Writing to Satisfy

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I neglected to actually hit the “publish” button when this was supposed to post, so David, who is out of town, kindly let me have his slot today.

I just finished a book and started another and in the meantime I’ve  been doing a lot of crocheting, cleaning, cooking and reading. I’m so far behind on all my reading that I hardly know what book to grab first. But I have always loved regency romances and I haven’t read any in quite awhile, so I grabbed some up to read. One of the things I find very satisfying about regencies is the witty repartee. The good ones are full of it and I can’t tell you how much I love just romping through the dialog. Plus I’m a sucker for romances and happy endings and anything set in regency England.

I like a strong heroine as well–which you’ve probably figured out if you’ve read my books–and I like a strong hero. But the thing that I most want and sometimes do not get, is a plot that makes sense and isn’t too coincidental or too stupid to be true. Sadly, I’ve run across a couple of those. It made me think about how I would have written these books to satisfy and then it got me to thinking about satisfying the reader and just what that means.

In romance novels, you typically have the Happily Ever After ending (HEA). That means that the lovers will come together and that’s the primary goal. Certainly there are frequently other subplots that might involve intrigue or crime or something else, but the end of the book will be about the HEA. I know that when I go into reading a romance and so I’m expecting it. The problem is, how did we get there?

For one novel, the entire thing could and should have ended seventy five pages sooner than it did, simply because these very smart, very forthright characters suddenly became stupid. Stooooopid. What do I mean? Well, an artificial conflict was created simply because suddenly they would no longer talk honestly with one another, something they’d been doing for the entire book until that point. (Picture me banging my head on the keyboard). All they needed to do was talk. That’s it. Had they done so, the entire problem would have vanished. Poof. I hate it when authors do this, almost as much as I hate it when authors get female characters pregnant as the main plot device.

The problem is that suddenly the characters change character. They aren’t themselves. They aren’t doing what they would have done in the first 200 pages of the book. Suddenly they are doing something else entirely. Why? Well, it seems to me that the author was trying to satisfy the need to push the personal conflict. To raise the stakes and make it appear that the two couldn’t work it out. Except because it was so patently artificial, it made me want to throw the book across the room (TBAR tm by Mindy Klasky)

The other book had a similar problem, but the author rescued it somewhat before it got too out of hand. Our main characters are strong, the conflict is real and deals with things that don’t make me roll my eyes. Then about 3/4 of the way through, the male hero becomes an idiot. Total. He, once again, stops talking to the female lead. Now the fact that she doesn’t push him makes reasonable sense, given her background and I found myself more forgiving of her. But the male–I wanted to kick him in the balls. Luckily, the last part of the book didn’t hinge on that lack of communication. Other plot elements rose and they carried the day. Which meant that I didn’t have to TBAR the book. It was a close thing there for awhile.

What I think these writers are doing is trying to satisfy the romantic expectations of their readers, but it doesn’t work. At least not for me. That’s because, as I said, the characters stop being themselves and turn into someone else I don’t recognize. And I don’t give a shit about any of them. I care about the early characters who’ve I’ve been bonding with for several hundred pages.

That idea of satisfaction, though, makes me think about how we as writers think about our stories and how we come to satisfying endings, or plots or what have you. I’ll admit, I write to entertain myself. I write the story that I would love to read because I’m telling myself the story as I go and I want to be entertained. What I want is plausibility, escalating conflict, strong characters, snappy dialog, tension and passion (not just romantic, but fear, loathing, depression and so on). I want to care about my characters and feel that they are real. I try not to think about my readers and what would satisfy them. I think about the story and what makes it good for me. I figure that if it’s good for me, it will be good for others.

But then for the two books above, I wonder, weren’t those authors satisfied? Wasn’t it good for them? Which then makes me wonder if I can trust myself to know what a good story is. But who else is there? Yes, I count on my agent and editors and my beta readers, and they always ask questions that make me reconsider the story. But in the end, it’s me who has to be satisfied.

Hey look! Another things for writers to be neurotic about!

I have no solution to offer. I’m wondering what you think and how you approach writing stories.

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9 comments to Writing to Satisfy

  • Hey Di. Glad you had not been sucked into a pit of doom last post day! :)

    I used to adore Regency Romances (many years ago), but for awhile in that subgenre, there was nothing published with a satisfying conflict/ending. It seemed like every book I picked up was a total TBAR. (Love that, BTW!) So stopped reading them.

    I need bang for my buck when I read a book. I want my writer to take the conflict that is there at the beginning and *make it worse*. That is what is supposed to happen for it be believeable, not create something out of thin air, a new conflict that is suddenly introduced in the middle of the book, a new plot line that makes no sense for the characters already created and developed.

    For me as a writer, that is the key — open with the conflict that will drive the plot and the characters and *Make it Worse*. Make it the next worse thing to death. Drive the characters right to the edge of the conflict already created. Give your characters *Bang for Their Bucks*.

  • I totally agree, Diana. I wouldn’t be *writing* the story if I didn’t enjoy it. I like to say, “Write the stories you wish to read in the world.” Which is a total Ghandi rip-off, but it works for me.

