Tuesday, March 24, 2009

In The Beginning

I recently got a query from a writer with an age-old question:


Figuring out where and when to start the story is always a challenge for me, and then sorting out the rest of the mess afterwards.

I’ve gone back and re-read two of your pertinent posts from Alien Romance blog-




If there are more, I missed them. Both were enormously helpful, along with Blake Snyder’s book and all the lessons I’ve accumulated on structuring a story.

Here’s my dilemma-

The story is a Science Fiction Romance, specifically for Young Adults. The story is driven by the Heroine. She starts the fire she can’t put out. I know when, where, and how. The whole story is there. As it is, the Hero doesn’t come in until at least chapter three. The first person I meet after the Heroine is the Villain. I’m told that’s a no-no in the Romance genre. The main plot is the conflict started by them with the Hero coming in with his own agenda which happens to mesh with hers. The Hero’s goal proves unattainable and by the end he’s assumed a partnership with the Heroine in resolving her conflict. The final scene is them resolving to attain his goal next. Somehow, this doesn’t all seem compatible with genre conventions and I’m not sure how to sort it out. I think I’ve mentioned I always write in Threes - Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. I didn’t realize that until you pointed it out to me long time ago. Maybe my solution is already here, but I just can’t see it.

Any advice, articles, or books to suggest?


OK let's work this problem.

It's of the SFR genre. Linnea Sinclair recently led a hot discussion on goodreads.com in the Paranormal Romance section about whether SFR belongs in Paranormal or not.

One thing came out of that discussion which has surfaced any number of times in various discussions, and is a firm belief of every professional editor I know.

Romance genre readers of all sub-genres and mixed genre Romance demand an HEA - a Happily Ever After ending.

SF readers demand that the HERO WINS in the end, i.e. attains his goal.

If the Hero loses or can't win definitively, then it's NOT SF. It's most likely HORROR GENRE because Horror genre requires an equivocal ending at best. The hero must survive, but NOT PREVAIL.

That is the essential difference between Star Trek and Space 1999, for example.

Star Trek portrayed a universe in which human competence would not only survive but prevail. Love prevails. In Space 1999, the game is rigged against the heros and the most they can do is survive.

Most of the fiction marketed as SF on TV is actually not SF but Horror.

Horror Romance became a kind of genre too -- Jurassic Park for example. The Vampire Romance started out as horror, too.

When you mix two genres, the strongest will prevail, if they're not equal.

When you experience horror in real life, your libido is temporarily shunted out of the brain circuitry and survival takes over.

So there are certain mixtures of genre that won't "work" one way, but do work another. You can have Horror with a romance in it. But you can't have Romance with real Horror Genre in it. (horrible things can happen in a Romance, but they're in the story, not the plot).

Romance is about a mood, as is Horror.
Fiction that breaks mood isn't enjoyable. So Horror and Romance don't mix well. Note that in Vampire Romance, the mixture quickly took the genre way out of the Horror genre by morphing the Vampire into the Good Guy Vampire.

The mixing of SF and Romance though is a natural combination where either can be the dominant force. Which you want to dominate depends on which audience you want to reach.

In the case of YA, it's a judgement call that changes as fast as teens change their minds.

However, I suspect that the Romance will have a bigger teen audience than the SF because that's the trend in the world.

Luckily for crafting the beginning of this novel we're discussing, both SF and Romance demand that the HERO SUCCEED IN THE END just as the Romance demands an HEA.

Now the title of this piece is In The Beginning -- so why am I starting by harping on the Ending?

Because the ending is implicit in the beginning.

You can't craft a beginning without determining the ending.

That doesn't mean the writer has to know the ending before starting to write. It means that when you get done writing, the ending has to match the beginning. The conflict started on page 1 must be resolved on the last page.
The middle, likewise is determined by the beginning and/or the ending. The three points in the novel must match each other AND the genre template or trope.

Using the knowledge of how the beginning, middle and end must relate to each other, you can arrange almost any story into almost any genre. It all depends on WHERE you begin the story!

So let's assume this story really is a YA SFR story.

That means that the ENDING must satisfy two separate but compatible criteria

a) it must be an HEA (the couple must march off into the sunrise holding hands)

b) it must have the HERO SUCCEED at his original goal set out on page 1.

c) both endings require the MIDDLE be the lowest point in both their lives

d) with a low middle and high ending, that means the BEGINNING must be a high point in their lives, full of hope and anticipation of easily attaining good things in life. HOPE and CONFIDENCE are the Beginning keynotes in both genres.

