Saturday, August 12, 2017

Writing Romances: Start with the Problem

Nausicaa begins with the main
character in literal flight.
Manga can teach writers a lot about what makes a story work.

First, manga teaches writers to establish the story's problem early on.

Good genre literature starts with a problem: aliens, a dead body, unreciprocated love, etc. etc. In the world of television episodes, this is the action before the series's intro, like all those patients who fall ill in the 5 minutes before the House theme song comes on.

One of the powers of manga is that the story, by necessity, must begin with action. Think again of House and all the talky scenes that take place in hallways--"Let's walk!" Generally speaking, if it is a visual, it needs to incorporate light and the appearance of movement. The average manga starts with something-happening.

Some stories require context--where and who and what. An introduction that can provide background, action, and problem is best. Although most of Blue Morning takes place when Akihito is a young man of 17/18, the series starts with ten-year-old Akihito arriving at his family's home for the first time: the tension between Akihito and the family butler Katsuragi is established in those opening pages.

How a character deals with an opening problem can also provide context. Rabbit Man, Tiger Man starts with Uzuki saving Nonami, which will greatly complicate his life from that point on. We know Uzuki is a doctor because he knows how to tend Nonami's wounds and where to go to get the proper supplies. We know Nonami is potentially dangerous because, well, guys who lie bleeding in alleys yet instruct their helpers not to call for help for fear of reprisals generally are dangerous.

The basic rule of plot: revealing the
secret is more interesting than hiding it.
The story's opening is all about pushing the action forward--what gets the ball rolling? Kare First Love starts with a non-propitious meeting between Karin and Kiriya, establishing several volumes of misunderstandings. Hana-Kimi begins with Mizuki already established in a boy's school as a girl-disguised-as-a-boy; she leaves the reader in no doubts as to why she is there and for whom. Maiden Rose begins in the middle of a battle. (And there's the tank!)

Rule 1 for Romance Writers: start with action.

Lisa Kleypas's Devil in Winter begins with the heroine standing in the rake hero's office informing him that she wishes them to marry, so she can get away from her horrible relatives. Great! Let's hit the ground running!

Other romances are equally effective, but some, unfortunately, employ what I call the "boring biographical approach"--those biographies that begin with "So-and-so was born in year 18__ in the town of R__ to parents Mildred and Rufus So-and-so. The family line goes back to . . ."


Start by giving me a little vignette, a insight into the person's life. Give me a reason to learn the boring stuff.

Likewise, good romances, like good mysteries, start with a reason for us to worry or fear or delight or ponder about the main character's next actions. The vignette doesn't have to be melodramatic--it can be as quiet as Only the Ring Finger Knows, which begins with Wataru listening to a friend complain about Kazuki whom he will soon meet at the water fountain. Or Apple & Honey: His Rose-Colored Life which begins with Natsuki contemplating what a strange extroverted guy his boyfriend is.

Even Maiden Rose actually begins quite quietly at a train station (the battle scenes occur within 3 pages). But the quietness is belied by the tension between the characters. Why are they meeting? What does their relationship entail? What will happen to it next?

To be continued: The problem itself . . .