Sunday, November 20, 2011

Groundhog Day: The Romance Novel Way

In the classic comedy with Bill Murray, a weatherman is forced to relive Groundhog Day over and over until he gets it right.

I feel as though I've been reading that premise, over and over.

I'm a little peevish about this because it deals with my current bugaboo: external conflict. I got a rejection recently from an editor who read the whole of Blackjack & Moonlight and said, "There’s never a difficult choice or insurmountable obstacle in front of them, nothing at stake, and at no point am I brought to the point where I doubt the inevitability of their happy-ever-after."

(By way of rebuttal, here's a beta-reader's comment, which I received weeks before the rejection: "As is true with most books of this type, you realize that you are near the end, in your gut you know that the story has to work out, but you can't see how it can happen in only a few pages." Does it strengthen my argument or undercut it to tell you that this particular beta-reader doesn't normally read romances?)

Anyway, the archetype of external conflict is Romeo & Juliet (or, if that's too distant an example, how about Twilight?). Huge barriers keep the lovers apart, and yet they come together. Okay, so in R&J they [spoiler alert] both die, and in Twilight, well, I'll admit I stopped reading after Book Two, so I'm not sure, but it seems like Bella should have a tough time surviving the consummation of her love for Edward.

I write about urban professionals, however, and I base them in part on urban professionals I know, have worked with, or might have some resemblance to. What I've observed is that smart people can solve their external problems a lot faster and more easily than the problems they've made for themselves.

In other words, smart people can screw up their own lives more efficiently than anything rational I can throw at them from the outside.

What? Oh, right. Groundhog Day.

Here's the pattern of a book I started recently. Heroine is a child prodigy musician who gave it all up years ago and is now running a bar she bought. Hero is a rock musician coming back to record years after quitting when a band member died. When the book starts, the hero comes into her bar & orders a drink he doesn't bother to drink, all the while thinking about how attractive she is. He leaves. He comes in the next day, orders the drink, talks to the heroine briefly, thinks how attracted to her he is, leaves. Comes in a third day, orders the drink, talks a bit more to the heroine, thinks about her, leaves.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Eventually she gives him the only one of her CDs he doesn't have (because he couldn't get it used on Amazon, presumably). He admits to himself that he decided to record the come-back album in this particular town because of the heroine.

Sorry, what was the conflict again? I'll admit it, I gave up at that point. I was supposed to believe these two people were locked in a situation that prevented them from having anything to do with each other, but clearly that wasn't what was happening. What was happening was Groundhog Day without any self-awareness.

I ask a bit more of my characters than illustrating that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

A book I'm reading now isn't quite so bad, but it shares the quality of assuming that if the characters repeat to themselves that ONE reason they can't give in to the attraction they feel for the other person, we readers will understand how vitally important it is for them never, ever to think they can be together. (I think the hero's reason is that the heroine is Italian. Yeah, like I'm moved to tears by his plight.)

The point of the movie is that eventually Bill Murray's character learns that he has to do things differently. Learning to modify the ways we trip ourselves up--that's not an automatic, one slap-to-the-forehead-is-all-it-takes, realization. And I know a lot of people who never get there. (I used to say of a relative that he kept hoping the airlines would lose his emotional baggage, but it never happened.)

I agree with the editor that it's nice when a book has believable external conflict, but I only like those stories when the conflict isn't something the characters are unable to see, won't acknowledge, are idiots about, or need an outside agency to fix magically. Having the hero and heroine stub their toes on an issue over and over again without thinking, "I should try a different path," that's just dumb.

I'll take smart over dumb every day of the week.

Edited to add: This post prompted some loving concern from good friends--and really, if your loving friends can't tell you when you've posted the equivalent of toilet paper stuck to your shoe, who can?--that I come across here as  a bitter crone  a holier-than-thou smartypants  an arrogant know-it-all  all of the above in this post.

So here's a confession: I don't know how to do this right. I don't believe anything I wrote here is "more right" than what I wrote in this post on how everyone's entitled to love what they love. I didn't intend to suggest that anyone who loves books in which the characters bumble about in a lovably dorky way is wrong to love those books. It's much more likely I'm writing the "wrong" books than that any of you is reading the "wrong" books. And that's without the obvious fact that there are no "wrong" books, just (maybe) a bad fit between the reader and the book.

Here's the irony: I wrestle with this issue. The balance between me as a member of Romlandia, as an individual reader, and as a writer--I don't have an answer how to get that balance right. I'll admit it: it's an internal conflict that I can't work my way through. Several times today I arrived at the following as the bedrock truth:
I just don't know.
So, yup you got it: a post defending smart internal conflict over dubious external conflict ended up making me admit I haven't got all my own internal conflict worked though. Which means if this were a romance, there'd be no HEA!

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