Assuming you’re a romance reader or writer (and if you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance that you are), do you think it’s better to know one character deeply than two superficially, or would you say books that let the reader into both the hero’s and the heroine’s head have a better chance of delivering a credible happy ending? Of course both can work if the writing’s good, but I suspect most of us have a sneaky preference one way or the other. And if, like me, you’re in the Two Heads Are Better Than One camp, can you drill down further to figure out what style of double-header you enjoy most?
This week I spent a day or three looking at the first act of my story. I’d had feedback from a couple of different sources that some of my early scenes were in the wrong place and they got in the way of the central story just as it was developing momentum. As soon as it was pointed out I realized it was true (damn it), but I wasn’t sure how to fix it, so I let it sit for a while. This week I felt ready to face the challenge. I tried two or three different ways of looking at the problem and in the end I wrote a summary of each scene on an index card (pink for Rose’s POV, blue for Ian’s 😉 ), laid them out on the dining table, changed the order around and did a little tweaking here and there until the scenes gave the central story a push in the right direction instead of getting in its way. I’m not finished yet, but I think I’m getting there.
The exercise made me think about the way I’ve constructed the story. There’s a lot more to think about than I realized when I bashed out the first draft completely by instinct.
Not Rent & Cornflakes (still searching for the right title) is Rose’s story, but the book is split roughly 50/50 between scenes in her POV and in Ian’s, because those are the kind of stories I most love reading. In Billy Mernit’s excellent book Writing the Romantic Comedy he says: “Rather than asking ‘will the hero obtain his goal?’ the central question posed by a romantic comedy is: ‘Will these two individuals become a couple?’” That makes sense, but I think romantic fiction needs to go further: the end of the book must be the beginning of a lasting, blissful future together for the hero and heroine – a Happy Ever After, not just a Happy Right Now. As a reader I find I am more likely to buy into that future promise if I know both individuals equally well. I need to be convinced that My Guy is the right man for My Girl, and for me that means spending time in the heads of both main characters.
Both Rose and Ian are written in deep POV, which means the reader is right inside both their heads, seeing what they see and thinking what they think, and only that. I often read books where the author gives both hero and heroine equal real estate on the page, but tips the balance subtly by going deeper with one character than the other, and therefore making that character more intimately knowable. Sometimes that works amazingly well – for example, Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels is essentially about how gorgeous, pragmatic Jessica banishes gorgeous, tortured Dain’s inner demons, so it makes sense that we delve deeper into Dain’s messed-up psyche.
Going deeper into one character’s head than the other can also be an effective way to retain a little mystery – leave the reader guessing, as well as the other main character – but my Girls seem to think it’s not playing fair, and I’m not sure I could write that way.
I also instinctively write short scenes, around the 1,500-word mark, but I often write sequences of up to half a dozen scenes that follow directly on from each other, and I almost always alternate POV from one scene to the next. I don’t count this as head-hopping (your mileage may vary), rather, to me it reads like a chess match or a sporting encounter – one player makes a move, the other responds, and so on, back-and-forth. I like it, but it means the reader gets fast, frequent updates and I’ve been wondering if it puts them in possession of too much information. I don’t think so: even though we might see an extended sequence from both characters’ POV, at any point we only know what one of them is thinking, which means we (and they) are guessing about the other. The other bonus is that their responses are immediate, which make them more telling.
I really enjoy watching sport, and I especially like one-to-one battles of any kind. I like to think my story is something like a really good tennis final – two well-matched players with different strengths and weaknesses, exchanging blows, both playing hard and playing to win, no quarter asked or given, until one prevails. That’s my idea of a good time. You may not be a sports fan 😉 .
So … what kind of romance structure works for you? Do you like to pin your colors to one character (first person or third) and fight the good fight with them, or are you like me, with a foot in each camp? If you like to get both sides of the story, do you like to spend a good, long time with a character before you change POV, or are you happy with a quick back-and-forth? How knowable do you like your characters? Would you prefer a little mystery, and can you be in possession of TMI? Please tell all. I’d love to know.