Over the next few weeks and months, I want to delve into the specifics of story structure. Topics will include the particulars of three-act structure (inciting incident, plot/turning points, pinch points, climax, and so forth), the specifics of the mythic structure (the hero’s journey), and scene and sequel.
However, before we consider the elements that we typically think of when we’re talking story structure, I want to at least mention a few additional topics crucial to the structuring of stories.
Story structure has to do with design and form, and one topic that speaks to form is story type. Tales, vignettes, and slice of life stories fall into this category. Slice of life stories, for example, with their lack of conflict and defined problem or goal, have a structure quite different from that of novels.
The narrative modes—action, dialogue, thought, description, and exposition (including narrative summary and transitions)—are also part of a story’s structure. A story heavy on action will be structured very differently from a story where the emphasis is on character thoughts.
Genre needs and expectations also influence structure. Murder mysteries typically begin with the murder—if the murder hasn’t already taken place offstage. Mysteries include red herrings, misdirection, and the introduction of suspects at regular interludes to keep the reader from guessing the identity of the culprit. Thrillers put main characters in danger right away, and romances include the first meet, the first kiss, and the first disagreement between hero and heroine at expected points in the story.
Another way to structure stories depends on the storytelling style; is the story told in a linear way, with events following other events in a cause and effect pattern, or is the story nonlinear in some way? While most novels—and most TV shows and movies—follow a linear structure, not all of them do. When flashbacks and flash forwards are used, events no longer appear in strict chronological order, which means that the story isn’t a pure linear structure. Story events could also be portrayed in reverse order (as in Jeffery Deaver’s October List and the movie Memento). Such options definitely shake up the more familiar linear structure.
In this article we’re going to examine three additional topics that influence story structure but may not often be addressed in discussions of structure: story goal, story question, and the protagonist’s inner need (also referred to as an internal goal).
All three of these drive structure decisions—story events, character motivations and reactions, and the appeal to reader emotions are built around the story goal, the story question, and the protagonist’s inner need.
Events need to be constructed in such a way that protagonists have trouble reaching their goals.
Events, character motivation, and character background need to work together to bring about a gradual growth in the protagonist. This growth is seen in the character arc (also known as the protagonist’s inner journey). This inner journey is a direct reflection of the protagonist coming to grips with his inner need or internal goal.
And the story question needs to be brought to the readers’ attention again and again (yet without beating them over the head with it) to keep readers hooked and turning pages.
The story goal and story question are typically established near the end of Act 1. Although the protagonist might have had a different goal prior to this moment, the inciting incident and what I’ve taken to calling the goad or push (what K. M. Weiland calls the key event) serve to get the protagonist involved in a different goal, a very specific goal that didn’t exist before the inciting incident and the goad event took place.
The protagonist’s goal at the opening of the story may have been
● to be left alone
● to maintain the status quo
● to mind his own business
● to keep his head down
● to work diligently at his job
● to not get involved with anyone his sister introduced him to
● to never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line (I couldn’t resist)
But the inciting incident and the goad push the protagonist into pursuing the story goal. Because of what’s happened—events that the writer creates purposely for this very reason—he can’t not go after the story goal.
A few genre-based story goals:
● save the kidnapped prime minister or child
● stop the madman, the serial killer, or the murderer
● find the artifact or treasure
● capture the heart of the beloved
● solve the mystery
Escalating problems and complications drive the protagonist to push harder and dig deeper in order to achieve his goal, which means that the story must be structured to include those escalating problems and complications and that the problems need to be arranged at story points where they’re expected to be (to satisfy genre expectation) and/or where they’ll produce the strongest impact.
Increased problems and roadblocks in turn may lead the protagonist to cut corners or make reckless decisions, actions that are likely to result in additional problems. New problems may drive the protagonist into the need to rely on or trust others, or, conversely, problems may push the protagonist into trying to fix everything himself, with both options influencing his inner journey.
Events and scenes are designed around getting the protagonist to the story goal. Well, that’s the ultimate design; story events do eventually get the protagonist to the climax and the story goal, but in the short term, story events and problems actually serve to delay the protagonist’s arrival at the goal.
