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Ready -- Set -- Plot!

Girl meets boy, girl wants boy, girl can’t have boy, girl gets boy...  Most people think that’s the basic structure – the plot – of a romance novel. Hero and heroine meet, fall in love, and commit to each other. But despite how common that perception is, it’s not accurate – because the plot of a romance novel is not the romance itself.

 The developing relationship is at the center of the story, that’s true – but it is not the entire story.

The plot is what happens while our two characters are falling in love. It’s the other events which surround (and promote) the growth of the relationship. It’s the action in the story, showing what happens and how the characters come to fall in love.

 Watching two people date, get to know each other, and explore their growing attraction isn’t terribly exciting – particularly if we see from the beginning that they’re really, really attracted to each other. It’s the difficulties which surround this couple falling in love at this moment – the difficulties which threaten to keep them from reaching a happy ending – which keep the reader’s attention.

 So in addition to the attraction between the main characters, there must be some problem to be worked out, some disagreement to be resolved during the course of the book. That problem – that difficulty between the hero and heroine – threatens to prevent our heroic couple from discovering and acting on their once-in-a-lifetime love.

 What’s the problem?

Simply giving our characters a problem doesn’t automatically create a story. In many beginners’ stories, the characters have loads of trouble. He can’t get along with his father, she’s got problems at work. But that’s different from having a conflict between the two of them. What keeps the hero and heroine at odds with each other? What keeps them from being too comfortable together? What do they disagree about?

 They don’t have to be at each other’s throats all the time, or arguing constantly. In fact, it’s better if they aren’t always disagreeing. But if they agree on everything, what’s keeping them from recognizing and admitting that they’re falling in love?

 The force

 On the other hand, if they hate each other, or if they simply can’t get along, why doesn’t one or the other just pick up and leave? If deception is a big problem for our heroine, then why doesn’t she run and hide at the first whiff of a half-truth from our hero?

 What’s the solution?

 But it’s also important to remember that the problem your characters face has to be solvable in the end, so we can create a satisfying conclusion. What kind of problem is going to be large enough to create real disagreement between your main characters for the entire length of the book, and yet will allow them to find a solution or a compromise which will satisfy both? What kind of solution will achieve your happy ending without being so obvious to the reader that your heroic couple look like dorks for not seeing it immediately?

 Short-term & long-term problems

 The problem our characters face must not only be particularly difficult for them, but it must be something which can grow more complex and involved as the book continues. A problem which develops, grows, becomes more complicated, and creates more problems and more trouble for the character also creates more tension for the reader.

 But just to make plotting even more complex, we don’t just need one problem for our characters, we need two. We need an initial situation which brings the couple together and keeps them together so they can get to know each other. (That’s known as the short-term problem, or the external conflict.)

 But we also need a deeper difficulty for each character, a difficulty which threatens to keep the couple from finding happiness together at all, ever. (That’s known as the long-term problem, or the internal conflict.)

 The short-term problem

 The short-term problem – the difficulty or event which puts the couple into contact – is often called the external conflict because it is usually caused by something or someone outside the control of the characters.

 The short-term problem is often the event that’s described in the back-cover blurb. It is usually the hook, the attention-getter which will cause the reader to pick up the book.

 We can also think of the short-term problem as the difficulty or obstacle which makes the main characters interesting enough to be the subject of a story. What change does she face which threatens her way of life – which will alter her life forever? This difficulty is the character’s short-term problem – the change, challenge, or threat he or she faces at or near the start of the story.

 The heroine’s short-term problem is not simply the entrance of the hero into her life. He may appear because of the change or threat which the short-term problem represents, but simply meeting him is not the problem.

 Kinds of problems

 Sometimes there’s one short-term problem which affects both hero and heroine. There’s only one apartment available and both need a place to live. Sometimes each character has a separate short-term problem, but they can help each other to solve their difficulties. She’s trying to establish a new business; he needs services her business provides.

 Since the action of the story doesn’t really get started until the hero and heroine are both present, this initial problem happens early in the book – often starting in the first few pages. At the latest, the rough outlines of the short-term problem are in place by the end of the first chapter.

 Concrete problems

 The more solid and down-to-earth the short-term problem is, the easier it will be to construct a plot. New writers often come up with initial conflicts which have a very amorphous quality. Neither of them wants to take the chance of trusting again. While those concepts can be developed into interesting problems, they’re hard to grasp, hard to illustrate, hard to write about. If the characters’ mutual problem is lack of trust, what do they talk about throughout the story? If they could actually discuss their difficulty in trusting, they’d be two-thirds of the way to solving the problem.

 If, on the other hand, our two characters are at odds about who gets custody of the kid, or how to handle the business they’ve inherited, then they have lots of stuff to talk about – and many opportunities to test, explore, and discover that this is a person who can be trusted after all.

The long-term problem

The long-term problem is something about the characters’ personalities or pasts which makes it seem impossible that they can reach a happy ending together. It’s often called the internal conflict because it’s usually something inside the character – a character flaw or a reaction to a past experience – which makes it difficult for him or her to make a lifelong commitment.

 Here’s where all those issues of lack of trust and reluctance to face unpleasant truths belong. With long-term conflicts as well as short-term ones, however, the more concrete the problem, the easier it will be to write the book.

 The long-term problem may be something which makes the character reluctant to fall in love at all. She caught her previous fiancé in bed with another woman. Or it may be something which makes the character reluctant to fall in love with this particular individual. She’s terrified of heights and he’s a mountain-climbing instructor.

Often the long-term problems aren’t shared with the reader until fairly late in the story. Frequently that’s because the character himself doesn’t recognize his character flaw until the pain of the current situation has forced him to reassess the choices he’s made in the past and the impact those choices continue to have on his life – and decide to change the future.

