Tag Archives: Cary Grant

Plotting III: Romance Structure

A working definition of plot can be a protagonist attempting to achieve a specific objective or overcome a problem despite direct opposition by an antagonist through escalating conflict and obstacles to a crisis point, whereby the protagonist either succeeds or fails.

Granted, this is cumbersome and convoluted–as many working definitions are–but it basically means the protagonist wants something and tries to get it despite an antagonist standing in the way. They clash and maneuver until a big showdown occurs that settles the matter.

While most commercial-fiction genres follow this linear, cause-and-effect, archetypal plot structure, two genres stand out as exceptions because they utilize different–somewhat unconventional–plot dynamics.

They are the romance story and the mystery. Both of them manage to confuse and entangle new writers frequently enough to warrant further discussion.

For this post, let’s examine the romance structure. On the surface, it seems straightforward and simple enough. The couple must meet. The couple must fall in love. The couple must commit. How hard can it be to write about two people falling in love with each other?


You’ve chosen your setting–perhaps a tropical beach with palm trees swaying in the breeze and turquoise waves curling onto pristine sand.

You can imagine your heroine’s curly auburn hair and tawny eyes. You’re planning to write a heterosexual story so the hero is handsome, dark-haired, and athletic. You envision them kissing passionately on the sand as the tide comes in–something like that famous beach embrace between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the WWII film, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

Okay, and now what? What you have so far is fine, but it’s not a story. After all, besides going on dates and kissing, what else should happen? A genre romance–in contrast to erotica–is not just one torrid bedroom scene after another. And although you intend to bring your couple together happily ever after, you can’t seem to get there while you’re  contriving constant squabbles. In effect, you’re grounded on a sandbar.

So you attend some writing workshops, where the speaker advises you to create a protagonist and antagonist with directly opposing goals and talks about linear plot structure much as I did in the opening paragraph of this post. Trouble is, that advice of opposition, clashing goals, and conflict makes little sense for anyone trying to write a story intended to bring a couple together.

If the heroine is the protagonist, then who’s the antagonist? The guy? Does this mean he has to be an arrogant, foul-mouthed, ruthless, and awful villain? And if he’s like that, how stupidly besotted will a heroine be to fall for him?


The heroine isn’t going to be stupid. The hero isn’t going to be a villain.

Granted, some romance novels published in the 1970s and ’80s featured assorted rough and rotten heroes that today make us roll our eyes while muttering caustic remarks about neanderthals, but a successfully plotted–and plausible–romance can follow the classic, archetypal plotting principles just fine.

Allow me to explain.

If your heroine’s desire/objective is to meet and attract THE ONE into a wonderful, committed, forever type of relationship, she has a specific story goal. Furthermore, her goal is clear, obtainable, understandable, and fits the standard tropes of the romance genre.

The plotting principles of genre fiction, however, dictate that stories must have conflict and clashing goals. Does that mean a couple must bicker at every opportunity?

Not at all. It means they should disagree on specific goal-directed issues.

Let’s repeat the heroine’s goal: to meet and attract THE ONE. She meets him on the opening page and recognizes him instantly as THE ONE. That means, therefore, that she wants to attract him. She wants to be with him.

Now, to achieve plotted conflict that will advance the story, the hero–in this scenario–must NOT want to be THE ONE. Sure, he’ll like her. He’ll think she’s cute or beautiful. He might or might not seek a date with her. But despite his attraction to her, he will be determined to avoid becoming her ONE.

His reasons can be a variety of motivations that have little or nothing to do with her personally. Perhaps he’s committed to a bachelor existence and doesn’t want to change or settle down.

I recently read a novel by Cindi Madsen called JUST ONE OF THE GROOMSMEN, where the hero was focused on his recent job-loss and how he didn’t have a career, didn’t have enough money saved, and didn’t feel confident of supporting himself let alone a wife.

(In my youth, I dated a handsome guy who was just starting law school and didn’t want a serious relationship until he was finished with his training. I wanted to be serious, and he didn’t. Wisely or not, I moved on.)

Conversely, the heroine may be the individual that’s determined never again to be in a relationship. Perhaps she’s been burned before, and hero is exactly the type of guy she doesn’t want.

If this THE ONE / NOT THE ONE dynamic is set up clearly in your mind during the planning and outline stage, you will have the conflict you need to keep your plot going because although clearly ideal for each other, the hero and heroine will not be in sync until the story ends.