The story description says:

The Hero’s goal proves unattainable and by the end he’s assumed a partnership with the Heroine in resolving her conflict.

AND THERE IS THE ERROR that makes it so hard to "sort" this story into the YA SFR genre.

"the hero's goal proves unattainable"

To be SF, it must be proven attainable, and in fact in the end attained.

THEREFORE, change the hero's goal, or change whatever is preventing the attainment. Or change his goal at the mid-point where he attains goal #1 but is not satisfied and sets out after goal #2.

The formula you need here to blend the SF and the Romance is really simple but it may mean changing your characters.

In a Romance, the CONFLICT is always between the Hero and the Heroine -- they define the axis of conflict.

One hot romance formula involves the two of them after the same limited resource and fighting for it (such as two people who want the same promotion).

Another involves hate-at-first-sight (Sharon Green does this marvelously well).

Another involves a fated attraction to each other in conflict with career paths that demand they live in different places (bi-coastal romances) or that one travel incessantly ( marrying a rock star).

That's why the hero and the heroine must meet pretty much in chapter one, if not paragraph one of a romance -- they are the conflict axis. The story begins where the conflict does. The plot begins where the conflict does.

The formula for crafting an opening of any story is simply that the story starts where the elements that will conflict to generate the plot first come in contact.

The essence of story is conflict. All STORY ENDINGS require that the conflict started on page 1 be RESOLVED on the last page.

That's true even in horror genre where the resolution is that there is no resolution. Note that in one of her posts to http://www.aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/ Linnea Sinclair who writes SF Romance mixed genre pointed out that one of her biggest plotting challenges was to craft (in the space of one book) two endings right on top of each other -- the SF ending and the Romance ending.

Let's try to achieve that here.

So if this is actually YA Horror (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer) then the ENDING of this story is the point where the Hero realizes his goal is unattainable, and the heroine is walking off into the sunset by herself. The horror ending can be left dangling like that -- we don't know if he'll go after her and offer that partnership.

Such a horror ending goes well with a first person narrative so that in the end the reader has to decide if they were the hero would they go after her or not.
Yet another way to organize a story around a hero who has set himself a goal which is unattainable is to revise the goal so that it is unattainable BY HIM or by himself alone.

It may be that he needs help. Or that he needs the specific help of the heroine (with whom he does not get along! At all.)

So that in order to attain his goal he must confess his emotional vulnerability to the woman whom he fears the most, whose rath unmans him, whose goal is to destroy him, whose power exceeds his by orders of magnitude (the gladiator to the princess). That's the essence of intimate adventure.

So the Hero's story STARTS with him swearing a sacred oath to do THIS or die trying.

The MIDDLE (of the book and the hero's story) is where he realizes that he can't do this -- not that THE GOAL IS UNATTAINABLE but that HE CAN'T ATTAIN IT.) He is foresworn. For that to mean anything, the first half of the book has to show don't tell why his oath, his word of honor, or his self-esteem is rooted wholly in attaining this goal all by himself, on his own, without help. The psych profile has to be shown dramatically in backstory about why he refuses to accept help from anyone, least of all HER.

The END of the Hero's story is his ATTAINING HIS GOAL -- but usually, by that time the goal isn't very important to him. It's an afterthought. An anti-climax. A loose end to wrap up in a denoument.

The beginning of the Heroine's story is where she meets the Hero and swears to herself (or her confidant) (or maybe to the hero) that she will marry this man, nab him for herself despite the competition, that HE IS HER GOAL.

The middle of her story (and of the book) is where she realizes she can never have him, and if she got him she wouldn't want him because he's so wrapped up in his stupid goal that he can't see her for his own ego. It's over. (maybe this is where she's been kidnapped and held for a ransom that will not be paid so she decides to throw her life away trying to escape rather than betray all she holds dear. In fact, you may have put the event that belongs in the MIDDLE of her story at the BEGINNING of his story -- you may have to slide one story against the other until their peaks and valleys match.)

She escapes by her own intelligence, trickiness, whatever character trait contrasts starkly with whatever character trait has the Hero obsessing on HIS OWN GOAL. Her character trait that lets her escape the Villain has to be the one trait he thinks he hates about her but it is really what has him head over heels in love with her.

