It was the first day of ballroom class. Sweat formed on my brow as I glanced around the studio with mirrored walls and wooden floor at the other dancers who were warming up for the class, swinging their partners around with perfect posture and poise. No one could believe that I wasn’t there to prepare for a wedding or a formal dance, and that I had actually come with my girlfriend of my own volition just because I’d wanted to.
I was in my mid-twenties, and I had recently fallen in love with Fred Astaire movies. The way Fred would dance so gracefully and swing Ginger around the dance floor was nothing
short of magical, not to mention extremely romantic. So naturally when my girlfriend had told me that she had coupons for free dance lessons at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio, I jumped at the chance. This was my big opportunity to literally sweep her off her feet.
But dreams aren’t always reality as I quickly realized less than five minutes into the class. Dancing with my girlfriend, although with correct hand position on her body and mirroring the correct steps, I plodded with her around the wooden floor like an elephant dancing with a goose. I concluded that we were just both bad dancers and there was nothing that could ever change that. That was until the instructor with a stick frame and tight derriere came over and took my place. “You are not leading her,” he told me, strongly emphasizing the word “leading.” He then proceeded to lead her with the same steps that he had taught me and I was amazed at how my girlfriend suddenly looked like Ginger Rogers on the dance floor! What had made the difference? It was as he said, “Leading!”
Years later, as I reflect on that experience and compare it with writing the romantic story, I find that the same strategy can be applied. In many ways, the fiction writer does a kind of couple’s dance with the reader. The reader opens the cover, or turns on the e-reader, with a complete trust that the writer is going to lead him or her through a fantastic story. If that trust is violated, the reader easily finds another novel where they might be led by a more masterful dancer.
So in keeping with the metaphor, I would like to suggest five goals that I always want to keep in mind when writing my stories, and suggest to you, dear writer, a way of leading and romancing your reader with the grace and poise of a ballroom dancer. These five goals lead the reader through each stage of the romantic experience, as if the writer were sharing the following poetic words of love:
- Fly away with me.
- Love, laugh, and cry with me.
- Commune with me.
- Trust me.
- Believe with me.
- 1. Fly away with me: Immersing the reader in another world.
When writing the romantic story, it’s my job to whisk my readers away into a place where dreams come alive and the possibility of love is all around them. To this end, I want to use detailed descriptive language in the world I create for them, using all five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Of course, these descriptions should match the actions and perspective of the main character. From the hero or heroine’s point-of-view, it may not be necessary to describe absolutely everything, but rather only what the characters are focusing on. I want to paint pictures with words so that the whole scene comes alive to the reader with vivid imagery.
Some challenges I find with this goal is the necessity to be accurate, especially with the historical or contemporary romance. For instance, in my current novel, I use my imagination to make my island paradise come to life in a way that is surreal and ethereal, but I also want to be accurate with details of the culture and lifestyle of my exotic location. If I am inaccurate, savvy readers will pick up on that and be turned off.
- 2. Love, laugh, and cry with me: Expressing emotions and passion through my characters.
Ultimately, the romance story is about the reader being able to live vicariously through our characters and experience every high and low emotion involved in falling in love. I want my readers to empathize so closely with my hero or heroine that they are able to experience powerful emotions of joy, freedom, laughter, excitement, and sensuality, but equally as important, suffering, pain, loss, heartache, sorrow, and grief.
The principle of show-don’t-tell comes to mind for this goal. A sentence like “she cried” can become “her heart broke in pieces like shattered glass as tears gushed down her face in torrents.” In this way, readers get a better sense of the character’s emotion, and if I can empathize with this emotion from the bottom of my heart, the way an actor would imagine a scene, I can project that onto the page.
One challenge I find with this goal is simply over-doing it. I often worry if my reader would be turned off by a character who cries too much, laughs too much, or reaches the emotional breaking point before the reader labels him or her as pathetic and no longer worth following. Is there a limit to how a character expresses him or herself? Perhaps the answer is in the character’s personality, which brings me to my next goal.
- 3. Commune with me: Using dialogue to express characters’ personalities, intentions, and emotions.
