Tag Archives: genre fiction

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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Plotting II: Genre Choice

There are many ways to brainstorm, find inspiration, and be struck by ideas. This series of posts won’t be dealing with them. Instead, I want to supply suggestions for how to move your premise from a nebulous idea to a viable plot.

In doing that, let’s first consider genre. Commercial fiction relies heavily on separate, identifiable genres, and genres in turn are built on strong plots. As part of the weave of this shared dependence, plot itself is heavily influenced by its genre.

Therefore, I always recommend that writers start the plotting process by selecting a genre. How else can you know what you’ll need or how your story will go?

If you’re planning a road trip, don’t you program your GPS with the destination so you can choose your best route? Why, then, would you try to plot a novel without knowing what type of book it will be?

Imagine yourself walking into a Books-a-Million or Barnes & Noble store to buy a book for your vacation. What type of book do you want to read? Mystery? Romance? Thriller? You head for the appropriate section of the store to browse. And while you might prefer to wander through all the sections in hopes of discovering a new book that’s exciting or an author you’ve never read before, let’s say that you’re enroute to the airport and haven’t time to explore all the shelves. You need something fast. You want a sure thing, a book you’ll enjoy. You haven’t the time or inclination to gamble on the unknown.

The same principle works for plotting. You want to be efficient, productive, and professional in developing a story outline that will carry you from start to finish of your manuscript.

Therefore, choose a genre to write. If you’re unsure of what category your story idea fits into, ask yourself where in a brick-and-mortar bookstore it would be shelved. If you cannot answer that question, it’s time for you to stop immediately and do some honest thinking along the following lines:

*What type of fiction do you enjoy reading most?

*Is your story idea that type?

*If not, why not?

*Do you have elements from several types of stories swimming in your imagination?

*Do you want to impress others by writing a piece of Great American Literature?

*Have you assembled a heap of scene fragments, settings, concepts, and character sketches from a wide variety of influences?

*Are you feeling confused and overwhelmed?

So let’s dig a bit deeper into these questions.

If you don’t plan to write what you love to read, why not? Isn’t the type of fiction you love best the type of fiction you know best?

Do you think you’re not skilled enough to put together a mystery, despite having read them avidly since childhood and being able to dissect how clues are laid and misdirected in an Agatha Christie story?

Do you feel that even though you’re a romantic and adore curling up with a passionate love story–your cat on your lap and a cup of tea at your elbow–no one will take you seriously if you confess you’re writing a romance?

Do you think you can’t write science fiction because you flunked physics in high school?

Nonsense! Don’t let self-doubts hold you back from writing a story you’ll enjoy. It’s so easy to denigrate or short-change what comes easiest to us, when in fact that means we have a talent for it.

Furthermore, stop trying to impress others because doing so leads to phony writing or cliched imitations. Write what you love; love what you write. (Hmmm … should that be a tee-shirt logo?)

Now, if you’re overwhelmed, dazed, and confused because you have a variety of influences bombarding your mind, make a foundation decision and choose one genre.

From that selection, start selecting the scene fragments and character sketches that fit your chosen genre. Alter or set aside the rest. A wildly disparate mixture of motifs, influences, and concepts is seldom indicative of genius; instead, it signals a lack of focus. If this is a problem for you, don’t be upset. Whatever you eliminate is not wasted inspiration. It can be saved for other projects to come.

Genre choice will give you an anchor. You aren’t drifting rudderless now. Just as you chose a college major that immediately set you on a path of specific courses to take as well as courses you couldn’t, picking a genre clears away the infinity of limitless options and forces you to focus. This happens because genre choice affects the following:

*The length your story will be;

*The pacing your story will have–which in turn will affect how long and intense your scenes are, whether you can write scene fragments with fast scene cuts or instead need long passages of internalization and transition, and if you’ll put together a plot-driven or character-driven story;

*The types of characters you’ll need, as well as how many;

*The story’s locale;

*The amount of research you’ll do;

*The tropes required (modern versions that aren’t out of date);

*The coding of your language.

These seven areas by no means encompass all the decisions you’ll be making while in story development, but they’re a good place to start. As you focus on them, you’ll probably find more and even better ideas coming to you.




