Recently I read and reviewed a contemporary romance. The setting was unusual enough to 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.
- She’d just graduated from college and wanted a job using her degree.
- 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.
- 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.)
One of the things Jenny Crusie covered during the McDaniel Romance Writing program was Aristotle’s Unities.
Aristotle, Greek dramatist and perhaps the world’s first story wonk, believed that a well-written play should have a very limited scope. He thought a play should:
- Have the least possible number of subplots (unity of action)
- Have a single setting (unity of place)
- Occur over the course of a single day (unity of time)
When I first heard this, it felt completely over the top to me. To a certain degree, it still does. Lately, though, I’ve been reading manuscripts and even published novels who authors don’t appear to have ever heard of good old Aristotle and his unities.
- They hop from place to place.
- They wind on for months or even years.
- They include subplots that don’t get resolved.
Aristotle may have been too narrow by today’s standards, but I think he was on to something.
- Limiting your plot to a main plot and no more than a couple of subplots allows you to really delve into those stories.
- Limiting your novel to the absolute minimum number of characters limits the number of names/personalities your reader has to keep track of and allows her to connect more deeply with the characters you do choose to include.
- Limiting your book to the shortest possible period of time automatically grants your story dramatic tension.
- Limiting your story to a minimum number of settings allows the reader to engage more deeply with that setting, and with the story that sits on top of it.
Some of my early (forever-to-be unpublished) novels ignored some or all of these rules (because I’d never heard of them), but the things I’ve written since McDaniel really try to adhere to them.
The one I’m least successful with is probably unity of time. Although I’d love the tension a book that takes place over a few days or a week has, my plots are usually too complex to easily resolve within such a short time-frame.
- The Demon Always Wins takes place over a period of 7 weeks.
- The Demon’s in the Details occurs over 44 days (so, 5 days shorter)
- The Demon Wore Stilettos is planned to take 30 days. (Since it’s not finished, I can’t swear that won’t change.)
The good news is, my timelines are getting shorter.
That said, it’s tough to have two characters meet and fall in love in a convincing way in a very short period of time. The only reason The Demon Wore Stilettos can resolve so quickly is that it’s a second chance at love story, so the H/H already know each other.
What about you? What is your ideal timeline for a novel?
Because my day job is in a high-stress, deadline-driven field, I have a tendency to have weeks at a time when I don’t have time to write, or sleep (much), or blog. The past several weeks have been just this kind of time, and adding to that, we had Puppy (real name Pepper) to foster for 10 days.
Puppy, aka Pepper, channeling beagle patron saint Snoopy.
Here is a picture of Puppy and me saying goodbye the day she was going back to her owners. (The smile was for the camera; we were ridiculously weepy to say our final farewell to her). But there’s still another week of crazy before I can get back to some semblance of a normal writer’s life (ha!), so today I’m going to cheat a bit by sharing one of my favorite blast-from-the-past posts, written in 2013 before the 8 Ladies told anyone outside their immediate families and closest writer friends that we were embarking on this blogging adventure together. It combines two of my favorite topics: writing and the Beatles! What’s not to love? So until next week, I’m going to carry that weight down the long and winding road while I leave you with some food for thought, Fab Four style.
And in the End…
Most people who know me in the non-internet world, and a few who know me via the internet as well, know I am a HUGE Beatles fan. I am not of the Beatles’ generation or the time period of their music, but I love their work, their persona, and their lore with the intensity of a thousand suns. So imagine my pure joy when, last week, I came across a local radio station playing the original Beatles collection (albums released while they were still together as a group) on vinyl. And in listening to the beginning and end of this day-long broadcast (with the inconsiderate interruption of the day job in between), I got to thinking about story beginnings and endings.
Hearing the Beatles’ earliest recorded album, Please Please Me, as I drove to work, and then hearing their last recorded album, Abbey Road, after I arrived home that night, made me realize how much that last album took the band back to its roots. Continue reading
While working over my ACT III this week, trying to find a slam-bang finish, I went back through my old McD notes and reviewed a few of the major writing concepts we learned. Conflict, character arc, story structure, beginnings and endings, most of these concepts have been discussed at length here at Eight Ladies, but there’s one that resonates with me more than the others as I look for my ending.
As writers, we are in the business of making the audience care. Whether consciously or not, it’s what we’re all striving to do as we write our stories. We want to grab our audience from the very first page and hook them into the story. The best way, maybe the only way to do this is to make them care about our characters and their stories. Continue reading
Most people who know me in the non-internet world, and a few who know me via the internet as well, know I am a HUGE Beatles fan. I am not of the Beatles’ generation or the time period of their music, but I love their work, their persona, and their lore with the intensity of a thousand suns. So imagine my pure joy when, last week, I came across a local radio station playing the original Beatles collection (albums released while they were still together as a group) on vinyl. And in listening to the beginning and end of this day-long broadcast (with the inconsiderate interruption of the day job in between), I got to thinking about story beginnings and endings. Continue reading
During a recent two-week break between workshops, I read through my entire first draft – all 45,000 words there is of it. This is the third manuscript I’ve written. The first two went on paper much faster than this one. I started working on this one a couple years ago but a bad experience (story for another day) caused me to stop writing. I got back into it when I enrolled in McDaniel College’s Romance Writing Program. Through the first year, I didn’t get a lot of new words on the page because I was so immersed in learning craft. Now it is time to finish this manuscript, but I had lost the story, hence the full start to finish read of what I had on the page. Continue reading