Writer’s Tip: The Qualities of an Ancient Romance

Playful couple at homecoming

Romance, we love them as much as we want them. They inspire us to find the happy zone in our relationships and sooth the savage beasts. But how we aspire to feel in our comings and goings with others can be difficult to translate into a novel. 

Tropes establish the criteria of a romance, but don’t necessarily fulfill the emotional journey a reader craves. The conception of romance writing developed from laying out the desirable qualities of a man and woman before tropes were categorized. It began with a man having the pressure of behaving a certain way when circumstances would lend to his reacting selfishly. 

One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is how often I hold the door open for men. It’s really a test I conduct and I’m surprised by how may males fail. Yes, I am aware about the conflicting feelings felt by mankind on the topic of gender, yet, as a Southern gal, I still find value in chivalry. If nothing else, everyone prefers associating with others who respect their place in life and who are polite and kind, which is exactly why romance novels feed us a dose of healing energy. If we can’t find that civility amongst our social dealings, we certainly can tap into that burst of glory in the well-planned organization of words.  

The Inspiration for Romance

Romance novels solidify the qualities of chivalry. It began with man’s guilt. For eons, as early as pre-historic eras, man sought to find patterns between his choices and natural disasters. Imagine those men in sheepskin leaving offerings at the base of active volcanoes. 

Basically, man felt responsible for the weather and nature’s conditions. With man’s tendency to view the universe as revolving around himself, he developed a fear in nature inflicting natural disasters on him as punishment for his foolishness. If you think about it, this is an incredible amount of pressure for a man to take on. His hometown will be scorched in lava if he kills more rabbits than his family can eat. A tidal wave will crush his neighbors if he thinks about dating a woman who is uninterested in him. 

Cause and Effect

The Greeks clarified the expectation that conducting oneself outside the perimeters of acceptable behavior results in destruction and suffering. By then, man had developed desires outside the instinct to survive. Where man had walked miles to find drinkable water, he then acted on impulses to murder a relative in order to gain a political advantage. He fled responsibilities when faced with temptations, which on the surface seemed selfless and ideal, yet resulted in fate still torturing him. 

Self-Indulgence in Motives

Fate was introduced as the element of life man is unable to control. No matter how practical and disciplined he behaves, fate continues on its pre-ordained course. The underlying message is that man can’t undo what is pre-destined. Thus, he might as well reap and sow to his heart’s content.

Sensuality in Expression

The 12th century French court enjoyed convenience and comfort. By now, life was about more than finding food and running from severe weather. The questions became, what was man to do with his keen intelligence and free time? 

He devised fashions and decorated castles. He planned parties and designed communities. He invented gadgets for improving the standard of living. With all the pruning and prepping, he noticed how much effort a lady put into her appearance and presentation. There were those who adhered to the rules of courtesy and hygiene, and those who stuck with barbaric tactics. 

Rules of Behavior

As the population increased, the need for respect increased. As man’s personal space was encroached upon by another, the more aggressive he became in protecting what he considered to be his stuff, otherwise known as, an extension of himself. The greater his aggressiveness, the more guilt and rules of behavior were piled on to establish which men deserved more leeway in his extensions and which should be limited. 

The more man valued another’s territory, the better they got along. This idealized conduct was emphasized in writing, and the birth of man’s own words describing his relationships with others became simplified into the romance genre with boundaries of chivalry.

Story Arc

Man remained the intelligent survivor he was back in the pre-historic day, yet, his increasing free time left him feeling vacant. He had additional hours where he wasn’t testing his brain. 

Writings shifted from being about the words to telling a story. Narratives altered the purpose of words so that the meanings challenged man’s intellect. British literature provided depth to the medieval narratives by idealizing the  love affair and implementing turning points. They mastered the simplicity of plotting, and stories no longer conceptualized what man viewed as reality. Instead, the stories were meant to elevate the standards of behavior practiced by man. 

Emphasis on Surroundings

The setting plays a strong role in romance novels. Just as the French aristocrats invested their creativity and wealth into decorations and fashion, a romance gives the promise of fantastical descriptions of where the characters meet, live and present their complicated feelings. Where other stories mention what is in the room for the value of the characters having props to carry out their intentions, a romance seasons the scenes with fuzzy blankets and enticing colors. Anything to emphasize the sensory preceptors, and kickstart the hero opening up about how he feels and what he thinks and why he wants things to change. 

Quality of Setting

The surroundings gauge the mood and emotions of us all. A sterile white room reminds us of doctors and medical treatment. An ivory interior at a ski lodge brings on thoughts of staying warm after long hours on the invigorating slopes. 

As you write romance, include the details in the room, those that invoke feelings, good or bad. Whichever emotions the characters are expressing determines the items you bring into focus. At times, you will want to match the comforting textures with the buildup to a trusting relationship. 

Other times, you should contrast the adversarial context with poignant elements around them that emphasis how wrong the situation is. A heated scene with a disagreement between the hero and another is a perfect time to have expensive items to be damaged. You can show how important a feeling is to a character by having his actions take precedent over the value he gives to material things in the extravagant setting.

Quality of Words

The language used, the selection of words and the pattern for organizing the order of those words, creates a romanticized quality. By having the characters speak one way with the sub-characters be in contrast with the way he speaks to the love interest when no one else is listening elevates the significance of his interactions with that one person. 

In general, man’s defenses are lower when his vital life force and standard of living are not threatened. If a stranger breaks in line at the grocery store, it is less of a statement against one’s livelihood than if the love of his life never speaks to him again. The hero will respond to a slight with an exaggerated flare when committed by the woman he is pursuing.

