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The Trouble with Romance

I struggle with formulaic Romances because they focus on the falling in love part. Falling in love or lust is easy. The endorphins kick in and distort thinking and mask the storms that await. Desire is a feral beast that operates on need regardless of the consequence.

Fairly tales and romance novels have programmed princesses to expect princes on white horses who will sweep them off of their feet and be everything they need and want them to be. They expect to live in a castle and be eternally adored. Princes expect princesses to be beautiful, kind, smart, and never annoying or boring.

Romances stop film at the exact moment where couples are blissfully happy because disappointment and pain are right around the corner. The truth is, the ride after the sunset is hard, rough, and smelly. The couple falls off, has to get back up, dust off their butt, and start over. Castle are drafty and cold and too immense to be a home. Princes live in them so they can hide for days on end.

Neither princes nor princesses are what they are cracked up to be. Princes and Princesses should be stopped at the border, questioned thoroughly, and strip-searched until the bare bones until their souls lay open for inspection, for they can quickly turn into antagonists.

Princes piss on toilet seats, belch at the table, and fart in bed. They are rough with fragile things, like feelings. They make mistakes but cannot admit to them. They cannot find anything as simple as the mustard. They become little boys in the face of tears. They are completely lost in a grocery store and refuse to ask for help and come home with everything but what the princess asked for then pretend it was intentional because they did not like her menu for the week. 

Princesses can be whiny and expect the prince to read her mind. They talk too much and ask for opinions they don’t want to hear. They have more needs and wants and thoughts than any one prince can tolerate. They are easily hurt and often passively resentful of sins the prince didn’t even know he committed. They are moody and hormonal and project emotional battles from the past into the present with no hope of a resolution. They are hard to please and can’t always express what they mean.

Romances don’t address the hard part where the prince and princess have to acknowledge their faults and learn to communicate and compromise. These things are too real. They do not make good copy. So we are fed over and over again the first part of the story. 

Literary love stories are more realistic. They explore how relationships are built, broken, and repaired. They analyze and dissect the human foibles that work against a peaceful resolution. They make us cheer when the prince and princess overcome great obstacles to work together as a cohesive team having realized their mistakes.

I prefer literary love stories because they teach us how to handle life after the sun sets instead of promising us rainbows. The world could use more literary love stories.

Casting Mayberry

When I was a child, I loved watching the Andy Griffith show. It was a sweet situation comedy about a small town sheriff keeping the peace in rural North Carolina. The setting was bucolic. The cast was full of benign well-meaning people occasionally beset by antagonists passing through or creating problems for each other.

Let’s take a look at the functions of the different characters. 

The protagonist was the widowed Sheriff Andy Taylor. He had a shrewd mind hidden behind a good-old-boy smile. That was his secret weapon. The antagonists always underestimated him. His role was that of caretaker to a town full of people too innocent to protect themselves. His weakness was that he was too nice, bordering on enabling.

This was apparent when dealing with his sidekick, Barney Fife. Bumbling Barney meant well, but was often more of a hindrance than a help. He occasionally redeemed himself by luck rather than skill.

Andy’s Aunt Bee acted as the sweet voice of reason, but she occasionally got it wrong and this offered mild interpersonal conflict.

Otis, the town drunk, was usually a hindrance or complication to solving the story problem.

Floyd, the Barber, was the town gossip with feathers for brains. His tidbits of information sometimes helped and sometimes hindered.

Opie was Andy’s son and often posed important thematic questions. He occasionally got into trouble.

Goober and Gomer Pyle were goofy gas station attendants who innocently interfered. Their station was the portal to the town.

Andy was occasionally given a love interest who offered interpersonal conflict based on the occasional jealous pang or misunderstanding.

The antagonists were a series of moonshiners and petty criminals passing through. Once in a while they dealt with a real criminal (bank robber).

The characters not only offered local color, they were the source of interpersonal conflict. They aided or impeded and sometimes brought trouble to their door.

Andy’s genuine love for them kept him motivated to save them from their own folly and the bad guys who passed through.

There were no special effects, no guns blazing, no brutal murders. Sheriff Taylor was a loving but firm disciplinarian with Opie (and the rest of the town). Mayberry was a sweet place to pass a summer’s evening full of genuine love and kindness.

I doubt storytelling will ever return to that level of innocence, but the world could use a little country comfort these days. 

The Hot Tub in the Fast Lane

When my daughter began driving, we had multiple conversations about driving defensively, being aware of what is happening around you, and looking ahead to see not only what the cars in front of you but the cars in front of them are up to. She brushed me off with, “Mom, I know!” in that infuriating teenage whine that means, “I’m not listening so shut up.”

One day we were in a fast lane on a highway with my cruise control set at (unspecified) speed. There was a car in front of me and a truck in front of it. The car in front of me switched lanes to the right and the truck hit his brakes. I cut off the cruise control and said a few impolite things. Then the truck moved over to the right and I saw a hot tub blocking the fast lane.

