One of my favorite meet-cutes is from You’ve Got Mail when the main characters meet Meg Ryan’s bookstore and Tom Hanks is explaining his complicated family situation. It leads so well into Meg Ryan realizing who he is and that his mega chain bookstore is going to put her out of business.
What is a Meet-Cute and how they can best be developed and utilized in romance?
The meet-cute is when a future romantic couple meets for the first time.
The purpose of a meet-cute is to set up a burgeoning relationship.
Meet-cutes often use awkwardness, embarrassment, or hostility and should hint at potential conflicts or barriers to the relationship as well as show the nature of the relationship. The meet-cute should also set the tone for the story.
Forms of meet-cutes include:
Bad first impression: sparks embarrassment, hostility, misunderstanding, etc. This provides immediate conflict, dislike, or intrigue.
The twist: gives one character the upper hand and presents a conflict.
The odd couple: presents differences that could be either complimentary or antagonistic depending on the situation.
While it’s okay to use a tried-and-true meet-cute (i.e. literally bumping into each other), it’s important to make it unique.
Try a unique location (car accident, painting class, etc.)
Have one character do something unexpected (doesn’t help the other up after a fall)
Involve a unique item (onions cascade off a grocery store display and hit the other’s foot)
Force the characters to interact in an unusual way (assigned seating at a movie separates one from a group due to buying tickets too late)
Bring them together during an emergency (fire alarm, witnessing a mugging, etc.)
For a little meet-cute inspiration for future projects, check out these real life stories!
What is a scene from a book or movie that has stuck with you? Why did it connect with you? For writers, recognizing and evaluating these scenes is a great learning experience!
There are several important elements to crafting an impactful scene:
Every scene should have a purpose (advance the plot, reveal something about the character, or provide information about the overall plot). The purpose should be able to be condensed into a one sentence summary. Scenes with no clear purpose are filler and should be cut or rewritten.
Point of View
A scene needs to be told from the most impactful point of view. Usually this is whoever is most impacted by the events of the scene. If emotion isn’t coming through in the scene, reevaluate whose POV it’s being told from. POV is often tied to the purpose of the scene: Who will learn the most? Who will change the most? Who will react more strongly? Who has the most to lose?
The High Moment
Scenes within a story should mimic the overall story structure: beginning, middle, climax, end. The high moment uses elevated emotion, action, or revelation to impact the character(s). The high moment should come at or near the end of the scene and it should be something that produces a reaction. The high moment reveals the purpose of the scene. The character should learn something, either about his or her self or the other characters, that affects their perception or choices.
Every scene needs some form of conflict: inner, outer, or both. The conflict needs to have meaning, not be pointless arguing. Conflict should get progressively worse throughout the story, increasing the stakes. Keep this in mind while planning scenes and make sure there is an overall progression. Scenes with mostly inner conflict won’t be as explosive, but should increase the overall tension.
Showing Character Development and Change
Every scene should demonstrate some form of character change. The change may be subtle, but it needs to show development and growth of the character, or show backsliding behavior. Whatever happens in the scene should have an impact on the character, eliciting change on some level. Change should match the character and the event. One character may see an event as not a big deal, while the other sees it as a huge problem. They need to react and change according to their perceptions.
Staying on Point
Scenes should leave out all the boring and non-important details. Life may be filled with the mundane, but scenes should not be. If the info, actions, or dialogue doesn’t pertain to the purpose of the scene, cut it. Start in the middle of a scene, with action of some kind, and leave out the movements in and out of the scene. Only insert backstory when it doesn’t slow the present scene.
Strong Beginning and Endings
The beginning and ending should not only be strong, but should be related in some way. This may be theme, symbolism, situational, a specific action or piece of information, etc. Tie the beginning and the end together in a meaningful way that relates to the purpose of the scene.