So, meanwhile, he's given up pursuing his personal goal and is heading in to rescue her at considerable self sacrifice for abandoning his goal.

The end of HER STORY is where the Hero confesses his innermost fears to her, his pain at losing his goal, the destruction of his Identity and sense of Honor, thus proving he's not that egotistical he couldn't turn into a real husband with a little work.

Now here's where plotting comes in. The sequence of events, the things each of them does that causes the other to do something, the because line, has to end in a situation where His rescuing Her (even though she's escaped of her own accord which probably makes him mad) actually presents him with his unattainable goal.

Neither one of them has done anything directly to CAUSE this goal to be attained. It's an ACT OF GOD that the goal drops into his lap. And the ironic twist of High Drama is that it no longer seems so important to him.

That makes the theme LOVE CONQUERS ALL which is the theme of the genre Romance. Romance is Divine, an Act of God.

They are soul mates. All this tangled plot is the finger of God tying the knot in their lives.

Do you think you can let go of some element that came to you with this story idea in order to craft the idea into an SFR YA?

Post a new summary if you decide to rearrange the story, or let me know when you sell this thing.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


Kimber Li said...

Oh, boy, do I have a lot of work to do with this one.

The good news is I don't have as much work to do in organizing a new story as I used to before I learned about structuring stories. The whole process is much easier and faster.

Considering all the elements of this story and this dazzling post crammed full of wisdom, I think my next step is to very deliberately sit down and sort out each main character's goals and motivations, how they rank, and how the relate to each other. Then, I'll see where each element needs to go and if any nudging needs to be done to make it work.

'Cause, the unattainable goal isn't his primary goal at the beginning or throughout the story. His primary goal is to rescue his sister from the bad guys. It's only when he recruits the Heroine's help (she also loved the sister) does he realize she also holds the key to 'setting him free.' And then he wants that too, and very badly.

You know, I buy all white socks for my family so I don't have to do so much sorting in Real Life.

Kimber Li said...

Here's another article which is really helping-


Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

I see the link Kimber An posted didn't come through very well.

Here it is again.


I may have crammed too much about beginnings into too small a space. Ask and I'll expand.

As for multiple goals -- TEST EACH GOAL AGAINST THE THEME and discard any goal that doesn't artistically match the theme.

Each goal has to say something about the theme, argue the point the thematic statement makes.

But the first goal you introduce on page 1 has to be the MAIN GOAL, the IMPORTANT ONE, that is achieved on the last page.

It is OK for a protag to be confused about his own personal, subconscious, motivations -- and to yell a lot about a goal that isn't his real goal.

BUT the READER MUST NOT BE CONFUSED or the reader will be disappointed and not experience HEA.

I did have another structural thought about this story material.

It is entirely possible that the actual NOVEL based on this story description is the novel that starts with the couple charging off into the sunrise to solve HIS problem, after solving hers, but before they've become a real couple.

The entire story described here may actually be BACKSTORY. It could be covered in strategically sprinkled flashbacks and references, some exposition within the narrative.

Most of the story described here is really MOTIVATION, and that's usually backstory.

So maybe the actual novel starts with the "last scene" of this story.

Think about it.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

ps: yes, structure is easier to do before you have actually drafted a piece, and even easier still before you've outlined a piece!

Kimber Li said...

The key paragraph in the workshop protagonist article was this one-

"The action the POV character chooses at that MOMENT OF TRUTH will
define the character's MAIN TRAIT, the PLOT, and the THEME. Those
are the elements that weave together into an OPENING SCENE. Without
those elements, you can't construct a NARRATIVE HOOK."

This is also of critical importance for me at this stage of development-

"As for multiple goals -- TEST EACH GOAL AGAINST THE THEME and discard any goal that doesn't artistically match the theme.

Each goal has to say something about the theme, argue the point the thematic statement makes.

But the first goal you introduce on page 1 has to be the MAIN GOAL, the IMPORTANT ONE, that is achieved on the last page."

As for the backstory stuff, it does seem like this is a series in the making. Series are popular with my younger friends, so that's good. I also love series, as a reader and a writer. I'm hugely character-driven in both respects. I get emotionally attached and have a hard time letting go.

I think series only go wrong when the author (or movie-maker) only creates a sequel because the first story did so well, and there isn't actually enough 'meat' to serve a second big story.

The couple in this story is young (19.) Although it ends with a secure feeling that they will live happily ever after, the fact is their romance has just gotten off to a solid start. Like most 19 year olds, they're not ready to settle down with the white picket fence and make babies all over the place like I've done at 40.

ozambersand said...