Primitive Guilt Shifts to Judgment

The same way man originally felt guilt for his choices, he evolved to measuring the behavior of others. In a romance, the hero explores how he feels about being slighted. When a stranger is rude, most of us don’t bother to analyze how his behavior relates to our childhood. But to have that one person we believe fulfills a hero’s sense of lack devalue him creates a threat to his concept of wholeness. Where a civilized person ignores a scuff by a person who doesn’t have a value in his life, a romance novel provides a forum for a civilized person to experiment with the outcomes of his expressing a wide range of feelings he isn’t allowed to share in reality.

The romance hero is given a stage where he can safely share his thoughts about the one he loves. He can explain why he is such a klutz when it comes to sentimentality, and justify why he gets confused by her conflicting messages. 

A romance allows the hero to be open with his feelings before he responds to the unfair situations thrust upon him. Keeping these expressive qualities of what created ancient storytelling in mind keeps the romance alive, in books as well as life. 

Steve Kurkjian the Mastermind: Pulitzer Winning Themes

Photo: Kurkjian at The Boston Globe Pulitzer Prize Winners by J. Wilder Bill

Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Master Thieves, Steve Kurkjian on Pulitzer Winning Themes—

While Stephen tirelessly researches and investigations, his recognition wouldn’t have reached such heights without his developing a powerful writing style. He authored a nonfiction book, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, which creates such complex controversies regarding the theories behind the unsolved mystery, it is being made into a movie.

Purpose of the Theme

Kurkjian takes responsibility as a journalist by informing the public of what it lost as a result of the art theft. His objective in writing the book creates his theme and ties the subplots together. He shares a personal curiosity about the theft because his father was an artist. He identifies with the value of history being taken away due to his ancestors surviving the Armenian genocide. He dedicated his life to bringing awareness to the public for the purpose of demanding justice.

Which qualities in a writer do you consider most critical in creating a story with an impact?

Ernest Hemingway, who began his writing career as a reporter with the Toronto Star, said in an interview years later that working for a newspaper can make someone a better writer but they have to have “quit” in time. By that, I am thinking he meant that if the reporter wants to become a creative writer they must give up the standards/principles that journalism is based on and depend on a different set of tools in capturing the readers’ attention. 

Whereas Fairness and thoroughness are needed in journalism, imagination is the essential element – and determination the difference-maker between success and failure – of the creative writer. (I recall an interview with Bruce Springsteen in which Ted Koppel asked him now that he was successful and well-to-do, how would Bruce write those songs which were so vivid about the underclass and the downtrodden. Only a hint of his songs stemmed from real-life experience, Bruce responded, the rest was pure imagination and the gifts of language and song.) I like to tell the journalism students whom I teach that they should have no illusion they are artists – we’re craftsmen, and –women. Your siblings who are cooks, ballet dancers or woodworkers are the artists in your family.

Present one theory, relay the facts from every angle, and then present another theory.

Since the crime that I was writing about in Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, has not been solved I needed to present the facts of the case in the clearest way. That included showing why a select number of individuals had been considered suspects yet the doubt that involved each of them, which meant why they were never indicted, and why they never assisted with any recovery.

Deliver suspense.

I knew the material would turn tedious if the reader enters the chapter or segment knowing that the individual isn’t going to lead to a recovery. But I still present them in their most human terms – what brought them to the attention of the authorities, what shreds tied the to the case, etc. –  and in that way made the reader like a mini-investigator capturing the thrill of the hunt as well as the frustration of the final say.

Is your style of leaving no stone unturned a secret weapon for creating award winning stories? Can you tell us what makes a writer rise to the level of winning a Pulitzer?

Working with diligence and determination, and writing with honesty and clarity are the essential elements of great reporting. I often say that the most powerful sentence in the English language starts with these words: 

“I am (name of the reporter) from (the local newspaper) and I would like to know….” 

Inspired by free press.

The reason has nothing to do with the name of the individual or even the news organization they represent, but more important because of the First Amendment to the American Constitution which ensures the freedom of the press. We have an essential role in a functioning democracy and it’s the reason why Jefferson wrote that if he had to choose between a free press or government, he’s opt for the free press. And the reason is that he knew that the only way that divergent views on public policies – those expressed by the minority party – would never get the attention of the public unless there was an independent press showing where the majority party was failing to meet its obligations to the citizenry, where tyranny, corruption or force was taking place rather than adequate performance. The press/media has immense influence in what the public thinks about the performance of government and major institutions in America, but it also has immense responsibilities in carrying out those responsibilities.

Clean writing style.

I would like to say that my creative writing was responsible for any of my three Pulitzers but it wasn’t. Creative writers don’t usually come out of journalism. There a terrific Hemingway quote, which I used in my book that goes something like this: 

“Working for a newspaper can make you a better writer but you have to quit in time.” 

Having spent a 40-year career in newspapering I can say definitively that I never quit my craft.

Facts for journalism.

But in thinking about Hemingway’s statement, I have come to understand the reasons why it is such a truthful one. The newspaper account is primarily based on a strict adherence to facts. There is little left to the imagination, and the best pieces of fiction are based primarily on imagination. 

Imagination for fiction.

I remember vividly an interview that Bruce Springsteen gave decades ago and a reporter asked him now that he was famous and well-off how would he be able to capture those tales of the denied and downtrodden, whether in desperate cities or dried-out villages. Springsteen looked at him and said none of those stories had come out of any personal experience that Springsteen had – they all flowed from his imagination.

