Tuesday, March 3, 2015

How I Know I'll Always Be a Romance Writer

If we’re being honest, my role as a writer has looked a little bit different for the last few months. I have two books on submission, a new regular freelance contract for work, and a baby coming in less than a month! (And do I have some amazing guest posters lined up for my maternity leave! Just you wait…)

While I know it’s just a season and I’ll be back once I adjust to the new normal, it’s been humbling being out of my regular writing rhythm. But as my late-night writing sessions have temporarily been replaced with Netflix to conserve brainpower, I’ve realized more than ever that you can take the keyboard away from the romance writer, but you can’t take the romance writer out of the girl.

I realize I’m about to fully expose you to my televisions “tastes”, but there’s no judgment on The Writer’s Alley. This is a shame-free zone. Here’s what I’ve learned about story during my little hiatus:

1. Always be true to the character you’ve created. {TV Example: Joel from Parenthood}

Photo: NBC
The genius writers of Parenthood spent an entire series building this good-natured, supportive, dream husband Joel to his career-driven, type-A, sometimes oddly emotional wife, Julia. But then, in the second to last season, something happened that was so uncharacteristically Joel. It was like he snapped and became unreliable, intolerant, and impatient. This character wasn’t intrinsically Joel.

When a writer introduces conflict that doesn’t fit the character she has spent an entire story building, it feels gimmicky, fabricated for the sake of drama. Friends don’t let friends let their main characters end up like Joel.

2. Don’t make a secondary character more appealing than your hero. {TV Example: Chicago P.D.}

I know this dynamic is a little different in a television franchise than in a single novel, but it’s critical not to make your secondary characters more sympathetic than your main characters. Chicago P.D. set out to make the studly Jay Halstead their “alpha hero”, if you will. But as the first season developed, I found myself way less interested in his storylines than those of a character named Adam Ruzek.

When introducing secondary characters, it’s important to make sure their backstories aren’t more layered, their actions and decisions not more heroic, and that the rightful protagonists’ storylines remain in the forefront as most intriguing.  Friends don’t let friends let their minor characters steal the spotlight.

2b. Don’t let your heroine end up with the wrong love interest. {TV Example: Andy McNally from Rookie Blue}

Image: TVLine.com
Okay, I had no plans to write this addendum, but I’m calling an audible because I can’t not. There are several shows that have done this to me, but I’ll use Rookie Blue as an example. In this police drama I can’t get enough of, the primary heroine Andy McNally was slated to end up with Sam Swarek forever and ever. Only, conflict ensued for the sake of ratings, and the two of them have embarked on an epic roller coaster. Enter Nick Collins, her former soldier partner with enough past to fill his military-issue duffle but enough strength to still be a stand-up human being. Plus a slow burn of chemistry with Andy.

I’ve seen this happen before in novels, too. The heroine is embroiled in conflict with her one true love interest and runs to the confidence of her trusty male best friend, co-worker, or lifelong next door neighbor. And then unsuspecting people like me begin to root for that pairing more than the original. The hero’s crimes against the heroine suddenly seem unforgivable next to the way this other character treats her. And once all is right again in the world of the hero/heroine, part of that reader always wonders if the heroine’s life would have been better. Friends don’t let friends do this to Laurie let their heroines choose the wrong guy.

3. If you stray from the plot too long, you will lose audience interest. {TV Example: Hart of Dixie}

Okay, so apparently this can go both ways. In Hart of Dixie, our heroine Zoe Hart had a great thing going with roguish boy next door, Wade Kinsella. But as with all good TV pairings, conflict happens as they can’t find their happily ever after too prematurely lest the show come to a screeching halt. But the love interest they chose for Zoe after Wade was so different than him, so vanilla in comparison, that viewers spent an entire season wishing they could hit the fast-forward button.

Whether it’s a romance plotline or not, writers have to be very strategic when straying from storylines that are integral to their novels. In the age of Amazon's instant downloads, it’s important to capture readers’ interest and hold it. Friends don’t let friends become a victim of the dreaded Kindle Archive button :)

4. Entice readers with clever, mouthwatering dialogue. {TV Example: Gilmore Girls}

Have you seen this show? I don’t need to say much because dialogue is kind of its trademark. The writers studied their characters, knew them well, and developed them through their dialogue. What they said, how they said it, what cultural references they brought into the mix, the random comparisons their brains would make in a given situation. All of it contributed something to the story.