In the screwball comedy classic, BRINGING UP BABY, heroine Katharine Hepburn falls for an already-engaged Cary Grant and chases him mercilessly in a series of zany antics designed merely to keep her in his sight.

Occasionally, for the sake of variety, a writer will create a lovers triangle where a rival for either the heroine or the hero gets in the way and tries to prevent the course of true love.  In THE RAZOR’S EDGE, the hero’s former flame–who ditched him years before to marry a rich man–destroys his new relationship rather than see him happy.

A third plot variant is the forbidden romance with a parent or authority figure refusing to allow the couple to form a committed, lasting relationship. Tolstoy’s tragic story, ANNA KARENINA, centers upon an unhappily married woman’s love affair with a dashing young soldier while her husband and Russian society turn against her. War itself can also serve to part lovers as in the classic films CASABLANCA and  WATERLOO BRIDGE.

In the romantic comedy, THE MORE THE MERRIER, starring Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, all three of these plot structures are employed:  she is seeking a female roommate to share her apartment and doesn’t want Joel McCrea for a tenant (she does not consider him THE ONE); although she’s very attracted physically to McCrea, she’s engaged to another man (lovers triangle); WWII is the authority about to deploy McCrea on a dangerous overseas mission, thus parting them (forbidden romance).

The WHY Factor

The romance plot structure requires a clear understanding of WHY from both opposing characters. In other words, WHY is he THE ONE for her? WHY is she so certain of it?

Or, if she dislikes him at first, WHY is she so determined to avoid and evade him as he pursues her?

The why factor is critical character motivation. Work through the why, and your couple will fight and disagree from valid, plausible reasons instead of bickering foolishly for bickering’s sake.

Also, remember that strong motivation will keep your protagonist from quitting, even when winning true love seems hopeless.


Jane Austen’s book has been delighting readers for over 200 years, which is a darned good track record for longevity. Her deft handling of the romance plot structure as well as where and how she turns it in unpredictable ways continues to charm readers.

Let’s look at it briefly as an illustration of my points. First of all, the why factor is critical in making this plot plausible. Darcy is eligible, handsome, and very rich. Austen must create valid, plausible reasons why Elizabeth does not instantly fall for him. And therefore, although he is handsome and rich he’s also very shy with strangers and tends to be brusque until he feels more comfortable. That is why he sneers at the people attending the dance and insults Elizabeth when they first meet. They each start off with a poor first impression of the other.




*Clashing personalities

*Stubbornness, misplaced pride, and prejudice

*Meddling from others

*Social inequality

Initially, both Elizabeth and Darcy dislike each other and are firmly convinced that neither is THE ONE.

Darcy is smitten first, but he fights against accepting Elizabeth as THE ONE because her family is unsuitable.

Elizabeth fights against accepting him as THE ONE because her feelings are hurt, then her sister is hurt, then she is deceived by Mr. Wickham, then she realizes what a social hindrance her family is.

Just as she is starting to accept Darcy as THE ONE, his clumsy first proposal insults her all over again. By the time she truly recognizes how much she’s misjudged him (as well as how incredibly rich he is) and realizes he is really THE ONE, he has backed away.

Back and forth they go, pursuing and evading then switching positions, but always in a dance of conflict until the final misunderstanding is resolved.





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Now or Later

When it comes to writing, are you a doer or a procrastinator? Do you write steadily and daily according to the BIC principle (Butt in Chair)? Or do you catch up on your tweets, play games on your phone, and allow yourself just five little minutes on Facebook before you get started?

And how often do those five little minutes suck up all the time you’ve allotted for your writing session?

One of my favorite films is THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1948), staring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. It features a subplot involving an elderly professor (played by Monty Woolley) who is friends with the protagonist Julia and her husband Henry. Professor Wutheridge is poor, retired, and without family. He has talked for years about the book on Roman history he’s writing. Everyone assumes that this is his life’s work and he’s been slaving away on it steadily.

In fact, he hasn’t written a word–as he finally confesses to Julia and the angel Dudley. When asked why, he blurts out, “Because I couldn’t think of anything to say!”

That’s as good a cause for procrastination as any.

Generally, I find myself putting things off for three basic reasons: fear, laziness, or dislike.

If I’m doubtful of my ability to perform a task or try a new experience, that’s letting fear hold me back.

It’s so much easier to delay, promising myself that tomorrow I won’t be so anxious about possible mistakes. Or the next day, or a week from now, or how about next month?

