Monday, May 23, 2005

The Big 10 (Maybe)

Think I'm going to spend the next couple of entries discussing the "rules" of writing a romance novel. You know, the taboos that writers are supposed to avoid like the bubonic plague or the strict "musts" that each book has to contain if there is any hope of having a manuscript so much as glared at by a publisher's assistant's copy making doughnut fetching gopher intern who has no power whatsoever to decide anything of more importance than sprinkles or no sprinkles.

The reason for this topic is because last night I watched the season 5 premier episode of Queer As Folk, and the writers of that show broke one of the Big Rules of Romance. It's a rule that I hate (for reasons discussed shortly) but that, disgustingly, annoyed me to no end when it was broken during my show.

This is the rule...

No, wait. I think these are worthy of Commandment status. And maybe I can come up with a full set of ten.

Commandment 1: Thou shalt introduce hero to heroine within the first chapter, and may nothing come to separate them for more than a handful of pages.

My specific beef with Queer As Folk - when season 4 ended, lovers Brian and Justin were about to be separated when Justin decided to take a job in Hollywood while Brian remained in Pittsburgh. Since the primary reason I watch this show is to see Brian and Justin together, I groaned at the idea of a separation. I hoped/figured/prayed that enough time would have passed during the show's hiatus that the writers would let Justin return to Pittsburgh. Kind of a TV show time = real time scenario, so by last night, Justin's job would have been all wrapped up and he'd be jetting back to the Pitts.

Nope, Justin was still in LA. And I was annoyed. I was annoyed when he didn't come home by the end of the first episode, even though the writers had his big project get cancelled, thus giving him reason to go home ASAP. I was even more annoyed when, during the second episode (they ran the first two epis back to back, don't know why) Justin putzed around LA like he wanted to stay longer. I wanted him to hop on the first plane back to the east coast.

I wanted Justin and Brian to be together. Not apart.

And this made me wonder if I'm a major hypocrite because I hate that romance novel rule that insists that the hero and heroine meet and become fused at the hip from page 3 onwards.

Now, I have to say up front that AFTER the hero and heroine meet, I do want to see them together as much as possible (see the above rant about Justin and Brian). I'm not a big fan of "A plots" wherein the hero is off doing his thing and the heroine is off doing her thing. I'm reading for the relationship, for the interaction and the sparks. It's hard to have sparks when the characters are never in the same room/building/city/country.

What I don't understand is why these two must meet in the first chapter. Why can't a chapter or two (or three) be devoted to establishing some character? To setting up a situation so that when the H and h meet, there is a solid base beneath the story?

I'm not talking about pages of backstory. I don't need to read all about Millicent growing up dirt poor on her daddy's pig farm where she and her sister used to lock all the boys out of their tree fort yada yada yada. Nor do I need to read the minute-by-minute account of how Dirk Studmuffin boarded his pirate ship and set sail for America and how many storms were encountered as they crossed the Atlantic, all before arriving in Boston where the lovely Millicent was working at the local fish-and-chips stand...

No, I mean the pertinent stuff. Why is it wrong to show the heroine living her life for a full chapter, then perhaps showing the hero living his life for a chapter - using those chapters to push our characters to the edge where the change is about to occur - and allowing the two to finally come into explosive contact sometime around chapter 3?

Yes, I understand the hook rule. If you don't hook the reader fast - ostensibly by showing them this amazing chemistry between the hero and heroine so that they can't turn pages fast enough in trying to find out how these two amazing people get together - the reader will just put your nice little book back on the shelf and pick up another book.

And yes, I understand that the real story begins with the changing event. Backstory is boring, and readers want to jump in right in the middle of the action. This is the MTV world we live in, home of the 10 second commercial. Who wants to trod through pages of set up and character establishment? It's all about instant gratification, baby.

