The Plot Thickens…or How I Came to Like Fish

by Patience Bloom

Some of us lack the gift of plotting. I’m not naming names here, but it’s not everyone’s forte. Now, you may create glowing characters and write sparkling first drafts, and yet plots are not your thing. Even after you’ve read Robert McKee’s STORY and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, highlighting important sections, your plot is still an overcooked noodle. You like overcooked pasta—I know I do—but writing romance is about hitting all the notes just right (and not mixing too many metaphors the way I just did).

Last night, while agonizing over this topic, I read Anne LaMott’s section on plot in her brilliant book on writing, Bird by Bird. She stresses that one should look to character first, that characters will dictate what happens. For a romance novel, hooks should factor into character development, too. After all, an obvious hook or trope will influence a reader’s decision to buy—we know this.

But as creative beings, writers should really let those characters speak up and craft a well-plotted story from there (remembering hooks, too :)).

I like to think about The Situation (not the Jersey Shore alum), the big conundrum that gets the ball rolling in your story. Maybe, the hero and heroine are stuck in the elevator. The heroine looks at her pregnancy test, just as her casual fling is about to leave for his new job across the county—forever. Or two co-workers, who have never been single at the same time, find themselves out of their relationships, but something else stands in their way.

So what puts these characters in the same place? If you think about it, you encounter thousands of people (if it’s millions then I officially want your autograph) a year. What special event brings two people together? For me and my husband, it was one night when he was bored, 3,000 miles from home, and he wandered onto Facebook and saw me, a girl he once knew in high school. If he hadn’t been bored, if he had been home in the first place, with his friends an easy distance away, he might not have paid attention. Somehow, we reconnected, he visited me, and we got married.

The next step is to ask why The Situation is particularly angst-inducing for them? I like to consider resistance—conflict’s unruly sibling. The hero and/or the heroine should have a resistance to this new situation, i.e. falling in love, being together. If everything works out beautifully (as it did once my future husband clicked on Friend Request), you won’t have much of a story. You know how much a cat hates going into the cat carrier for that annual trip to the vet? There should be an element of this in your plot, with the characters acting and reacting.

Remember the pacing… As you build your plot, point by point, make sure you build the suspense (not like mystery suspense). Why do we have to keep reading? After your hero and heroine meet, then what? How do they get into the story more deeply?

It’s always a good idea to stop yourself at the end of each plot point/chapter and ask, “Is this exciting?” If your answer is a reluctant, “Um, sure” then you know you have more work to do. Not to worry because the more you toil over your plot, the closer you will get. The answer may come as you walk the dog or meditate in your back yard. The key is not to let go—or turn on TV to drown out your budding creative thoughts.

Now one last thing to consider is how the plot transforms your characters. Through romance and circumstance, they should change somehow. Is the heroine now able to eat fish because the hero is such an amazing cook and, in a stunning Third Act moment, made the most amazing breaded cod? Okay, I just used a real-life example here. If this were a story about my life as a picky eater, this would be my transformation and by the end, I could tolerate seafood, even enjoy it, because my husband knows how to cook for people who hate everything. And oh, the suspense of my obsessing over the mercury, the prospect of food poisoning, the flashbacks to eating fish 4 times a week as a kid and–most dreadful of all–The Lobster Incident of 1981! Change in a romance novel should be positive. What great dream will be realized for your characters by the end?

If it weren’t for the plot, the hero or heroine would never meet. You would choose another book, one that might not affect you the same way. See how important this is? By the end of your story, your reader should give that sigh of satisfaction. Your premise has put them through hard times, suspenseful times, and now ecstatic happily ever after times. Well done!

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have a bagel with a whole lotta lox.

7 replies on “The Plot Thickens…or How I Came to Like Fish”

Patience, thank you for this helpful insight! I love your outlook on the world and life in general, esp. romance. No wonder you love romance books. 🙂 I met my hubby in an online chat room waaay back in the day and if it weren’t for his persistence we wouldn’t be together today. I “get” what you are saying and hope I can initiate it into my books. Thank you for being you and for being so inspiring. 🙂

Thanks so much Patience. As a plotter I really appreciate your article. I can, and do, write without a plan, but that’s more of a way to get to know my characters through interviews, dialogue, and having them react to different situations. But these snippets are always episodic. When it comes to novel writing, I’m a planner. I’m much more comfortable when I have events in the story arc mapped out. This helps me to challenge my characters to reassess their values and to stimulate change. It also helps me to structure the story and character conflicts cumulatively. I know for many writers, this takes the fun and creativity out of writing, and I understand that. But plotting works for me. Thanks again for your article.

As a reader, and a writer, the essential part of plot is how the protagonists grow through it. If they start out perfect and powerful, I’m bored on page one and toss the book. Got to have growth. Love should transform you into a better person.

For years I’ve had different scenarios rolling around in my crazy, over active imagination. Never put on paper, just a file in my mind. Going out for long runs and the mind runs faster with more thoughts! Now I am actually putting these thoughts down and so much of it is thanks to reading these posts and comments.
I am now focusing more on hooks and tropes and drama and am enjoying the creation of different twists and turns to my plot. I am working towards the perfect hero for my heroine. A man who can be Mr. Everything to her, the man I am still looking to fall in love with myself. Having given up on romance and love for so long in my own life thanks in no small part to an ex who put me on life support, I am now getting more hopeful and longing to start a new journey of my own.
I will take a bagel with you but I’m putting Nutella on mine. You’re fortunate to be able to eat fish now, I’ve never overcome my dislike of seafood. I had a dreadful squid episode when I was about 10. My mother had found an interesting recipe using the offending creature and went to work creating the most horrible meal ever. It is a story that has never been forgotten or thankfully repeated!
Thank you for your helpful article and all the others posted before and during this 150 day challenge and thanks to all the aspiring writers for all your comments.

Hi Dina,
I just wanted to say good for you for moving forward with your life. Moving on from such a breech of trust and violence is a long and painful process and shows great strength of character.
There are many great resources for plotting your novel. Patience mentioned three books in her article. A search of your local library will yield many more. I like to check the library before purchasing a book because some books just don’t speak to me. Then if I find the book really helpful, I’ll order it.
By the way – I don’t know if you know about the Harlequin Community at The people there are lovely and supportive, and there’s a whole section for writers.

Thanks so much Kate! I will certainly check into my library asap. I love the internet for quick ideas and possible solutions but a book says so much more!
I will also check this site out. It is so reassuring to be able to discover these sites and people, it encourages me to tackle this challenge!

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