Another variation of fear-procrastination stems from perfectionism. It’s good to hold yourself to high standards in your written work (and elsewhere), but not to the point of paralyzing yourself lest you make a mistake.

I once tried to coach a woman who expected to write a bestselling masterpiece with her first writing effort. Having shackled herself to this very unrealistic expectation, she spent several weeks plotting and then delayed and delayed and delayed before she finally wrote a 12-page first chapter.

It featured beautifully couched sentences, good depiction of story action, and little else. It needed tweaking and stronger scenes, but she couldn’t accept constructive criticism. Nor could she embrace the concept that this effort of hers had not achieved perfection.

She abandoned the project and did not return.

I’m a perfectionist, too, and yet I know that writing is seldom–if ever–perfect. It’s not going to happen. Whatever lovely exchange of dialogue is playing in my mind, somehow it’s never quite as good once I convey it to paper. I give my work the best I’ve got at the time, within the deadline assigned to me, and that’s all I can do. Sometimes, what I produce pleases me and sometimes, later on, I find certain aspects of it embarrassing. (Why are my characters such dopes? Why, oh, why didn’t I catch that plot hole? Etc.)

The fear of making a mistake should never hold us back from trying.

Don’t know how to write the scene you envision? Try it anyway. Put words in your characters’ mouths and figure out how they can be opposed to each other. Then, go for it.

The result might be rotten, laughable, or halfway decent.

Procrastination due to fear simply requires scraping together enough gumption, determination, or willpower to push past it.

I frequently cause myself problems because I put off doing things I should.

I don’t want to clean off my desk each day. Result? A piled-up mess of papers, notebooks, Post-Its, and receipts that slithers onto the floor when I’m using the computer mouse or eats the scrap of paper where I’ve scribbled the KEY MOTIVATION OF MY VILLAIN, WITHOUT WHICH THE ENTIRE NOVEL WILL COLLAPSE.

I don’t want to bother shelving the novel I’ve just read, so I stack it beside my reading chair. Pretty soon another book is placed on top of it, then another, then another. Eventually I have a teetering, dusty tower of read books that are bound to be knocked over either by myself or the dogs. Down they slide under the sofa or into an awkward corner that I can’t reach without stooping, bending myself into a pretzel, or–much to the amusement of my dogs–crawling. The very best book of the group–the one I intended to keep forever–lands edge down, crumpling the pages.

A calamity that didn’t have to occur.

Laziness can also apply to writing. What if you have two scenes in mind. Scene 1 will be a confrontation between Pete Protagonist and his brother Amos. They’re fighting over … over … well, they’re fighting. You know they’re angry at each other, but you haven’t worked out why. Because you don’t know their motivations, you’re hazy on their positions in this argument.

Furthermore, you haven’t really thought through Pete’s goal for this scene. You don’t want to bother with all of that. It’ll come to me once I get going, you think. No need to waste time planning every detail.

So you type a few paragraphs. The brothers stand there–where? Oh, they’re just standing there … somewhere. You’ll fill that detail in later.

They’re standing there. They’re angry. They utter a few dialogue exchanges, but the conversation doesn’t get far. You force them through one page, and yet it’s like wading through sludge. Everything they’re saying seems trite or clichéd. The story just isn’t advancing.

You stop and sigh. This is too hard. I’ll try again tomorrow.

Or, let’s say you’re vague about what’s going to happen in Scene 1. All you know is that the brothers will argue and part, feeling bitter.

Meanwhile, Scene 2 is clear and shining in your mind. It’s going to be straight action. No need for awkward character motivation here. You’ve planned every moment in detail. You know a storm is going to blow up while Pete is sailing. He’ll struggle alone with sails and rigging. Then the tiller will be jerked from his grasp. The jib will fall on him, knocking him unconscious … no! Better if he’s swept overboard. Now he’s swimming for his life in rough seas … and sharks are coming.

Excited about that story segment and unwilling to work out the knots in Scene 1, you skip over the bothersome Scene 1 and write Scene 2 first. Maybe you take the time to research how unlikely it is that sharks will be circling a swimmer during a ferocious ocean storm, but maybe you don’t because your laziness has made you procrastinate about researching, too.

As you continue writing your book, you keep skipping the tough sections and writing only the bits that you like. You tell yourself that it will be easier to fill in the skipped stuff later, when you know exactly where the book is going and why the characters are behaving as they do.

