Good Tricks from Trashy Novels
This article belongs to The Writing Life—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly column.
I recently did something that I said I would never do. That I looked down on others for doing. Whenever the topic arose in public, I would smile encouragingly all the while feeling inwardly superior for not stooping so low. Yet, last week it happened. I read a romance novel. And not only did I like it, but I found how it could aid with writing as well.
Lesson 1—Incorporating Historical Details
Perhaps it's the writing style, but I have found that historical information in literary novels often bores me. And it is not because the information itself does not have merit; it just fails to sing in the presentation. This is not the case, however, in the romance novel I read. Rather than provide pages upon pages of details minus any asides, the author weaved the facts into the text, allowing the reader to see the people, landmarks, and way of life of the time period (in this case
Lesson 2—Character Development
Creating a diary for your main characters, putting them in uncomfortable situations and seeing how they would react, determining everything from their favorite lip color to their most rewarding and embarrassing moments. I had done it all, and in the end figured out each of their quirks—both lovable and annoying. And, snobby me, had felt that evidence of such extensive character exploration would not be present in a romance book. After all, I remembered the novels my friends and I read (or rather the risqué parts of the novels) back in junior high—our version of Playboy. None of these books focused on character development—unless you count the heroine first objecting to the hero's/scoundrel's advances and then, finally, giving in to her passions. Yet, here I was reading of Annabelle's transformation and struggle with her feelings. Yes, like the romance novels of my youth, she hated a man she later realized she loved (or didn't hate as much) but the story slowly evolved and made her emotions real. Furthermore, little details—such as what she wore—gave insight into her personality as well. And, it didn't stop there. The "scoundrel" was not one dimensional either. His dialogue, actions, and interaction with other characters revealed his troubled childhood, his ability to care for Annabelle, and kind nature. Passion was not the main driving force here; this man's substance caused Annabelle to fall for him. Quite a step up from the pure sexfest of sagas past.
Lesson 3—Plot Development
OK, I'm not going to say it ran deep here, but I did learn something about basic plot elements. Give the character a desire, create someone/something (this book had both) who/which stands in the way of the character getting what s/he wants, tease the reader into thinking the character will succeed, intensify the want and what stands in the way, solve the problem. Like I said, these are the basics. However, we so often lose sight of this formula. We forget to make our readers crave the solution by giving the characters what they want too quickly and easily, or we create so many subplots that the reader no longer cares if the characters get their desires met. In this reading adventure, the plot did not waver, the climax was heightened, and even when the characters got what they wanted, there was still more to come.
I am proud of myself for overcoming my prejudices (especially after I got on my soapbox about people accepting YA books). While I do not consider the romance genre as literary, it does have its merits, and I will admit that it's come a long way from similar books of 20 years ago. Will I put these books on my Amazon.com wishlist? Nope. Will I read one again? Sure. A fun read is a fun read, and one that can remind you how to focus on the basic writing elements you may have forgotten, is that much better. But, to prevent the same disdainful looks I once gave people, don't fault me if hide the cover behind a known classic.