Romantic Conflict

I think it may have been Tolkien who wrote “Adventure is something nasty happening to someone else far away,” though admittedly I am having trouble sourcing this quote today.

As an aside, I did find a similar quote attributed to David Niven: “Adventure. Ah yes. That’s someone else having a very rough go of it very far away. My idea of adventure is carrying a pint of bitters from one smoke-filled room to the next.” (http://www.baenebooks.com/chapters/0743498747/0743498747___6.htm)

Of course, what either of these quotes implies is that while we enjoy reading about adventure (or watching it on film), it may not be something we necessarily want to have happen to us. For all the interest in adventure tourism, or active sports and pastimes, true adventure implies an element of peril not sought for its own sake, but rather risked or endured, perhaps unwillingly, on the way to something else far more desirable.

In other words, adventure is conflict. Most of us seek to reduce conflict in our own lives, but in fiction, without conflict there isn’t much of a story. A group of characters sitting around having the time of their lives may sound like a lot of fun, but it isn’t very interesting to read about.

That means our protagonist is that someone else, and for the story to be interesting, she must have a very rough go of it. Nasty things must befall her, and then she must overcome them, gain strength through adversity, and return to her ordinary world wiser than before, having won the grand prize.

Herein lies the author’s conflict. We spend so much time with our protagonists, our main or lead characters, our heroes and heroines, that it is easy to identify with them. They are the children of our imagination. We grow to love them as we love ourselves, or as we love our best friends, and who would wish nastiness upon their best friend?

Yet we must, for the sake of the other children of our imagination, the stories themselves. We must array armies of conflict against our heroine, in all their serried ranks, and she must lose at least a few battles — though she can win one now and then, too — before ultimately emerging victorious. It’s painful to do, but our heroine must suffer — for the sake of art, of course.

So what does conflict look like in a romance, then? No one is swinging swords at our heroine (unless, perhaps, we are writing a paranormal fantasy romance), nor shooting bullets at her (or are we writing romantic suspense?). The grand prize she seeks, though she may not know it at first, is love. The barriers she must overcome on her quest for this prize are emotional more than physical.

There will be external conflict. She is not the only one seeking the hero’s heart.  She has a rival, one who may stop at nothing to steal the hero away from her. Perhaps her family, or the hero’s family, or workplace rules or societal politics, dictate that they should not be together. Perhaps the hero is, at first, simply uninterested, or he lives in a different world, moves in different circles, such that their paths would not cross in the normal state of affairs.

There will also be internal conflict. The heroine, or hero, or both, may have been hurt before, such that they now avoid entanglements, or they may inwardly consider themselves somehow unworthy of love, or of each other, not realizing at first how far from the truth this sentiment may be. The heroine will harbor some dark secret, some shadow from her past that she has struggled — and failed — to overcome, and just when things finally seem to be on a perfect trajectory, it will rear its ugly head to dash all hopes.

Naturally, she will ultimately triumph, defeating her inner demons and outer rivals, and win the hero’s heart for all eternity, as classic romantic tropes dictate, living happily ever after.

Or will she?

Romance is full of conflict, and in this we find a truth for both fiction and reality.

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And So It Begins

Thus is our heroine launched into her journey of self-discovery, unsure of what she is looking for, only knowing that she hasn’t been finding it. Yesterday’s post shows the opening lines of the first draft, a novel with a working title of Switch. That title is certain to change at this point, so we may just as well call it Olivia’s Story. Olivia burst onto the scene, nearly fully formed like Athena springing from the head of Zeus, at the start of NaNoWriMo last year.

You do know what NaNoWriMo is, don’t you? Ok, I suspect most of those interested in reading a blog like this have some idea, perhaps even have tried their hand at it, but for those who have not yet suffered the agony… er, I mean enjoyed the pleasure, NaNoWriMo is an annual month-long writing marathon which attracts participants from all over the world. The name is short-hand for National Novel Writing Month, and the idea is to write 50,000 words — or more — of original fiction in 30 days. It’s a contest of sorts, occurring every November, except you aren’t competing against anyone else, as everyone who achieves the goal is a winner. The intent is to encourage not just creativity but also persistence. It is hard work to churn out 50,000 words in a month while also balancing the needs of a day job, a family, and perhaps some pretense at a social life. It’s much harder to do this and turn out anything that isn’t utter muck, but that’s not quite the point of the exercise.

