Tag Archives: Leo Tolstoy

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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Reading Fitness

A lot of attention is paid to physical fitness at this time of year. However, I think it’s important to remember that bookworms and casual readers alike also need to stay fit when it comes to reading.

As a working writer, I’m always trying to stay aware of the market, which means a certain amount of reading within the trendy stuff.

For example, the YA/new adult market currently favors first-person viewpoint, present verb tense, multiple viewpoints, flashbacks, extremely short chapters, page breaks between scenes, simple sentences, etc.

Those elements are aimed at producing a rapid, easy-to-read story that can be read in short bursts of attention without loss of comprehension.

But it’s like deciding to stop cooking from scratch and only nuking frozen dinners in the microwave. After a while, you may find you’ve lost the knack of stirring a roux or prioritizing the tasks necessary to set a three-course dinner on the table with everything timed correctly.

You shouldn’t ONLY read for your target market. You shouldn’t ONLY read books written in the past five years. By the same token, you shouldn’t read ONLY 19th-century classics if your ambition is to write for today’s mystery crowd.

Maybe this is an obvious point, this suggestion to take a more eclectic approach, but in my busy life I tend to forget and overlook obvious things. Don’t you?

For example, in the past three weeks I’ve read four recently published novels (Charles Todd, Paolo Bacigalupi, Scott Westerfeld, Karen White), one published in the 1990s (Lois McMaster Bujold), and one published in 1953 (Theodore Sturgeon). The book from the ’90s made me blink in surprise at how the pace seemed slightly slower than the modern stuff. The book was NOT boring or tedious, but neither was it frantic. Bujold took time to describe the setting–not at length, not in a boring way, but just enough for me to have a good sense of place. I felt I was there, and I enjoyed it.

Sturgeon’s book also caught me by surprise. It served up omniscient viewpoint, with more narrative and description than dramatized scenes. Oh, yes, I thought. I used to read more books like this when I was a kid. I’d forgotten.

Would I want more of it? Not much. I like scenes better than narrative, but Sturgeon held my attention and I enjoyed the story he gave me.

His 1950s book dealt with some pretty grim issues of disability, abuse, and child neglect, but the worst stuff happened off-stage and not splat! right in my face. Bacigalupi–by contrast–crammed brutality, beastiality, and horror right down my throat, leaving almost nothing to my imagination.

Sturgeon was also refreshing in that he bothered to write well. The book wasn’t long, and the plot was decidedly odd, but the characters were vivid, the theme strong, and the sentences flowed with a beauty that didn’t shout, “Look at how poetic I am!” but nevertheless reflected the care and thought he put into them.

I’ll never choose style over a good story, but give me both and I’ll follow you a long way.

Last summer, I fell into the tar pit of rereading a favorite author’s books and no one else’s. That was okay for a month, but then I needed to stop and pursue something different. Only it was like reaching into a bag of tortilla chips again and again and again, finding it difficult to halt. (The fact that this author published about 137 novels during her lifetime didn’t help me break free.)

So I’m reminding myself both to vary my reading diet and to pull my attention away from the latest so I can venture back into other styles, other topics, other authorial voices. I used to read Dorothy Sayers annually. Sometime in the last decade, I stopped that tradition. I think it’s time I revived it.

I read one of Leo Tolstoy’s tomes about once every twenty years. Are my reading muscles toned enough for Tolstoy these days? Maybe I’d better start training!

Earlier this week, I heard a writer–someone who reads all the time–remark that he couldn’t get into a book because it had “old language.” Even sadder, he’s missing a wonderful story about courage and dragons and friendship just because he won’t make the effort to deal with a non-contemporary writing style.

We need old language from time to time, so we don’t lose it. We need fast stories and slow ones; easy, enjoyable ones and grim, difficult-to-read ones. We need challenges and comfort. We need to stretch ourselves and remember to try authors new and unfamiliar to us, as well as our beloved favorites.

As for me, I’m going to go read now ….


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Spelunking Adaptations

Back in the long, long ago when I was a child, VCRs and DVDs hadn’t been invented, and network TV had only three channels, I used to watch the credits of old movies for the book titles and authors that so many old films were adapted from.

Then I’d race to the public library and seek the books on the shelves. Probably 65% of the time, I’d find the title and off I’d go with it to enjoy the story all over again. Since I couldn’t rewatch the film until the next time it cycled around on some late-night movie hour, this was my only chance to saturate myself in the characters and plots that captured my imagination.

It’s how I discovered authors like Raphael Sabatini and Daphne du Maurier. And then I could explore all the books they’d written until the next film discovery sent me down a new path.

Not all the books were the same as the films made from them. From time to time, I’d encounter a real clanker. From this, I learned that some films transcend the novel that inspired them. An example would be THE NATURAL by Bernard Malamud. Robert Redford transformed that story into something far more special than Malamud’s effort. The 1947 film MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET is far more charming and delightful than the novella by Valentine Davies. And let’s just say that 1965’s THE DIRTY DOZEN by E.M. Nathanson was far more gritty and graphic than the film it inspired–not a novel to be read by a naive 13-year-old girl, no matter how rugged and heroic Charles Bronson and Clint Walker appeared on the big screen.

Still, I learn something every time. Is the film’s dialogue tighter and crisper than the novel’s? Are they about the same? Wouldn’t the novel have been better if it had been paced as fast as the film? How, exactly DO you set about condensing Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE (1956 film) into a mere three hours and 29 minutes? There’s so much value in learning to turn stories over and over, like an antique watch in your hands, examining how they’re put together, what their little intricacies are, whether they stand up to scrutiny or crumble like dried butterfly wings.

One of my favorite books in my personal library is a bound script of Emma Thompson’s Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation of Jane Austen’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. I’ve read the novel. I’ve read the screenplay. I’ve watched the film. All are different in what they feature and what they edit away, yet the essential story remains for us to love in any version.

A few nights ago, I watched an obscure Jeanne Crain film called TAKE CARE OF MY LITTLE GIRL that was based on a novel of the same title by Peggy Goodin. A phone call interrupted the film about halfway through although I did manage to catch the ending. Used copies of the book are available online, and I believe it might have been originally marketed as a young adult novel because it deals with college sorority life in the 1950s. Am I going to order the book? I keep telling myself no. I keep feeling the itch to click on that order button.

Seems like I’m never going to outgrow my fascination with adaptations.


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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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