Monday, March 11, 2019

A romance by another name...

"Wait, this is romance?"

Yes, I said these words to a writer in my critique group. I immediately regretted it. She was cut by my remark. But in reality, this should have been a compliment.

At least from me.

I don't enjoy romance type fiction very much. I'm not opposed to characters in my books falling for each other. But the core of my stories and the fiction that I seek out is not the personal relationships between the characters.

So here is what I really was saying, "Wait, I am so engaged and interested in this story that I didn't notice the budding romance between the characters."

At this point, I have to wonder, "What is a romance anyway?" My wife will just nod along with this. She has never been sure I understood how to be romantic. But I am talking about the writing genre.

Before I ever read romance stories I didn't have a high opinion of them. I thought of them as stories where the characters spent a bunch of time talking to each other about their feelings. But I've been slowly being introduced to this genre by my wife taking me to romantic movies and by authors needing beta readers and critiques of stories in the romance genre.

And I've learned something. Talking about their feelings is only part of a romance story.

This is still not my preferred genre. But I have made some observations.

Setting:

Why are most romances (at least the ones I have read) set in historical or sudo-historical settings? Or modern settings?

I think this is because the author is not going to focus on a new technology or hypothetical socio-political scenario. The author is writing a story of emotional seeking and finding and building of a relationship. A new spaceship and alien pirates will get in the way of telling that story.

And people reading romance novels seem to like knights and ladies and well know social structures.

Plot:

If we are talking about tropes like road trip or coming of age stories. Then a Romance story has the same types of plots as any other type of story. You can even find romances that are tragedies. But in a romance, there is a given from the beginning.

If you read a western, you expect cowboys and horses. If a story says it is a western but is missing these elements you would not be very satisfied with it. In the same way, a romance is a story about the making of a love connection. If a story says it is a romance but there is no love connection, it would not be a very satisfying story. But probably even worse. People might put up with reading a compelling western or sci-fi where the elements are all in the background or are even missing and still enjoy it as off the norm, but a romance novel that doesn't satisfy the romance will not be enjoyed.

So in a way, we know the ending. At least in part. We know the main characters are going to find love. But this isn't really that different from knowing that McGyver is going to figure out how to build a helicopter from trash bags and duct tape. And it doesn't make the story any less fun to read.

Theme:

There are a diverse set of themes that can be part of a romance story. But they seem to be of a theme. (see what I did there?) Such as, finding love across age gaps, or finding love on vacation, or finding love in the workplace, or finding love after a breakup, or finding forbidden love, or falling for a rescuer, or finding love in someone overlooked. And we could go on and on. And they don't all have to start with 'Finding Love' but they basically will all be like that. Remember, this is romance. So finding love will be a focus.

Themes are a good thing for authors to think about. They can help give a bit of focus to the story and what scenes are included to not only tell the story but give it meat and meaning to the reader. It might be okay to tell a story about a boy and a girl that over the course of a few weeks seeing each other start up a relationship.

But if we add the theme of finding love with someone we know from a common commute, then we have given the reader something interesting to think about. The two see each other on the bus almost every day. They have some reason to start talking to each other. They start to share about their lives. Then to care about each other. Then something happens that forces their relationship to be strained and they have to overcome it. And after they do... Yup, more fun when it is a theme.

Remember the movie, "You've Got Mail"? Well, just replace all of the stuff in that movie with conversations on a bus ride. You will have to change some of the scenes around. But you can see how that would go. It would actually be pretty fun to try and write it as an exercise.

Goal:

So most stories, that are any good, the characters have to have a goal. The goal of the characters can't be the same as that of the reader or the author. The character isn't going to be thinking, "I sure wish I could have an interesting romantic series of events happen to me." Well, not unless your main character is a teenage girl, then that might work. But probably not even then.

The characters have a goal. Like "You've Got Mail" both characters are trying to start or save their businesses. Kids in school might have goals to get a football scholarship or get asked to the Prom. Adults will have goals about work or hobbies.

This is where you can start to mix up the genres. A mystery romance is fun as the goal of one of the main characters is to solve the murder. Or a western romance where one of the characters is trying to save the herd of cattle from a winter storm. Or a coming of age story where the characters fall in love while they are transitioning to being adults or something.