  • Thanks for covering for me today, Di. I got home late yesterday and would have had a hard time getting a post up with all I’ve had to do today. I write for myself, but I also have to admit that I write for others — namely my wife, my editor, my agent. And here’s what I mean by this: I have been critiqued by all three of these people so often, for so many years, that I can now anticipate their criticisms and comments as I write. I trust all three of them — each has a good sense of what makes a story work or not work, and each is familiar enough with my work and my voice to give me suggestions that will improve my books. And so as I write, I try to look at the work I’m doing as they would, so that I can catch the problems they would find before they become problems. This has, I think, helped me improve my internal editor, and it has made me a better, more efficient writer.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for a very thought-provoking post. I totally agree with you that plot points that hinge on characters not talking to each other, especially when they have perfectly good reason or opportunity to do so, drives me absolutely up the wall. Related is the setup where two characters have secrets to share and the revelation of the first makes the second decide to clam up. I’m a little more forgiving of that setup but it still BUGS ME.

    At the moment, the faulty device most on my mind, though, is the secrets-from-the-reader device, where there’s something about the story or the world or some of the characters that’s being hidden to try to up the tension (which has it’s place but often falls flat.) Of course, I’m terrified that I’m following this same bad pattern with my WIP. My world/story has secrets. Do *I* think it’s a cool story because I know what those secrets are? or is it still a cool story before the revelation of those secrets. HOW do I tell?!

  • Faith: I agree. And it isn’t like it can’t happen in a regency, but these just petered out early and then the last conflicts seemed tacked on. Which is not good n any writing.

    Laura: Works for me too!

    David: I think that’s part of growing as a writer. Learning to tell a better story to entertain yourself, and the bettering comes from hearing critique and having smart readers. It’s a process we don’t talk about a lot–that is, if improving our taste and sense of quality.

    Hepseba ALHH: The secrets from the reader is a long term danger of whodunnits and mysteries where the narrator clearly seems to know what’s going on and irritates the reader because the narrator is clearly witholding. I think if you can make it feel like a natural revelation for the characters, then it works. But if it feels gimmicky or lacks any foundation and set up, then the writer is in trouble.

  • I admit, I hate stupid women (characters, that is). When a strong woman protagonist is going along, doing cool things, solving problems, whatever and then BAM! she apparently loses her mind and does something that she should have learned in the first 15 minutes of adulthood. She thinks “wow, this guy is unknown and looks dangerous. I’ll go off alone with him somewhere and not tell anyone, anywhere, where I am or what’s going on…” That makes me want to TBAR. Totally. :)

    The not talking problem bugs me, too. When it is explained away correctly–someone genuinely can’t get through, or whatever, it’s fine. Miscommunication, too. Though the end of Romeo and Juliet always make me crazy. He couldn’t have waited five minutes? Gotten a mirror to see if she was breathing? Anything? Dumbass. It’s why I hate the play and think it’s a farce not a tragedy. It’s also proof that Shakespeare hated teenagers. 😀

  • Pea_faierie: you make me laugh! I agree on Romeo and Juliet. I think he’s counting too much on teenagers being stupid and it’s hard to buy. At least from the 21st century pov. The losing the mind thing . . . yeah. what you said.

  • Razziecat

    “What I want is plausibility, escalating conflict, strong characters, snappy dialog, tension and passion (not just romantic, but fear, loathing, depression and so on).”

    Oh, yes, this! In any genre, really. I, too, write what I like to read, and a lot (most) of it is inspired by my characters themselves. What do they want? What do they fear? What do they love? Mixing up those three things, and putting obstacles in their way, gives me a story. And pea_fairie, I hate stupid women characters, too! I remember a book I read where the MC, after being specifically warned not to go beyond a certain door, wandered off into the mysterious underground passages of the castle and…of course…opened the wrong door. She didn’t show much in the way of brains before that, either. I gave up & never finished reading that book. “Stupid person” should not be a plot device.

  • Unicorn

    Damsels in distress irritate the wits out of me. They’re the stupidest of stupid women. They earn an instant TBAR. If I ever find myself writing a damsel in distress, she’ll kill the prince and marry the dragon.
    Probably my favourite woman character ever was Miss Adora Belle Dearheart from Terry Pratchett’s “Going Postal” and “Making Money”, known to her brother as Killer and to her love interest as Spike. She smokes all the time and never, ever needs to be rescued because of her four-inch high heels which get driven into her attacker’s foot. Upon seeing her worst enemy turn up in a restaurant, she grabbed a knife and hissed at her poor fiance, “I’ll just kill him quickly and join you for the pudding.” I loved her.
    I write my stories for my own satisfaction. And that is why my plot so often gets neglected; because the characters are my very favourite part of the story. I love making them real. A bad character will make me TBAR long before a bad plot. That’s why I hated Romeo and Juliet but adore Twelfth Night, because I love Duke Orsino. He’s melodramatic and poetic, but he’s a more sensible and likeable Romeo.
    Thanks for the post, Diana.
    Unicorn