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The Importance of Setting

In some fiction genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and westerns, setting is so important it is considered a character. In mysteries and romance stories, it serves to contribute to the discovery or misdirection of clues, to enhance plot and mood, and to elevate what could be banal or mundane into something fascinating. In horror and thrillers, it evokes spine-tingling atmosphere and can raise the stakes in cat-and-mouse suspense.

What setting should never be is generic, interchangeable, and dull. Plunking your plot and characters into a blah, ho-hum backdrop is shortchanging your readers and sabotaging the full potential of your material. Does this mean you have to set your story in Barbados instead of Backyard, USA? Not at all. A skilled, experienced writer can make just about anywhere interest someone, but it takes work, attention to detail, and knowledge to bring it to life.

Setting in creating fiction is a technique important enough to justify a series of posts devoted to it. I’ll be bringing you those posts soon.

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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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Writing with Flair

Commercial genre fiction is not for the timid, or the mousey, or the quiet, retiring individual.

As a writer, you can be any or all of those things in real life, but when you put your fingertips on the keyboard, you should channel whatever inner flamboyance and verve you possess. Feed it right into your characters.

Your characters need to leap off the page. They need to be sharp, vivid, bold, exaggerated, and unpredictable.

“But I’m not any of those things,” you may be protesting. “That’s not who I am. How do I identify with that kind of artificial, clownish character?”

Ah … perhaps the key word here is “artificial.”

When did it become the norm to believe our characters are anything BUT artificial constructions?

The so-called “realistic” character is too often an excuse to hide behind when we lack the nerve to write anything that’s flamboyant.

When I sit down to read fiction, I don’t want characters that are modeled closely on real life. Real life is boring, mundane, filled with endless banal tasks, the drudgery of chores, and meaningless small talk. I chat with my next-door neighbors maybe twice a year while picking up the newspaper or rolling out the garbage Polycart. The topic is never earth-shattering: the new recycle pickup schedule, or can I recommend a plumber … that sort of thing. Not the stuff of fiction!

When I was a child, one of my favorite cartoon characters was Snaggletooth. He was some kind of cat or tiger–which is probably why I gravitated to him–and his main distinguishing tag was when he would stand on one foot, poised in the direction he was about to run, and he would announce grandly: “Exit stage left!” or “Exit stage right!”

For all I know, that cartoon may have taught me right from left. I don’t remember anything else about the character except those vivid departures. Yet, despite the murky mush of childhood memories, Snaggletooth has never been forgotten.

How does one of your characters enter the story? How does she exit a scene? What does she do while she’s stage centered on the page, involved in the story’s action?

Is she making ANY impression on readers?

If not, why not?

One of my favorite old-movie actresses is Bette Davis. You may or may not have seen any of her films, but you’ve probably heard of her.

Even in her earliest films, when she was just a studio player and miscast in little roles of flighty society girls, she carried a presence with her. She knew how to walk, how to carry herself, how to move about so that she held the audience’s eye. That’s stagecraft, and she learned her acting from the stage before she ever went to Hollywood.

All actors of that era were trained to do that. They weren’t trying to be natural or realistic. They were driving the story action forward and doing their best to make you remember them.

One of my favorite film entrances of a character is in the William Wyler film, THE LETTER, based on a short story by Somerset Maugham. The audience is shown the moonlight shining down on a peaceful rubber plantation. All is quiet. The workers are sleeping in hammocks under thatched sheds. Then a pistol shot rings out. A man bursts from the bungalow and staggers down the porch steps. Bette Davis follows him.

She’s wearing an evening gown. She holds a pistol in one hand. Her arm is extended and rigid. She fires into his back. And fires again, emptying the revolver into his dying body. As she shoots, she descends a porch step, then another, until she’s standing over him.

The camera zooms in on her face. She’s intent, cold-blooded, lethal. There’s no hesitation in her, no fear, no regret. She knows exactly what she’s just done, and it was precisely what she intended to do. She has shot this man down the way I might destroy a rabid dog.

Then, as the plantation workers wake up and run toward her in alarm, the predator in Bette vanishes. She pulls on a mask of teary weakness and begins to lie about what just happened and why.

But the audience has seen the truth and can settle in to watch what she does next in trying to trick the police and the prosecutors.

