Cue the Twilight Zone music.
Imagine, if you will, you are coming out of a grocery store. You are pushing your cart and scanning the parking lot as you try to remember where you parked your car.
Suddenly a woman grabs your arm. She cries out that she’s been followed by a stalker. Can you help her? From around the corner, a man appears. He’s carrying what looks like a gun, and, you can tell by the way he’s looking over his shoulder, he’s being chased. He shouts to the woman to run, that he’s not sure how much longer he can hold off the person pursuing him. He grabs her arm and pulls her after him. Blood is streaming down his sleeve.
Got the scene in your mind? Okay, what did you notice first about the woman? What did you notice first about the man? What emotions swelled up in you at the thought you could be shot by either the man with the gun or the person coming after him and the woman?
You did notice the sex of the people involved. You did notice the gun. You did notice the tone of their voices and the fear on their faces. You saw the man’s bloody sleeve.
But I bet you didn’t stop long enough to take a full appraisal of the two people. You paid no attention to her chestnut hair pulled back in a ponytail or the way his denims fit his butt so well. You don’t know why they are here in your grocery store parking lot. You don’t know what events led up to this moment. You don’t know their hopes (other than to escape) and goals. You don’t know their favorite flavor of ice cream. . .unless one snatches that half gallon out of your shopping bag. You don’t know anything about their families and friends. You don’t even know if they are the good guys or the bad guys.
You did see their fear and the blood.
And that’s what you need to bring into the opening of your book. You want to draw your reader in so quickly she’s already on page 10 by the time she dares to take a breath. Put your characters into the middle of terrible trouble, which can be physical, as in this example, or emotional. The heroine standing in her room waiting to marry the evil man who’s foreclosing on the ranch is a cliche simply because it works so well. The reader is caught up in her emotional turmoil – does she marry Snidely Whiplash or does she believe that Dudley Do-Right will arrive in time to save the day?
But, I can hear you say, how can my readers connect with my characters if they don’t know more about their background, their appearance, and their goals, motivations, and conflicts?
First, trust your reader. If you’ve started your characters at point where they’re in the midst of trouble that is going to require them to risk something physically or emotionally, then the reader is going to connect to them right away. All of us have faced such circumstances, although most of us – I hope – haven’t been chased by a madman through a grocery store parking lot.
Play fair with the reader. Have the first female character introduced (through her point of view) be the heroine. The same rule holds if you start with the hero’s POV. If you begin with the heroine, the first good-looking, take your breath away guy who shows up in the book had better be the hero. I’ve judged contest entries where the heroine is the POV character, and a great guy wanders in to chat with her – but he’s not the hero. That’s very confusing to the reader, who’s already committed herself to seeing how the heroine and that guy are going to work out their “happy ever after”.
You can give quick descriptions of the non-POV character by focusing on things that move the scene along. Assuming it’s the heroine’s POV at the start, you can mention his rough hand gripping her arm with a strength that matches his muscles. Or blood could be seeping through his blond hair and dripping on his broad shoulders. Or she feels a bit more protected because she’s seen that he shoots with the skill of Hans Solo. Or she should have known better than to trust a handsome guy with a scar on his left cheek. Just quick snapshot things, because people really don’t stop to take note of everything during a stressful situation. If they did, witnesses wouldn’t disagree about what happened during an accident or a crime and what the perpetrator looked like. But they sure all know how they feel about what they witnessed. It’s that feeling that lures the reader into the story and has her cheering for the good guys.
Trust yourself and your story. If you put your characters at a crisis point in their lives, you have to show the reader how they cope under such pressure. You’re not telling the reader how the heroine has faced such challenges before and triumphed. Who cares about what happened in the past when the heroine is fleeing with the bloodied hero from the bad guy? All the characters (and the reader) want is for them to escape. The reader wants them to have their “happy ever after” ending as well, but as she is engrossed in that opening scene, she will focus only on hoping they escape.
Later, when you’ve gotten them over that first bump on the sweet primrose path to love (don’t gag, okay? <g>), you’ll have a resting spot where you can give us more information on them and their background. It’s at this point that you allow the secondary characters to have a bit more time “on-stage”. This is where the friend/mother/sister (for heroine) or best buddy (for hero) come into play to provide a reflection for the main character to lay out their goals, motivations, and conflicts. It’s called a reflection character because it keeps the POV character from talking to him/herself.
So hit the ground running either emotionally or physically and emotionally. You need to have that emotional connection established right from the get-go in a romance. Then your reader/editor will immediately become a part of the story and have a high stake in seeing how the characters resolve their differences, confront their fears, and reach their goals as they fall in love.
Archive for August, 2009
Cue the Twilight Zone music.
This is an article I wrote about 15 years ago, but the truth about the hero who has a touch of villainy in him remains timeless:
Once upon a time, it was easy to tell the bad guys from the good guys. The bad guys wore black hats and wicked mustaches and tried to steal kisses (and the ranch) from the heroine. The good guys wore white hats and had chaps that seemed to repel dirt and sang songs to their horses before riding off into the sunset.
Let me tell you – it ain’t that easy anymore, folks. And thank goodness! Our heroes don’t need to be all good – no more Clark Kent/Superman for us in every novel.
Recently the heroes that have populated my novels, as well as many other novels, would definitely need to wear a hat in some shade of grey. I’ve begun to work more often with male protagonists who are neither hero nor villain but a combination of the two. It’s a fine line to walk because the reader needs to fall in love with the hero, even if he evolves from dark and dangerous bad boy hero to just plain dangerous bad guy hero. The secret of doing this is in one of the most basic tenets of writing – motivate, motivate, motivate.
