Advice from the Archives: The Unpredictable Route to Happy Ever After

profile-pic-1-200x267By Flo Nicoll, Senior Editor, Harlequin Presents and Dare

In Romance HQ, unpredictability has become \\the\\ buzzword – we’re constantly discussing and promoting ways to ensure our authors are producing the most exciting stories possible. Our long-term emphasis on innovative emotional conflict means this has been on our editorial radar for a while.

So, here’s the lowdown…

First up, reassure yourselves that we get some \\incredible\\ submissions from aspiring authors – there’s nothing more exciting that reading a new author voice for the first time and realizing that they just “get” it. However, less successful submissions tend to share a common flaw – a reliance on the same tried-and-tested conflicts and themes. This Harlequin by numbers’ approach (‘I’ll write a Greek hero \\and\\ a marriage of convenience!’) can lead to stories feeling unoriginal and predictable – AKA not something our readers enjoy. Who wants to buy a book when they can guess exactly how the relationship will pan out from page 1?

Hence the campaign for more unpredictable storytelling!

For everyone who likes a definition, in Romance HQ-speak, an unpredictable story delivers a compelling happy-ever-after that takes the reader on an unanticipated, cliché-free and emotionally engaging journey. (i.e. \\not\\ crazy plot twists, inconsistent behavior or random genre mash-ups – it’s definitely not an excuse to replace conflict with crashing plot devices!)

Don’t panic, we’re not asking for radical differences! Everyone has their favorite themes that they love to read and write about – cowboys, babies, Greek tycoons… – the list is endless and of course you can still explore them. But whilst your romances should deliver on series promise and fulfill reader expectations, more than ever we need to see that they do this in a fresh and unique way.

\\How\\, though?

You’ve heard this before, and we’ll say it again: **it’s all in the characters!** The best way to create a strong conflict and story is by starting with two interesting, original characters with a compelling story to tell. You should know them inside out and back to front: what makes them tick? What are their loves, their hates, their fears, hopes and dreams? Favorite color, food, outfits…no detail is too small when you’re getting inside the heads of these two people! It’s only by fleshing out all these details that you’ll end up with real, rounded people with hidden depths that steer well clear of the cliché trap.

As for their character conflicts, here’s a chance to stretch your imagination! To be fair, it actually doesn’t take much to give a character an issue they need to resolve before they can be happy – even something as insignificant as being the middle child can be spun out into a fascinating and engaging conflict. However, developing a thoroughly unique character conflict is a fab opportunity to grab an editor’s attention, showing us something we’ve never seen before!

So, if you want to tackle a more controversial theme, go for it! Alternatively, think about ways you can twist the classic conventions and surprise your reader e.g. what different spin can you put on the “marriage of convenience” or “falling for your boss” themes? Originality is the name of the game here – if you’ve already seen it, try and come up with a new approach, taking your reader on twists and turns they haven’t been on before.

There you have it – the unpredictability debate. Whatever your stance on it, it’s undeniably a hugely exciting opportunity for all you writers who want to bring something different to series romance

We can’t wait to see how you rise to the challenge!


6 replies on “Advice from the Archives: The Unpredictable Route to Happy Ever After”

Absolutely love Presents because their editors are so good at choosing authors who do what you’ve described. Thanks for the great advice.

I think we need to remember this advice as Critique Partners and Beta Readers too.

I was puzzled by the feedback I was getting on my work-in-progress until I realized my Critique Partners had *assumed* the Hero was a wealthy celebrity playboy because I said he was an actor. Well, he wasn’t wealthy, a celebrity, or a playboy. He was just an actor. Like I’m not Stephanie Meyer just because I’m a writer.

Great post Flo, very inspiring! I recently read a great Maisey Yates book, The Prince’s Stolen Virgin. She ticked all those boxes you mentioned. I read it with my heart in my mouth, not really sure if the heroine would ever manage to redeem the hero and get her HEA. Of course, being a Harlequin Presents/M&B Modern, written by the very talented Maisey Yates, she did!!

Right on! I feel like my new characters are this and do this well! They are both unique people with unique challenges and abilities. What wonderful advice!

I started reading M&B when I was 14. Forty years later I still read them. At one point I was reading one a day! I must’ve read thousands of them. I love the escapism, the HEA, the great internal and external conflict. However, sadly the most recent M&B romances I have read have been extremely weak in conflict, I’d even go as far as saying they were boring real life conflict. Most readers, well me really, I like the unrealism, the HEA, the heavy conflict that seems unresolvable. But lately the ones I have read I just want to shake the characters and tell them to grow up. I am also fed up of reading about fur, silk , leather suede clothes, hunting, rodeos, meat and dairy laden meals in the books when it jars with me being vegan. Maybe novels should have a vegan friendly sticker too. You say you want unconventional, so I submitted a vegan meets farmer theme only to have it rejected 3 times in the online process within 24 hours. This tells me there was no screening process. So how do you ever get your novel actually screened? I am not an embittered rejection, I would gladly welcome critique of my novel, if only I could get it to someone to do that!

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