This advance and retreat—half a step forward and two steps back, one step sideways—must be planned. Reversals, roadblocks, and complications must be built into the story’s framework.
At the same time, each success and setback leads to growth in the protagonist. By the end of the story, he is likely to have learned something new about himself.
● that he is stronger than he imagined
● that his flaws don’t define him
● that he is capable in a way he hadn’t expected to be
● that he can trust others
● that a weakness proved to be a strength
● that a supposed strength proved to be a hindrance or handicap (at least in this situation)
This illustrates that the quest to reach the story goal and the protagonist’s inner need are linked.
A story’s theme and the protagonist’s inner journey and inner need are also linked. The story’s main theme is often revealed by what the protagonist learns while struggling through his inner journey toward growth.
The inclusion of specific events and problems depends upon of the needs of the story goal, the story problem, and the protagonist’s inner need. Or in reverse, the story goal, the story problem, and the inner need should influence the choice of events and problems you include in your story.
To make each of these three elements work and continue to be effective over the course of a story, events have to be manufactured—tailored—to produce character growth (addressing the inner need) and to move the protagonist closer to the story goal.
This is all about deliberate creation of problems and situations to first establish a story goal and then to prevent the protagonist from reaching that goal too soon. Once the story goal is reached, the story is over. The author must structure the events of a story to gradually move the protagonist toward the goal while at the same time keeping him from the goal. A neat trick, to be sure. But successful writers do this all the time. One key to making this work is to include logical and believable roadblocks and complications. These arise from the setting, the genre, and from character backgrounds and motivations; all elements are linked.
The component parts must come together to help the writer create the forward and backwards/sideways progress in a way that comes across as completely natural and utterly believable.
This deliberate crafting also must keep the reader interested and mindful of the story question. The story can’t be about one question and goal in chapters 5 through 10 and another question and goal in chapters 11 through 20; the story must be cohesive. It must be one story made from many parts.
While the story goal is for the protagonist, the story question is for the reader.
When the protagonist has reached the goal, the story is effectively over. And when the story question has been answered for the reader, that reader stops reading. If readers of a murder mystery guess the identity of the murderer and figure out how he committed the murder (and maybe why), they have no reason to read further. The story is over for readers who know the answer to the story question; the thirst for answers has been satisfied, and the uncertainty that drives readers to read on has been drained of its power.
The story question, coming into existence at the same time the story goal is established, keeps readers turning pages until it is answered. Readers simply must find out
● how the mismatched lovers will end up together
● how the detective catches the serial killer and prevents him from killing again
● how the untrained and ill-equipped protagonist will find the sacred object
While the protagonist is focused on reaching his goal, the reader is wondering how he’s going to do it. And the more problems the writer drops on the protagonist—or drops the protagonist into—the more anxious readers will be about the outcome.
The story question is more than a query with a yes or no answer. Compelling story questions focus on how and on process. And while the mystery of the unknown is a major reason readers turn pages, the particulars of the answer are what keep readers interested.
Rather than ask will the hero and heroine get together permanently, the reader should be asking how will the hero and heroine get together given the conditions of their meeting and their backgrounds and their very different personalities? Will the protagonist prevent WWIII becomes how will the protagonist prevent WWIII?
Story goal, story question, and the protagonist’s inner need, because they must be considered and/or addressed in almost every scene, are at the core of decisions about what will happen in a story and when those events and actions and reactions will happen. These decisions thus constitute a major component of story structure.
A novel can’t be properly structured without acute attention given to these three foundational components. These core elements can’t be shunted aside or ignored for long.
Protagonist’s Inner Need
This need is often called an internal goal, yet the protagonist is often unaware of this need and thus is not actively working toward a goal. The need may also be considered a character weakness or flaw and has likely developed in reaction to a past event or trauma.
