Tuesday, February 14, 2012

External Devices & Character Focus


I've read three new books since I last blogged, and I had planned to dissect one of them here today. I wrote the article in full, but have decided not to post it, because while I want to share with others what I'm learning from the books I read, I have no desire to hurt an author's feelings.

In my opinion, the book I dissected was very broken, and with mistakes of this magnitude, the editor should have caught them. They would have been easy to fix with some minor changes, but left as is, they made a complete mess of the story. I'm going to post some things I noticed about this particular story line, but in a generic way that will hopefully still be helpful to other writers looking to examine the way category romances are put together.

Here we go... The book revolves around the hero returning home after a long absence. He doesn't want to be there, but he needs to speak to his estranged brother. When he arrives at the family home, his brother isn't there. Instead, the hero is greeted by the heroine - a non-romantic connection from his past - who informs him his brother is missing.

The setup was very effective. It established all kinds of questions that would keep people reading to discover the answers. So far, so good.

In the second scene, which is from the heroine's POV, we learn the heroine has always been in love with the hero. A split second after making that statement, we get a bit of backstory into a humiliating incident in the heroine's past. Unfortunately, it's not the hero who helped her through it. It's not the hero she remembers fondly. Instead, the scene is a fond memory of the hero's brother - the guy who is missing. In my opinion, that is where the story begins to fall apart.

From that second scene onward, I subconsciously recognized that the heroine would have been better off with the hero's brother. She has no past, emotional connection with the hero himself. The point of a romance is the emotional connection between the hero and heroine. If there isn't one, the romance feels forced, which was the case with this book.

All through the book, I felt like the romance between the hero and heroine wasn't working. The relationship felt very contrived. Once I finished reading the book all the way through, I went back to chapter one, and reread the beginning. That's when I realized the author had basically given the hero's brother a double "save the cat" scene.

In a nutshell, a save the cat scene is used in movies and books to make the protagonist/hero seem sympathetic to the reader. It's used to make a character likable, and to make the reader care about the character enough to stick with the story. Not only is the hero's brother missing (creates sympathy), but he did a noble deed (a likable trait) to help the heroine in the past. The noble thing in her past, should have been connected to the hero - or at least, who the author wanted the reader to "fall in love with".

A save the cat scene is often used if a hero/protagonist has a harsh personality, a job that may not appeal to readers, or he is set up to do something later on that may seem questionable to the reader. The save the cat scene "humanizes" him, and makes the hero likable and someone we care about despite his faults. (If you haven't read Blake Snyder's book Save the Cat, you should. Consider this my personal recommendation.) Instead of using this technique to compliment the hero of the novel, the author used this to compliment a secondary character (the brother), which basically shifts the reader's empathy away from the person it needs to be focused on.

Despite the requirements of this line of romance novels, the story was heavily focused on the external conflict. These types of romances are always, always character driven, internal conflict focused books, and I believe this may have been a topic that came up between the author and her editor, because there were incidences in the story later on where the author attempted to inject more emotional conflict unsuccessfully.

For example, a secondary character - let's call him Joe - steps forward and declares he is in love with the heroine. Joe tells the heroine he is the man for her, because if she gets involved with the hero, she's going to get her heart broken.

On the surface, this may seem like it adds an internal, emotional conflict because he is talking about love. However, because it wasn't the heroine (the pov character) feeling the emotion, it makes the declaration of love an external device. An external device is an object, a person, a place, a thing, event, or bit of information (such as a secret), that forces a character to react when it is revealed. The reaction is usually head/thoughts based, not heart/feeling based.

I mentioned in my last post - one way to determine whether something adds to the external or internal conflict is to ask yourself this:  Is {fill in the blank} a feeling the pov character experiences?

Let's give it a try and see for ourselves. Is {the secondary character's surprise declaration of love} a feeling the heroine (the pov character) experiences?  No. It is a bit of information (a device) intended to put a wedge (external, short term conflict) between the heroine and the hero, and bring himself (Joe) and her (the heroine) together.

Moving along... There were a few sexy scenes between the hero and heroine throughout the book, along with the traditional back and forth emotional/internal conflict between the characters, which had me thinking for a while that there was hope for this hero/heroine pairing. However, the hero never emotionally/internally recognizes his feelings for the heroine. Because of this, the ending feels forced. If the hero had admitted to himself that he loved the heroine and couldn't live without her, it could have salvaged the story.

Instead, the hero allows someone else to dictate what his feelings are, and doesn't second guess what he's told. He accepts that he's in love with the heroine because his brother comes to him and says so. The hero also accepts that he's going to marry the heroine when his brother tells him he should marry her. Not because this is something the hero himself feels like he needs to do.

Immediately after his brother tells him to marry her, the hero takes off to propose. He shows no internal, emotional growth, no realization of his love for the heroine - not even when she finally accepts his proposal. This only reinforces my initial thoughts that the second scene in the book shows the heroine would have been much better off with the hero's brother.

I have no doubt the heroine felt strongly for the hero. I believe she was genuinely excited when he proposed to her at the end of book. But sadly, the forced way the hero came to "love" her (which is to say I don't think he loves her at all) tells me this isn't a marriage that's going to last very long.

Of course, someone might argue that the hero's brother is helping the hero recognize he is in love. Some might say that this works if the hero really, truly is in love with the heroine. I don't agree. The brother informing the hero of his love for the heroine is an external device. It is the exact same thing as I mentioned in the example above, where Joe's surprise declaration of love for the heroine is an external device.

Neither the brother's information, nor Joe's declaration, is an emotion felt by the pov character in the scene. The brother's information is a device to bring the hero and heroine together. Just like a secret baby is used to bring a hero and heroine together in some other romance novels.

I really wanted to like this book, but the story simply didn't work. However, I learned a lot from reading it, and now I understand more clearly how devices work within a romance, and how not to use them.

I'm moving along in my TBR stack. I've selected a new book to read, and if it's good, I'll dissect it here on the blog for everyone to take a peek. I hope this post has been generic enough to protect the author, but  transparent enough to be helpful for those of us looking to learn more about writing romance. That's all for now. And by the way... Happy Valentine's Day.

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