Find the right balance of details to create a full scene without bogging it down. Descriptive details should be pertinent to the action, help create mood and tone, or accentuate the dialogue. Details should use all relevant senses to create a full picture of the setting, the characters, and the emotion. Details should reveal something. A clenched fist shows anger, fidgeting conveys unease, food and clothing choices set the stage and reveal preferences, etc.
An important aspect of building story readers can connect with is developing great chemistry between characters.
Chemistry is the emotional connection between characters, and it helps create a connection with the reader. It isn’t just about romances. All characters need to have some level of chemistry with the other characters in order to bring them to life.
Essential elements of creating chemistry include:
A strong first meeting
Conflict and dislike
Common romance chemistry tropes include:
Opposites attract: provides instant conflict and a logical path of progression
Forbidden love: may be true or perceived barriers; creates tension, desire, and conflict
Love/Hate relationship: less realistic, but provides tension and a logical path to the climax; plays on the idea that love and hate are very similar emotions
Creating chemistry involves a balance between bonding and dislike
The balance between the two depends on the type of relationship (friends to lovers, enemies to lovers, star-crossed lovers, friends, family, estranged family or friends, etc.).
Bonding moments bring characters closer together and deepen their connection. Finding common interests, opportunities to help each other, moments of understanding, doing something unexpected for the other person, opening up about personal topics, etc.
Dislike is built with conflict (light and heavy). Competition, intellectual or moral disagreements, misunderstandings, lashing out, etc.
Bonding and dislike should escalate over the course of the story, with bonding generally having more progress (until the dark moment when dealing with main characters). Dislike will take over during crises, but a chance for bonding remains.
Creating realistic attraction develops more profound chemistry
This doesn’t mean no insta-love ever, especially if that’s going to be a source of conflict later when the character realize love at first sight doesn’t mean no problems, but the reason for their attraction should be believable.
Good looks aren’t enough. Being hot doesn’t prevent a person from being an asshole. Draw from personality, compatibility, intrigue, uniqueness…something that will last and create conflict later in the story.
Build realistic tension to increase chemistry
Tension can come in a variety of ways, including miscommunication, lies, secrets, arguments, moving too fast/slow, etc. The key is for these to be realistic and fit with the overall story. One rumor that’s never fact-checked or confronted and causes the MC to run away without looking back and fall into utter despair isn’t realistic and tends to frustrate readers. Especially if the MC is an otherwise strong and intelligent person.
If a point of tension can be fixed in less than a paragraph, it probably isn’t complex enough to be believable.
Create high stakes to build chemistry even higher
There should always be something that can completely ruin a relationship. This may be developed from page one or be a surprise two-thirds of the way through.
The risk that everything could fall apart, and both or one of the characters knows this, will affect everything they do and act as a constant reminder to the reader that they shouldn’t assume everything will turn out all right.
Movie vs. written chemistry
Working with video can have advantages over the written word, but sometimes the opposite is true. Consider how much more you can convey about a character’s internal thoughts and motivations through writing that is difficult to capture on film.
What is the most unusual profession a character has had from a book you’ve read?
I asked this question to a group of writers I work with and got some interesting answers, from a magical beast researcher to professional occult consultant to uprooting human babies grown in soil.
It was the start of a discussion on how backstory influences a character and how a well-developed backstory makes a stronger and more interesting character.
There are several important areas of backstory to consider:
Convictions/Beliefs: political, social, economic views; theories on life; HOW did they acquire these?
Education: formal/non-formal, location, type of school
Family/Friends: be detailed, include those not active in story (may be later)
Geography: detail environment that helped shape character (climate, socio-economic, culture, history)
Key Past Events: events that shaped personality, fears, beliefs, etc.
Past Success/Failures: track record, worst memories, reasons behind fears, etc.
Phobias: reason behind avoidance or push to succeed, big or small
Profession: $$, love it/hate it?, biding time, stepping stone, dream job, etc.
Quirks: what makes them unique physically, psychologically, socially (Forest Gump, A Beautiful Mind)
Value System: define their version of right and wrong; what do they value in themselves/others, etc.