The protagonist might have a need to forgive herself or a need to let go of the past, yet this need may have been overlooked, repressed, or ignored by the protagonist. It’s only the circumstances in the story and the character’s reactions to them that bring this need to the fore to be recognized and dealt with by the character. The flaw or inner need may actually be standing in the way of the protagonist’s achieving the story goal—you’ll want to write your story to make this happen—so attention to the inner need or internal goal should track with the introduction of new problems in the story. This keeps the need or weakness at the forefront of the character’s awareness; you keep prodding her with this inner need at every turn. And thus the reason for the character’s repeated failures and some setbacks is made obvious to both character and reader.
We’re again talking about structure, this time about structuring two elements to work together in a way that deepens the effects of both.
Events and the character’s motivations, weaknesses, strengths, and background experiences work together to trigger the character into recognizing the need or into recognizing that the need must be dealt with now. Still, before she begins to address the need, the character might first try to re-suppress the need, ignore it, or satisfy the need in a multitude of ineffective ways.
Examples of inner needs—
● need to overcome fear of failure
● need to accept personal failure
● need to prove worthiness or value
● need to prove strength or independence
● need to accept self as is
● need to hide flaws
● need to always be right or first
● need to be loved and/or respected by those the character loves and respects
As events unfold, the character gradually comes to understand that the unsatisfied need, whatever it is, keeps her from growing or from achieving her goals. Keep in mind, however, that on the one hand, dealing with the inner need might mean satisfying the need while on the other hand it might mean lessening reliance on the need or even obliterating the need. That is, the inner need that drives your character’s reactions and feelings maybe shouldn’t be satisfied but instead should be changed or eliminated. What the protagonist does with the need depends on the kind of need it is. Will achieving the need lead to character growth, or would achieving the need be a step backwards for the character? A negative need can be eliminated, freeing the character from its heavy burden.
Across the length of the story, circumstances and the protagonist’s go-to responses—the ones that often don’t work and whose use creates additional problems—reveal a weakness or lack or deficit in the character. The series of problems and the actions that don’t work lead the protagonist to eventually acknowledge the need and to satisfy or change it—to make changes that will turn a weakness into a strength.
This need can be expressed as
● a want
● a yearning
● a flaw or weakness
● an inner turmoil
● an emotional or psychological need
And yes, the need sometimes actually is an internal goal. A goal to be
● satisfied (or unsatisfied) with the status quo
● better, stronger, braver, or bolder
● more understanding or accepting of others
● less rigid
● more hopeful
● less condemning
Deliberate goal or newly revealed need, this issue is what drives the protagonist’s inner journey. This journey, the character arc, is the emotional heart of the story. It stretches from beginning to end, and it reveals the hidden journey the protagonist takes at the same time she’s trying to reach the story goal.
Readers can watch the physical journey that moves characters through the story world, but the inner journey is revealed only through the failures and successes of the visible journey. The protagonist’s changing attitude, changing behavior, changing approach to dealing with other people, and her changing problem-solving tactics all reveal the changes she’s going through on the inside. Yet these incremental changes have to be linked to what’s happening as the character maneuvers through the events of the story. Setbacks and successes lead to changes in the character; without this personal growth, the character won’t succeed.
Virtually all protagonists are changed by the end of their adventure, and that’s why we feature them in our stories. Something life shattering happens to them and they are not the same after those events and we want to experience that very personal change with them. One exception to the changing protagonist is a series protagonist such as a detective. They often change very little from book to book, although there is often some growth over time if the series covers a long enough time period.
The protagonist’s inner journey speaks to theme—what does the protagonist learn or discover? We’re not talking about learning where the lost artifact is or who the murderer is now. We’re talking discoveries the character makes about himself. We’re talking discoveries of the heart.
A changing character is a vulnerable character. At first he might be unaware of his need, but still he’s likely to have been compensating for his weakness or lack for years (and may recognize at least that much about himself). So he’s not as competent as he could have been had he addressed the need earlier.
Discovering something lacking in us makes all of us insecure. We wonder if others knew about our flaw and weakness all along. We wonder if others pity us or have thought we were weak. We wonder if others make fun of our flaws behind our backs.
Discovery of our weaknesses puts us on the spot and may make us feel weaker than we actually are.
Discovery of flaws brings embarrassment and fear. It may lead to striking out. The protagonist might be driven to hide from her flaw—or from others—or to compensate for the flaw in a negative way.