 Even if the details aren’t shared with the reader up front, however, the long-term problem will influence all of that character’s actions. The hero may not share the facts of his parents’ tragic marriage – but his experience will affect how he acts toward the heroine now.

 Developing the problem

 The short-term problem is not a single event, so it can’t be solved in a single step. While rock-climbing, Julie falls off a cliff isn’t a true short-term problem; she’ll either be rescued or she’ll die, and in either case the story is over.

 The real short-term problem is what got her onto the cliff in the first place. Is she trying to protect the precious papers she’s carrying from the bad guy who’s pursuing her? Is she learning to climb because the man she thinks she loves insists he won’t marry her unless she shares his hobby of mountain-climbing?

 How the problems fit together

 A character’s short-term and long-term problems need to be closely related, because the short-term problem focuses a spotlight on the long-term one. The immediate, life-altering threat or challenge is what forces the character to own up to and deal with the character flaw or the troublesome past experience.

Simply adding a kidnapping isn’t going to do much for your plot – unless that kidnaping brings out the hero’s flaws and the heroine’s old fears. When the immediate problem the hero and heroine face is complicated by the kind of people they are, then we have the potential for a very deeply emotional story that the reader can never forget.

 Both the long-term and short-term problems must be important to the characters and emotionally involving for the reader. If the reader can picture herself faced with the dilemma, agonizing over the “right” solution, worrying about whether the characters will get it solved, she becomes so wrapped up in the story that she cannot put it down.

Plotting techniques

When the tension between the characters is intolerable, they can’t stand the situation as it stands – so they have to do something. The actions the characters take in trying to resolve the tension and change their situation forms the foundation of the plot – the series of events which keeps the characters together until they’ve learned, grown and changed enough to be able to resolve the long-term problems (the character flaws or past experiences) which have separated them.

 Unless each event contributes to the advancement of the story, and relates to all the other events in a meaningful sequence, it’s a contrived plot – where the events don’t follow logically from what has happened before.

 What if...?

 What if....? allows us to start with the nugget of an idea and develop it into the future. Once we have a basic problem in mind, we start asking What if...? What if she’s out of a job and she’s evicted from her apartment? Or What if  her preoccupation with her job loss causes her to be careless, and she causes a fire which forces her to move? What if  it’s a college town with the school year just starting so apartments are in short supply? Let your mind roam, and at this point don’t worry about creating contradictory scenarios. Later you can choose which lines of thought work best and which are less promising.

 This technique works equally well throughout the writing process. At any given time, we can look at the problem as it currently appears and ask, “What if....?

 Backwards plotting

 Backwards plotting is almost the opposite, because we start with an end point (though not necessarily the story’s conclusion) and figure out what we need to have in place beforehand to make that point logical, believable, and inevitable. Backwards plotting can work on any specific plot point – and especially one which the reader might find just a little too hard to swallow.

 Let’s say you want your heroine to defend herself from the bad guy by pulling a gun on him. But  you can’t just have her open her desk drawer and pick up a revolver, or your readers will revolt. Backwards plotting is the fine art of putting the gun in the desk drawer in the first place, so it’s ready for her to use.

 Figuring out your foreshadowing is part of that necessary reader preparation, but backwards plotting involves a great deal more than just foreshadowing. What does the story have to include in order for the reader to find this event believable? Just as important, what can’t it include? If your heroine’s climactic choice is going to depend on her being a really bad judge of character, then maybe you shouldn’t make her a psychiatrist, or a psychologist, or even a human-resources coordinator.

 Using the two together

 What if...? and backwards plotting work extremely well together. By using them in turn you can develop your characters’ problems and at the same time spot troublesome areas or holes before they develop.

 Plot building

 Which problem – short-term or long-term – comes to the author’s mind first doesn’t make much difference in plot development. You can start with a short-term problem (a bride decides to run away from her wedding rather than walk down the aisle) and then think about what kind of a person would get herself into this situation. Or you can start with a long-term problem (she has never felt loved for herself, only for her position and her money) and think about what kind of trouble this woman would get herself into and how you can illustrate that character flaw.

 In thinking about the relationship between the problems, what if and backwards plotting are useful techniques. But probably the most important question is neither “what if..?” or “what do I need to plant?” It’s “Why?”


 The character’s motivation – his reason for doing what he does – is all important. People don’t oppose each other just to be nasty. (Well, okay – sometimes they do in real life. But fiction has to be logical.)

 Why does the character do *this*, rather than *that*? What does the character want, and why? Why does the character need to prevent another character from reaching a particular goal? Why is this event happening right now instead of last year or next month? Why doesn’t the character answer a straightforward question with a straightforward answer? Why is this event or problem seemingly the worst thing that could happen to this person? Why is this apparently the worst person in the world for our character to fall in love with?

 If you can explain why – and make your reader believe that the reason is logical and sensible for these characters at this point in their lives – then your characters can do pretty much anything you want them to.

Cause and effect

 As you use What if...?  and backwards plotting techniques, developing and arranging your story, keep in mind that each development of the short-term problem is at least tangentially related to the original difficulty, notching up gradually and growing worse overall as time goes on. 

Every event is a cause which has an effect, which in turn is the cause of yet another effect. Every episode has consequences which lead to the next episode. This allows the plot and conflict to build rather than be a series of unrelated events.

 One event leading to the next. One incident becoming the cause of the next event. One problem complicating the next. What if and backwards plotting working together to create a logical, almost inevitable plot. 

article copyright 2004 Leigh Michaels.

First published in Romance Writers Report.

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