Gilmore Girls is proof that writers can garner sympathy, build camaraderie, and destroy their readers when their characters suffer -- even in scenarios where the absence of dialogue is more powerful. Friends don’t let friends write generic, unnatural dialogue.

5. End it well {TV Example: Parenthood finale}

I know I used Parenthood as my first example of what not to do, but on the whole, the show was spot-on in my (biased) opinion. And the ending was just phenomenal. I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but what they did right is this: they didn’t pull punches or cut corners, they were strategic about which storylines to spotlight at the end, they wrapped up all of the important loose ends neatly, and they gave satisfying endings that weren’t necessarily happy for everyone, but they were right. Friends don’t let friends write books that leave readers dumbfounded that there’s not another chapter :)

What do you love about your favorite TV shows? How can you translate it to your own writing?

Laurie Tomlinson is a wife and mom from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who is passionate about intentional living, all things color-coded, and stories of grace in the beautiful mess. Previously a full-time book publicist, she owns a freelance copywriting, editing, and PR consulting business. 

She's a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers and received the Genesis Award in 2013 (Contemporary) and 2014 (Romance). 

Her work is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such Literary.

You can connect with Laurie here:

Twitter - @LaurieTomlinson


Jeanne Takenaka said...

Laurie, I love how you bring out good (and not so good) writing from the shows you love. And your "Friends don't let friends....." made me smile. :)

Thanks for the reminder to not let a secondary character steal the girl. Great point! :)

Jessica Lynne Martin said...

Great suggestions; I haven't seen Gilmore Girls since way back when its first or second seasons were on air... but so many authors reference the amazing lessons a writer can learn from the show. I think I'll have to look it up on Netflix!

Jill Weatherholt said...

This is a great post, Laurie! Each topic you covered, except the end it well, are reasons why I've moved on to other books. I don't enjoy becoming frustrated while reading, since I read to relax and learn.

Jaime Wright said...

Can I add: Friends don't let friends stop writing before the book is done?

I hearken the television show: The Pretender. Ok, Laurie you were probably in 2nd grade, but I was in high school. Fantastic television show. (for the 90's) Layered, secrets, plots and then CANCELLED!!! Whatever happened ??!? It was all left to my imagination, which was NOT satisfactory. So friends make friends finish their stellar books and never quit writing it in the middles. (Now go finish yours cause you left me hangin)

Jessica R. Patch said...

I love your picks as I watch them all but two. Excellent post, my friend! Perfection!

Laurie Tomlinson said...

@ Jeanne T - I'm afraid I'm well-known for disagreeing with friends which love interests belong together :)

@ Jessica - It was hard to pick just one writing lesson from Gilmore Girls. Great show!

@ Jill W - Exactly! And when the "End it Well" doesn't happen, I just throw the book across the room :)

@ Jaime - LOVE this addendum. So true. And I'm WORKING on it.

@ Jessica P - You do have excellent taste. But we've gone over this before :)

kaybee said...

Laurie, thanks, this makes me feel less guilty about watching television. What I'm loving now:
"Forever," which is much more nuanced than the usual "dude that doesn't die" piece;
"Agent Carter," nuanced and layered and deeper than the usual superhero stuff, with amazing period detail; and
"Resurrection," don't know if it's coming back but actually a better piece than the book it was based on IMHO.
These all have decent character development and get me to think about Deeper Things.
"Nashville" is my guilty pleasure, if I have one, and what I like about it are the plot twists, which always leave me with my mouth hanging open.
Not doing "Downton Abbey" this year, I've heard it's gotten kind of stupid, but I did like the plotting in the first ones.
My gold standard for great television is still "Lost." Had just about everything. Which brings me to your point about heroes in that several times I thought Kate was going to end up with Sawyer.
Got to do whatever it is I'm avoiding with writer web sites, may check in later.
Kathy Bailey

Laurie Tomlinson said...

Kathy - My husband loves those shows! We loved Lost, too. I always wanted Kate and Sawyer to end up together, too ;)