Yet eventually the character recognizes that the flaw or weakness stands in the way of her achieving not only the story goal but other goals as well.
As the protagonist goes from ignorance of this inner need or not wanting to address it to recognizing it and then to fixing it, she grows. And she is better equipped to solve the story problem.
Growth and satisfying (or loosening the grip of) the inner need may help the protagonist accept the help of others, the very response needed to overcome the antagonist and achieve the story goal. Or satisfying the inner need may lead to the protagonist being able to trust her intuition or a skill that she couldn’t depend on before.
Meeting this inner need or achieving an internal goal usually happens before the protagonist accomplishes the story goal; meeting the need allows the character to do what is necessary to achieve the goal. (Of course, not all story goals are successfully attained, but that’s a different article.)
The character arc/protagonist’s inner journey is a complex topic and one that deserves an article of its own, so I may address the topic again as we continue our focus on the components of structure.
Story goal and story question are clearly linked, even though one is the province of the protagonist and the other the concern of the reader. But those two story elements and the protagonist’s inner need demand to be considered again and again as you build your story.
Except for rare exceptions (in parallel plots, for example), the protagonist’s goal in every scene is to move closer to the story goal. At the same time, you should also be using scenes to remind readers about the main story question. Too long a time spent away from the main plot—following secondary plots or digressions—may have readers wondering if you changed stories on them.
The protagonist’s inner journey—and thus the inner need—should be woven into the character’s physical journey and into the race toward the story goal. All three elements should be foundational pieces of your story’s structure.
Celebrating because my web host finally got the blog back up and running! My apologies to those who couldn’t access the blog for the past few days. Apparently there was trouble migrating the domain to a new server, but there should be no more problems with access now.
You’ll find a lot of articles at this blog that encourage the new writer. Writers come to writing for many reasons, and not all will have a background in writing, fiction, or literature.
And while I will forever encourage writers to begin writing at any time and for whatever reason, I do want to further encourage writers who intend to publish and those who intend to write professionally.
If you want to publish, whether you’ll submit your manuscripts to agents and publishers or you plan to self-publish, you need to get serious about the craft. You might have decided to tackle a novel because you know you can tell a story or you know you can write dialogue—or maybe you’re a whiz with grammar rules—but writing a novel is about much more than one story component or one competency.
Being a fabulous plotter isn’t enough—novels are more than plot.
Having great insights into what motivates people isn’t enough—novels need more than character motivation.
Being able to craft clear sentences and grammatically perfect paragraphs page after page isn’t enough—there’s much more to storytelling than the mechanics.
The thing is, if you plan to publish, you should be learning everything there is to know about writing book-length manuscripts and you should be practicing with exercises and sample text. Whether we’re talking writing novels or creative nonfiction or even screenplays, you can’t just wing it. Yes, you’ve probably read many books and seen many movies and you are generally familiar with the setup of long fiction, but have you studied how novels come together page by page and scene by scene? Have you tried to write scenes that build on one another until you have a train racing inevitably toward a satisfying climax?
A writer needs multiple skills to write what will eventually become a book. Writing might look easy—and some types of writing will be easier for you than others—but writing a novel isn’t easy. It’s planning. It’s choices tried and choices rejected. It’s tearing up 100 pages that go nowhere and writing 100 new pages that incorporate all the elements that you’ve decided should go into your story.
It’s rewriting all the dialogue once you can finally hear your protagonist’s voice and understand her motivations.
It’s changing the point of view and shifting the setting. It’s turning the best friend into the antagonist, and it’s getting out of the head of the main character more often.
It’s a honing of word choices and developing an ear for sentence rhythms and scene pacing.
It’s rewriting again and again and again. It’s not settling for what might work but searching for what works best.
No one is going to get all the parts right in the first manuscript. No one who hasn’t done some study or research is going to get a quarter of the parts right the first time around. There are simply too many parts; you won’t be good at most of them when you’re starting out.
You won’t get better at any of them until you both learn and practice what you learn.
You’re great with humor, but do you know how to make a character humorous? Do you know how to ratchet up the humor and how to dial it back? Do you know when to dial it back so that a different story element can take center stage when it should? Do you know what that other story element could or should be?
