revising. Give it a light once over, then out the door it goes.  They publish their shorts on Smashwords and Kindle and feel that reader reviews are good teachers.  That’s true as far as it goes, but I can’t agree that this is the best start for beginning writers.

Every piece that goes out the door with your name on it is your ambassador.  It may be the first thing of yours that someone reads — and it could be the last. Every story should be the best you can make it right now,  within a reasonable amount of time. And that understanding comes with experience.  And that experience is something you can get from writing multiple short stories.

Yes, if you foul your name by self-publishing work that’s really not ready, you can always continue your career under a pen name. It’s not a fatal mistake. But I think waiting a bit to publish while you learn your craft will be time well spent.

Start by writing several short stories and see how your work improves.  Then you can decide if you want to go back and fix your first efforts, or trash ’em. Then push whatever survives out the door, and start another story.



Filed under writing