Trouble is, this kind of procrastinator may never realize why the draft is so bad, why his characters keep reaching dead ends, or how a revision will be so tangled an entire rewrite will probably be necessary.

If the motivations and goals in Scene 1 are skipped instead of being worked out plausibly, how can there be a connection between the events of Scene 1 and those that take place in Scene 2?

Or, if the argument between Pete and Amos in Scene 1 had spilled over to Scene 2, what if the brothers had gone sailing together and when the storm burst over them, sweeping Pete overboard … would Amos have still been so angry and resentful about what occurred in Scene 1 that he delayed helping Pete and hesitated at the moment that a quick grab of Pete’s arm would have saved him?

Amos may spend the next five chapters leading a search-and-rescue operation. He could be bitterly blaming himself and experiencing all kinds of agonized guilt for what he’s done.

And when Pete is finally found, soaked with brine, starved, and half-dead, he might believe Amos deliberately tried to kill him.

By working through each plot problem as it arises, by not skipping ahead or just writing the bits of story that are the most fun, you could end up with a draft that makes sense and is much richer in layers, nuance, and context than you originally planned.

Intense Dislike:
Whenever we are faced with a task that we find distasteful, we’re likely to put it off for as long as possible.

Do you enjoy cleaning the bathroom? Some people do, but I don’t. Because my dislike of a dirty bathroom is even stronger, I perform the chore.

Do you enjoy working on your income tax? I loathe accounting work so much that I do it once a year. Although I know that prepping for my tax return would be quick and simple if I maintained the books weekly, or even monthly, I just won’t do it.

The result is that, yes, I only have to face the ledgers once a year, but it’s an awful experience. After twelve months of neglect, my accounts are in such a tangle that it takes weeks to straighten everything out and bring order to the mess.

By then, I’m behind on the new year’s accounts, and so I procrastinate again. It remains a vicious cycle that I never seem to break, year after year.

The only way to conquer this is through sheer discipline. Rather like being ordered by a dentist to floss daily, and having to create a new habit by forcing myself to perform the task at the same time every day until the habit is created.

In writing, perhaps you hate writing the first draft and enjoy the revision process. Or perhaps you love writing the rough draft and loathe revision. Either way, you need to create incentives for yourself and form the habits of discipline in order to get through the tasks you dislike.

Sometimes, people who are actually talented at writing never sit down and do it. They aren’t afraid of the task. They aren’t lazy. They want to write, but they just never do it.

Probe into their reasons, and sometimes the answer is, “I just don’t feel comfortable writing fiction. I can write essays fine. But putting stories together is hard and confusing.”

My response is always going to be, “So why aren’t you writing those articles or essays instead of pushing yourself toward the Great American Novel?”

Are you writing a story you just don’t like? Are you writing in a genre that’s not really your métier?


Do you secretly love true confession stories but fear that you’ll be laughed at by your friends if you wrote them? Do you struggle to write mainstream literature when your heart belongs to space opera? Are you stumped by your mystery plot that won’t gel when what you wish you could be writing are picture books for three-year-olds?

Snobbery and fear can push us in directions we truly don’t wish to go. Because we can’t write what we actually want, we don’t write at all.

Now, how is that going to get you anywhere?

Carrot or stick … or both … is the only way to get past this form of procrastination.


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Scene Planning: Part II

BEWARE: the following information can lead to endless rewriting. Extreme caution is advised.

Although Hemmingway recommended that a writer stop in the middle of a sentence at the close of a day’s work, I’ve never found that to work for me.

When I resume writing the next day, often I can’t remember the rest of the sentence or I’ve lost the mood of the scene.

So what works better for me is to finish the scene before I stop. I have a complete dramatic unit, however rough and shaky, and after a break where I go swim or run errands, I like to mull over the scene and decide if I want to change anything before I roll forward.

There’s danger in doing this, the danger that you’ll rewrite the scene, hate it, rewrite the scene, hate that, rewrite the scene, give up in despair and jettison the whole project.

However, here are a few salient questions to ask yourself in thinking over a scene:

1) Did the scene come out where I wanted it to?

The outcome is the most important element in what you’re trying to accomplish in a progressive plot. And until you gain skill and experience, very often the first or second draft fails to accomplish the resolution you want.

Example: Let’s say that Ermilio goes to his grandfather to ask for the secret family recipe for pizza dough. It’s the key ingredient that will make Ermilio’s pizzas stand out, and give his new little restaurant a chance of success.