Unique perception for great story telling.

And it told me that the best of our writers are those with the most vivid imagination, who are willing to put in the hard work of hammering their stories into creative fiction. The story comes out of a single character or experience but then the writer, like the sculptor working at an anvil, has to hammer and hammer away until they have conveyed the essence of what their eyes saw in a moment’s notice or a chance conversation.

Faulkner said he gained the idea of Sound and Fury – perhaps the greatest work of fiction with the greatest title ever written – from a single scene: watching a little girl swinging high on a swing and exposing her britches while doing so. Now that’s an artist, that’s a creator!

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Thank you, Stephen Kurkjian, not just for sharing your five star writing techniques, but also for caring about your readers. Your devotion to writing transformed your family hardships and talents into a vehicle for protecting others. You’ve made a positive global impact that will continue for generations. 

Connect with Kurkjian at www.stephenkurkjian.com to learn more about the facts behind Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, and keep an eye out for the release of the movie.

For more thoughts on factual writing, please see, Stephen Kurkjian Mastermind: Plotting Style & Stephen Kurkjian Mastermind: Presenting Complex Relationships.

 

Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Plotting Style

Photo: The Boston Globe by J. Wilder Bill

Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Kurkjian brainstorms story structure and plotting.

In his non-fiction book, Master Thieves, Kurkjian begins with the suspect who has the most emotional connection to the crime scene and ends with the suspect who has the clearest motive. In between is a diverse cast of outrageous criminals who have complicated relationships with one another. He interviewed witnesses, investigators, and suspects for hundreds of hours. Then, compared their testimonies.

The evidence is layered with several theories that build on one-another. He holds back information, until he’s established his case to support a fresh theory. He concludes with documented proof.

What is your criteria in deciding the order you reveal the facts and introduction of characters?

With newspaper articles, the structure is almost always the same, and is built like an inverted triangle. The key element of the article is at the top of the story – and it is written as directly/powerfully as possible. These stories usually are written after months of reporting so there is a lot of material to wade through to figure out “what it all means,” “what do I have here,” and how do I convey this material so the most important element is at the top and potential lasting impact of the information is conveyed.

Pulitzer winner structure.

Remember in the movie SPOTLIGHT there was an internal debate on the team as to whether the original story that would be written would focus on one priest – Fr. John Geoghan – whom the Boston Archdiocese had moved from parish to parish despite a litany of complaints about his molesting boys at each past assignment or focus on that there were dozens of such priests within the Archdiocese who had such allegations against them. 

Strongest facts shape the lead and set up future stories.

In the end, the editor of The Globe decided the initial story would focus on Geoghan and that decision was primarily based on the fact that the Spotlight reporters had information on Geoghan which was more unassailably true than the conclusion that similar forgiving actions appeared to have been taken on other priests. Newspaper articles need to be accurate, especially investigative ones, and the fact that Geoghan was not a solitary figure within the Archdiocese, that there were so many other priests who had abused kids who had been treated with such forgiveness by the church, would be revealed with future coverage.

Research is critical.

Investigative articles like this are meant to shock the reader, to capture their attention. Often though the material is complicated and perhaps suggestive of an abuse rather than convincing. The necessity is to present the reporting as accurately as possible – with on-the-record interviewing; documentation; and data collection. Data rebuts or clouds the revelation must also be included as well as an honest effort to convey “the other side,” that is the explanation of the individual, agency or institution whose performance is being questioned by the article.

Theme trumps motivation.

When it comes to motivation I pretty much subscribe to the explanation that Sidney Pollack gave to George Clooney who asked in the movie Michael Clayton why a colleague may have committed suicide: “Because people are fucking inscrutable, that’s why.” I can divine a host of reasons as to why a person might make an act that I would be writing about – greed, ambition, hatred, fear and even loyalty. But most often my readers aren’t interested in motivation – as an investigative reporter, my assignment is to come up with stories that they would not have otherwise known about had it not been for my reporting.

Facts boost story transitions.

The stories that I most often deal with are complicated matters, replete with data, anecdotal information, quotes and summary paragraphs which often serve as transitions. That’s a lot to pack in, and I like to organize the material before I actually sit down to write. The outline is what I call the spin of my story.

Sentence structure.

Being complicated, I try to write as directly as possible, and the more complicated the material, the shorter my sentences. I am wary of making the material tedious to weigh through so I arrange my paragraphs in such a way that every succeeding paragraph is going to address a question that might naturally flow out of the previous paragraph.

Establish the lead and summary.

Once I have finished stacking the material in as seamless a fashion as I can, I usually know what my lead will be, what my summary paragraph will be – at The Globe we use to call it the “who-ha” graph which basically translates into why the reader should be spending his valuable time in reading it, taken together what do the facts of the article say about the administration of justice or effectiveness of a particular agency that we are writing about.

Isolate shocking facts.

The outline will also isolate the major abuses that my reporting has found, and present them in a clear, hopefully powerful way, and include quantifiable data that shows the reader that the reporting is solid/accurate and substantive. 

Do you develop a story by plotting the arc of a hero’s journey before you investigate, or does the information you learn develop the pattern of the plot?

I spend an inordinate amount of time during and after completing my reporting in analyzing what I have found. That material – the proof that supports/proves – the lead is presented in summary form in the top third of the story. In addition, the top third contains the summary graph that presents how the abuse happened but also the underlying causes for it and what that abuse says about the overall integrity/effectiveness of the institution in question.

