Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Writing Romances: The Rising Action

Connie Willis has developed the
"ridden by ordinary problems like how
to get a ride" plot to an art-form.
Rising action in romances usually falls into two categories: shoe-shopping or interpersonal conflict.

Shop-shopping refers to rising action that deals almost entirely with the day of the heroines or heroes: whom they talk to, what they do at work, the jolly times they have with personal friends, their family obligations, etc. etc. etc.

I am not terribly fond of this type of romance, hence my use of "shoe shopping." But it does have its place. When done correctly, it can provide more information about the protagonist; in "realistic" romances, it can ground the protagonist in everyday problems and conflicts. In adventure romances a la Georgette Heyer, "shoe shopping" becomes a series of ongoing exploits: carriage chases, unintentional kidnappings, mistaken identities.

When done poorly, this type of rising action becomes an ongoing check-list of stuff to do that leads nowhere: I did laundry, then I went to visit my grandmother, then I saw my friends. I read one fantasy romance where the female protagonist stopped worrying about the end of the world, so she could go to the mall to shop for clothes--which is not too different from the old-fashioned suspense novels in which the heroine sets aside worrying about the murderous ghost who wants to eat her brains because she has to stay and wash the floors of the haunted mansion. Seriously?

Of course, if the ghosts are like this, she should stay!
Generally speaking, I prefer interpersonal conflict because (1) it keeps the heroes/heroines and heroes center stage; (2) it keeps the rising action from turning into a list of things to do.

I am, however, completely opposed to the Ross-Rachel approach to rising action: continuous, ongoing, boring fights. They remind me of a great comment in a review of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. The reviewer points out the childishness of the main characters. When they discover they were "manipulated" by their friends into getting together, they should thank their friends, not have another fight, full of personal offense.

No, no, not this.
Some of the best romances I've read were quiet in their rising action--more similar to Persuasion than to Pride & Prejudice. Don't get me wrong, within the "arguing couple" genre, Pride & Prejudice is one of the best (the arguments aren't simply manufactured; they rest on real misunderstandings). But the quieter Persuasion is in some ways more satisfactory since Anne and Captain Wentworth are continually interacting, overcoming their past assumptions and rethinking their futures. When I wrote my Persuasion tribute with Mrs. Clay and Mr. Elliott, I attempted the same approach. No fireworks, simply a slow recognition of mutual attraction and compatible personalities.

Although, again, I prefer the latter (interpersonal conflict) to the former ("shoe shopping") approach, both forms of rising action can work. Within manga/light novels: 
  • Only the Ring Finger Knows by Satoru Kannagi is a well-written example of "arguing couples" and ongoing misunderstandings that revolve around a series of activities: tests, school fairs, and jobs. One of the few "shoe shopping" series I like. 
  • Cat Sebastian's Ruin of the Rake is a good example of "slowly getting to know each other." This book is definitely all about the interpersonal relationship. Although stuff happens (as a plot requires), it happens not as a series of activities but as a set of consequences predicated on previous behavior. 
  • Captive Prince by Pacat--like S by Aiki--is an example of "slowly getting to know each other" despite the background of ongoing action: "shoe shopping [with swords]" and interpersonal combined.
Advice for Romance Writers: whether you choose shoe-shopping, arguing, or getting to know each other, make sure the rising action RISES. Classic plots must move forward.