Posted in characters, contemporary romance, creative writing, romance, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

HEA, HFN, and Realism

In most romance subgenres, happily ever after endings are a requirement. What exactly is an HEA ending, and how does it differ from an HFN or happy for now ending?

HEA and HFN both end happily. The main differences between them are for how long and on what terms will the characters be or remain happy?

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HEA’s simplest definition is that everything turns out for the best for the protagonists and any side characters. If there is an antagonist, they get what they deserved. HEA leaves the reader confident the happiness will continue long term with no major roadblocks or disasters.

HFN is often consider a more realistic type of ending. Not everything is perfect, but it’s pretty good for the moment and the circumstances. The protagonists’ lives have improved to a satisfying level, even if it isn’t the end goal and may not be permanent.

Now, let’s discuss making HEAs a little less predictable and, let’s admit it, less cheesy.

Make the characters work HARD for their HEA.

No quick resolutions or easy forgiveness. Leave the reader doubting it will happen right up to the last second. The “work” may be external or internal.

External work might be distance, others who keep them apart, lies or mistrust, etc. Internal work is a character overcoming internal issues, such as past hurts, commitment phobias, or held secrets.

Whatever type of work a character must do to reach their HEA, give them roadblocks and roller coaster ups and downs. Any time it starts to feel like things are getting to easy for them, hit them with another one that pushes them back a few steps.

Put a twist on a trope.

Romance has plenty of tropes to chose from. The difficulty is often making them unique and not just another Disney ending. HEA doesn’t always have to end with a kiss, sex, or a proposal.

What else signifies commitment? Exchanging house/apartment keys, adopting a pet, meeting family, etc.

The important thing to remember here is that the twist has to make sense and be relevant to the character’s arc. If a character is open and welcoming by nature, introducing her new love to her family at the end isn’t much of a twist, or very exciting. However, for a character who’s had to work through major issues with her domineering mother and has trouble opening her private life to people, introducing a new love to her mother would be a big step that showed trust and commitment.

Try unique situation and settings.

Very few real relationships reach the HEA moment over a candle-lit dinner or during a grand romantic gesture. Take a page out of reality and spice up a conversation over pizza or taking a walk and falling in love with a house listed for sale. Look for everyday moments that can be made special.

I love the scene from The Office when Jim proposes to Pam at a gas station. It’s a powerful moment, not only because it’s unexpected, but because his previous attempts at a grand gesture kept getting messed up and he simply couldn’t wait to start his life with her any longer.

Make the reader wait.

Whether this is a planned meeting that gets held up and makes a character doubt, a tough decision that is held off until the last moment, a sacrifice the reader isn’t sure a character will make, or something else, a pause before the HEA can up the reader’s anticipation.

In most romances, the reader knows there will be an HEA, but they don’t know how it will happen. If you’ve developed a strong story arc, every time the MCs get close, they’re pushed back apart, making the reader doubt their ideas of how it will all play out. Keep this up until the big moment. Then you can follow it up with a glimpse of what their HEA looks like long term.

One last note…

Make sure each character has their OWN happy ending before their relationship gets a happy ending. HEAs are even more unrealistic when the characters haven’t shown enough development for a reader to believe “true love” will last forever.

This doesn’t mean they have to be perfect, but they DO have to be capable of sustaining a long-term, committed relationship. Each character should have their own development arc and need to reach the climax of that arc before the story/relationship arc can reach it’s own climax.

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Posted in books, characters, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Writing a well-crafted ending readers will love

One of the worst endings to a TV series, for me, is still “Lost,” but it provides some good lessons in what not to do when crafting the ending of a story or series.

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Every subplot has to be relevant and tied up at the end. Readers hate being left with unanswered questions. When dealing with a series, of course some subplots span multiple books, but they still need to be resolved by the end of the series. Don’t introduce a subplot simply because you feel a chapter is lacking and you need to add something interesting. First, make sure it’s relevant to the main storyline and then follow the subplot to its conclusion to see if it is worth incorporating. Every subplot should have its own complete arc.