Do you know how to pair humor with other story components and details in a way that enhances all of them? Do you rely on humor so much that your stories have no other strengths? sound too much alike? have little depth?
Allow your strengths and what you like about fiction to pull you into the writing world—you’re going to need something positive to anchor you when progress seems impossible and writing is a chore. But one competency isn’t going to be enough for you to create a decent manuscript. You need to develop a toolbox full of skills.
Topics to Study and Skills to Learn and Master
There are so many ways to mess up a novel. Conversely, there are many areas in which a writer can excel. Start excelling now. Start learning about all the components of long fiction and how they work together. Start practicing the skills necessary to be a competent and compelling writer.
You don’t have to take on every skill and topic at the same time, but you will be able to work on some together.
I’ve listed a wide range of topics that novel writers should develop competencies in, but I’m not going to go into detail about each in this article. For most topics I’ve listed only broad subjects; each can be separated into additional subjects. I’ve addressed the fiction elements and grammar rules often; in the near future, look for articles on story structure and other topics.
If you’re not particularly skilled in one of the areas—if you’ve never heard of one of the items on the list—start studying and practicing. There’s an abundance of resources—websites, podcasts, books, classes, writing groups, workshops and conferences—available to help you gain knowledge and experience. I’ll provide encouragement and support, and I’ll be one of those online resources. But if you’re serious about writing, you need to learn the craft and practice the craft.
Don’t settle on being skilled in one writing area—develop your skills in all areas. After a lifetime of writing you’ll probably still be stronger at some skills, but the more you know and the more practice you have with all areas, the stronger and more compelling your stories will be.
Point of View & Viewpoint Characters
Point of no return
First, second, and third turning points
First and second pinch points
Scene & sequel
Character—protagonist, antagonist, secondary characters, background characters; goals and motivation
Style—diction, syntax, poetic devices
Tone & Mood
Grammar, punctuation, spelling (consistency)
Do you know what makes a compelling story? Do you know how to create a gripping scene?
Will readers care about characters?
Will readers care about the subject matter and theme?
Writers and editors, I hope that 2018 has been a successful year for you. I hope that you learned something new, were surprised by something wonderful, and were encouraged in your writing and/or editing endeavors. I’m raising my glass to you to celebrate your successes—a project begun, a book finished, an agent sought, a manuscript submitted, a contract signed, a book published.
If your year wasn’t as successful as you envisioned at this time last year, my glass is raised in commiseration, with an extra lift as an encouragement for next year’s plans. May those plans succeed beyond your expectations. Succeed beyond what you can imagine even when you let your imagination soar to those heights that you’re embarrassed to mention to others.
As we enter 2019, I want to encourage you to do more of what worked for you this year, but I also want to encourage you to push harder. Study, practice, and master some facet of story structure, of fiction, or of grammar and punctuation that’s a weak area for you. Rather than rely on your regular writing and editing strengths, create a new strength for yourself.
If you don’t know how to punctuate dialogue, learn the rules. If writing dialogue is a weak spot, study how the masters do it and then practice writing dialogue yourself. If incorporating setting details is seemingly impossible for you, read up on setting and on how to work setting into your stories.
No matter what your trouble areas, decide that 2019 is the year that you’ll tackle at least one of those weak spots.
Whether you master a new skill in a few weeks or months or you take 10 months to focus on an issue, challenge yourself in the coming year. Declare that by the end of December next year you’ll be a better technician or plotter or character developer. Rather than accept that you’re helpless with commas, turn yourself into a comma expert. Master the writing issue that you hate dealing with or the one that you always work around.
Take time to boost your skills. There’s nothing wrong with giving yourself time for study and practice. Whether you take a class or develop your own course of study, tackle that problem area that is holding you back.
I picked up several dozen new-to-me craft books over the last six months or so; I may recommend a few of them for specific topics when I finish reading them. But I wanted to suggest that it might be time for you to also invest in some new resources. You may “know” the info presented in a book, but sometimes the way the author words a bit of advice can have you seeing that advice in a new light. And sometimes a reminder about rules and best practices is the nudge you need to take on a problem that you’ve be ignoring.