“Realistic?” Not at all. Vivid and effective? You bet!

A vivid character doesn’t have to possess superhuman powers in order to compel reader attention.

Just ask Mr. Dickens. He created some of the most memorable characters still in print, and they have been in print a mighty long time.

Is Ebeneezer Scrooge “realistic” or drawn closely from real life?


He’s such an exaggeration of miserly behavior that his name has been absorbed into the English language as a label for a tight-fisted, grouchy individual who values money over human kindness.

Was Edgar Allen Poe trying to share the mundane, everyday details of ordinary human existence in his stories?


Instead, we have a madman creeping through a possessed house in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Would Sherlock Holmes continue to fascinate us were he more ordinary?


This man has extraordinary powers of observation. He keeps his pipe tobacco in a Persian slipper on the mantel. From time to time, he celebrates his patriotism for his queen by firing bullets into the wall in the shape of her initials.

[If I want to be realistic about Holmes, I would be thinking about his landlady and asking myself why didn’t she throw him out. But who cares about realism? We LOVE Holmes just as he is, flaws, quirks, peculiarities, and all.]

Even the current book du jour–THE BOOK THIEF–which is pretty darn mainstream and literary–has vivid characters. Death is its narrator and the book features a little girl who is struggling to learn to read while stealing books ordered burned by the Nazis. A realistic character wouldn’t be defying a Nazi edict. She would be staying home, helping with the laundry, and doing exactly as she was told.

Characters have to be exaggerated in order to ignite readers’ imaginations.

Whether it’s a little boy who mysteriously eludes destruction by the evil Voldemort, or the three musketeers cheerfully taking on Cardinal Richelieu’s guards despite being outnumbered, or Eliza Bennett refusing to dance with the handsome and fantastically wealthy Mr. Darcy … these characters capture us and enchant us because they are boldly drawn and anything but realistic.

The desire to avoid the bold, seemingly unnatural character is understandable. It’s also fatal to a story’s success.

Quiet nonentities go flat on the page. They scan as B-O-R-I-N-G. They’re too careful, too shy, too prudent to move the story forward. This type would be the hobbit that stays home, unlike Bilbo Baggins.

I happen to be an introvert. Over the years, I have forced myself to be able to mingle in a crowd, to socialize, to lecture, and to interact, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. At the end of such occasions, I’m usually drained. My first instinct, whenever I’m invited to any public function, is to refuse the invitation.

Beyond that, in real life, I avoid confrontations. I don’t like to get into arguments. I don’t like to witness conflict of any kind. Ugly or angry behavior stresses me.

That’s my real nature.

But when I write, I recognize that my characters are NOT me. They cannot live or survive in their story world if they are shy, avoid social interaction, or elude conflict.

Their functions and responsibilities as fictional characters are far different from mine because I am a real person in a real world.

The character must not be built or evaluated on a real-world model.

The character must instead fit a fictional model and do what the story requires of him.

Stories–particularly genre fiction–are not realistic. They are entertainment, and they are structured in certain ways to fulfill that function.

That’s why fictional characters need to be exaggerated into creatures that are weird or wild or zany or colorful or predatory or just more darned courageous than anyone else.

They aren’t–and never will be–real.

They’re not–and shouldn’t be–intended to be real.

Make them as bold as you can, and as vivid as you dare.

And then push them a little farther out there … way past your comfort zone.

Just ask Janet Evanovich, who creates old ladies who carry Glocks strapped to their walkers and monkeys that escape research laboratories wearing little hats made from aluminum foil.

Silly? You bet.

And she laughs all the way to the bank.


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SPARKLE: Using Dramatic Flair–Part I

When I was a young child, one of my favorite television cartoon characters was Snaggletooth. What I remember most about him was that when he departed a scene he always did so with a signature flourish, saying, “Exit, stage left” or “Exit, stage right.”

It was nonsense, but I loved the pizzazz of it. Whatever else he did, Snaggletooth had flair.

When writing, if we only emulate the most realistic mainstream novels or if we only view contemporary dramatic films, we lose out on the fun of “stagey” theatrics. Such antics aren’t appropriate in all story applications, but when they can be used they certainly add sparkle to our plots.

