When I presented a workshop for the lovely Write Place Writing School at the beginning of November, I touched briefly on ‘writing in the now’ and wanted to explore that point further.
As it wouldn’t be fair to share my students’ idea I have come up with a scenario to explain what I mean.
Annie and James meet in university when they join the same band, with Annie as the lead singer and James as the lead guitarist/singer. They are each other’s first love, but at the end of university life they go their separate ways because James decides to move to America to pursue his musical career. Ten years later they meet up again, and James is a huge star, whilst Annie is a backing singer, working to keep a roof over her and her young son’s head. Annie is still hurt that James left her and thought his career more important than their love and she is also angry that he stole the song that they wrote together and which became his biggest hit. She has been too proud to sue him for her rights and is certainly not going to ask him now! It is revealed that James left because he had reason to believe that Annie was cheating on him and he had taken the song as revenge. When he meets Annie’s son, he automatically assumes the child is the other guy’s, but Annie knows better. Not that she’s going to admit that to James after he cheated her out of millions of pounds…
If you were writing the novel to this short summary, where would you begin?
When one of the students came up with a scenario that charted all her hero and heroine’s romantic life, I suggested to her that she would be much better starting the story in the now; at the point where their conflict is about to come to a head.
A chronological story that begins with the hero and heroine falling in love, maybe getting married or living together before conflict rears its ugly head may be more realistic. After all, in real life, falling in love and getting married is generally the easy bit. It’s only after when children and lack of money come along that conflict starts. But if you started at the very beginning, it would make the first chapters rather slow. Of course if your hero and heroine do meet and are immediately faced with a conflict, then it will speed up the pace. But if you’re describing a relationship that began then ended several years before for some reason, the time to start the story is when they meet again.
So if I were writing the story I’ve outlined above, I’d start where Annie and James meet up again, at a recording studio perhaps. I’d introduce the conflict from their past very quickly, whilst also avoiding flashbacks, which also slow down the pace of a story. Let the past come out in dialogue (whilst avoiding ‘information drop’).
There are some novels, particularly family sagas, in which you can start from the year dot – or when the heroine was born – but even they will hint at some conflict. Maybe the hero or heroine has displaced an elder sibling or cousin who was due to inherit. Or there is a question over their parentage that will inform the rest of their lives until such conflict is resolved. Even then the story will more than likely jump forward ten years or so at a time, missing out the boring bits.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing historical romance. The ‘now’ is the ‘present’ time in any era. So in my novel, Loving Protector, the story starts when the heroine and her family are saved from a highwayman by the dashing hero. So yes, it is the first time they meet and then goes on to chart their romance, but it very quickly sets up the conflict (the heroine’s nasty stepsister) and hints at further conflicts. Plus the romance happens over weeks, not years. I’ve heard criticism about romances that happen too quickly, but to me that’s what writing romantic fiction is about. It’s about falling in love at first sight, but being faced with a conflict that tests that notion.
If every romantic novel had the same pace as a real life romance, then it would be very boring for the reader. It can be done, however. The film by Bernard Slade called Same Time Next Year, starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn, used the conceit of a couple meeting the same time every year to carry on an illicit romance, and it showed how they both changed over the years. But each ‘episode’ of the romance took place at the time they met – in the now - and missed out all the bits in between, simply feeding information to the audience through dialogue.
So try to write in the now, when the real conflict begins. That may well be at the beginning of a romance, but it may be ten years down the line when the hero and heroine meet again and are forced to deal with the problems that parted them before.