Jeanne: Too Many Buts, Not Enough Therefores

I recently read a book that didn’t quite work for me.

The writing was strong and the author did a masterful job of pulling all the diverse plot threads together, but something about the story somehow missed. It took me a couple of days of analyzing it to put my finger on the problem: too many buts, not enough therefores.

If you’re not a long-time follower of this blog, that phrase may not make sense to you. (It may not make sense even if you are.)

Let me explain.

The single greatest “Aha!” moment during my time in McDaniel’s Romance Writing Program was hearing Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about “but and therefore.” Here’s a short (2:14) video of the two men explaining this rule to a classroom of students at NYU.

Here’s an even shorter recap: When you lay out the arc of your plot, the individual events should connect to each other via “but” or “therefore.” Like this: Continue reading

Jeanne: Why We Love Casablanca

casablanca-3328692_640Recently, I read an analysis of the romance in the movie Casablanca  “The Wrong Man Gave her the Right Feelings,” by Nancy Graham Holm. The thesis of her article is that, even though Rick and Ilsa’s love is considered to be one of the greatest onscreen romances in history, they don’t really love each other because they don’t really know each other.

As Holm points out, when Rick and Ilsa first meet in Paris, there’s no reason for her not to tell Rick about Victor. She believes her husband to be dead and herself a woman free to form a new commitment. So why wouldn’t she tell Rick that? Victor’s dead, so spilling the beans won’t harm him. She’s not traveling under an alias, so it’s not like she’s trying to keep herself, Victor’s widow, hidden. The real reason, of course, is to give the romance plot a jumping-off point.

(Note #1: This is far from Casablanca’s biggest plot hole. The entire movie is based on the search for missing “letters of transit,” signed by Charles de Gaulle, which would allow the bearer to pass through Nazi territory without being arrested. Charles de Gaulle was the leader of the French resistance and absolutely not a person whose signature would in any way impress a Nazi officer.)

(Note #2: There is no way my editor, Karen Dale Harris, would have ever allowed either of these plot holes to slip by.)

(Note #3: Not that she would have gotten a chance (even if she’d been alive when it was filmed, which she wasn’t) because the second half of the script for Casablanca was written while the first half was being filmed–and the entire filming took place between May 25 and August 3, 1942.)

Holm goes on to say that one of the reasons we don’t notice these flaws in the film is because it’s in black and white. Black and white films are low definition, requiring our brains to work harder and leaving us with less critical capacity.

Despite all these flaws, it’s still a great movie and a moving love story.

What’s your favorite love story?

Kay: The Plot Thickens

Photo: The Harris Poll

It’s always something. Just a few days ago, Jeanne talked about how she used enneagrams to clarify who her characters are, because she thought they weren’t behaving consistently. I usually have a pretty good grip on my characters right from the start—that’s almost always why I write a story to begin with. Somebody out there speaks up.

My problem is plot. And conflict. Which, if I had enough conflict, I’d have more plot. It’s a vicious cycle.

A few months ago, when I was ready to start a new project, I didn’t have any new ideas. Nobody spoke to me, demanding to be put on a page. The girls in the basement didn’t send anybody up. So I decided to write a story that’s been noodling around in my brain for a few years. It would be the continuation of a two-book FBI series, of which the second book was finished in 2012. Continue reading

Jeanne: One Goal to Rule Them All*

Recently I read and reviewed a contemporary romance. The setting was unusual enough chaos-724096_640to be interesting without being so weird it distracted from the story and it had likable main characters, each of whom had a solid character arc, but the book left me feeling out of sorts. It wasn’t until I wrote up the review that I realized what hadn’t worked for me: the protagonist had three different goals.

  1. She’d just graduated from college and wanted a job using her degree.
  2. She was involved in organizing a charitable event to which she was deeply committed and she wanted it to reach a certain dollar figure in revenue.
  3. She had recently broke up with a boyfriend who took ruthless advantage of her giving nature and she was determined not to date for a while. (That’s a negative goal. If you’ve been reading Eight Ladies for any length of time, you know that’s a no-no, but it’s still a goal.)

Continue reading

Jeanne: Subplots

One of the things I struggled with when I was learning to write novels was subplots.

Category romances (those shorties you used to see in the supermarket) don’t have subplots. They deal with a single story line and pair of characters. But longer books get really tedious if all we hear about for 350 pages is one set of characters and one story problem.

In a book with subplots, here’s how it goes: your main character encounters an obstacle. She figures out a way to deal with it, only to discover her approach yields unforeseen consequences and she now must deal with them, too. Meanwhile…. Continue reading

Jeanne: Telling Parallel Stories

Like Jilly, I have been spending time judging contest entries lately. Unlike Jilly, some of rails-3309912_640mine have been pretty good. One, in particular, interested me because the story paralleled the romances of three different couples, which is what I’m trying to do with my third demon book, The Demon Wore Stilettos.

I was especially interested because every time I tell other authors what I’m working on, they say, “That’s way too complicated. You need to get rid of some of that.”

And it may come to that, but I really want to keep all three stories, so I was happy to see someone else had tried the same thing with, I thought, some success. Her stories were all set in the same small town and used the marriage-of-convenience trope for all three.

Mine are all set in Minneapolis-St. Paul and all revolve around the second-chance-at-love trope.

Where I thought the contest entry could have been stronger was in cohesion. The stories run along side-by-side like train tracks, never crossing, never even approaching each other. In mine, the three couples are, respectively, demons, humans and angels. All three couples have had past romantic encounters and all are now, for various reasons, no longer in those relationships. Continue reading

Nancy: Liar, Liar, Page on Fire

Characters lie. They do it all the time. They lie to themselves when they convince themselves they’re after an external McGuffin when they’re really searching for love, or acceptance, or loss of everything so they can start over fresh. They lie to other characters in conversations, and give away the truth in their interior monologues and actions. Sometimes they even lie to readers, especially in the cases of the recently-popular, unreliable narrators in books like Hawkins’s Girl on the Train and Flynn’s Gone Girl.

But what happens when one of the leads in a romance story lies to the other lead? Will readers root for someone lying to our girl/our guy and still want the liar to get the HEA? How long can a character lie and still be considered redeemable? Are there circumstances that make this character choice more palatable?

These are the questions I pondered as I worked on the discovery phase of the next novel in my Harrow’s Finest Five series. This is Percy’s story, for those who have read the novella. And the story kicks off with our heroine (Finola) telling one whopper of a lie to get Percy’s attention and, ultimately, help.

I ran multiple scenarios about when, where, and how my heroine would come clean. I talked to readers. I reread stories I remembered with some level of deception between the characters. After all that, I have lots of thoughts, but my main take-away is that whether the lie is tolerable and forgivable all comes down to “why”. Continue reading