Show the how, why, and what in first third of story.

At the Globe, this paragraph is called “the who-ha” graph and is meant to convey the overall significance of what the article has revealed. Investigative reporters are in the end social scientists who have discovered something new and aberrant that has been taking place in our community and that this aberration is having a negative effect on the people within the community.

Selecting a hook.

During my career as an investigative reporter, I liked working on issues/articles that affected the largest number of people. Such stories usually involved me with public health, education, safety, transportation and the health of the local economy. These agencies that provide these essential services – schools, police and fire, economic development, public works, public hospitals, and courts – are paid for by the taxpayers’ dollars and it is an essential for newspapers and media organizations to be evaluating how effective they are doing their jobs. If the police are making fewer arrested for domestic abuse; if minorities are being stopped and frisked for minor traffic offenses; if the survival rate of cardiac patients is less (or more) at our local hospital; of some neighborhood streets get quicker snow plow services than others because politically-connected people live in the favored neighborhoods – then all of those possibilities deserve attention or at least awareness.

Standards for a journalist.

Reporters are trained in the essentials of journalism – fairness and thoroughness – in every course that they take. Such standards are maintained at every newspaper, regardless of their size, in the country and readers should be aware that such standards underlie every article that they read, and know that they can depend on the product of that reporting.

An example of objective and complete reporting.

Such an approach worked for me when I confronted a priest who several men had alleged had sexually abused them years before. This was during the height of The Globe’s coverage of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and was shown vividly – with one major inaccuracy – in the movie SPOTLIGHT. 

Stephen Kurkjian continues brainstorming at Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Pulitzer Quality Writing & at Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Presenting Complex Relationships.

Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Presenting Complex Relationships

Stephen Kurkjian at a book signing

Photo: Compliments of Stephen Kurkjian

Author Stephen Kurkjian is known for his life-changing stories as an investigative journalist for The Boston Globe. He is a hero who grinds out the truth of a story to benefit the public. His tenacity in uncovering the facts is shown by his receiving numerous awards, and his winning the Pulitzer Prize three times puts Stephen Kurkjian within the most talented league of authentic storytellers.

Kurkjian reached such heights by developing a powerful writing style. He authored a nonfiction book, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, which creates such complex controversies regarding the theories behind the unsolved mystery, it is being made into a movie. 

I had the pleasure of getting to know Kurkjian while he investigated the art theft. I am thrilled to share his award-winning writing techniques over a series of articles where he brainstormed the elements of style. 

Presenting Complex Relationships

Stephen covers every angle with an emphasis on revealing the perceptions of the people he interviews, which read as fully developed characters. He introduces each prospective criminal with his back story. He uses the lifetime of struggles and desires to pave an explanation of how each could have been involved with the art heist. Stephen’s colorful descriptions made me care about the suspects. 

How do you develop a character a reader can relate while exposing their darkest sides?

The characters whom I write about have not been created by me as I write solely in non-fiction. What I try to convey about them is their uniqueness, what sets them apart from their criminal associates. For the most part, it is because they were smarter and/or more violent than their associates, and I try to capture/convey that as honestly as possible.

How to approach an interviewee. 

I like to let such associates describe/define themselves so as much as possible I seek interviews with the bad guys whom I am writing about. I am persistent in seeking their cooperation but never offensively so. (You have to remember these men usually have a tendency towards violence!) My first approach is to their lawyers so the target knows right from the start that I am trying co interview them, and why. I also let them know why I am seeking their cooperation – how they fit into the story. These men don’t like to be surprised, nor upset.

Establishing elements of back story.

It is important in writing about them in newspaper articles to try not to magnify their roles or mock them. I will include some of what may seem like their excesses – the frequency of their dropping F-bombs in their answers; their suspicious natures or narrowness of views – but I also try to get to what drives them to use violence, real or faked, as a tool in their everyday operation.

Support the allegation.

How to assure myself of that? Every case is different, but I always depend on documentation to prove my allegation – and not opinion or an unidentified source. Second, I make every attempt to confront the person whom I am writing about with the substance of the allegation before I publish it. That means giving the person a copy of the document on which I am basing my article, or providing them with the data on which I am basing my conclusions about their performance.

Level of proof.

After deciding on what story I am going to pursue, my basic rule of thumb of whether I have proven the allegation is “beyond a shadow of a doubt.” To be indicted on a criminal charge, it must be shown that the offense took place “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That’s not good enough for me because I believe that I am going to be taking away something even more valuable than a person’s liberty/freedom by a negative story, I am going to target his reputation. There is an old country expression that I was brought up on, lose your arm before you lose your name. So before I publish an allegation, I want to make absolutely sure that it is correct.

Getting the interviewee to open up.

In the end it is almost like asking the individual to confess his crime, or at least provide an explanation for why they did such an offensive act. The approach I take in such cases is to confront the individual in person and tell him or her that such criminality or corruption will continue to go on unless those who are caught in its grips speak up and explain why they did it.

What to report.

My job as an investigative reporter begins by answering two fundamental questions about a piece of information that has been presented to me as news (we call it a “tip”): 

1.) Is it true? And, can I prove it is true so I can document it. 

Once, I pass through those two gates, the next question that I must answer for myself and my readers is: 

2.) Even if it is true, is it worth the time and hard work that it is going to take to publish it in the paper? 

Choosing a hook.

