Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Plots, Characters and Genre Blending

What I'm reading: The Kissing Game, by Suzanne Brockmann

First – Thanks, thanks, thanks to Lee Lofland for sharing that piece of his life yesterday. (If you haven't read it, scroll down.)

Next month, I'll be on a panel with a group of mystery writers at the Romantic Times convention in Orlando. Our moderator has given us some flexibility with our discussion topic, and I think I'm going to talk about expectations of each genre, and how to blend them, especially since most of the other panelists are straight mystery writers.

In the broadest sense:

Romance: hero and heroine meet, fall in love and have a happily ever after (or promise thereof) at the end of the book. What happens in between is what makes the readers care.

Mystery: some kind of crime is committed, someone figures it out, and the bad guy is caught.

Obviously, those are simplistic explanations, but if a book is on the romance shelf and the hero and heroine don't fall in love and have a potentially happy ending … well, someone put the book on the wrong shelf. Move it to the "literary" section. If the detective doesn't solve the crime by the end of the book, readers will be upset.

Keep Reading...
I'm well into chapter 3 of my new manuscript. I'm establishing the mystery first, so I can structure the story around it. It's still blurry, but I'm seeing some shapes forming in the mist. It's not going to be a straight detective story, but a cop showed up in Chapter Two, so there's going to be some kind of investigation. I have almost pinned down the Secret From the Past which is going to be the underlying connection that will tie everything together. I don't need all the details yet. I know there are plotters tearing their hair out, but I'm establishing back story for two secondary characters and The Secret will be in there.

As the author, what I have to figure out is why the secret needs to be kept a secret. It's got to be believable for the reader. So why does my character need to know this secret? What does he lose if he doesn't find it? What does he gain if he does? And why do the characters keeping the secret need to keep it hidden?

Let's face it—there's no story if Character A says, "Hi, Granny. You know that book in the attic with the silver pendant with the funny inscription hidden inside? I need it or someone will kill me. Can I have it?" And if Granny says, "Sure, dear, help yourself," then the book is over right then and there. Characters have to have choices. And they have to be tough ones. If I do A, then this happens which is bad news. But if I do B, then that happens, which is worse."

So, once I have the basic premise sketched out, I need the characters. I know my heroine. Usually the hero comes first, but for some reason, I'm connecting with her. If I look at my computer files, the last 3 books have been in folders bearing the hero's name. This one says "Megan."

In a romance, readers want both the hero and heroine's stories. I remember being at my first SleuthFest and waiting around for my agent appointment, chatting with a mystery writer. He could not understand how you could write a book with TWO main protagonists. He was of the mindset that you had a detective who solved a crime, and there was your story. His eyes glazed over as he tried to grasp the concept of separate but equal protagonists, each with an individual character arc AND a mystery plot.

Okay, 'separate but equal' isn't quite right. In any romance, even with both hero and heroine sharing the page, it's going to end up being more one character's story than the other. Not by much, but it's going to be a 'his book' or a 'her book.' The one I'm writing is definitely leaning into 'her book' territory.

That might be directly related to the fact that I'm not sure who the 'his' in this book is going to be yet. I've got two strong male characters, each with his own problems to deal with, and the heroine is connected to both. I've added a third POV character for the first time.

I did pick up one trick at SleuthFest that I think I'm going to try (especially since I have all the components). Kris Montee (half of the PJ Parrish team) did a workshop on pacing, but she started by explaining that she hated to plot. Her sister, on the other hand, plotted everything. The technique they ended up using was to write the necessary scenes and plot points on sticky notes. Different colored notes for each POV character. Then, by moving them across a white board, they could see where each piece of the puzzle had to fit.

There are some 'givens' in any romance, and likewise, in any mystery. In the former, there's going to be a meeting of hero and heroine, they'll have their first kiss, and so on. In a mystery, there's going to be the discovery of the crime, the suspects, lots of clues and red herrings.

Since I have only the barest of outlines when I start, but lots of ideas for 'stuff' that should happen, I thought I'd give this technique a shot.


Dara Edmondson said...

I love how you boiled down the expectations;-) Simple, but really so complex to make it all fit together seamlessly. Yes - both H&H stories are in the book, but there's usually a dominant character. I often find that dominance comes out on its own, without me planning for it as I write.

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Dara -- I think all those folks who say, "I should write a book. I could crank out a romance in a heartbeat" ought to try it! It's like writing "two...two...two books in one."

Planning! LOL. You know I can't do that. At least not more than a chapter at a time.

Sam said...

I've been reading a lot of romances since Sleuthfest so that I can pick up on the genre conventions I need to work with when I write my own, and the very narrow split between heroine & hero pages was one of the first things I noticed. In most of the ones I've read, it's been majority heroine, but not by much - usually between 60/40 and 55/45. It's going to be a challenge for me to hit that target, since I'm used to mystery, sci-fi, and fantasy, where it's usually about 70-75% hero.

Terry Odell said...

Sam, in a true romance, it's going to be closer to 49-51, I think. You're telling the story of a relationship built against whatever your plot is. I've never actually counted words, pages, or chapters, but you should be shooting for equal time.

Of course, the story will determine the actual result. I commend you for doing your reading research. Find the sub-genre you like and see how it's handled.

Lisa Logan said...

It can be SO tough to genre classify certain books! Perhaps even more so if you don't set out to write the next carefully plotted Great Romance or Cozy Mystery. And yes, if you try to market a tale as a "romance" and there's no HEA, the author had better duck when dissatisfied readers pitch the book back at them!


Terry Odell said...

Thanks for your comment, Lisa. When I started writing, I wrote the book I wanted to read (still do). But then I was totally unaware of genres, sub-genres, expectations, etc. I thought I was writing a mystery, but my daughters told me it was a romance.