I’ll be pulling for you. I can’t wait to hear about what you accomplish this next year.
It’s nice to see you all. Late summer and fall were busy months for me, and I traded out a few activities to create some extra time for myself. Thanks for visiting the site while I was away.
English is a forgiving and accommodating language. And that means that writers have a whole lot of leeway when it comes to deciding how to word phrases and structure sentences.
A sentence can consist of a single independent clause (simple sentence), multiple independent clauses (compound sentence), or at least one dependent clause and at least one independent clause (complex sentence).
Sentences can contain phrases in addition to clauses. And even when writers use incomplete sentences or fragments—no complete sentences—readers often easily understand the text’s meaning.
We can put absolute phrases at the beginning of a sentence, in the middle, or at the end of the same sentence, and comprehension doesn’t suffer.
We can separate modifiers such as adverbs from the words they modify, and still readers can understand.
There’s nothing difficult in today’s article. This is just a reminder that while we do have that leeway and an absurd degree of flexibility with wording and structuring sentences, sometimes it does matter where the words go. Sometimes unexpected word order can cause confusion. At other times word order may create a meaning that the writer hadn’t intended.
And sometimes it’s not word order that causes problems. Sometimes it’s what’s being conveyed through word choice or sentence construction that is a problem.
Sometimes a sentence can unintentionally have two meanings.
Let’s consider a few instances when word choice or word order might cause unintended problems, instances when we might not be as clear with our words as we should be.
I hear a peculiar wording in TV and radio ads all the time. The wording sounds something like this—
If you’re tired of paying too much for car insurance (or shoes or tuition or coffee), have we got a deal for you.
If you’re looking for the perfect Valentine gift, we’re the best jeweler in town.
Every time I hear similar wording, I silently talk back to the company making the pitch.
But if I’m not tired of paying too much, I don’t get a deal, is that what you’re saying?
But if I’m not looking for the perfect Valentine gift, you’re not the best jeweler?
A slight change is all that would be necessary to keep listeners from mentally going a place retailers and advertisers don’t want them going.
For the perfect Valentine gift, come see Greyson’s Jewelers. We specialize in romantic jewelry.
The word both sometimes gets thrown into a sentence in a way that produces confusion rather than clarity. Typically the problem is one of redundancy.
They both reached out for each other’s hands.
They both saluted each other.
In these sentences, there’s no need for both each other and both. Either alone is sufficient.
The reached out for each other’s hands.
They both saluted.
As I mentioned, adverbs can be found at a distance from the word they modify. Yet some adverbs, especially adverbs of focus or (only, just, even), need to be placed immediately before the word(s) they modify. If they’re not in the proper place, they’re modifying the wrong word or phrase. Or at least the wrong word or phrase for your purposes.
Just Bobby showed up for the award ceremony.
Bobby just showed up for the award ceremony.
Bobby showed up just for the award ceremony.
Bobby showed up for just the award ceremony.
Even Liza failed and ended up having to repeat the class.
Liza even failed and ended up having to repeat the class.
Liza failed and even ended up having to repeat the class.
Liza failed and ended up even having to repeat the class.
Liza failed and ended up having to even repeat the class.
Liza failed and ended up having to repeat even the class.
Other Misplaced Modifiers
Prepositional phrases operate as modifiers and can cause confusion or double takes of some sentences.
Jason was arrested for indecent exposure in the middle of Main Street.
Was Jason arrested in the middle of Main Street or is that where he exposed himself?
The victim was found stabbed to death by a relative in her home on Tuesday.
Did the relative do the stabbing or the finding?
Every writer is warned about dangling modifiers. Yet sometimes we don’t notice when the modifier—often a participial phrase—isn’t modifying the subject of the sentence and thus is left dangling.
Jumping up and down, the ball skipped over Luke’s head.
Cashing in on early retirement, the option was a good one for Lucinda.
Luke is the one jumping up and down, and Lucinda is the one cashing in on early retirement. These sentences both need reworking.
While Luke jumped up and down, the ball skipped over his head.