As a rule of thumb, I prefer to spend my time reporting on issues that involve the greatest amount of people – so tips involving the public health, education, public safety and transportation gain my most interest. To write about a public works commissioner who had a lavish vacation home built for him free of charged by a developer whom he had favored with multi-million dollar contracts is going to draw headlines, of course, but is it a more important story than showing public transit in our community discriminates against poorer, black neighborhoods with slower service and more unreliable buses and drivers? Those questions must be asked by reporters and editors all the time.

Baiting the hook.

Since I am a news reporter I try to find the motivation that would explain why an individual might have committed a particular act. As you know, the reporter’s job is to answer these fundamental questions of an event – 

1.) Who did it? 

2.) What happened?

3.) Where did it take place and when? 

4.) How did it happen? and,

5.) Why did it happen? — the most important and difficult question to answer.

For more thoughts on factual writing, please see, Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Plotting Style & at Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Pulitzer Quality Writing.

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The Goals for a Blockbuster Beginning

Playful couple

Relationships can be described as existing where two people deal with each other. Keeping the connection is difficult, particularly when a writer sets up challenges for the characters to overcome. Whether the genre you write is romance or the relationship is the subplot, there is a method to the madness of two souls finding love. Here, I share tips on how to plan the beginnings of a plot for a blockbuster relationship arc.

Hero with a Main Goal

A relationship begins with the hero having a main goal, which very likely is unrelated to his love life. In the initial stage of his relationship arc, have his words and dialogue refer to his desire to reach his goal. If the love interest mentions her concerns, have his reply address her issue, but circle back to relating to his needs. The hero will actually have more than one goal, but one will be emphasized, while the others will steer him astray. The hero’s main goal can be a moral goal, a personal goal, a career goal, or a relationship goal. 

Hero Expresses his Needs

In the first fourth of the story, show the hero expressing his needs through words, actions, and feelings. Create scenarios where the hero’s response revolves around his desire to reach his goal. 

We can see in Murder on the Orient Express where Inspector Hercule Poirot has a career goal to reach his destination city before a deadline. He has a relationship goal with the intention of not getting involved with anyone who would prevent him from reaching his goal, thus he is cordial, yet detached, from the other passengers. Initially, we are led to believe, as does the hero, that his main goal is his career goal. We are guided to conclude that his relationship goal to remain detached results from his career being his priority. But, Agatha Christie intends to test her hero by placing challenges in his path, requiring self-reflection by the character as to what his purpose is in having his career goal be his driving motivation.

What we discover is that Poirot has depth, more than he anticipates. When asked by the red-herring antagonist, Edward Ratchett, for protection because he fears he will be murdered, the inspector refuses. To protect a man believed to be a criminal goes against the inspector’s moral goal to restore justice, and it goes against his personal goal to arrive without complications to his desired town. Both of these override his desire to accomplish the duties of his career goal. 

Poirot’s action is to decline the money offered for the job of protecting the villain. He feels to do otherwise would thwart his efforts to bring about justice, which is what he tells the antagonist. 

Antagonist with Opposing Goal

However, the thirteen train passengers share an opposing goal. Creating an antagonist who has a goal directly preventing the hero from accomplishing his tasks to reach his goal intensifies the tension. The passengers intend to murder the alleged criminal and they desire for their actions in reaching their goal to occur without suffering through the court system. 

Agatha Christie squarely places their motivation in contrast to the hero’s by having each side believe or feel they are justified. Note how she further raises the stakes by showing the alleged criminal was found innocent in a court of law, however, the question remains as to whether justice was restored. 

The passengers act by evading questions and flat out lying. A moral goal develops a conflict with Poirot being placed in a position to determine whether a crime is ever justified, and whether at times lying can serve a higher purpose than the truth. The passengers ensure Poirot is asleep in his bed and they execute the murder. They feel justified in getting away with murder. 

Hero Moves Closer to His Goal

At the end of the first fourth of the story, present a weakness in the hero that draws him farther away from his goal. In the beginning of the plot, Poirot seemingly moves toward his career goal by having pleasant conversations with the others and enjoying his travels. He believes he will arrive to his destination without trouble, and he handles the hiccup of almost being drawn into drama in a way that allows him to deserve peace and quiet. 

But alas, when the murder takes place, as much as Poirot wants to leave the crime solving to the authorities, his weakness is in his moral goal to accomplish justice, and he can’t let it rest. Therefore, as much as Poirot states how important it is for him to reach his career goal in the first fourth of the story, his weakness keeps it out of reach.

Complicate the Relationships Between the Goals

Agatha Christie masterfully creates a villain who is a victim, and victims who are villains. The mystery becomes, which side is right, and which deserves to be punished. This reverts back to Poirot’s duty to be unbiased, yet as so often in her stories, he finds himself in a position where he judges the villains, first Ratchett individually, and then each of the passengers, one by one. This is all due to her creating complicated relationships between the goals, which triggers the actions of the characters. 

The Hero’s Weakness is Key

As much as the hero longs for one thing, his weakness prevents him from having it. Weaknesses come in many shapes and sizes. The type suffered by the hero establishes the relationship arc because it plays a strong role in the challenges. Now let’s consider the diverse roster of heroes in the Avengers, and label a few of their Achilles’ heels. 

Weaknesses Thwart the Goals

Relationship Goal: The Black Widow can’t accomplish her relationship goal to be with The Hulk because he is has the physical limitation of transitioning into a monster.  