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Keep your subplots manageable. Every story has subplots to provide characters with a fuller life and help them grow and move toward their ultimate goal in stages. However, this can easily get out of hand if you try to develop subplots for every little aspect of the story. How many subplots is too many often depends on the length of the story. Novellas or short stories really can’t handle more than one. An average length book of 60-80k words can usually handle 2-3 subplots. 80k and up can handle 4-5 when the story is complex. Anything more than that runs the risk of leaving unanswered questions and upset readers, unless you’re Robert Jordan.

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Don’t forget what your characters wanted or needed to learn at the beginning. No matter what the story is about, it’s really about the characters. A plotline can’t exist independent of the characters. Maybe the MC needs to solve a mystery, and it’s a plot-driven story, but readers still have to get invested in the character moving through that story, which means the character’s arc has to be tied up as neatly as the story arc. Look back at who the character was at the beginning. Have they changed? Have their achieved their goals? Have they learned something important? If the answer is no to any of these questions, the character hasn’t arrived at the ending along with the plot.

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The ending has to make sense! This doesn’t just apply to avoiding Dues Ex Machina endings where something completely outside the story swoops in and fixes everything at the last second. It also applies to endings that don’t match the characters’ stories or personalities, defy logic, or seem completely unreasonable. Sometimes, you start out with an ending in mind, but the characters and plot elements change while writing. The ending needs to adapt to those changes as well.

Posted in books, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Understanding and choosing the right point of view

When we talk about point of view, what we’re really discussing is the narrative point of view, or how and by whom the story is being told. Let’s review the basics before diving deeper.

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First Person POV has two variations:

First person protagonist where the character narrates his or her own story.

First person observer where a secondary character tells the main character’s story (i.e. Watson narrating Sherlock’s Holmes cases.)

Third Person POV is not told by a character but by an invisible author and has four variations:

Third person omniscient is where an all-knowing narrator tells the story.

Third person dramatic/objective is where the narrator only tells the reader things which could be recorded by a camera or microphone (i.e. no thoughts).

Third person limited is where a narrator tells the story from the perspective of a single character at a time.

Third person deep is where the story is told in the hero’s voice, rather than the author’s voice.

Second person POV is written in present tense and addresses the reader directly:

Second person POV makes the reader the protagonist. The narrator often uses detailed description, shares psychological insights, and tries to anticipate reader reactions.

This in uncommon in teen or adult fiction and is mainly used for young children’s literature.

It’s important to understand why some POVs work better for certain genres or storylines and make changes when something isn’t working. Let’s review points to consider when choosing POV.

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First Person

There are several advantages of writing in first person. It feels natural to many writers, because it’s how we speak about our world and experiences. Dealing with only one narrator’s mind can be easier than writing multiple narrators. It’s an opportunity to create a unique and distinctive internal voice. Because you’re only in one character’s mind at a time, it’s easier to “stay in character.” Readers also get to experience the story vicariously through the character more easily. There is also an opportunity to create an unreliable narrator. First person is also much more intimate than other POVs and can fully immerse a reader in a story.

There are disadvantages as well. You are limited to writing only about what the character can see, know, or hear. The narrator must be in every scene, observing and participating in the story. Minds of other characters are off limits, as is their knowledge about the story unless directly shared with the narrator in some way.

 Second Person

Advantages of this POV are limited. You can create a different feel to a story, and can speak to the reader directly.

The disadvantages are more prevalent, partly because this “uniqueness” often doesn’t sit well with readers and feels too personal. It often gives a juvenile feel to a story.

 Third Person Omniscient

Advantages of this POV include being able write the story as an onlooker watching the full story unfold. You can also add contrasting viewpoints with other characters (NO head hopping, though!). This can give a reprieve to the reader and allow them to see another side of the story. You can expand the scope of the story by moving between settings and viewpoints. You aren’t limited to characters in the story when choosing a narrator, which can provide a unique perspective. This POV also allows the narrator to share his or her own views, but should NEVER slip into second person to do so.