Lucinda cashed in on early retirement, a good option for her.
A squinting modifier could be modifying the word or phrase before it or the word(s) after it. Rewrite for clarity when modifiers squint.
The man who married recently divorced.
Did he marry recently or divorce recently?
Taking the time to plan clearly is the best choice.
Which word or phrase is clearly modifying?
Absent or Unclear Antecedents
Pronouns without clear antecedents can also cause problems. Be sure that pronouns refer to a specific noun, one that’s been included in the text.
Every time the bookmobile came to my school, I wanted to buy dozens of them.
The speaker likely means that she wanted to buy dozens of books, yet the word books hasn’t been mentioned.
Tom and Bill went to his house.
Whose house? Make sure that pronouns clearly refer to a specific antecedent.
Readers can often figure out what is meant when a sentence can be read multiple ways. Yet to head off even momentary confusion, search for unclear or confusing phrasing. Beta readers and critique partners can be good detectors of these kinds of errors; if you’re prone to creating confusing sentences, have a friend or colleague look over your text. But you can also search for problem words yourself. For example, if you tend to put the word only anywhere in a sentence and don’t pair it with the word you want to modify, examine every use of only in your projects. Help readers so that they don’t have to stop reading and step out of your out-of-this-world adventure in order to make sense of a confusing sentence.
While most writers want to create a unique story with fresh characters facing new challenges, it’s also true that most novels enter the world facing reader expectations regarding genre.
Suspense novels require a ticking clock and a sense of danger.
Mysteries have to play fair with clues; readers must be able to solve the mystery with the clues provided.
Science fiction novels need to contain elements, technology, or events that are possible or could be possible or have been possible in the past based on what is known of scientific principles.
Romances have to include romance.
Today I want to focus on the romance in romance novels, specifically the falling-in-love part.
While many stories feature romance as a secondary element or plot thread, I want to look at romance novels in particular because they have a requirement that other novels don’t necessarily have to have—romance novels need to show the lovers falling in love.
Now, if the story deals with a married couple that’s going through problems but they’ve already done the falling in love part, that’s a different story with a different setup. You can show that the characters love each other without having to show them falling in love all over again.
But in most romances—no matter which subgenre we’re talking about—a major part of the story is concerned with the lovers as they fall in love.
The characters may be strangers, friends, or antagonists when the story opens, but by the end, the characters are in love. And that journey has to be shown to the reader.
The characters may have to solve a mystery or save the world, but they also have to fall in love. And in romance, that means a progression toward love that plays out on the page.
And that means that you’ve got to show your lovers falling for each other. Simply announcing that they’re in love three quarters of the way through the book doesn’t cut it. Your job as a writer is to make readers believe the characters are in love. And that’s not always easy.
Lust isn’t love. It can lead to love, but you have to make sure that your characters feel more for each other than a desire to have sex.
Attraction isn’t love either. It may be the starting point, but attraction isn’t enough for love. Not in a romance. Just because a character likes the way another character moves or talks, that doesn’t mean love exists. Attraction may be enough for some characters in some stories, but not for the leads in a romance.
Show the attraction, yes. Show the lust. But also show admiration. Respect. Affection. Show friendship.
Show why Marcus is falling for Emily.
What about Emily is he drawn to? Beyond the physical, what does he notice about her that snares his interest? What satisfies something in him when he recognizes it in her?
What in Emily speaks to his inmost being?
For Marcus to see something in Emily that captures his attention and then his heart, you have to show Emily doing something or being someone who grabs his attention. Emily should have something that other women don’t have. She should be something that other women aren’t. She should complement Marcus in some way.
The characters can disagree, they can fight, they can break up. But all along there should be something specific in each of them that draws the other one closer and closer still. There must be something that sets them apart from other men and women and makes them stand out to this one other character.
Think of them as being magnets and iron to one another.
There needs to be something—maybe several somethings—that attracts them to this other person. Whatever it is that draws them has to be strong enough to withstand all the forces that work to push them apart. Whatever pulls them together has to be strong enough to take two highly different people and make them one couple, an entity that never existed before. An entity that can’t be broken apart.