Talents/Skills: are they used/abandoned, many/few, etc.
Time Period: make it accurate, have a good reason for choosing it
Any backstory elements you choose to use should add something to the character and story. Superfluous details aren’t needed.
If you find you’re struggling with developing a strong backstory or aren’t sure how to incorporate the backstory elements you’ve chosen in a meaningful way, here’s a great exercise to help you delve a little deeper:
Pick ONE element of backstory to develop: Moved constantly due to financial instability, as adult hoards money, intends to live in same house forever
Choose THREE ways that element manifested in the PAST: Craves stability in every aspect of life, won’t change despite bad situation, has witnessed crimes in neighborhood
Choose THREE ways this manifests in the PRESENT: House needs constant repair, poor job leaves no money for repairs, hides from neighbors
One last bit of advice on backstory is to DO THE RESEARCH
Whatever professional or educational background you choose should be realistic.
It takes 20 years of service to retire from the military. There are no 25-year-old retired ex-Navy SEALs, and it’s highly unlikely that they’re billionaires from their service alone. Electing not to re-enlist isn’t the same as retiring.
Becoming a psychiatrist takes 12 years on average (and includes going to medical school), and it takes about 10 years to become a licensed clinical psychologist, and doctor patient relationships would ruin a career.
Of course, lines can be pushed and crossed in fiction at times, but it’s important to be as realistic as possible or readers won’t be able to suspend their belief enough to enjoy the story.
I love to cook and bake, but I’m not the greatest at following recipes. I was in the kitchen with my mom from an early age, and most of the time I really don’t think I need to read the entire recipe (especially if it’s in a blog post that gives the entire history of a dish before getting to the actual recipe). I’m also not very good at planning ahead, so I often have to make substitutions and rush recipes (like not letting things rise for the full amount of time).
With New Mexico being under a stay-at-home order, I’ve been working from home and have had more time to prepare meals most days. So, I’ve been making an extra effort to plan ahead and follow the recipe more closely.
I’ve made tortillas a few times, usually from a mix, but with the shortages at the grocery stores right now, I ended up making some from scratch. I followed the recipe to the letter, including kneading it for the full amount of time (which I almost never do). They were the best tortillas I’ve ever made!
What does this have to do with writing?
Writers often feel pressured to get the next book out as as soon as possible to keep readers attention. Some say that writers need to release something every 90 days. This can lead to lower quality writing due to rushing, skipping steps, or not preparing well enough.
A recent book club I led for work featured a contemporary romance from a fairly well-known author with a big backlist and a lot of followers. The group was pretty much unanimous at the end of the reading session that this book suffered from the three problems I just mentioned. The characters were often flat and unrealistic. The story never really seemed to go anywhere because there was a lack of real conflict, and many of the scenes felt like filler used to make the target length.
While it is important to produce consistently, quality is more important. Whether in baking or writing, prepare, don’t rush, and don’t skip the steps it will take to make a project a success.
Characters need fleshed out backstories and motivations
Every chapter needs conflict
Conflict should build to the climax and mean something to the reader
Outline or storyboard to make sure you have enough content for the word count or end it when the story dictates
A storyline should compel readers by making important promises to the reader at the beginning and fulfilling those promises by the end
Don’t rely on readers “buying anything you write” just because they’re fans
Putting in the work for a story is just as important as it is for a meal if you want to produce something people will love. The tortillas, paired with the fish my husband made, were definitely a success!
Understanding your characters’ motivation is key to developing strong characters.
One of my favorite examples comes from one of my favorite childhood books, Princess Cimorene from “Dealing with Dragons.” She feels trapped in her life as a princess and is about to married off to a ridiculous prince, so she volunteers to be a “captive” princess for a dragon and ends up having all sorts of adventures while fending off knights who keep trying to “rescue” her.
Character motivation is the driving force behind what characters do and the choices they make. Motivations are based on needs. These are deep-seated needs that affect every aspect of their lives and psyches. They may be internal (psychological or existential) or external (survival).