But old Guiseppe is senile and forgetful. He confuses Ermilio with another grandson, the unscrupulous one that cheated Guiseppe years ago.

The argument strays from crust to personal family issues. At the end of the scene Ermilio has convinced Guiseppe that he’s the good kid in the family and he agrees to go talk to his cousin Gianni to get Guiseppe’s gold watch back.


Now, Calvin Clueless, the newbie writer, may defend this scene by pointing out it begins with a clear, specific goal and it has lots and lots of conflict. (The old man rants a lot.) And then it’s going to lead to lots of other scenes because Ermilio has to find his cousin, talk to his cousin, etc.

But was a quest to regain the stolen/borrowed/pawned gold watch the intended consequence of this scene?

What happened to Ermilio’s goal of getting the recipe?

It was sidetracked by Guiseppe’s goal of recovering his watch.

These goals are NOT in direct opposition. They split the scene’s focus, and Ermilio is sidetracked into an issue that has nothing to do with his desire to succeed with his restaurant.

If you have written a scene that sidetracks the protagonist, you do need a rewrite. To continue onward means your entire plot is heading off-road. You’re going to have a bumpy ride across rough terrain until you end up in the ditch of no more plot or you break an axle at the corner of dead end and what am I doing.

Go back through your scene and find the paragraph where the antagonist pulled things awry. Don’t delete what the antagonist attempts!

It’s the antagonist’s job to maneuver and evade and confuse and pull things off course.

But it’s the protagonist’s job to weather such ploys and force the argument back to what he wants.

So … “Grandpa, I’m sorry Gianni wronged you. I don’t like him either, but that has nothing to do with why I’m here today. I’m asking for your best recipe to make my pizzas the tastiest in town. Will you help me?”

2) Do I need to plant something in this scene that will support a later story development?

You may have planned the scene initially to plant a clue or support a plot twist that will make the climax work in the third act. But somehow, during the quick give and take of the dialogue, your character never spoke the key phrase. Or, the conflict grew so heated, so darned good that you omitted that passage of description you intended.

Well, go back and stick it in!

Except, it’s not always that easy, is it?

When I was first learning to write cohesive dramatic scenes, I frequently omitted something important. But since I’d also learned to write dialogue that was tightly linked, I found it a challenge to try to insert material later without messing up the snappy rhythm that I’d achieved.

Insertions always felt clunky and awkward.

Sometimes, I could manage it. Sometimes, I had to rewrite portions of the dialogue. I learned to jot down a checklist of key points my characters needed to say and keep it beside me as I wrote. Gradually, I improved at keeping my concentration and no longer needed the crib sheet.

And where do you stop verbal conflict to describe the heavy brass fern pot that will later prove to be the murder weapon?

You don’t.

You can include a sentence of description at the start of the scene, when its setup is occurring and you’re getting your two adversaries in position.

Or you can have your angry, frustrated, flustered protagonist storm out of the conservatory at the scene’s conclusion and fail to completely duck the low-hanging fern. Let him bump his head and shove the heavy pot aside so that it swings slowly and ponderously behind him as he leaves.

3) Have I established the following in my scene?
*High stakes
*Limited number of characters
*Dominant impression for characters

We’ll deal with these one at a time:

High stakes.
I mentioned this element in my previous post and why scenes should be reserved for what’s important to the story.

Low or trivial stakes can be dealt with in narrative summary. No need to wrap a full-blown scene around burning the toast.

Perhaps it’s more useful to consider how a high stake is differentiated from a low stake.

Calvin Clueless sits in his writing class and day after day hears the mantra … the stakes must be high.

Calvin thinks about space invaders hovering over Chicago, causing panic in the streets. He thinks about King Kong crushing high rise buildings in New York. He thinks about a meteor crashing into the Earth and knocking it off its orbit, thereby obliterating life as we know it.

Yeah, those are high stakes all right. But as stupendous and colossal as they are, they mean nothing without character perspective.

What does the situation mean to your character? How important is it to him or her?

In the classic film THE BISHOP’S WIFE, starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven, Niven plays a young, ambitious bishop who’s trying to raise millions of dollars to build a new cathedral. He’s stressed and cranky, and when his wife hands over an old Roman coin donated by an elderly impoverished man they used to be close friends with, the bishop tosses the coin aside, saying, “What good is a worthless old coin like this?”

