Are you stuck mid-story?
Despite all your careful outlining and plot points (or lack thereof, if you’re a pantser), are your characters refusing to cooperate? As an editor, I’ve seen this happen all too often. Deadlines looming, and the book just came to a screeching halt.
A mainstream novel usually has two plotlines — the action plotline and the character development plotline. In a romance, there’s a 3rd plotline superimposed over the character development — the romance plotline. And in a romance, that third plotline needs to carry equal weight. The romance needs to be integral to the overall storyline. You can’t get from point A to point B without the romance. If you can take the romance out and it doesn’t affect the plot — you’re not writing a romance. Romance writers usually know this, but when you take the romantic conflict for granted, you may find you’ve left your characters stranded mid-plot.
The romance plotline typically goes something like this — characters meet. Mutual attraction. Romantic conflict intervenes. Love prevails against all odds. HEA/HFN (Happily Ever After, or, in the case of a serial, Happy For Now). When the romantic conflict falls apart, odds are your characters are going to stop whatever they’re doing until you figure out what’s wrong and help them fix it.
The simplest reason romantic conflict fails is that there isn’t any.
If there’s no good reason for your characters NOT to be together, there’s no storyline. They meet. They fall in love. Yeah! End of story. Go back to blowing things up (or whatever’s happening in the action plotline).
Contrived romantic conflict (because I’m the author and I said so!) is pretty much worse than no conflict. When the conflict could be cured by a simple explanation –”Brenda? She’s my sister!” — your readers are probably not coming back for the next book. Of course, rules are made to be broken. In some of the funniest RomCom I’ve read, the whole story’s based on miscommunication. But that in itself takes a lot of set up.
Ethical and religious differences may work well for some situations, but romantic conflict may well fail if the rest of the characters’ actions don’t line up with the rationale for the conflict. A crisis of faith — he’s Catholic and the partner’s divorced, for instance — only works if he’s acting the part of a devout Catholic in all the other aspects of his life.
In a military or police romance, “Duty Calls” can make a very compelling romantic conflict, but make sure the underlying issue isn’t going to be more impossible to overcome than just this mission — a partner who’s freaking out about a single mission doesn’t make a lot of sense in the overall stream of a lifetime — your characters need to address the issue of the service itself.
When the conflict fails, go back to the basics — the six Ws from the first day of journalism class. Chart them out like you’re analyzing a news article. Reduce your answers to one sentence (and don’t give Faulkner a run for the record). Then analyze your answers. What questions haven’t you answered? What answers don’t work? If your answers need explanations, is the conflict too complicated, or not developed enough?
- This one seems self-evident, but is it? Name your major characters here. Will readers know right these two (or three, or more) are the major players in the romance? If you’ve got minor players who’re taking up all your screen time, maybe they’re really the main characters. You may need to tighten your focus.
- What, precisely, is the central core of the romantic conflict? Simple question, but when your middle’s flagging you may need to remind yourself of this or potentially revamp the conflict. If it started off as a simple misunderstanding but the book decided it was a novel rather than a short story, the conflict needs to be scaled to meet the end game.
- Does the conflict make itself evident at the right time? As readers, we generally want to know what the nearly insurmountable issue is that’s keeping these lovers apart. If we don’t — if there’s no logical reason they can’t be together, they just haven’t gotten around to it — then they’re idiots and we’re going to run out of patience with them (assuming you’ve written them so that we WANT them together). We’re here to root for them — we’re their cheerleaders. We can’t do that if we can’t identify the conflict.
- Where are your characters? Why would we need to ask that? Because if the seemingly insurmountable conflict is physical distance and we don’t have vid-cams or some other reliable form of communication, then we’ve got another problem. It’s nearly impossible to develop a strong romantic plot with a workable conflict if the characters aren’t interacting. Might make a good Sci-Fi Futuristic Action adventure, but not a romance. If you plotted the action plotline without taking the romance into consideration, you’ve got some major rewrites (or a genre change) in your future.
- Remember we started out with three plotlines — action, character development, and romantic conflict, all woven together to form one cohesive story. But in the story we’ve got now, the faltering midline may have severely rerouted one or all of those plotlines. How exactly can the seemingly insurmountable conflict be resolved? What’s the endgame? How does that endgame flow in with the rest of the original plotline? Take a step back and make sure you and your characters and all your lovely notes and plot points are still on the same track. How can we resolve the nearly insurmountable conflict and tie all the plotlines together?
- The last, and hardest question. Why, as a reader, do we want these characters to be together? What makes them lovable? Why are we willing to suffer their heartbreak with them? Are you still in love with them? Did you remember to let us know WHY you’re in love with them? I had an editor who used to tell me “We don’t get the author with the book.” Make sure you put what you know about these people that makes them worth fighting for in the story. We don’t need three pages of physical description here – we’re not in love with your hero because he’s built like a Greek god. We won’t fall in love with him because he ran into a burning building to save a child. We fall in love with him because of WHY he ran into the building, whether it’s because he’s a fireman who puts his life on the line daily because it’s what he believes in, or because he’s the desperate man who was about to rob the liquor store but against all internal logic throws away his plans to do the right thing. Once we know who he is and why he does what he does, chances are we’ll follow you through the rest of this love story — and the characters should be much more cooperative.
In short, if your characters aren’t talking to you, chances are they’re not talking to one another, not working together to resolve their conflict. Once you’ve identified the source of their conflicts, they should be talking to you again, and you should all be in a much better place to figure out where the story’s going from here.
Publisher, Changeling Press LLC
Margaret has a free webinar this weekend and a class starting next week!