Disadvantages center around the confusion this POV can create when not done with attention to detail. If narrators don’t have a distinct voice, readers may be confused on who is narrating. Switching to other characters can diffuse the tension or excitement when not planned well. It’s also easy to write as the author instead of the narrator. This POV can be more difficult to forge a connection with readers if it comes off as too distant or impersonal.

Third Person Limited

This POV attempts to combine the best of first and third person omniscient. The limited POV allows you to more deeply explore the narrator and forge a stronger connection with the reader without asking them to live out a story with the narrator.

For disadvantages, this POV does limit you to choosing a character as a narrator and limits you to the narrator’s thoughts and experiences.

The distance third person creates between the story and the reader can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on the story. Some stories may be too raw or personal and distance is needed to allow the reader to remain at a certain comfort level. However, if in order to fully understand or experience a story, the reader needs to be enveloped in it, the distance of third person may prevent that.

 Third Person Deep

The biggest advantage of the deep perspective is that is attempts to remove distance between narrator and reader. The reader can experience more fully what the narrator is thinking and feeling. It feels more like third person to a reader, but uses third person pronouns, which can be important in following genre conventions.

The main disadvantage is that this is a challenging POV to write and is still gaining traction in some genres.

Consider the last book you read and how it would have changed if written from a different POV.

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Posted in books, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing tips

The importance of setting in fiction

It’s always good to review the basics before diving deeper, so let’s talk setting. Setting has three major components: social environment, place, and time.

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Social environment will impact the thoughts, actions, and decisions of the characters. A child growing up in an extremely conservative/liberal home will see things differently than someone who was raised more moderately. Place will impact the story by how the characters interact with it and how it shapes their worldview, as well as physical limitations (i.e. an island vs. and mountain town.) Time factors into not only technology, but in self-perception and social rules. A 1950s woman would be much different than a teen in modern time.

There are also two main types of setting: backdrop and integral.

A backdrop setting is not terribly important to the story. The scene could take place anywhere, but happens to be taking place in that spot. This may be a hallway, sidewalk, nondescript café, etc. These settings need minimal description and attention.

An integral setting is one where the time and place influences the theme, character, and action of a story in some way. Animal Farm wouldn’t have been quite the same if it were set in a shoe store. These settings need more in-depth description and development and may even act as an antagonist, such as in survival stories.

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Setting also helps set the mood and atmosphere of a story. The description and the way characters perceive it and interact with it should help develop that tone. The covered bridge in Sleepy Hollow has a very different feel than the Love Lock Bridge in Paris.

When describing setting, Show Don’t Tell becomes very important. Please, please, please don’t spend paragraph after paragraph describing the setting to your reader. Let the reader explore the setting with your character in a way that reveals insights about the character or story.

For example, you can say something about family dynamic by having a teen look through the half-empty kitchen cupboards for cereal that’s on the verge of going stale. It’s a simple detail, but it says a lot about how this teen is living. A character looking in her closet and staring a the only two dresses she owns while getting ready for a job interview informs the reader about her financial situation without having a long discussion about it.

Use setting to help tell readers a story rather than telling the readers where the story is happening.

Posted in books, creative writing, romance, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Writing compelling conflict in romance

Conflict is what keeps readers reading…until it doesn’t. When readers get bored, they get a new book. Developing deep, rich conflict will keep readers engaged and interested. Let’s break down conflict in romance and discuss how we can craft conflict readers won’t be able to turn away from.

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Internal and external conflict

Identify what the characters want. These should be internal and external desires or goals. Internal goals may be feeling loved or having a stable life, and those impact external goals like getting a promotion and ensuring financial security or taking a risk on a relationship.

Once you’ve done this for both characters, note where their goals/desires come into conflict. These are opportunities to develop stumbling blocks in the relationship. If one MC feels driven to excel at work because he or she craves financial stability due to growing up destitute, while the other MC is working toward moving to a small town where life is simpler, this will stress the relationship.