Motivation spurs the character (and story) to keep moving, growing, and developing over time. Whatever need they have needs to be fulfilled, and making choices or taking action helps get them closer to that fulfillment. The steps the character takes to fulfill a need become major and minor plot points.
Motivation also makes a character more relatable. Every human has needs. Even though our individual needs vary, we all understand that desire to seek for something else, move forward, or find a better situation. Starting with a universal need helps reach a wide range of readers. That motivation can then be tailored to the character and story and narrowed down into something unique without losing reader interest.
Motivation provides characterization. It tells the reader something important about that character, such as how they were raised/treated, what cultural norms shaped their morals or values, what expectations they have for themselves or others, etc. Motivation also reveals important truths about character roles and how they fit in to the story.
Every character needs a motivation, even side characters and antagonists. Side characters don’t need to be developed as deeply, and may only have a general need or motivation, but having something that drives them makes them more realistic. Antagonists act in frustrating or despicable ways for a reason. They are also trying to fulfill a motivation, often a self-serving or misguided one, but they must have a goal that directs their character arc in order to be realistic and engaging.
Motivations must be realistic. That doesn’t mean their end goal is realistic, but it has to be something a reader can believe the character is truly motivated by. Illogical, weak, or lazy motivations make characters aggravating and unrelatable. Motivations can easily be deluded, irrational, misguided, or even malicious. It’s important that the motivation comes from a base need that readers can understand, even if they don’t agree with or like it.
Goals and motivations are not the same thing. Motivation can lead to goals and steps that need to be taken. Goals are the end result, the fulfillment of a motivation. Motivation is what drives the character to keep moving toward a goal even when it’s incredibly difficult.
Characters can have multiple, and even conflicting, motivations. Humans are not rational creatures most of the time. We want things that keep us from reaching other goals all the time. We want things we know we can’t have. We self-sabotage. We want two things that can’t coexist together. Don’t shy away from making your character complex…within reason.
Self-editing is not a skill that comes perfectly paired with great writing.
Not all writers are good editors. Why?
It’s difficult to see your own errors
You’ve seen it too many times and practically have it memorized
You’re sick of looking at it by that point
It makes sense to you, or you wouldn’t have written it
You’re too close to it
The aspects of editing many writers are good at include:
They have the best overall understanding of the concept of their story
They know the characters best
They get what makes a good story
They are readers, and understand readers
Before you start editing, it’s important to understand what type of editing you’re undertaking.
Proofreading: Picking out typos, missed words, misplaced commas, etc.
Line editing/Copyediting: Critiquing sentence and paragraph structure, repetition, word choice, etc.
Content/Developmental Editing: Story, character, flow, cohesion, etc.
It’s also important to give yourself some time away from the project before you start editing
Begin the editing process by NOT editing
Step away for a while
Get fresh eyes
Read something in your genre
Read critically for style, flow, and pacing
Forget the details
Do something non-writing related!
The overall editing process is broken into several stages:
Read the entire text and focus on plot/character issues
Focus on wording and readability
Focus on word choice and sentence structure
Focus on grammar and punctuation
Final review to polish
Make use of tools that can help make the editing process easier and more efficient:
Run Autocrit, Grammarly, or ProWritingAid
Print it out if possible/change the format
Many authors edit better in hardcopy
Read in different format than the one you wrote it in (like on your Kindle)
Get out your Freshman Comp books (Elements of Style is a classic)
Before you dive into typos and comma usage, think big picture when it comes to editing
What is the point of your story?
What is your character meant to accomplish?
What do you hope the reader takes away at the end?
Why did you write this book?
As you start editing, think like a reader
Change your perspective: As you’re writing, it’s difficult to be objective, so you need to start thinking like a reader
Read the story critically like you would any other book: What do you like? What don’t you like? What stands out as out of place?
