Plotting Your Way to a Successful Romance

I thought I had the perfect plot. My hero Damian, a minister, falls in love with Victoria, an ex-prostitute. Surely a premise like that would generate plenty of conflict.

Wrong. Somehow Damian and Victoria, while likable characters, just didn’t go anywhere. Their story ran out of gas somewhere in the middle and any attempts I made to resuscitate it simply bogged it down further. The partially written manuscript of Victoria’s Secret is at this moment languishing on my harddrive, an orphan in cyberland.

Sound familiar? Most writers face problems with plot. Many, like me, start out happily and then eventually grind to a halt somewhere in the middle. Others find that the story starts to take on a life of its own, and carries the writer down unexpected paths. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but often this new road leads to dead ends.

In his book Plot, published by Writer’s Digest books, Ansen Dibell maintains that there is hope for “all the false starts, the fizzled conclusions, the saggy, random middles, the corners you paint your characters into”. In fact, he says they are a normal part of fiction writing. The trick is to recognize the pitfalls and learn what to do to fix the problems instead of relegating your work to the sock drawer.

What is plot? Plot is built of the significant events in a story. These events are significant because they have important consequences. Taking a shower normally wouldn’t be a significant plot event, unless you’re Janet Leigh and you’re at the Bates Motel in Psycho. What happens to Janet has a significant effect on the story.

Plotting is a way of deciding what’s important and then showing it to be important. For instance, in Carolina Moon by Nora Roberts, Ms. Roberts wants to illustrate the importance of eight year old Hope Lavelle’s murder. Through flashbacks and scenes in the present she shows how every one of the main characters continues to be affected by Hope’s unsolved murder. Ms. Roberts make it clear that these characters will have no peace until the murderer is revealed, and in fact their survival is threatened unless the murderer is found. In this way she convinces the reader that the plot is vitally important to the characters. We care because it is so important.

Starting out right. Ansen Dibell cautions us to first begin with a good story idea, and gives us four ways to test a potential idea.

1. Is this something I really care about, something I partly understand, something that seems to want working out?

I could never write an inspirational romance because I don’t possess the fundamental Christian beliefs necessary to create a believable story. I simply don’t care enough about people’s relationships with God to write such a story, and if I don’t care, how could I make a reader care? I need to find subject matter that I care passionately about, something I can imagine, something I may have some experience with.

2. Can I work with this idea in a caring but uncompromising way to make it meaningful to somebody else?

Is this story idea too personal? Would anyone else care about it? Or is it so exotic that only a hand full of people would be interested in it?

3. Can I dramatize this in a series of scenes with a minimum of explanation? Does it have a plot, or can I create a plot for it?

Is this story going somewhere? If you can envision a series of scenes that would make a beginning, a middle and an end, then the idea has possibilities.

4. Is there something quite specific and vital at stake for one or more of the characters involved?

Is there sufficient conflict and struggle? Can you show why this story is so important to the character in such a way as to make a reader care what happens? Something quite concrete and definite must be at issue.

Designing a plot is a little like wrestling an elephant; it’s very hard to pin down. But there are some things we should watch for in our plots. Here are some common things that go wrong:

Show don’t tell.

Your plot will fall down if a) you don’t give your characters enough to do, and b) you don’t show them doing it. In fiction, we show action through scenes. Creating scenes is the way a writer puts forward his ideas. But these scenes are not static. Something is happening, people are doing things, talking about things. Events are occurring. There is struggle, conflict, dissatisfaction. Through the action of scenes, the writer conveys his plot. These scenes must always advance the plot and show character in some way.

Viewpoint. Several things can go wrong with viewpoint and cause the plot to go astray.
Too many viewpoint characters. In category romance, with the exception of longer versions like Superromance, there’s no room for a lot of different viewpoints. The viewpoint of the hero and heroine are most important to the reader. They are the ones whose emotions the reader wants to intensely identify with. Stick with a limited number of viewpoint characters, even in longer romances.

Wrong type of point of view used. Readers of romantic fiction want the intimate experience of falling in love along with the hero and heroine. The only point of view that can deliver the intimacy we want as well as giving us flexibility to see into another person’s soul is third person singular.

Awkward viewpoint shifts. I’m a strong believer in one viewpoint per scene. Though a lot of romance writers do it, resist head hopping. When we read a romance, we want to identify strongly with the characters in order to feel the emotion they’re feeling. When the writer hops from viewpoint to viewpoint within the same scene, the reader loses that identification. She can become confused about who knows what.

If changing viewpoints from scene to scene, establish the pattern right away so the reader comes to expect it and becomes comfortable with it. When changing viewpoints, clearly signal the change. Use a double space or three asterisks to show the scene change. Identify the viewpoint character in the first few words so the reader knows whose head she’s in. The goal is to make these switches as seamless as possible. If the reader has to stop, reread, and think carefully about whose point of view she’s in, she’s likely to stop reading entirely.