Audiences like the bling factors of flair, flourish, and sparkle. That’s why they gravitate to certain popular genres such as historical romance, paranormal romance, steampunk, horror, thrillers, comedies, and fantasy. These genres not only allow flair, they require it.

However, flair can be incorporated into more mainstream drama at certain key points. For example, there’s a superb Bette Davis film called THE LETTER. Directed expertly by William Wyler, this movie is based on a Somerset Maugham short story about a married woman in Malaysia who commits adultery and then murders her lover in a fit of jealousy. The film’s focus is on Davis’s lying to police and her husband in an effort to get away with her crime. It deals with serious issues of uneven relationships, infidelity, and ethics. Her attorney—a family friend—is taken into her confidence and told the truth. To defend her, he’s forced into concealing her guilt from her husband (his best friend), and he must himself commit a crime in order to buy and suppress evidence that would convict her if it surfaced.

Now all of this is heavy stuff—quite fascinating and compelling on its own. But Wyler understood that even serious drama can stand a little flair. The opening scene of the film shows a sleeping rubber plantation under the moonlight. Everything is peaceful until a shot rings out. The camera focuses on the veranda of the plantation bungalow. A man crashes through the doors, staggering and obviously wounded. Bette Davis follows him outside. She’s holding a revolver in one hand. Her expression is grim, intent, purposeful. She shoots him again, and again, and again, following him down the steps, until he’s finished.

Not only does this introduce the protagonist in masterful characteristic entry action that reveals her true nature, but it kickstarts the plot with a mighty big change in circumstances that can’t be ignored and hooks its audience firmly. This is not a point where anyone’s going to wander off to the refrigerator for a snack.

If you study just about any film made before the 1960s, you’ll see example after example of flair utilized. It shows up in the way actors enter and exit scenes. It’s used in some of the stunts and spectacles. Some of it is too obvious and hokey. Some of it is simply fun. (Now of course flair shows up in more recent films as well, but it’s so often downplayed.)

Please consider these examples:

Stewart Granger and James Mason in THE PRISONER OF ZENDA

William Powell and Myrna Loy in THE THIN MAN


Gary Cooper in MEET JOHN DOE

Barbara Stanwyck in BALL OF FIRE

William Holden in SABRINA

Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BOULEVARD


Greer Garson in RANDOM HARVEST

Norma Shearer, and everyone else, in THE WOMEN


Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey in ADAM’S RIB


Judy Garland in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS


Grace Kelly in REAR WINDOW


Humphrey Bogart in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (or KEY LARGO)

Tyrone Power in THE MARK OF ZORRO


Claudette Colbert and John Barrymore in MIDNIGHT

Loretta Young, and everyone else, in THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER

Ethel Barrymore in PORTRAIT OF JENNIE

Lionel Barrymore and Freddie Bartholomew in CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS

Olivia de Havilland in THE HEIRESS

John Wayne in THE QUIET MAN

Gene Kelly, and everyone else, in SINGING IN THE RAIN


Jack Lemon in SOME LIKE IT HOT


Yul Brynner in THE KING AND I

Rex Harrison in MY FAIR LADY


Ingrid Bergman in GASLIGHT

Charles Boyer in ALGIERS

Fred Astaire in EASTER PARADE


Laurence Olivier in HAMLET

Who have I overlooked? I’m sure you can name other films and actors that stand out in your mind because this is a very small list compared to the wealth that’s out there.

Shakespeare understood the need for flair in both his tragedies and his comedies. His best plays sparkle because of it, and he ain’t been forgot neither.

However, perhaps you aren’t into old classic movies. The sets and props may seem weird to you. Hairstyles are odd. You can’t relate to the grainy film quality or black and white. Dialogue can be too stagey. Mannerisms are beyond old-fashioned, etc. etc. etc.

Then consider the current hit television show, CASTLE. Lots of flair there, every week. DOWNTON ABBEY serves up classy fare with flair. Can we possibly even venture to guess that the hottie of “unscripted” TV—DUCK DYNASTY—throws in a little flair, albeit of the “I can’t believe he just did/said that!” variety?

So how do we get flair? How do we find it or create it? Where and how do we incorporate it into what we write?

My suggestions will follow in the next post.


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