Evaluate the plot as you read and identify weak areas
Create a timeline as you read: Is the timing consistent? Is the pacing consistent with the timeline?
Are there plot holes or unanswered questions? Don’t attempt to answer them yet, but write them down
Does the reveal of information come logically? Where do the characters find answers? When do they find answers?
Is there enough complexity to remain interesting? Is their too much filler to cover up loose plotting?
Great characters can make or break a story, so focus on characters and their growth and development while editing
Character Consistency: Character BIO (know the details), Who is this character on page 1? Who is this character on the last page? What does their dialogue sound like? Write down a sample from the beginning, middle, and end and compare. What is their world view, attitudes, and ethics?
When to break consistency: Situational (Events or knowledge drastically changes something and they act outside their norm, i.e. “Insanity is a perfectly natural reaction to an unreasonable situation.”) or Paradox (The reader thinks they know the character and later learns more that changes who they are)
Lastly, check the overall fit of your story elements
Point of View/Tense: Is this the best point of view or tense for this story?
Style: Does this style of writing fit the character and story type?
Structure: Does the way the character move through the plot make sense?
The purpose of this first, full edit is to identify major plot, story, character, and content issues that need to be addressed before any further editing is done.
What is the difference between writing to market and writing for a specific audience, and how does it affect they way you write?
Writing to market is sales-focused. It is writing what is currently popular in your genre, whether that be themes, tropes, subgenres, or topics. An important detail of this definition is “in your genre.” Jumping into new fads you don’t have experience with or haven’t researched usually doesn’t work out well. Writing to market requires constantly staying on top of genre trends and being ready to shift or switch focus quickly.
Writing to market also means knowing general audience expectations, likes, and dislikes. Generally, readers don’t have a strong preference for standalones or series, a plot that moves quickly and well-developed characters keeps readers from putting down a book, blurbs and book covers that don’t accurately portray a book upset readers, readers prefer to interact with authors on Facebook more than other platforms, most readers do want to interact with authors, and readers pay attention to reviews.
Writing to a specific audience is more reader focused. It takes into account general audience expectations then narrows them to a specific genre, subgenre, or trope. Writing to a specific audience takes researching and understanding who you readers are, what they want out of a specific book, and determining the story elements that will satisfy their expectations.
Understanding your audience means researching and identifying several key factors:
Specific genre/subgenre conventions that must be utilized (not all conventions are a must and there is room for creativity and exploration)
Trope elements that are expected by the reader (don’t be formulaic, but hit the crucial points that make the story fit the trope)
What your book gives the reader (a story must fulfill something for the reader, whether it be escapism, a thrill, vicarious excitement/romance, etc.)
Demographics of your audience (the data is out there, even if you might have to make a few leaps or assumptions to narrow it enough to your niche)
The key to writing to a specific audience is figuring out what they want from your specific book and then delivering it. If readers expect an HEA, there better be a very good and convincing reason not to give them one. If readers expect vivid sex scenes and barely gets a peck on the cheek, the reviews will reflect their unhappiness. Make a promise to your reader in the blurb and make sure you fulfill that promise with a great ending.
Writing to market and writing to a specific audience can feel limiting or frustrating when we focus too much on one or the other. Aiming for something in between is a helpful balance. Focusing too much on what sells can lessen the excitement of writing and the emotional connection to the story and characters. You need to love what you’re writing for readers to truly enjoy it as well. Know what is selling in the market and what readers want from a specific book, but add spice and uniqueness to tropes and conventions by delving more deeply into what will excite and satisfy readers on a personal level.
What makes a scene stick with a reader? Is it the emotion, the revelation, purpose? It can be any or all of these things when done well. Let’s take a look at what makes a great scene.
A great scene has a purpose and climax. If a scene doesn’t advance the plot, reveal important information, or develop the character, it probably shouldn’t be in the book at all, but it certainly won’t stick with the reader as meaningful or important. Identify the purpose of the scene and build the other elements around that purpose, leading to the climax.
