what I’ve learnt about writing (and life, probably) from reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Part lll

Love insinuates its way into your life, and you only recognise it for what it is when it’s suddenly not there anymore.

SEP has a particular kind of hero/heroine relationship that goes as follows:

hero is super attractive, has more money/fame/women – all the outward signs of a successful life – than he knows what to do with. He has issues with his family/hometown and is struggling with his internal measure of success against the external signs of it.

Enter our oddball heroine. She might be a tomboy, a social disaster or just pretty unlucky in life. Certainly, by all external markers, not at all in our hero’s league. Some circumstance throws them together so that she starts tagging along in his life, despite a huge lack of willingness on both parts.

Then something starts to happen. She takes him by surprise. Makes him laugh more than all the women he’s surrounded himself with have ever been able to. And because she’s tagging along and he isn’t trying to impress her, she’s also witness to the more vulnerable aspects of his life: relationships he’s struggling with, his true relationship to his success etc. She becomes the one person who truly understands him, and can truly give him comfort/support.

Likewise, being with someone like him makes her reach for things she didn’t think were possible, and she regains a sense of her true worth, and a taste for happiness.

Then there’s the inevitable bust-up and she’s not there anymore. But the problem is, he’s gotten so used to relying on her that her absence now leaves a massive hole where he didn’t think there was one before. Realisation of true love not too far behind.

Now the whole geeky girl gets rockstar hero thing is a pretty standard fantasy (works both ways, too) – standard but still highly effective. But the aspect I want to talk about is this gradual build-up of love, to the point where it is still unacknowledged but essential.

It’s such a very seductive idea. I remember in high school having some loose grasp on the concept, and spending a negligible few hours trying to make myself present in the eyes of some boy, so that I could then turn around and be horrible. The theory was that he would then so miss my previous presence in his life that he would come to his senses about me.

Not the most successful tactic.

My point is, like most romantic fantasies, I’m not sure this one really works in real life. Or you can’t make it work, in any case.

The steady build-up of real love is a really difficult thing to do in fiction. Attraction is relatively easy (though also not always successful) – really feeling like those characters know and need and are irrationally committed to each other, not so easy.

I think as writers we can learn a lot from SEP’s method. By being witness to each other’s lives the characters gain great insight into each other – seeing the vulnerable, the bad and underneath. Or the true and good nature under a bad boy exterior, as the case may be. The fact that love is gradual and unlooked-for also works really well here; the characters aren’t on their best behaviour – they’re not acting for each other, so they get to truly see each other.

She uses the bond of shared experience to build a truthful sense of love. So the question is: What does your hero/heroine think they want in a relationship? Who do they think they have to be in the perfect relationship? What part of their lives would they never want their perfect partner to see? What kind of person would react with passion and compassion when they saw beyond the act? And what kind of person would your hero/ine never consider being with?

I think this formula is useful for any kind of relationship within writing, not just the romantic ones. The most interesting part of a relationship is the tension between who we are and who we think we should be, and how we react when fissures appear.

So: 4. Show relationship development through characters’ exposure to each other’s lives and through an abrupt change in the building dynamic.

Go to Part I, Part II

For anyone who’s interested, the three novels I’ve had most in mind writing this are Heaven, Texas (one of my holiday reads!), Natural Born Charmer, and Match Me If You Can (my favourite Chicago Stars book, though it’s a very close call).

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About anna cowan

I look around, and here I am - housewife and aspiring romance novelist. This seems unexpected.
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