In his zeal to accomplish his goal, he’s forgotten all the essential values of kindness, charity, faith, and compassion. He’s completely missing the Biblical point of the “widow’s mite.” His wife sees it, of course, and she’s heartbroken at how he dismisses this gesture of affection and support from the old professor.


Stories have settings, of course. But scenes do as well. When establishing a scene, take a few words to inform readers of where the scene is happening, whether it’s night or day and the presence of any critical props.

You don’t need a huge, stalled information dump, but sketch in what’s key. Remember that your readers don’t have a camera lens to show them what you see. And depict for them only the setting details that are germane to the scene itself.

In other words, if the tall Victorian vase full of dusty, faded peacock feathers standing beside the fireplace isn’t necessary either to convey mood or information about the house’s owner or hides the murder weapon that will be discovered later, don’t mention it.

The classic film GASLIGHT is heavily focused on its setting because the house itself contains all the clues that will solve the mystery. Even the title conveys the most important clue of all.

Limited characters:

Last time, I explained why a scene should be limited to two characters whenever possible. This keeps the focus on the scene combatants–the protagonist and antagonist. It helps mitigate interruptions and makes it less likely to split the focus.

So when you think over the scene you’ve just written, have you followed my suggestion or have you allowed Sidekick to remain present?

Has Sidekick stayed in the background like a good little character or has Sidekick butted in at some point? And if the latter, did that comment steal focus away from the protagonist? Did that comment pull the scene away from where you wanted it to go? Did that comment cause you to forget the important remark you wanted to include?

Dominant character impression:

What are each of the two primary characters doing as they enter the scene? Have you given that any thought?

If you haven’t, then consider it now.

Actions convey impressions much more vividly to readers than mere description.

Compare the following:

Robert stood by the desk, waiting. He was a tall, well-built young man with broad shoulders. He wore a tailored navy blazer and a striped tie. His face displayed an expression of impatience. He held a letter in his hands.

Robert paced back and forth by the desk, glancing at his watch with every other step. He paused, glaring at the door, then grabbed the envelope off the desk and ripped it open. He read it fast, then read it a second time before crumpling it in his fist. “Erica!” he shouted.

I think you can see the difference between the static depiction and the active one.

If you confine your examination of a scene’s draft to technical areas such as these, you should be able to fix problems and then continue forward with your story.

But if you’re just going to rely on whether the scene “feels right” then it’s best not to look back. Keep going with your draft or you’ll be mired forever in revision quicksand.

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Casting Characters

Writing references offer all sorts of strategies for devising characters, describing characters, and deepening characters, but it’s easy to get so caught up in creating individual dossiers that we may neglect thinking about the whole cast and whether it works effectively.

Let’s say you have a strong, vivid protagonist and a sly, snide, creepy antagonist. But will they work together? Or rather, I should say, will their personalities clash? Not because you’ve read that they should be in conflict but because their essential natures are like magnets repelling each other.

Or, you may have a strong, vivid heroine who’s to be the lead player in your romance story. You’ve concocted a hero who’s broad-shouldered, handsome, and possesses smoldering eyes. But is the chemistry right between them?

Is this pair going to ignite the pages or fizzle? Do you have Humphrey Bogart paired with Lauren Bacall or Humphrey Bogart paired with Audrey Hepburn? (If, by chance, this example makes no sense to you, compare the film TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT with SABRINA. You’ll see what I mean. SABRINA is a Billy Wilder gem that sparkles in all directions except for no spark between Bogart and Hepburn. It’s a baffling casting of those two actors.)

If you’re creating two characters who are best friends, do they have rapport? Let’s hope so, but if they do, why?

Ask yourself, how did they become friends? When did they meet? What happened then to create a bond between them? Why are they friends now? That isn’t to say you’ll be inserting all those answers into the story. But you need to know such information and keep it in the back of your mind so you can write the interaction of your characters from that foundation.

In the Dashiell Hammett story, THE GLASS KEY, Paul and Ed are lifelong friends who work together until they both fall in love with the same girl. Paul becomes a primary suspect in a murder. Ed wants to help him until he finds out Paul is lying to him. The men quarrel, but Ed’s belief in Paul’s innocence is never shaken. Achieving that kind of closeness–even between two tough guys in a noir novel–requires the creation of background. Hammett knew what it was, even if he didn’t share much of it in the story.