I agree with these reasons - intellectually. They make sense, of course, and for series books I can fully understand and respect the need to stick with a proven formula. There are a limited number of pages in which to tell the story, readers have very precise expectations, and the publishers can demand that the writer conform to this rule. Sadly, though, what must be the case for this particular niche also adds to the overall perception that romance novels are nothing more than writing-by-the-numbers because to a certain degree it is true. Hero and heroine meet in chapter 1. Sounds like the first step in a recipe because it is.

But when it comes to single titles, I would beg that all bets be called off. If the writer wants to take a chapter or two (or three or four) to ease into the story, then why not? If the story can support this method, meaning, if the delay makes sense and is not done simply because it can be done, what's wrong with delaying that First Meet gratification?

Thinking of the books that I've most loved, romance novel-wise, quite a few of them have not put the hero and heroine together for a healthy number of pages. That is, romantically. Sometimes the hero and heroine do meet, but the heroine is a child or one or the other of the characters is already married. Something that keeps them apart.

Quite often what happens is that we do meet the hero and the heroine in Chapter 1, but they don't meet each other until later. I like this. I like that we get a chance to see the characters as individuals and to get a peak at their normal lives before their worlds gets all shook up.

And knowing that these two characters will meet is kind of a little reader-foreplay. In those first couple of chapters, I start to like the heroine and I start to like the hero (well, hopefully) and I start to look forward to what's going to happen soon. I anticipate the moment they first see each other, I sit on the edge of my seat excited to know if it will be love or hate at first sight.

So when at last it does happen, I'm ready.

Kind of like Justin and Brian last night. I suffered through that first episode and a good portion of the second episode. My breath was caught in my throat when finally Justin realized that it was time to go home and Brian had started to believe that his one-true-love just might never come back. And when Justin walked into Brian's loft...yep, the wait was well worth it.

Guess it's that fine line of make me wait but not too long. And I can appreciate publishers wanting writers to lean towards the side of sooner rather than later.

I just believe that the story itself could dictate what happens rather than some Commandment stated in a vacuum.

BTW - I may have trouble coming up with 10 Commandments, so if you have any ideas, please share.


Wendy said...

Hmmm, you know I've seen this hero-and-heroine-must-meet rule bandied about, but I can't say that it bears out in all of my romance reading. The last romance I read wherein the characters didn't already know one another was Donna Kauffman's Catch Me If You Can and not only did the H/h not meet in the first chapter, they didn't meet until page 75 or so. That was a little annoying and part of the reason I didn’t enjoy the book overly much.

One of the things we've all read in books on writing and heard about in novel classes is 'start your story at the last possible moment.' In a love story that last possible moment, where in fact the story begins, is when the H/h meet (or in the case of characters already acquainted with one another, when the conflict enters/a decision is made/and inciting incident occurs). From that perspective, the hurry up and get them together commandment—in order to bury them under conflict—plays out.

Thinking of the romances I’ve read in the last few months, the most compelling ones had the H/h together immediately driving toward conflict the entire time.

All that aside, my purely reader mind set is: it's just more fun to see the H/h together.

HelenKay said...

I think this is a category romance rule. In the older H/S lines, the hero and heroine had to meet early and couldn't be apart for more than 10 pages. All that makes some kind of sense in short books, like 50,000 words. The newer lines might not have that limitation (like Bombshell).

Outside of cateogry these rules are relaxed. But, I agree with Wendy (as usual) that a significant delay in the hero/heroine meet tends to tick me off if I'm expecting a romance.

Lynn M said...

Perhaps I need to modify my stance a bit. Because I do agree with Wendy and HelenKay in that I don't want to read half a book or even several chapters and have the hero and heroine yet to even meet. I do want them together as soon as possible and to stay together as much as possible.

I guess what my complain is - and maybe it is only a "rule" in series books - is when it is stated that the H/h *must* meet in Chapter 1. I like the idea that I have a chapter or two to build up a bit of anticipation and/or set things in motion.

I do see the value in starting the story as close to the changing event as possible. My first very dismal effort at book-writing had a good 10 chapters before the H/h finally meet. So I have learned some things since then. *g*