A strong scene has good pacing. Things need to happen in a scene, whether that’s action, the character learning something, romantic tension increasing, or the reader putting clues together. Break a scene down to the individual elements that will support the overall purpose. Skip unimportant details that don’t serve a purpose. Watch out for long sections of exposition or narration, don’t stay inside a character’s head for too long, and stay focused on movement throughout the scene.
An impactful scene shows rather than tells. Telling becomes boring very quickly and tires out the reader. While some long passages of dialogue are needed to explain a lot of information, break it up with movement, action, or input from other characters. Use all five senses to bring the scene to life and show what the characters are experiencing. Don’t tell the reader the character is upset, show them through body language, dialogue tone, or physical action.
A memorable scene creates an emotional connection with the character. This connection may come in many forms, whether it’s disgust, sympathy, romantic feelings, or compassion. A scene should reveal something about the character that makes them more real and shows their depth. This can be done through backstory, dialogue, action, etc. Readers connect more with characters they have something in common with, whether it’s something major like an abusive childhood, or jealousy over a friend doing well. Use traits and experiences that are universal to build a base for connection, then delve deeper into more personal or unique traits to deepen the connection.
A good scene has real conflict. Conflict can come in any form, but it should be integral to the scene. Internal conflict delves deeper into what makes up a character and where they are on their journey of change. External often conflict moves the story along and pushes the character to discover their abilities and strength.
A complete scene shows change and development. Change is a critical factor in any story. The characters, situation, and possibly setting change or develop through the story and character arcs. Each scene should show where the story/character is in the arc and where they are heading next. Change and development isn’t linear. Use ups and downs to create more tension and a more interesting arc. Characters need to fail and struggle. Nothing should come easily, but it should continue to progress.
Strong female characters have not only been a topic of discussion quite frequently over the last few years, they’ve been steadily becoming better as readers and writers both recognize what that phrase means to them and why it’s being talked about.
One of the key elements in writing strong female characters (and this applies to writing strong characters of any gender), is understanding the difference between behaviors and personality traits. Behaviors are things a character does (what we do), while a personality trait is how a character behaves, thinks, and feels (what we are). Personality traits are difficult or impossible to alter, while behaviors can be changed.
For too long, “strong female characters” were based on behaviors such as fighting, sarcasm, sexual activity, shunning femininity, using her body for manipulation of others, etc. The personality traits behind these behaviors are much different than the behaviors themselves and are what readers will connect with on a deeper level when they are fully brought into the story.
Consider the list of behaviors above and what personality traits caused or impact the behaviors, and what the sources of the behaviors might be:
Fighting: perhaps the character grew up in a rough home life and had to defend herself from a family member, bully, gangs, etc. Perhaps she was a victim and learned to fight for protection.
Sarcasm: sarcasm may come from insecurities about self, status, a pessimistic worldview, or a sense of humor. It may limit their ability to make friends or have deep relationships.
Sexual activity: This may come from a place of confidence and freedom or a need to please and fill emotional holes. Is it self-destructive or empowering? Does this this affect relationships or self-image?
Shunning femininity: Consider what caused this shunning. It my come from sexual orientation or gender issues, having been victimized and made to feel vulnerable, growing up with masculine role models, insecurity about being seen as feminine or weak, or a genuine dislike for typically feminine activities or looks.
Using the body to manipulate: This may speak to the time/setting and the character’s status in her community or social structure. I may be a learned behavior from a role model, or developed out of survival instinct. A woman could also see this type of a manipulation as a useful tool she sees no problem in utilizing, and possibly even see it as a equalizer with men.
These are only a few considerations, examples, and questions brought up by these behaviors, but they highlight how much more interesting and engaging the personality trait is than the behavior. Readers want to uncover why a character says, does, and thinks the way they do. Developing personality traits rather than only behaviors leads to opportunities for deep backstories and character growth and development.
Any time a character does something, ask why, and integrate the answer into the story and character arc.