Moral Goal: The Hulk can’t even consider a romance because he can’t cope with his anger. The Black Widow has no choice but to give him time to work through his weakness, because she is too weak to break out of her emotional barrier and help him heal. 

Personal Goal: Poor Loki is insecure about whether his adoptive family loves him, or if he would have been better off with his own kind. He’s so wrapped up in proving he deserves love, he isn’t even in the ballpark of finding it. 

Career Goal: Thor finds his one true love, but his duty to protect and save the humans and his subjects is far more important than his finding personal happiness. His superpowers place obligations on him to bring about the better good for those who can’t, which makes his strength his weakness in his relationships.

Obstacles by Antagonist

Aside from the personal demons holding the hero back from reaching his goals, the antagonist creates obstacle after obstacle after obstacle — that’s three, by the way. With each challenge, the hero is provided an opportunity to take one step closer to his goal. He can utilize his time wisely by improving his skills so that overcoming the challenge is viable, yet, he is weak, and his weakness is his greatest obstacle.

Going back to our Avenger analogy, we can see how the Iron Man is prevented from having a personal goal for peace of mind by his antagonist. He dedicates his career goal to inventing weapons that will protect the good guys, only to have those he set out to protect despise him for creating the situations that destroyed the individuals they loved. 

Therefore, his strength of inventiveness and generosity provide a weakness in his being unable to foresee the negative effects of his inventions. Although he views himself as giving his gifts to others as a moral goal, he fails to realize how far removed he is from giving what the people want, as opposed to what he decides they need. It is only through the antagonist that he comes to understand he is not as mighty as he thought, but alas, the bad guys make it personal. 

Make the Obstacle Personal

The challenges the hero faces prevents him from reaching his goal — enter Iron Man’s relationship goal. The antagonist take out their revenge on his love interest. What makes this a heinous crime is the innocence of Pepper. She is a victim merely because of the man she loves. Her life is in danger and all she wants is to settle down and have peace.

The Strength Creates the Weakness

The Iron Man’s arc expands through his relationship goal being his strongest motivator. He wants to enjoy the peace Pepper persuades him to believe exists. Every time he moves toward a stable relationship, an antagonist demands his full attention, which throws him off that path. 

Notice his weakness is a fear of commitment, which puts the steep curve on his relationship arc. He is too scared to invest himself into one lady, because to do so is what makes her a target. His loving another, and reaching for a relationship goal to be loved, creates his weakness and prevents him from reaching his other three goals.

Overview

To create a blockbuster beginning, plot your story four times, one for each of the motivations given to your hero: moral goal, career goal, personal goal, relationship goal. Establish an arc for each one. Have each of the goals create a conflict in his ability to reach another of his goals. By building a solid foundation for the first fourth of your plot, you establish the complexities and complications necessary for explosive, off the charts, tension.

What’s Your Favorite Type of Romance?

Every story has a romantic element. The ebb and flow of the arc of a relationship includes scenes where the heroine and the hero share a moment of intimacy, acknowledge their connection, and share the love. 

The type of romance you love reveals the issues you are facing in your life. The issues in your life tend to crop up in your plot. Do you long for a knight to rescue you at sunset? Are you debating over whether you deserve love? Is there a particular kind of man you keep finding in your life? Which type of romance is your favorite?  

Complicated Relationships

Romance adores those indiscretions that no relationship could withstand in real life. A novel is fiction, after all, and it is a playground for intertwining a variety of relationships. The gossipy tidbits we love to uncover provide scandalous scenarios for storytelling. If the actions of either the man or woman would be an embarrassment, then it belongs in a scandalous plot, but not without the lead couple pulling themselves out of the chaos for a happily ever home-life.

The Boys Out West

A romantic man possesses the courage and skills for survival. He has mastered his abilities to take the materials available and outwit nature. Once he meets the heroine, he views her as being important enough to belong in his clan. He doesn’t have to debate over when to apply his savvy wits. He knows he’s specially gifted at enduring hardships, and he accepts his duty to share his gifts with others by saving their lives, too. Feeling safe and protected reminds the heroine she is valued, and those are romantic feelings. 

The Double Trick Back

Romance fills the pages with sensuous fabrics, melodic voices and manicured landscapes, and yet, these hyped up images of indulgence set the tone for the villain of the novel to fall for the heroine. No matter how bad his deeds are, if the atmosphere is right, and the girl understands the impact of his sordid background, the two can overlook his hurtful mood swings and rude words. For the girl to find love with a mean man, the story must establish why he grew into the unappealing person, and it must allow his motive to be justified. The story wraps up with the villain recognizing his flaws and the heroine offering him forgiveness. 

A Sensitive Man

A romantic setting cannot unfold without the hero getting in touch with his feelings. He shares his affections with the girl either through his tender actions or his caring words. He doesn’t have to be a gentle man, just a guy who can’t resist the warm and fuzzy feeling in his gut when he’s near the woman.

Bad Boys

Ladies have an innate ability to nurture an injured soul. Those bad boys aren’t really thoughtless and stern. It’s just a shell and the perfect match for him is the only heroine with a magical key to unlock his heart. The allure of rogue heroes is in the lady playing a feminine role of the rescuer. She wears the armor and she is the savior willing to invest in his happiness. 

Rich Hero to the Rescue

Contemporary novels adore the super rich man because in modern times, wealth gives him power. Add to the mix a girl with simple tastes, and you have tension. The man’s typical methods for winning over the heart of a desirable woman falls on deaf ears when she values integrity, honesty, and kindness instead. The free pleasures in life create romantic settings. A walk through the woods picking wildflowers, a treasure hunt for seashells at sunset, or snuggling under blankets in her backyard, all guide the heart to falling in love. 