I always think of “You’ve Got Mail” when looking at conflicting desires. One character is trying to save her independent bookstore while the other is trying to crush it in favor of his mega-book store. Neither goal is inherently bad, but there’s no way they can both win. This destroys their chance at a relationship, at least in person.

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Risk of failure

Don’t look at this as just the risk of the relationship failing, but explore all types of failure that could impact the relationship. This risk MUST matter and be big enough that the reader feels anxiety over the fact that it could all fall apart.

Failure to finish a degree or accept a job in order to relocate for a relationship can build resentment. Failure to confront something in the past can push a character to run from a current relationship. Failure to prioritize a relationship over work/money/ambition will result in missed opportunities and damage a relationship.

An interesting example of this is the movie “Run Fatboy Run” where the MC signs up for a marathon after his ex-girlfriend (who he ran away from on their wedding day) and the mother of their child’s new fiancé brags about running it. Whether or not the MC actually finishes the race doesn’t really matter to anyone but him. He needs to fulfill an internal goal of proving he can finish something difficult and not run away. There’s no external risk of him failing to finish the race, but the internal risk is quite high.

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Realistic steps/progression

Developing realistic steps and reactions is hugely important in developing realistic conflict. Characters have to be able to connect with and understand the characters’ choices, even if they don’t agree with or like them.

Love at first sight doesn’t mean smooth sailing into the sunset. A fast and intense beginning to a relationship often leads to belated problems because the couple makes decisions before they’re prepared to make them or before they know each other well enough.

Friends to lovers romances are great opportunities for conflict, because there is always bound to be fallout with other friends, families, and the problems that come with knowing each other too well, such as knowing all their past relationship details and indiscretions.

If the conflict is largely internal, a character must take logical steps to address it. This may include therapy, opening up to another character, confronting someone who hurt them, etc. A promise of love from the MC doesn’t heal decades of trauma or abuse. Nobody overcomes deep issues in one day, and no one else can “fix” them.

External conflict, such as two coworkers going for the same job and being unable to keep work and their relationship separated, takes delving deep into emotions and actions. The conflict progression may look something like the characters not talking about it, to slipping in disparaging comments at work, to taking specific actions to derail their work or respectability, and so on. As the risk that they might not get the job over the other intensifies, so will the emotions involved and the willingness to take action.

Think about the movie “What Women Want” and the progression they go through as coworkers basically vying for dominance in the company and the progressive actions Mel Gibson takes as he becomes more desperate to win.

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Resolution

If the main source of conflict can be resolved in a paragraph or two, it’s most likely much too simple and not believable. If the resolution is not believable, the reader will walk away unsatisfied and likely lose interest in the writer.

It’s important to resolve the internal sources of conflict leading up to the external source, since that is often where the real conflict begins. Internal change allows the characters’ underlying goals to become similar as the story progresses. Once their underlying goals are better aligned, it’s easier for them to see how to resolve the bigger conflict pushing them apart.

It is imperative that the resolution satisfy the reader. Reread the first chapter and ask yourself how you want the story to end. Then ask yourself, what are you willing to see each character give up in order to achieve that ending? The female MC giving up everything to fulfill the man’s goals is bound to get more than a few eye rolls from readers.

Lastly, ask yourself what steps make sense for each character to take to get from page one to the satisfying end you’re imagining. If those steps aren’t there or fleshed out enough, even the best ending will fall flat.

Consider the Disney version of Cinderella in comparison to Drew Barrymore’s version “Ever After.” Which has a more satisfying ending and why? 

Posted in books, creative writing, reading, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Using non-chronological story structure elements effectively

Focused on story structure, I was recently discussing tactics other than the usual chronological structure with some other writers. It was an interesting discussion of not only how to use these, but some general thoughts on these devices.

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Past prologue:

This is a device detailing an important event that happened in the past and has effected the current situation.