The point of the exercise is to develop the habit of writing every day, no matter what else happens. NaNoWriMo encourages traits such as sticktoitiveness and getitdoneiveness (can I trademark that one?) more than actually writing well. After all, writing well is the point of second drafts, isn’t it?

Ah, except my inner editor always gets in the way and wants to compose, edit, and refine as we go. This tends to make better first drafts, such that come revision time wholesale chopping of the text is less necessary, but it also tends to make it easier to get bogged down, miss deadlines (deadlines? What deadlines? It’s not as if I have a publisher or editor breathing down my neck, after all. That would be a nice problem to have), or even lose steam in the project.

So this is where NaNoWriMo (gosh, I get tired of that odd capitalization) comes in for me. I find that balance between revising as I go and getting it done — hopefully — and thus actually complete projects.

The first time I tried my hand at Nano (let’s just agree to the short form, shall we?), I did not win. At the end of thirty days I had a beautifully crafted beginning and beginning of a middle of a story, lyrical prose that leapt off the page to paint sunsets at sea in the mind’s eye, complete with the cries of seagulls and the briny aroma of the surf crashing against rocks. I had two amazing lead characters, a precocious twelve-year-old immigrant who refused to be bound by the customs of her day and the gruff and grizzled bo’sun of the 19th-century clipper ship she sailed on, whose heart she charmed with her innocent curiosity about all things nautical. There were storms and drunken captains and getting lost at sea. It was beautiful.

What it wasn’t was 50,000 words. At the end of the month I had about 25,000, but if I may say so, they were 25,000 beautifully crafted no-revision-required words. Over the next few months I added about 10,000 words more, then the story just… petered out. I realized I didn’t know how to navigate a path to an ending. The ship may have just sailed on forever.

So the next year I tried again. I had a concept for a character, though not much in the way of a plot, but this character was ready to burst onto the page, any page, and thus Olivia was born. At the start of November Olivia was a fare-paying passenger on… an airship. Yes, I was going to write a steampunk romance! Dastardly air pirates and dashing heroes, and in the midst of it all one plucky heroine who finally finds her way in the struggle against adversity. It was a great concept. Some day I may even take it up again, although not with Olivia.

You see, about five days into the month Olivia let me know that this really wasn’t her story. She didn’t really want to be kidnapped by pirates and rescued by swashbuckling heroes. She preferred a different role. She’s really quite bossy at times, and that’s because Olivia likes to get her way, even if she doesn’t always quite yet know what her way is.

So we started a new story, Olivia and I, and twenty-five days later (because we were already five days into the month, after all) we had 50,101 words.

Alas, however, not all the prose was as lyrical as that of Maria’s story (on the clipper). Don’t get me wrong, my inner editor didn’t completely go on vacation, and I believe I wrote some fine passages. However, as this time the story was completely pantsed (as in, not plotted), not all the scenes necessarily hung together very well. Olivia’s story had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and even a fairly logical plot progression to get from one to the other, but there were definite holes. A few among the supporting cast turned out brilliantly, while a few others needed a little work.

I put the story down for several months and worked on a different project for Olivia, having told myself that the earlier draft was just a practice run. I thought I would use one or two scenes from it in the new storyline, but otherwise it was a completely different plot. This time there would be no pantsing, every detail would be carefully planned in advance, making a story so well-crafted and tight that all would be forced to admit its brilliance. Except, however, it was so tight that Olivia began to complain she couldn’t breathe. She rather likes breathing, as it turns out. Then some of her friends from the earlier story (you haven’t met them yet, but their names are Ashley and Melody, and I think they’ll grow on you just as they did on me) knocked on the door and wanted to know what their part in all of this would be.

Ashley in particular was a little sad that she wouldn’t get to do the original story with Olivia, which kicked in Olivia’s protective instincts. She gave me that look, and with a sigh I agreed, oh, all right, we’ll finish the original story.

So Olivia invites you to come along and meet her good friends Ashley and Melody, and her new friends Nicholas, Walter, and of course Catherine. It wouldn’t do to forget Catherine. As you will discover, Catherine is not to be denied. Paul will have another appearance or two as well. Poor Paul. Things just don’t seem to be going his way at the moment.

But that could change. All you need do is just…

…turn the page.