Type A Heroines

Women are stepping up to the plate when it comes to asserting themselves and living out their dreams. The days of passively watching the world swirl by are over, and the independence embraced by women create nifty conflicts in novels where the man didn’t get the memo about strong ladies having the will to get their way. These alpha girls aren’t just argumentative for the sake of creating tension. They have a goal to protect the hero, claim their own rights, and enjoy being in love.

Happily Ever After

A romance calls for everyone getting something she needs and a few things she wants in the end. The man wants to be in a relationship with her. The girl desires the life-changes the hero creates. Both consider the other to be a worthy partner, and attractive advocate. They belong together and for that reason, they will find happiness and peace in every hardship they will face throughout the rest of their lives. After all, there does need to be some truth in fiction.

The core of novel-writing revolves around the type of hero you portray in the story. The hero’s qualities play a role in developing the heroine’s character arc. For every action the man makes, the girl will respond, and her reaction must always create tension. 

Therefore, if the hero is rude, she will not mimic his tone. Hers will be in contrast to how he carries himself. If you create a strong-willed female, make sure to give the hero scenes where he can exhibit his emotional side. This touched-by-an-angel attitude can be presented through his work, where he cares for the sick or heals animals, or through his relationships with weak sub-characters, like an aging grandmother or an irresponsible little sister.

Knowing what you favor gives you the means to create a likable hero. You want to enjoy his company, and have fun when he’s in the scenes. The underlying feelings you have about a certain type of personality will surface in the tone of your dialogue and narrative. Pick your favorite type of romance, and share a description of the hero.

Writer’s Tips for Heroes with a Heart

image of vintage typewriter taken at the Boston Globe

Photo: The Boston Globe by J. Wilder Bill

Gestures for Impassioned Storytelling

Body Language when described well, can tell the entire story. Gestures reveal what the character is thinking, which oftentimes, you can add depth to his role by having them express the opposite of what he is saying. A way to develop trust with the reader is to allow him to know the secret thoughts of the hero. By giving the reader more information than the sub-characters, he gains the pleasure of solving portions of the story puzzles and anticipating what is about to be revealed. 

First, I will share the nuances of how our eyes respond to the feelings we are having, and which personality types of heroes react in each way.  

Eyes cannot lie, even when the hero’s lips deny.

The muscles around the eyes are difficult to control. The pupils respond with a mind of their own. When the hero feels a strong emotion, whether it is elation or danger, his pupils will grow larger, allowing more light to enter his eyes. Essentially, he is becoming alert and aware so that he can assess the situation. When the hero withdraws emotionally, he doesn’t want to share he feelings and his pupils decrease in size. This includes when the hero is telling a lie. 

An extended gaze can have several meanings. A confident hero might gaze at the heroine while smiling coyly with a goal to draw her attention toward him and let her know he is attracted to her. The hero and heroine could gaze longingly into each other’s eyes once they fall in love. Then again, if the aggressive hero is angry with the heroine, he might gaze with his jaw tensed and his lips pursed to express his distaste at the moment. 

Believe it or not, looking away from the heroine while she is speaking means the hero is processing what she is saying and doesn’t want distractions. He wouldn’t gaze over her shoulder unless he felt comfortable around her. When a person outright stares at someone speaking, it shows he is tense and feels threatened. As a primitive mannerism, he feels the need to watch her closely in case she is dangerous. 

Consider the eye contact of a dog. The dog looks away when an alpha dog gets in its face or authoritative owner reprimands it. A sensitive hero looks away and down when he is feeling tender and while talking to himself. Another reason he might avert his eyes is when the heroine is in an embarrassing situation. A manipulative hero, like a bully, will try to keep eye contact with the heroine as a method to intimidate her. She would then let her eyes wander out of social protocol or as a method to remain unbiased about what he is telling her. 

Also, if the heroine becomes angry, the hero might look down to show humility or submissiveness. Typically, people carry over their childhood teachings of showing respect to an authority figure when being scolded by keeping their eyes down. When the hero tells a lie, his eyes are likely to lock onto the heroine’s. He will be putting forth excessive effort to connect with her. It is more likely the hero is telling the truth where he averts his eyes or avoids full contact.

The hero’s glance gives away his unspoken desires. Glancing at an exit means an impatient hero is ready to escape. A respectful hero won’t be able to resist glancing at the heroine when building up the courage to speak to her. Oftentimes, the pursuer gazes for a few seconds, looks away, and then gives a wide-eyed glance. There might be a scenario where he’s forbidden to associate with her, yet when she enters the room, his eyes slip over to her. 

If his eyebrows are raised when he gives her a sideways glance, he is definitely interested, but if his eyebrows are lowered, he disapproves of her behavior. Alternatively, a sensitive or caring hero could glance at the heroine when he senses she is sad or her feelings are hurt.

Where the astute hero rolls his eyes or gives a sidewise glance with a tilted head, he is letting the heroine know he is onto her ruse. He is showing he doesn’t believe what she is saying.  

Domineering heroes and also the good-natured leaders, ignore protocol when it comes to gazing or looking away. They tend to plant their eyes wherever it suits them. Submissive or accommodating heroes bow their heads to show respect or when near an authoritarian heroine. From a distance, they might stay behind a display rack, with a stare, but out of sight.