Characters:

So, yes, stories have characters. Sorry to spoil things for you. Just like all other stories, romance stories have characters too. Unlike a mystery or coming of age story, the main characters of a romance have to have the potential of a romantic attraction to each other. Even if the story starts out with them being adversaries or not liking each other. Don't think that is edgy, Romeo and Juliet are exactly this type of character duo.

But just like other stories, the romance characters need to have flaws. Something they are held back by, do wrong, and that keeps them from their goal. Not just external roadblocks like the winter storm for the cowboy or the shift in customer traffic to your bookstore. There need to be some internal limiting flaws to the characters. If not, they will seem like unreal people. Simple because real people have flaws.

Writing the Story:

After, or while, considering the core elements of what a romance story is. There are three basic takeaway items. Romance stories are mostly the same as all of the other genres only with some specific requirements.  Romance stories have a target goal to satisfy for the reader. Once that goal is satisfied, all other parts of the story can be as rich and engaging as you want. And romance stories can have such a rich set of sub-genre and thematic elements that a reader that is not primarily engaged in the romance can still enjoy the story.

Like grandpa from the Princess Bride. "Someday you might not mind as much." I think I have been giving Romance writers and books a bad rap. Even if I have been doing that internally. I may even try one on and see if I can break into the Sci-Fi Romance genre set.

You never know. There may be love among the stars.


Monday, January 28, 2019

Define your limits

So I was watching a Ted talk the other day where an animator was talking about this short animation exercise that he did. He said something illuminating. At least it was to me. He said that he started out, before making any of the art, deciding that he wouldn't have certain things in his work. In his case, it was circles.

I've been thinking about this for a bit, and I do some of the same things with my writing. At the beginning of a story, I make some decisions about how it is going to end. Many times I actually write the last chapter right after writing the first chapter. But I don't want to get into the weeds of how I do things.

This animator was talking about how setting limits for yourself forces you to be creative. By adding constraints and sticking to them our brains naturally start to work to get around the limitations. We see the limitations as obstacles or problems and our brains start to find solutions for them.

Just like formats for poetry and short stories and flash fiction have definitional limits that trend to specific types of content and storytelling. We can go farther by starting out our writing by setting in-story-limits. We can also add these limits in the middle of a story.

At the beginning of writing Airlock, I knew a bunch of things about how I wanted the story to go. How I wanted it to end. And how I wanted the story to feel. But I didn't know how the story would go. But the story didn't even have a title yet.  When I picked an Airlock to be the core challenge for James, the rest of the story got easier to write.

This is basically my writer's block battering ram. If I am looking at a blank page or screen, and I feel like I don't know what to write next, this is the time when I need to impose some limits. Instead of deciding what I am going to write or what the characters are going to do I throw up some limits and obstacles about what the characters are not going to do and what I am not going to write.

If you have read, Arbor Colony, you know that I write multiple point-of-view novels. Sometimes I get feedback from my critique group saying that a certain scene might be better from a different point of view. As the author, I have decided that there are some characters that don't get a POV. We never get to look at the world from inside their head. This is a limitation. And I try to keep it.

There may be times when you have to ditch a limitation. I recommend against it. Once you start telling your brain that you can reach down like the hand of God and remove a limitation you have set for your characters or your society, then the trick is up and you are both back to writer's block, and back to random, global, world refactoring. When I start to feel like this is the only way to save a character, then it is time to let that character die.

Or better yet, set the character on fire. Drop them off of something high. Then run them over with a wheelchair.

There was a point in Arbor Colony where all of the other characters in the story started to really dislike one of the other characters. They didn't want to talk to him. They kept walking out of scenes when he entered. He just became really unpopular in my head. And this was really good for my story.

So I didn't kill him. Instead, I announced to them all that this character was not going to die. It was a limitation that I was placing on the story. No matter how much they beat him up. No matter how often they shot him, or stabbed him or dropped him into pits, he was just going to keep annoying them. When I did this, the pace of my writing got faster and all of the other characters fell into line.

This does not mean he got everything he wanted. He doesn't. He doesn't know that he can't die. But the world knows. And I know. This makes the story work.

Hopefully, the readers are just as angry and annoyed as the all the main characters that this guy won't die. Anyway, that is my hope.

Just like a kite string is the limit that allows the kite to fly high in the sky. The limits we place on our characters, our worlds, and our stories are what lift them up and give them life. Learn to love limits.