At a recent writer’s workshop, we spent a lot of time discussing the topic of what drives a story? What makes the reader turn the page? Answer: the character’s goal. Cinderella wants to go to the ball. Scarlet O’Hara wants to save Tara. Lady Mary wants to secure the inheritance of Downton Abbey. And so the story begins. Will Cinderella get to the ball? Can Scarlet save her home? Will Lady Mary secure the family inheritance, even if it means marrying a solicitor?
Catch the crook, send the murderer to jail, win the war, build the skyscraper. These are all big, concrete goals on which to build a story. A character may fall in love along the way, but the story does not start with that goal. Even Mrs. Bennet who makes no bones about her desire to find husbands for her daughters, preferably husbands of standing and wealth, never suggests her daughters might fall in love.
In Western Historicals, like I write, the heroine is usually too busy building a home, making a living and keeping herself safe to have much time for looking for love. Since these are romance novels, the reader knows the heroine will fall in love, but it’s not the driver of the story. Our heroine might want to win a spelling bee, or sew a quilt or build a house. Small, concrete, measurable goals. There may be layers to these goals. She may want to win the spelling bee in order to get a scholarship, so that she can attend law school, so that she can prosecute slum landlords, because her mother died when a railing went unrepaired. In this case, a small personal goal carries a large, public benefit. Great story premise. It could be written as women’s fiction, literary fiction or mystery. If it is written as a romance, our heroine better find true love along the way, but we don’t start the story by saying the heroine wants to find love, so she’ll go to law school and, by the way, she has to win the spelling bee first.
The closest I’ve seen is Maggie Osborne’s Silver Lining. The heroine is asked what she wants and she answers, “a baby.” Not a husband, not to fall in love, but a baby.
So, why is the greatest of human emotions, considered too frivolous to be the driver of a story? Perhaps because that’s the way it is in real life too. We teach our children to be achievers, to build careers, to be good people, but does a mother ever say to her daughter, “Never mind all that stuff. You can fail at school. You can never have a job. I don’t care. Just find your true love.” No, we train for, practice for and strive for career, money, power, and a nice car. Love, the most important factor in life, is supposed to be a by-product.
For all that romances are denigrated as formulaic, I believe they are harder to write than other genres. The writer of a mystery novel can fulfil the premise of the genre by solving the crime. She may choose to develop sub-plots around a love interest, or a family feud, or saving the environment, but these are subplots, not necessary to the genre expectation.
In a romance, we must find true love for the hero and heroine, but we have to do it as an aside. The writer of romance needs at least two plots in every book, the external goal and the love story. The writer of inspirational romance needs three — the initial goal, the love story, and the God story. Not an easy assignment.
So, what do you think, dear readers? Have you ever read a book where the heroine’s stated goal is to find true love? Would you be interested in a heroine who devoted her life to finding a soul-mate?
Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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