If the domineering or authoritative hero doesn’t receive the full gaze of the heroine, he will take it as a threat or lose interest based on his sensing she feels superior and won’t respect him. The rich or famous hero doesn’t notice where he looks while those from a lower status follow the social customs of looking away to be submissive. Also, someone of a lower or subservient status will gaze at the authoritative heroine’s face while she’s speaking.

While the intentions of a hero are revealed by where his eyes focus, the way he flexes the muscles around his eyes reveal his deepest feelings. Please check out my other articles entitled Heroes with a Heart where I’ll give additional writer’s tips on showing the feelings and thoughts of your hero.

 

Cas Peace on Medieval Storytelling

image of St. Andrews ruins in Scotland

Photo: Cathedral of St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland by J. Wilder Bill

King’s Envoy is the first novel in the fantasy series, Artesans of Albia, by Cas Peace. An Albian Baron in the fourth dimension sets out to destroy the Artesan craft but first he must gain the power to cross through each realm. Peace shares how to craft a fantasy set in medieval times. 

Are your realms based on the Buddhist concept of multiple worlds, where each is unable to see one another, yet at times, they notice one another’s presence?

My five realms does owe something to Eastern beliefs, if only in a small way. I was intrigued by the possibilities that might arise when completely separate and self-contained worlds, all of which evolved their own distinct beliefs, cultures and customs, could be visited at will by denizens of the other realms. Add the proviso that only an elite core would have this ability and you create a volatile and infinitely variable set of possibilities.

If you met either of your main female characters in person, what qualities would you want to change in them?

I love this question! Each of my characters have their faults, such flaws are what make us human. One is a healer. She is trained, talented and extremely capable, the kind of person you’d want by your side in a medical emergency. Yet take her out of her comfort zone and she becomes shy and insecure. Her confidence only extends as far as her knowledge of herbs, ailments and treatments. As the series progresses she does gain personal confidence, but only when among people she knows.

My other female lead possesses all the confidence the healer lacks. She knows her strengths and weaknesses and isn’t afraid to test herself against whatever life throws at her. She takes her successes humbly, while her failures do not break her. Her worst quality is that in times of stress she resorts to bad language.

In the opening chapter, Taran’s poor judgment places the wrath of an ambitious kingdom on his clan. What does this reveal about the character?

This was a method of showing Taran’s naivety and innocence. He’s had so many failures that he’s willing to try anything. Based purely on some notes left by his father, he sets off to a foreign realm, with the aim of challenging a man to a duel. Its dreadful outcome leaves him morally wounded as well as physically. It reveals the flaws in Taran’s training as well as his nature, and leaves him embarrassed and vulnerable. Yet although he is broken and frightened, he doesn’t shirk his responsibility. Here lies Taran’s strength, and what enables him to move forward and become the person others know he can be.  

Your heroine released her individuality and abides by the codes and orders of her superiors. Did you model her on a medieval knight? 

The fantasy genre doesn’t have enough women who compete with men, and become superior to them, without compromising their femininity. My heroine’s wounded past, and the events that befall her, mold her character and cause her to react in certain ways. When coupled with her deep sense of loyalty and duty, and driven by the tremendous power she commands, they create a dangerous entity, one who possesses the capability to destroy as much as to heal. The question is – will the many traumas she suffers during the course of her mission overcome her love and loyalty, turning them to hatred and destruction?

Which did you consider to be most important, authenticity of the medieval period or the elements of fantasy?

Fantastical elements become stranger and more wonderful when placed in a mundane setting. Small details, provided they’re not overdone, help bring a character vividly to life. Immersing myself deeply into my story and my characters, so deeply that I see what they see, smell what they smell, and hear their voices, is the only way I can write.

Did you develop character through the joy of developing a bond with horses and in showing how they are necessary for survival?

My intention in incorporating such intimate details was to allow the reader to become immersed in the setting. Horses were an essential and vital part of medieval life. I harbor a deep love of horses; I am a qualified horse-riding instructor and spent my early adulthood working and teaching in a school of equitation. I purchased a small Welsh cob named Lively – and trained him to pull a carriage. I competed in cross-country driving events, carriage-dressage, and was among the first allowed access to the M25, England’s most notorious motorway.

The point of view shifts between characters throughout King’s Envoy. Was it imperative for the reader to know more than the protagonist in order to increase tension?

Because the plot spans two different realms and involves more than one faction, it would be impossible to convey sufficient information through a single character. Events occur that would be meaningless and would confuse rather than enlighten were it not for a change of POV. There are also several sub-plots bubbling under the storyline – these all necessitate the use of more than one point of view. The story sticks with one character until the plot demands a switch. Intimately learning the motivations, aspirations and emotions of several characters enhances a reader’s experience.

At what point should a writer plan to create a series?

When the writer knows that those characters have more to give. Readers like to follow a fictional character’s ‘career’ just as much as that of a celebrity or a family member. Look at Conan Doyle’s’ Sherlock Holmes, or a more modern analogy, Peter James’ Roy Grace, or, to stick with fantasy, Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant. We all like familiarity and reading about our favorite characters is like catching up with old friends.

Thank You, for the opportunity to reveal these facts about King’s Envoy. I’d also like to say how much fun I had answering your challenging and insightful questions. The process made me think about my book from a slightly different angle, and often gave me pause for thought. I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on the novel!

Thank you for your interest, all the best, Cas Peace.

Your knowledge on how to create a believable fantasy set in medieval times is deeply appreciated. For additional questions, you can find Peace at www.caspeace.com.