As with any behavior critical to a story, falling in love has to have a motivation; characters must have reasons to fall in love. They can’t just fall in love because you’re writing a romance and they must fall in love. You have to include all the pieces that add up to them falling in love.
You need to show the reason one character falls in love with another as well as show the other character doing things that make the first character fall for him or her. You need to show the fulfillment of the reason play out in front of the reader. That is, you show the motivation from the viewpoint of one character and you show why that character falls for another character through what the second character is doing.
The characters need to fit. So Emily has what Marcus needs. And because you tell us about and show us the inner man, we see what Marcus needs. And because you tell us and show us some more, we see how Emily meets his needs.
If Marcus needs a woman who will love his daughter, we need to understand that that’s one of his needs. And we need to see Emily loving his daughter.
If Marcus needs a kickass woman to travel the world with him as they chase down spies, we need to understand that that’s what he’s looking for—whether he’s admitted that to himself or not—and we need to see Emily operating as a kickass woman who can do the job.
This means that you need to write situations where we can see Emily doing and being what Marcus needs. We need to see Marcus noticing Emily’s skills and gifts. We need to hear Marcus (in thoughts or speech) recognizing those gifts and skills. We need to hear Emily looking for ways to love Marcus’s daughter or plotting to catch the spies.
And not only do we need to see Marcus’s motivations for falling in love with Emily and see the skills, strengths, and weaknesses in Emily that make Marcus fall for her, we need to see everything from the opposite point of view as well.
So we need to see what motivates Emily to fall for Marcus. We need to see Marcus in action doing things that make Emily fall for him.
We need to see how they fit each other’s needs and deficiencies and desires.
In romances, characters can’t just claim to be in love by the end of the story. They have to have reasons to fall in love. And you have to make those reasons clear.
One writer might be more obvious than another in the way the falling in love is shown—Marcus had never expected to meet a woman as fearless under pressure as his partner’s wife, but Emily was in a category all her own—but readers need to see the characters begin to admire and then cherish each other.
Readers shouldn’t be surprised when a character realizes that he or she has fallen in love. The reader should be able to pinpoint the moment the character finally toppled. The reader should be able to point to those events and moments that built toward love for both characters.
As you evaluate the falling-in-love element in your romance, ask yourself a few questions:
Why does Marcus love Emily? Why does Emily love Marcus? What is there about each of them that stirs this other person to love? (There can be multiple reasons, of course.)
Why do each of them fall for one another rather than someone else? Are those reasons obvious to the reader?
Do they fall in love only because of the situation, or have you given them reasons intrinsic to the characters? That is, do they actually love one another, or do they love the adventure they’re involved with?
How have you shown the motivation(s) for each of them to fall in love?
How have you shown each of them doing something that appeals to the other character?
Are they together on enough different occasions and for long enough time in total to develop feelings of love?
Have you shown the moment of realization for each of them, the moment they know that they’re in love? Was the moment emotional enough? Did the moment of realization match the character?
Did they actually admit their love to one another? If so, did that scene fit the characters? If not, will they admit their love in another book? If they only get one chance to declare their love, make sure they do it in some way, a way that fits them.
Once you’ve written at least a first draft, consider your romance couple. Have you given them strong enough reasons to fall in love? Would such people fall in love and stay in love? Have you given them strong enough motivations to fall for the other character that you paired them with?
If you haven’t included enough to convince readers that they’re in love, rewrite.
Have you paired the right characters?
If you’re characters don’t fit, if they wouldn’t fall in love, recast the story.
Have you shown the falling-in-love part, the attraction and giddiness, the doubts, the inevitability? Have you shown the frustration that loving another person can bring? Have you shown the joy, the satisfaction, that love produces?
Readers come to romance to feel emotions. Make sure your characters’ thoughts, speech, and actions stir reader emotions.
There’s a lot more to romances than this one element, but it’s an element you can easily look for and rework if it’s not complete.
If you’re writing romances and your characters will fall in love over the course of the story, be sure to show the fall and show it from both sides. Help your readers experience the thrill and the emotional highs and lows of watching two made-for-one-another individuals discover that they are not alone.