When I am working on a historical, the easiest motivation for a bad guy hero is upholding honor. The legends of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table along with Chansons de Roland and Sir Walter Scott’s novels have painted us a picture of chivalry that’s very loosely based on historical fact. The knight, sans peur and with a heart of gold who is willing to die for his lady faire, is a well-established tenet of this romantic period. Yet, when I begin to work on a historical novel, one of the first things that comes into my head is the song from the Broadway show Camelot – “Fie on Goodness”. The knights of the Round Table have discovered that a life based on only virtue is not only boring, but downright impossible.
So I gave my hero a hefty dose of that non-goodness (if that’s not a word, it should be!) which should make him anything but boring. What will a man do for honor and duty to country and family? Can he do the wrong thing for the right reasons and still be a hero?
Rhys ap Cynan, the hero of Wake Not the Dragon, the 13th century medieval I wrote for Harper, considers the honor of his country of Wales and his clan more important than anything. He deceives and drugs the heroine the first time they meet in order to protect his obligations. He foments insurrection against the English king, twisting the heroine into his plans even though he knows it may break her heart. Yet the reader – I hope – will fall in love with Rhys as my heroine Gizela does, because he holds his vows sacred. She knows when he finally offers his love, he will be forever faithful to that pledge. The strength of conviction can be a powerful aphrodisiac.
Honor is only one motivation. I also like revenge as a motivation. In Ride the Night Wind (also published by Harper), my 14th century hero, who rides the night as the mysterious Lynx, is a puzzle to the heroine. Is he her savior or will he destroy everything she is trying to build? He does do damage to her fief, but every action is motivated by his compelling desire for revenge against a man who has hurt his family…and may hurt the heroine. Is Lynx less of a hero because he goes beyond the law – risking death or having his real identity outlawed, a very serious punishment in medieval England? I think, rather, it makes him a more complex, realistic character, someone the reader can relate to (Haven’t we all wanted to get even with someone – even if it’s only the guy who cut us off in traffic?), and the reader will fall in love with.
It was with Under the Outlaw Moon, that I first discovered the hero/villain. My hero was a sheriff who robs trains on the side and blackmails the heroine (who is a full-time train robber) into assisting him in his schemes. His motivations are much the same as Lynx’s – an eye for an eye vengeance. Good, basic motivation that can be developed into an intricate hero capable of doing what he must for his goals and the heroine.
I don’t suggest that a hero, even with the proper motivation, can rape and pillage and loot with abandon. For example, I cannot imagine having a hero who would rape the heroine – or any other woman. Remember a hero is always good at heart. His methods might not be within the laws of his time and place, but he is trying to make things better…for his family, for his country, for those who depend on him.
That is an important facet of a bad guy hero. He never commits his crimes or threatens to shatter the heroine’s heart to further himself in prestige and power. He is selfless, willing to risk his good name and his life in order to right what he sees as a wrong.
Do these dark knights work only in historicals? No, of course not, although that’s where I’ve had the most fun with them. I have done paler versions of them in Regencies. Ross Hogarth, the hero of The Wolfe Wager, risks breaking the heroine’s heart simply to ease his boredom at the end of a boring Season in London. Yet at the same time, he chances falling in love with her. The hero must always be willing to gamble something incredibly precious – in this case, his freedom as a bachelor, a not insignificant commodity in Regency England – or he falls over the line into becoming a true villain.
So toss the white hats into the trash, and look around in your creative subconscious for that hero who has more than a touch of villainy in him. After all, the man who has risked everything and won your heroine’s heart and respect will be so much more interesting for your heroine to spend her “happily ever after” with…and satisfying for your reader.
When I ask my students to write a synopsis for the class, I always get the same complaints: “How can I write a synopsis when I don’t know what the story will be?” and “If I write the synopsis first, I will lose all that wondrous spontaneity when I write the book.”
I understand these complaints. I once thought the same way, but that was before I had a moment of epiphany and realized the truth of the following ten reasons to write the synopsis first:
10. You write your synopsis while you are flush with the excitement of “the beginning.” It’s always easier to write when you are enthralled with your characters and story rather than when you get mired in the realities of all the details of the story.
9. You can see holes in your plot before you start writing. Do you need more events for the length of your book? Fewer? Is there a subplot?
8. You can see if there is a lack of conflict/motivation in your characters. What are their goals? Their fears?
7. You will find it easier to keep the synopsis short — you won’t want to add all those wonderful scenes and characters you’ll discover as you write the book. And we all hear from editors that they like short synopses, especially in slush pile submissions.
6. You can focus on the through-line of the story without wandering off into irrelevant (to the synopsis) detail. The through-line is the main plot. If you don’t know how to determine what your story’s through-line is, read the back cover copy on books to see what other stories have as a through-line.
5. You will be able to pitch it more easily to an editor even before the book is completed (this is for all of you who plan on taking an appointment with an editor or agent and already have completed one book but want to be able to have a back-up — just in case).
4. You will be able to share the synopsis with your critiquing partner, so you can brainstorm any plot problems. By reading it early in the process, you both are familiar with the important aspects of the story.
3. You have a road map while you are writing. It will keep you from getting lost or wasting time wandering down a “road” that won’t lead you to your conclusion.
2. You want to be able to sell on a proposal (or just a synopsis) once you have sold your first book. So you might as well start practicing now on how to write a synopsis early in the process.
And most importantly:
1. You won’t have to write it later.