In my last column, I talked about the critical ingredients to craft a coherent story. You might recall my genius bread-baking metaphor: like a story, there are an infinite number of different kinds of bread you can bake, but all loaves of bread have certain ingredients in common that make it bread rather than cake or pizza. However, just knowing what ingredients to put in isn’t enough. You also need to know the ratio of each, and the order in which they should be added.
Maybe I’ve been cursed by the book gods and need to
sacrifice another virgin at the secret blood altar they keep in my local
library’s basement (all the best libraries have one), but I’ve had crap luck
with books lately. I’ve DNF’d the last four out of five books I’ve read,
primarily for story mechanics issues. They’ve either dragged or didn’t
establish a solid foundation before jumping into the action, or just weren’t
very compelling stories. I’m a slow-as-shit reader, so slogging through a book
I’m not that into can take weeks to reach the payoff of a “meh” experience. If
a book doesn’t hook me within the first ~30%, I peace out and move on.
don’t tell me you’ve got a binder or notebook stuffed with pictures you found
on the Internet of what your main characters look like, along with facts about
them like their favorite color, the first song they danced to, their ideal
vacation spot, etc. I mean, you can do that if you’re bored…okay I did that on
my website as part of a promotion for
my book Reckoning. But
don’t mistake this for character development, because it’s not.
Characters in your head are not real people, no matter what a platitude typed
in Corsiva font scrolled across a picture of a quill tells you. They are not
people, and they don’t do anything you don’t make them do. To think otherwise
is to have a fundamental break with reality, and please see your doctor to
adjust your medication dosage accordingly.
Everybody who’s ever attempted to bake a delicious loaf of bread from scratch knows firsthand the endeavor is part art, part science. The delicate balance of flavors and textures—that’s art. Ensuring the loaf doesn’t dissolve into a puddle of goo—that’s science. There are an infinite number of different kinds of bread you can bake—banana, zucchini, raisin nut, marble wheat, etc.—but they all have certain ingredients in common—flour, yeast, baking soda, salt, water—and require a certain order of preparation—mix ingredients, bake, let cool. Without the right ingredients in specific quantities and in the proper order, you end up with the aforementioned inedible goo.
Writers are always giving out advice on how to write, assuming for some reason that people care. I mean, you don’t see doctors prattling on to whoever will listen about the best ways to reset a bone or writing blog posts about identifying infectious diseases.
Maybe writing is unique in the sense it seems like something everyone should be capable of doing. With some sad exceptions, everybody is literate, everybody’s got “What if…?” story ideas, and everybody can
tell a good story from a bad one. And yet only a tiny handful of people can sit down and complete a coherent story; even fewer a GOOD coherent story. So there’s a certain mystique around writing, as if people capable of doing it have some kind of magical power that transcends schooling and is divinely revealed ala God’s proclamation of the ten commandments. Continue reading Good Books To Read If You Wanna Be A (Better) Writer→
I used to wonder what was more important—wordsmithing or storytelling. This was when I was on my O. Henry Prize kick, reading dozens of beautifully written short stories that received high praise despite lacking plots or any deep meaning (to me, anyway). As a result, for a while I believed wordsmithing was more important and focused a lot on improving my prose. Then I realized short stories were a career dead end and began focusing on novels, where I came to the opposite conclusion, and the one I believe today: ideally you want to be good at both wordsmithing and storytelling, but storytelling should always take precedence. Beautifully constructed sentences and imagery are great and all, but if they don’t coalesce into anything meaningful it becomes tiresome after a while, like the O. Henry stories did for me; it’s the literary equivalent of navel-gazing.
Why aren’t romance novels adapted into movies or TV shows more often? Aside from Hallmark channel movies, Fifty Shades of Grey, and the relatively recent Starz hit Outlander, a big-screen romance based on a book is a rare breed…with the notable exception of teen rom-coms on Netflix, cuz kids eat that shit up. But if romance is the biggest-selling book genre, and best-selling books are hot Hollywood commodities due to their built-in audiences, then why aren’t there more of them?
Your first instinct may be to claim sexism, but I don’t think that’s the case – at least not the main reason. Most cinematic joints have a romance element of some kind, so it doesn’t make sense to conclude Hollywood execs always shy away from “chick stuff.” I think the real deciding factor comes down to how cinematically adaptable a story is, meaning how well it follows a standard story structure.
I’ve read a lot of craft books, and though they all focus on different aspects of writing, they’re all surprisingly consistent on how a story should be generally structured for maximum effect. A story basically flows like this from start to finish: hook (happens immediately) -> inciting incident (anytime before plot point 1) -> plot point 1 (~25%) -> midpoint (50%) -> plot point 2 (75%) -> climax/denoument (90%). Some craft books break this flow into Acts, but the beats are the same. Nearly every professionally-made book or movie follows it…
…Except romance novels.
Now I’m sure this isn’t the case with all romance novels. I’ll admit I have not in fact read every romance novel, so my sample size is limited in that respect. But I’ve read enough to notice a pattern. Romance novels often break the narrative formula in favor of deep-diving into their character’s psyches or the minutiae of their relationships.
For instance, the last romance I read was supposed to be a suspense, though by Chapter 4 I still hadn’t figured out what the hook or inciting incident was supposed to be (meaning I wasn’t given a reason why I should care about the characters, other than they seemed to be decent if painfully bland people). In the one before that, an erotic contemporary, the story seemed to kick off right at plot point 1, leaving me scrambling to figure out who the characters were as they boned (and boned and boned…). And the one before that, another romantic suspense, the main mystery was established in the first thirty pages as plot point 1, and then…nothing happened. The plot did not move one inch forward for nearly 100 more pages, instead focusing on the hero and heroine making googly eyes at each other for approximately an infinite amount of time.
This is a big reason why I don’t finish many romance novels – the story structure just isn’t sound. However, I’ll admit I care a lot about plot, probably more than the average romance writer, and my stories tend to be plot-heavy with intricate storylines. I’m sure this colors my opinion. But without the plot, the characters are just kind of floating in a nebulous cloud of a world, thinking and feeling things for no particular reason other than the author wants them to.
And yet romance novels are still hugely successful despite bucking the formula. Why? I suspect it’s because readers are looking for a feeling more than a story. They want to capture the essence of love and sex and everything in between; the rest is secondary. I’ve noticed my monthly Romance Writer’s Report, published by the RWA, features lots of advice on characters (and marketing…a SHIT-TON on marketing), and very little on story structure.
Eschewing the traditional story structure doesn’t mean romance novels are “wrong;” it just means they’re not inherently cinematic. I think it’s also a big reason why romance novels get a lot of crap for being “bad.” They’re not bad, they’re just different.
It all comes down to what the audience wants – a feeling or a story.