Saturday, 17 November 2018

Less Is More: How to write a Short Romance Story

I love writing short stories and novellas and it just so happens that this summer I got asked to write TWO in the space of a few weeks by Harlequin Mills and Boon.

The first was a 2k-word story for Mills and Boon's Places to Fall in Love campaign, which was celebrating the top ten best places to fall in love in Britain. The brief: my story had to be set at #8 in the poll, The Minack Theatre in Cornwall...

The second story had to be 1k words or less (eek!) and was going to be added to an exclusive 3-in-1 for ASDA supermarket next Valentine's Day. The brief: it had to be set on or around Valentine's Day!

Now obviously, you don't always get a brief for a short story. But the challenge of a short story, in romance as in any other genre, is always the same, managing to fit a whole story arc in the space of a few words. With romance that means managing to have an inciting incident, emotional turning points, a black moment and a resolution however many words you have! A popular misconception with short stories is to believe that they're easier to write because they're shorter... Umm, no. If anything the short word count makes them harder. But the really great thing about them, for any aspiring writer - or even a seasoned one like myself - is that they require you to focus on the best of your craft, while also letting your imagination run wild. Structure, pace, Point of View shifts, characterisation, setting, etc all have to be tightly controlled in a short story, but you mustn't allow that to limit the story you tell, quite the opposite really, your craft should help you pack in all that emotion and relationship dynamic in a powerful way...

My Pinterest Board for The Fundamental Things!

So here are my suggestions for figuring out how to do that while deconstructing a 6k-word story I wrote several years ago called The Fundamental Things for the Romantic Novelists Associations Truly Madly Deeply collection.

When attempting to write a short story or novella in the romance genre, the most important thing to do first of all is make sure the story you want to tell is suitable for a shorter word count. That's really the main guiding principle. Ask yourself several key questions: How much do your couple have to resolve? Can you establish and resolve those conflicts convincingly in a shorter word count?

So, for example, you could go with a shorter time frame (eg: my ASDA story takes place in a super-market check-out queue). Or simply finish the story at a positive place so the reader knows this couple will sort out their existing conflicts because they have the will to do so...

But don't think that means simplifying or lessening your couple’s conflicts, in fact the reverse can be true.

Here's how I developed The Fundamental Things structured around that principle: The first thing I decided to do was have the story happen all in one scene - so literally over about thirty minutes in real time - and in one location (so no need for lots of lengthy setting descriptions!). I didn't want any other people involved, because I wanted to keep my couple totally focused on each other, so that led me to the idea of using a 'forced proximity’ narrative - basically I had them get stuck in a lift together... Now obviously, if this had been two strangers it would have been very hard, if not impossible to tell a whole story arc in half an hour, so I decided to give them a massive back story to resolve! Namely they had been lovers as teenagers - which was 20+ years ago now - she had gotten pregnant, they'd agreed she would have an abortion, but he had left her at the clinic and then he had never responded when she told him she had decided to have the baby. And they never saw each other again, until they get stuck in the lift and much to her horror he recognises her. What she doesn't know is that he was shipped off to Italy by his mother and never got any of her letters (luckily this would have been the early 90s so no social media, email, mobile phones, etc - which was why I put them in their late thirties!!) so he doesn't know she's had the child or that he's a father! So when they got stuck in the lift together - her thinking he'd deliberately abandoned her and rejected their child and him still feeling guilty about the abortion he thought she'd had which he hadn't supported her through - it led to LOTS of things to resolve. But it could be convincingly done, because of course once the misconceptions were cleared up, and they'd both gotten over the initial shock, all the feelings they'd had as teenagers for one another, before that 'accidental betrayal', could be revisited but with their newfound maturity and the newfound knowledge of what had actually happened between them. He hadn’t deliberately abandoned her or their child – in fact, the reason he left the clinic was because he couldn’t bear to be there during the termination. The hero, of course, actually had more to resolve than the heroine - having always wanted to be a father (his marriage had eventually broken down several years before when he came to the realisation he wanted children and his wife didn’t) - to discover he is one and has been one for 20 years is both shocking and devastating and wonderful all at the same time. By the time they're let out of the lift, we know he's going to meet his now grown up son, and they do share a tender kiss which gets a bit heated, so there is also the suggestion that they still desire each other, but obviously there's still a lot to work through, because she's been a single mum all these years, she lied and told her son his father was dead because she didn’t want him to know his father hadn’t wanted him but also because it was too painful for her to talk about that betrayal, he doesn't know his son and has missed his son’s whole childhood, etc. But I left them in a place where hopefully the reader knows that they will both work really hard to make the most out of what they have found together again...

The important thing to remember with this example is that the more conflict you have, the easier it can sometimes be to keep the story focused and emotionally intense – which will also lift pace and reduce the need for long descriptive passages, lengthy examinations of internal thought, etc.

In other words, the most important thing is to construct a story that will benefit from that shorter word count, not be confined or restricted by it. Don’t attempt to concertina a story which needs more exposition, internal thought, secondary characters, etc into a shorter format or your story will feel rushed and incomplete.

When actually writing your story, the shorter the word count the more you need to keep a handle on your craft, make it work for you. But here are a few of my top tips to keep you focused on telling your story in the most focused way possible:

  • Make sure you start on a point of action, so you're not wasting words on lots of back story or internal thought or scene setting.
  • Only tell the reader exactly as much as they need to know, ie: they don’t have to know everything you know as a writer about your characters, they just need to know enough to understand their goals/motivations/conflicts.
  • Remember less is more when it comes to description. Hone your writing to make those passages really pop in the reader's imagination. ie: – if the setting is integral to the story, find ways to describe it in concise evocative ways using more than just what it looks like. How does this place smell, sound, feel, too? Use dialogue and physical cues wherever possible to get your characters establishing and confronting and resolving their conflicts through their interaction with each other rather than in their internal thought.
  • I find it's easier to use a shorter time frame for this format - having the action take place over a few hours, night, a weekend, a few days, etc. - because it keeps the action intense and focused. But that's just a personal preference of mine (and because I always like to make things as easy as possible for myself!)

Interestingly, many of these tips also work for a story with a longer word count, too. And explains why attempting to write a short story or novella is such a great way to hone your craft as a writer...

I once asked bestselling romance author Linda Howard at a conference lecture she was giving about her career how I should go about making the break from writing series or category romance books (ie: books with a 50k word count) to longer Single Title books – something she had been remarkably successful at. Her answer was simple but succinct: ‘write a bigger book’. But what she meant was, not write a longer book, but write one that requires that longer word count. Write a book with a bigger story to tell. Because the most important thing to remember when writing any type of genre fiction, whatever the word count, is that no words should be wasted, each and every one of them is important and should be doing something within your story, no matter how many, or how few of them, there are. For that reason, when writing a short story, you are also learning how not to waste a single word!

If you are an author interested in writing in the romance genre and would like to learn more about the skills required, wherever you are in your writing journey, I tutor Writing Romance, a 7-week online course for The Professional Writing Academy. We do weekly sessions covering everything from how to craft effective dialogue, writing compelling scenes of intimacy, to handling emotional turning points and much more using reading extracts and writing exercises. You'll be learning in the PWA's innovative online classroom with a group of other writers, getting lots of feedback from them, while also getting specific focused feedback from me on your work each week. And we always finish the course with a longer piece of writing - which can be a short story! I love teaching this course, because it gives me so much insight into this fascinating process, as well as sharing the love with other writers. Our next course kicks off on February 25th so why not treat yourself for 2019? 

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