I tapped my brakes, threw the car into Low 2, and coasted into the grass to my left. When I was certain my heart had actually not stopped, I slowly climbed back onto the highway. “This,” I said as I shook, “is why I keep lecturing you. You never know what life is going to throw at you.” Girl child was suitably subdued.

The inciting incident in your story is the hot tub in the fast lane. It is an obstacle that your character isn't expecting to encounter. It requires that he make quick decisions or take instinctive action. There is no time to think or plan or consider and no way to back out. 

The inciting incident doesn’t have to be a murder or aliens descending. It can be a quieter dilemma in a Literary story. He could find out his spouse cheated or his boss is corrupt.

You have to build a protagonist capable of reacting to this obstacle in a way that ensures his survival when others would have smashed against the hot tub or spun off into oncoming traffic.

The special talent is the strength of character, special skill, or weapon that you give him so he can solve the overall story problem when lesser characters would have been killed on impact.

He could be the only one looking two cars ahead. He could be the only one with reflexes quick enough to avert disaster. He may have a special button that turns his car into an airplane. He may have the only magic wand that can make the hot tub disappear.

You don't want to structure a story around a situation that your character could easily walk away from or allow someone else to deal with it. Presenting him with a compelling hot tub moment makes that impossible. Make sure you explain why your protagonist and only your protagonist can solve the problem you create for him and, when the climactic moment comes, the resolution will be believable.

Ch-Ch-Ch Changes

One cannot truly change other people. They have to want to change and be willing to take the appropriate steps and endure the excruciating growing pains all by themselves. Nothing annoys me more than the trope that you can love people into being emotionally healthy. You can love them while they become emotionally healthy, but that isn't the same thing.

That said, when one character changes — as your protagonist should — it naturally has an impact on the characters around him. He does not exist in a vacuum. Those closest to him react to this change either positively or negatively. 

Let’s give Dick a nagging mother. When Dick’s point of change occurs and he finally stands up to her, she may not have a similar epiphany. She may continue to nag as he walks off. However, over time she will shut up or find another audience. People only do what works. When a method stops working, they have to find new ways to achieve their payoff.

The same is true if Dick is fighting off vampires. He will have to gain the right knowledge or the right weapon. This will inspire respect in some, resentment in others. Not everyone will be happy when your hero becomes heroic. Some might try to tear him down or trip him up. That’s where foes come in. Foes don’t have to be henchmen of the antagonist. They can be people your hero once thought of as friends, or at least benign acquaintances. Even good friends might be mildly inconvenienced or outright threatened by this change.

Change creates unease. Subtle shifts in the status quo make your characters uneasy. They have to learn to navigate new terrain. Relationships can fray under the pressure.

Do not spend chapters detouring into side stories or internal journeys of secondary characters. Keep to the main thread and show small changes through dialogue and description in their interactions with the protagonist or each other.

How do your characters behave toward and talk to the characters most changed at the beginning of the story? How do they react by the end?

It can be as simple as a character sneering at the hero in an early chapter and saluting him at the end. It could be an easy camaraderie between them at the beginning and a stiffness in the end.

When you have assembled your cast and put them through their initial paces, also called the first draft, take a step back and look at how the overall story problem has impacted the secondary characters' lives. If they all remain static, you haven’t utilized all the tools in your storytelling tool kit.

The Breakup Letter

Dear Network Television:

This letter has been a long time coming. It's time to discuss the future of our relationship. It isn’t working. You no longer meet my needs or my expectations.

I fell in love with you the moment we met. You swept me off  of my feet. You were dazzling and thrilling. Our time together was filled with singing, dancing, laughter, and sharing stories from the heart.  For years you were everything I needed you to be and more. I couldn’t wait to come home to you at the end of the day. I lived for those weekends curled up in bed together.

As the years passed, I felt us drifting apart but turned a blind eye to your indiscretions. We spent less time laughing and too much time with your band of highly dysfunctional friends. I don’t want those narcissistic, hateful people in my home anymore.

I always knew you were friends with that whore in advertising. It took me a while to realize the extent of your relationship. You don’t even bother to hide your affair anymore. You spend more time with her than me. I’m tired of you conspiring together and laughing at what a gullible fool I am behind my back.

I want a simpler, less stressful relationship and friends that uplift rather than tear down.

No, don’t tell me you’ll change. I don’t want to hear your lies and "sorry" won’t cut it. You need help, more help than Dr. Phil can offer. It would take a complete overhaul to fix what is broken and I don't believe you want to. You rely on these sick people to make you feel better about yourself. You rely on your mistress for money.

I just can’t do this anymore. I shouldn't have to. I deserve better.


Your Once Devoted Viewer