Dialogue is essential in almost every fiction story, but it seems to be more prevalent in the romance story where the relationships between characters are paramount. With this in mind, I need to know my characters so well that I know how they would react in any given situation. For example, how would my heroine react to a spontaneous kiss by someone she is mildly attracted to but just met? Would she kiss him back, stiffen up and open her eyes wide, or smack him hard across the cheek? Then what would she say?
How they react and what they say depends largely on how well we know our characters’ personalities inside and out. I find this a great challenge. Perhaps one way to solve this problem is to take a psychological test online, like the Myers-Briggs test, with our characters in mind in order to understand how they would react in different situations. This information could then be used to keep us on track with their reactions, especially in dialogue. A good author friend of mine understands her characters so well that she knows what kind of music they would or wouldn’t listen to. Now that’s knowing your characters!
Beyond knowing my characters’ personalities for the romantic story, I find it helpful to have a strong understanding of male-female relationships. Being able to draw from experience is one of the best qualities a romance writer can bring to the story, but is it possible to have experienced everything our characters encounter? This is also a challenge, but can be overcome by learning from others. Everyone around us can become our trainers in this mission as they share their stories of love, joy, sorrow, and pain. I find that I need to understand many different aspects of the ups and downs of relationships so well that I can translate that emotion through dialogue and description onto the page.
When these techniques are working together well, my reader can more closely empathize with the characters, major or minor, and feel like he or she is part of the story.
- 4. Trust me: Keep the reader guessing and in suspense.
What makes a story so exciting and riveting that the reader can’t put it down? One of the elements that lead to this kind of success is suspense. This is more than just cliff-hanger endings to chapters, although that is important, too. This is about keeping the tension as tight as possible on several levels with not only the hero and heroine, but also with many characters’ lives connected to one another. In order to make this work, good planning of the plot ahead of time is essential. The writer needs to know how it’s all going to turn out in the end and then lead the reader along a path toward that goal, making the reader guess and discover the answers along the way.
Another aspect of this is foreshadowing. I want my readers to discover something that they realize has already been projected in the past, in a dream, or in a vision of the story. Smart readers can pick up on these clues and guess, sometimes correctly, about how the plot is going to play out, but I don’t want my reader to say that the story was predictable. It may have been predictable that the hero and heroine would be together in the end, but exactly how that’s going to happen when they are constantly kept apart by circumstances beyond their control is part of the tension.
A challenge I find with this aspect is keeping the tension throughout. I have a tendency to fall in love with my characters and the exotic location and forget that there’s a story going on, one that needs to grasp the reader and keep her completely enthralled with what is happening and keep her guessing. This is my goal – to keep my reader on the edge of his or her seat until the climactic ending.
- 5. Believe with me: Touching the reader’s heart.
Although every writer varies on the message that he or she is trying to convey to the reader, I want my readers to experience the positive, powerful, and touching message that love has the power to conquer all obstacles in its path. I want my reader to believe in the mysterious serendipity that is working behind the scenes, bringing the hero and heroine together against almost impossible odds.
In addition, I also want to make my characters real and non-stereotypical, especially the main characters, with real hurts, real problems that we all face so that readers can empathize deeply with the characters’ plight and cheer when there is victory over it.
The challenge with this is making sure that the message is not preachy or hokey. It must be visible throughout the story, in symbolism, in character interactions, and in the emotions and feelings that we convey. In the end, I want to both touch and wow my reader. This is a lofty goal and one that I hope can be accomplished through persistent writing and rewriting.
In order to romance the reader by leading her through the romantic story, I have stated five goals that I have set for myself as the writer. As Tom Cruise made famous in the romantic comedy Jerry Maguire, “It’s just a mission statement.” Therefore, these goals only provide a framework for which I can judge my own work to see whether or not the story is effective. To be effective, the romance writer must lead the reader, gently by the hand, firmly around the waist, with the confidence, posture, and poise of a ballroom dancer. Only then will our readers become swept up in the story, laughing and crying with us, falling in love with our characters, and ingesting the significance of our story into their whole being.
To learn more about Dave Goodlove, please visit Meet the Contributors.