This is one of the most common non-chronological devices used in fiction, and the first one that comes to mind for me is the first chapter of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” It’s not listed as a prologue, but it happens ten years prior to the next chapter, so it’s really a prologue.

This gives the reader enough information about the situation to get them interested, but it doesn’t infodump everything the reader needs to know to dive into chapter two. It only gives enough background to let the reader know something strange and interesting, and quite dangerous, is about to happen.

Past prologues can be overused and can end up being very tell-y and not show-y enough. Use them with caution and with purpose!

Future prologue:

This device details a tension-filled or dramatic future event meant to capture readers’ attention.

One of the writers in the discussion mentioned that she doesn’t like future prologues because she finds them very jarring as a reader. She felt a prologue should naturally be something that happens before the main story. Another writer mentioned these have been very popular lately and are beginning to feel overused and a bit annoying.

Laini Taylor’s “Strange the Dreamer” was mentioned as a good example of a future prologue because it reads, at first, as if it’s a past prologue. As the reader continues on, they realize that isn’t the case and this realization causes more worry and tension for the reader.

Alternating timelines:

When using this device, past/present or present/future timelines alternate between different characters or the same character in different time periods.

“As Long As Love Lasts” by Jea Hawkins was mentioned as a good example of alternating timelines. The story shows a relationship on the edge of collapse then alternates to the story of an aunt and how a relationship ended for her. The house connects the two storylines, and the aunt’s story helps to inform the reader about the couple’s failing marriage.

Flashbacks:

Flashbacks break from the current story to tell of an event that happened in the past as a complete scene.

Slaughter’s “The Good Daughter” was mentioned as a good example of flashbacks. The timeline flashes back to an event from the two sisters’ childhoods, then later flashes back to the same scene and telling it from the other sister’s perspective. This allowed for more detail and seeing the event from multiple perspectives.

Parallel timelines:

This type of timeline device tells two stories chronologically in different time periods. Both move forward together and inform the other.

I recently read Amy Harmon’s “What the Wind Knows” and loved how she handled the timeline changes. It wasn’t a traditional parallel timeline, but at the same time it was. Without giving away too much, I really enjoyed how multiple timelines were in play simultaneously and they all came together at the end really beautifully without any confusion or lingering questions.

Time jumping:

This is when a character moves through different time periods. Scenes are connected in some way and inform the other scenes.

“The Kept Woman” by Karin Slaughter was mentioned as a good example of a time-jumping story line. The first half of the book investigates a crime, and just when the reader thinks they’re beginning to put all the pieces together, the timeline jumps to before the crime and progresses forward through the events from a different perspective.

Posted in creative writing, writing, writing thoughts

Improving work-life balance

work-1627703_1920Writers work in a variety of situations: work from home full time, work outside the home and work from home part home, work full time outside the home and fit in writing on lunch breaks and down time, and on and on. Achieving a work-life balance that works is often a challenge.

When talking about work-life balance, there are four “life quadrants” to consider: work, family, friends, and self. Work-life balance doesn’t mean all four of these are in equal balance. Work-life balance also isn’t static, but should be fluid over time to accommodate changing situations. Everyone’s personal work-life balance will be different.

Below are some tips and resources for achieving better work-life balance. Please share any additional tips that have helped you!