Handling exposition. Dramatic scenes are great for showing action but not so great for conveying background information. But sometimes it’s crucial to give this info to your readers. Exposition helps to provide context to the scenes to help them make more sense. Explanation, well handled, will move your plot along. But if explanation takes over, nothing will kill a story faster.

A writer needs to know the background information of all his characters. He may have done extensive research on a variety of subjects in order to write his book. But the reader doesn’t need to know every last detail. Feed them only the information that is absolutely necessary to tell the story. But get the story started first before offering any explanations. Show your character acting and doing, and make the reader care about him. Look at each piece of exposition in your writing and ask yourself if it is really needed at this point in the story.

Remember that the plot always comes first. If you load it down with exposition at any point, especially right at the beginning, it will die a painful death. Keep your use of exposition inconspicuous, short, and natural-sounding. Spread it out as much as possible and only use what you have to. Make sure you don’t slow down your plot while you’re giving background information.

Beginnings, Middles and Ends. Plots are generally structured into these three parts. The job of the beginning is to catch the attention of the reader and entice her to read on. This can be accomplished with a catchy opening line. For example in True Betrayals, Nora Roberts opens with “When she pulled the letter from her mailbox, Kelsey had no warning it was from a dead woman.” This line is ominous and signals that this book is a mystery. It’s also a very intriguing opening. We want to know who the dead woman is.

Other jobs of the beginning are to introduce the main characters, the setting, and the main characters’ problem. Avoid overloading your beginning with too much information. Keep the action moving and don’t get bogged down with backstory. Only tell your readers what they absolutely have to know to move on.

Middles are tricky. Many writers (including me) find that the wonderful external conflict that was created in the beginning has fizzled out. My characters tend to get entirely too cozy in the middle.

What’s needed here is a mid-book conflict. Something dramatic must happen that threatens to tear them apart. This crisis must relate to the external and internal conflicts. If the hero and heroine are getting too cozy, break them up. Have the heroine sue the hero. Force the heroine to marry the hero. This crisis should have great impact on the emotional states of your characters and be strong enough to propel you into the second half of the book.

The end of your book must feel resolved and satisfying. One or both of your characters realize that he/she is part of the problem and must make a decision. This is a hard decision, the hardest of their life. It often involves a sacrifice of some kind.

Show the action that arises from the decision. This is the climax. This action should grab the reader and keep her flipping the pages until the end of the book. The action must be logical and should afford the characters the opportunity to grow and learn something valuable. Be hard on your characters. An easy sacrifice will only disappoint the reader.

Resolution must come at this point. All sub-plots and issues relating to secondary characters should be tied up. After that, the external, and then the internal conflicts can be resolved. Keep your readers wondering till the end how and if the hero and heroine will be together. The hero will catch the killer (external conflict), but he must also come to realize that he can trust the heroine (internal conflict). During resolution the killer will go to jail, and the hero will profess his love for the heroine. Both have to occur for a satisfying resolution and they must occur in that order.

Ways of plotting. There are as many ways of plotting as there are writers. Some writers fly by the seat of their pants and don’t know what’s happening to their characters until they sit down at the keyboard. Others work out every detail. Most of us fall somewhere in between. Here are some of the most common plotting methods:

1. Plotting backwards. If you know how you want to begin and end your story, plot from the end to the beginning. This may help you work out where foreshadowing, clues and red herrings need to be placed.

2. Chapter tracking chart. Keep track of important plot events by chapter to make sure you’ve included everything you need to.

3. Index cards. Put scene events on individual index cards. You can post your story plot on a bulletin board for quick reference or keep them with you to work on your story when you’re away from your computer. Laying out your cards may help you to spot a repetitive action such as eating dinner or talking on the phone. You can also easily move scenes around.

4. Writing the synopsis first. I often use this method to help me get a feel for the characters and what they’re going to do in the story. Just write out the story, from beginning to end, as if you’re telling it to somebody. This synopsis serves as a road map; it shows you a route to take to get from beginning to end, but if you chose to take a side road while you’re writing, you can do that and catch up with the main route later.

5. Plot structure. This is something new that I’m trying on my present project. This four part structure (set-up, plot complications, misery, and resolution) helps to lay out in proper order the steps that need to occur in every romance. It reminds me that, for example, the external conflict must be resolved before the internal conflict in the resolution section. I’ll let you know how this works for me.

However you decide to tackle it, remember that plot is a verb. It is always concerned with doing and thinking and feeling. It is the force that drives your story and gives it life. Happy plotting.