Presently, I’m working on a novel that involves a triangle. It’s hard enough working out the relationship of a couple, making sure they have the right traits to create sparks while being “right” for each other where it matters. A triangle complicates that task even more. I don’t want an obviously uneven group, where Mr. Wrong is so totally, obviously WRONG that only a blind, deaf, and senile bat would be attracted to him. I want Mr. Wrong to have good qualities and I want Mr. Right to be troublesome and unsettling to Miss Protagonist. Yet I must avoid going so far out on the unsettling scale that when she eventually chooses him it screams AUTHOR CONTRIVANCE.

While there are many variants of love triangles, I prefer to divide them into two basic categories: simple and complicated. These are only labels for author convenience. Don’t judge the merits of a story by them because either type can be effective.

SIMPLE: Let’s consider the Tolstoy novel, ANNA KARENINA. It’s been adapted into at least two films–one starring Vivian Leigh and a recent one starring Keira Knightley. Tolstoy is convoluted and enamored of many entwined subplots, but basically the triangle consists of the beautiful Anna, her elderly and distant husband, and the dashing young officer she falls in love with. Anna is torn between love and obligation. If she follows her heart, she will destroy her marriage, her social standing, her financial security. She will be denied access to her only child. She will be ostracized by society.

Simple? Yes, in that it’s clearcut and direct. We understand it immediately. That detracts in no way from its powerful effect. The very simplicity allows the emotional costs facing these characters to be potent indeed.

The modern novelist Danielle Steel can’t be likened to Tolstoy, but she has used the simple triangle numerous times, with a great deal of success.

COMPLICATED: Consider an old romantic comedy film called THE TALK OF THE TOWN, starring Jean Arthur, Cary Grant, and Ronald Colman. Grant’s character has been framed for a crime he didn’t commit and is on the lam, hiding from authorities. Colman’s character is a pillar of the law, under consideration as a Supreme Court judge. Jean Arthur is attracted to both men, and the audience is kept guessing which one she’ll choose right up to the very end. If you watch the film inattentively, you’ll miss the turning point and what factor decides her. Each man is very different from the other, yet they have a great deal in common. Both are equally intelligent, rational thinkers. Both are handsome and appealing. Both men need Miss Arthur’s help.

But perhaps you aren’t writing a triangle. Instead, you’ve got an ensemble cast of characters. Let’s examine the group in the science-fiction film, GALAXY QUEST. The characters play actors who once were on a hit television show and now they survive through residuals and paid appearances at conventions. We have the following basic types:

*The big ego
*The sexy babe
*The jealous neurotic
*The grown-up child
*The stoner
*The clown

All of them, except the clown, have issues with the big ego. Those issues fuel the personal conflict crisscrossing the storyline. Such conflict keeps the story advancing quickly because it either fills points in the main plot that would otherwise sag or it adds complications to the trouble the group is in. Who in the group are allies? Who in the group is the most exasperating to the others? Who nurtures? Who goads? Who whines and complains?

If at least some of the group can serve as foil characters to the others, this can be useful to keep conflict and chemistry going. Foils, as I’m sure you know, are opposites in personality and behavior. Besides the human actors, GALAXY QUEST serves up additional ensemble groups in secondary roles–the alien group and the kids who are devoted fans. The script pulls on these secondary groups as needed to serve as comedic contrasts to the actors.

What you don’t want, in an ensemble cast, is a row of similar types–for example, all shy introverts–who are going to sit still in perfect agreement. BORING!

Other film examples of lively ensemble casts would include STEEL MAGNOLIAS, I REMEMBER MAMA, and TWELVE ANGRY MEN. The latter is focused on twelve jurors locked in a non-air-conditioned room on a hot summer’s day, forced to work together in order to reach a verdict in a murder trial. They’re all quite different and distinctive from each other. Their roles clash terrifically as they attempt to sift through contradictory evidence.

Don’t let these considerations overwhelm you. Create your lead characters–your protagonist and antagonist–first. Build their personalities and check their chemistry of antagonism to be sure it works. Then build their ring of friends or cohorts, one at a time. Minimize the number of characters as much as you can. You’ll find it easier to handle.

Ask yourself, if I were a casting director in a movie, would I hire these characters? Do they have chemistry enough to carry their roles?

If you’re inexperienced at writing, especially long fiction, you may not be able to judge in advance the potential chemistry combinations between your characters. At least, not until you’ve written a big chunk of rough draft. That’s okay. As the characters speak and take action in scenes, they’ll grow more definitive–or some of them will crumble from weak design.

You’ll discover as you go who needs to be reworked. Just keep the sparks flying.

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