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SELF

  1. Take care of yourself! If you aren’t caring for yourself, every other area of your life is impacted negatively.
  2. Schedule one activity per week that is just for you, whether it’s doing something on your own or going out with friends.
  3. Make others aware of your plans or schedule so they expect it and can adjust accordingly.
  4. Know when to stop or say no. This includes work commitments and family/friends activities. Simplify your life by prioritizing which activities are important and which are beyond your current capabilities.
  5. Exercise and/or meditate. Both are stress reducers and don’t have to take up hours of your day to provide health benefits. Both work to reduce stress by activating your parasympathetic nervous system, which calms everything down in the moment and long term as you develop a consistent routine.
  6. Develop strong time-management skills.
    1. Plan your entire week ahead of time.
    2. Set time limits for chores, writing etc.
    3. Keep an activity log for a few days, tracking every 15-30 minutes. Review at the end of the day and cut out whatever is unnecessary or time wasting.
    4. Reevaluate your goals so they are realistic.
    5. Utilize auto-ship/delivery/pickup services when possible.
    6. Choose easy-to-make meals and have kids or partners help prepare them when possible.
  7. Limit time-wasting activities and people. Rank daily activities based on priorities. Trim what wastes time.
  8. Participate in community engagement activities such a group discussions and book clubs at HGW and local activities and events in your area.
  9. Create a designated quiet space. This space should be a space where you can take a mental break. Make it uncluttered and free of work materials or reminders. Find a space with lots of light, one that is comfortable, has plants possibly, and is calming.
  10. Take short breaks throughout the day to get in some steps, go outside, or do something that allows you to clear your head.
  11. Change your life structure to matches your time to your responsibilities. Delegate or split tasks when possible, enlist help from services or friends, or cut out activities or responsibilities that are not necessary.
  12. Redistribute responsibilities, focus on what you specialize in, what time commitments make sense, and what you value most.

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WORK

  1. Let go of perfectionism, especially on a first draft. Let yourself work free of critique so you can work faster. Save the editing and re-writes for later.
  2. Limit distractions while working. Turn off your phone, internet, etc. and focus only on your work for a specific amount of time. Then take a break and clear you mind.
  3. Take pleasure in your work. Keep a list near your computer reminding you why you enjoy writing.
  4. Overlap instead of multi-tasking. Accept that some family activities do not require your full attention and can double as work time, such as waiting in the lobby for a child’s dance class to end.
  5. Set boundaries and stick to them. Know how much time you have to devote to different areas and makes others aware of your commitments so they don’t feel ignored and can help you accomplish your goals.
  6. Have a physical schedule of deadlines and projects that is posted where you and family members can see. It serves as a reminder to you and to family members of why you are busy or can’t spend as much time in other pursuits at the moment.

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FAMILY

  1. Unplug and take time for your family. Tell others about your goal to stay unplugged for a specific amount of time so they can help remind you.
  2. Choose specific family activities that need you to be fully present for – such as a child’s sporting event or school program, and leave work behind.
  3. Schedule dedicated time with family each day or week. Don’t allow other distractions. Bonding time makes you more productive and relaxed at work.
  4. Make time for sit-down breakfast to start the day on a positive note.
  5. Family dinners are good for kids because they help them have better relationships with parents, which reduces parental stress.
  6. Get kids involved with necessary chores and have fun doing them together. Turn on some music or make a game of it.
  7. Involve the kids/family in exercise time or meditation. Children need quiet time or time to work out excess energy just as much as adults do!
  8. Check in with your kids/family every so often to see how you’re doing and express your needs to them. Work-life balance is often a group effort and works much better when the whole family is invested in improvement.
  9. Develop rituals to start/stop work and mentally and emotionally prepare yourself to be present in other activities. Set aside 20 minutes before wrapping up work to tie up all loose ends and clear your mind for family time.

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FRIENDS

  1. Make time to spend with friends, but set realistic goals based on your current commitments.
  2. Write out an “ideal” time with friends, such as dinner or a movie, and write out an alternative plan for busy weeks, such as 30 minutes for coffee. Adjust on a weekly basis for what fits best for that week, but don’t skip seeing friends regularly.
  3. Involve friends in exercise activities, such as walk or fitness class.
  4. Include friends in work related activities, such as a reading club or trip to the bookstore for a reading or author event.
  5. Take short breaks during the day to text or chat with friends.

An important thing to remember when working to improve work-life balance is that we all go through different seasons where some things simply must take priority while others are pushed aside. It doesn’t mean you’re failing at one aspect or another. It means you are aware of your limitations and are taking action to manage your responsibilities.