I am confused a bit between the use of the words Hero and the Heroine in your original post Jacqueline.
"SF readers demand that the HERO WINS in the end, i.e. attains his goal."
Can't the Hero be female? I thought in the original premise the main character was to be the female one? Is this not allowed?
Can't the female lead be a "hero" and the male the "B story" or the sidekick?
"The Hero’s goal proves unattainable and by the end he’s assumed a partnership with the Heroine in resolving her conflict."
Maybe that's what needs re-wording. The main character's goal is attained and that of the sidekick is left hanging to a sequel?
Because, if the roles were reversed, ie story starts with male hero and female appears in Chapter 3, helps male but can't resolve her aim and that's left for later (presumably a sequel) wouldn't that be allowed because it follows genre rules?

Kimber Li said...

That confused me a little too, ozambersand.

The wording makes it sound like the Heroine only cares about landing a husband or at least that's her biggest goal in life. In fact, in this story the Heroine is terrified of becoming romantically involved. Hmmm, perhaps some clarification on the point would help us both. I'm easily mixed up on sorting such things out.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

I wrote a long answer to you both and blogger refused to post it. (and this is my blog, too!) I didn't keep a copy before clicking post this time.

I highly recommend highlighting and copying what you've typed in the comment box before trying to post it.

I'll try again tomorrow.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

ozambersand said...

Lol, I've learnt that one from hard experience. I write long ones in Word and copy them across now.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...


"Hero" and 'Heroine" in this discussion of structural clues to finding the opening of a story are actually genderless words.

These are "parts" the "characters" play, not people. They are mechanical components which act to produce the plot.

You wrote:
Because, if the roles were reversed, ie story starts with male hero and female appears in Chapter 3, helps male but can't resolve her aim and that's left for later (presumably a sequel) wouldn't that be allowed because it follows genre rules?

Well, if that happens, it means you started the story in the wrong place.

Don't forget there are other tools (sophisticated ones like flashback, flashforward, exposition, symbolism, foreshadowing) to bring the elements that appear as plot movers in one place, up to the beginning.

Note MZB's opening to HERITAGE OF HASTUR -- the whole story is symbolized by the formally arrayed horseback party, banners flying, cresting the rise and looking down on Thendara and the TWO TOWERS -- symbol of the entire conflict.

It takes a few pages to get to that image, but look how long the book is.

It was runner up for the Hugo and there's a big story in that.

Study openings that make your toes curl because you can (with writer's eyes) SEE THE SYMBOLISM WORKING ON THE READER'S SUBCONSCIOUS.

Internalize that, and your subconscious will produce openings like that.

The goal of the exercises in this blog are not to gain conscious control over your writing craft, but to sink that control down into the subconscious where it will be used to synthesize new story ideas.


Kimber An wrote:
In fact, in this story the Heroine is terrified of becoming romantically involved. Hmmm, perhaps some clarification on the point would help us both.

Ah, well, the "goal" is still landing the guy, it's just that the H doesn't know it, or thinks her goal is the opposite of what it is.

Very often, good characters who will "arc" or change through the story events start out thinking the opposite of what they end up thinking.

That's good writing.

But you see, when the H's PROTEST TOO MUCH, then the reader understands their REAL goal even though the character doesn't, and roots for that REAL GOAL, and suspense is created by the writer playing on the character's ignorance of their own subconscious conflicts.

Readers love that stuff. Try it. You'll like it, too.

What the H fears, hates, loathes, rejects, with excessive potenency at the opening - that defines the GOAL for the reader. If you, as writer, fail to deliver that goal, the reader will be disappointed, but might not know why.

Think about the Anita Blake series, all the books. What Anita flatly refused to do at risk of her life in the first book, she's doing easily by the 10th book or so.

That's why the series has lasted so long, despite some not-too-well-crafted intermediate books. Anita started out with a huge laundry list of things she'd NEVER EVER do. So it's a long series.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Kimber Li said...

Okay, that works. I get it. Thank you!

Kimber Li said...

Thanks so much for all this, Jacqueline. It's been hugely helpful!

My next step is going through the story to see what's missing and what doesn't need to be there. Then, it'll be time for research and world-building.

Kimber Li said...

P.S. I received another request for the Full manuscript of the previous story, MANIC KNIGHT, just yesterday.