Five Newbie Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
Before you click “Save” on your computer and move on to the second chapter of your romance novel, take a moment and review your work. If you followed the guidelines, you probably have a dynamite opening. That doesn't mean you can't improve upon it, however. The following section explains the five most common mistakes made by new authors in their openings. Best of all, it gives you pointers on how to avoid making them.
Many new writers open with scenes that are little more than just a setup for the precipitating event or the unique premise. For example, take a lighthearted contemporary romance about a runaway bride who hitches a ride with the Good Samaritan hero and embroils him in a series of misadventures. Instead of opening with the Cute Meet — the heroine jumping into the hero's car when he's stopped at a traffic light outside the wedding chapel — the book might start with a scene in the heroine's POV thirty minutes earlier. Several pages — perhaps even several scenes — are then spent showing her having cute but pointless conversations with her bridesmaids and explaining to the reader why she's going to leave the groom at the altar. The scenes are pointless because the story doesn't start until the heroine jumps into the hero's car.
Setup, regardless of how well written, is boring. Your romance should open when the action does — namely, when your plot is unveiled, your conflict established, or your hero and heroine introduced.
Before starting Chapter 1, ask yourself exactly where the action begins. Refrain from the need to explain things. If you've already started the opening and feel it might it be a setup, try cutting those scenes and move straight to the precipitating event or unique premise. If the deleted scenes contain necessary information that the reader needs to know, find a way to weave it back into the new first pages.
Just as problematic as opening a scene too early is ending a scene too late. While there is no need to show unnecessary details, excessive introspection, or mundane activities at any time, it is especially critical not to do so at the end of a scene or chapter. Timing is critical in a romance novel.
Another common newbie mistake is telling the reader about facts and events after they've occurred, rather than showing them as they unfold. This often happens with the addition of backstory or by the overuse of passive voice — the “to be” verb (
Backstory and passive voice distance the reader from the action, which is never a good idea. After all, if a reader's sense of immediacy is lost — meaning she can't visualize the events as they occur — she may begin to lose interest in your plot.
Limit exposition, or backstory, and substitute an active voice for passive voice whenever possible. Consider, for example, the immediate difference between sentences such as
Often, a new writer will concentrate more on polishing a scene's words than on honing a scene's content. But the best-written scene still can't compensate for a sagging plot caused by insufficient conflict. Novels, especially romance novels, are all about the conflict, the struggle of a main character to reach a goal. In order for a scene to succeed, it needs conflict caused by the main character's quest to achieve a goal. This is especially true for opening scenes.
People just aren't interested when everything goes right. After all, you wouldn't want to hear about your coworker's perfectly normal everyday drive into work, but have a gas station explode, an eighteen-wheeler catch fire, a man try to carjack her, and you'll be all ears. Without some type of conflict, the reader will quickly lose interest.
Reread your scene and ask yourself what the POV character wants at that particular moment. Is the heroine hoping to land a new job? Is the hero hoping to solve a murder? Whatever your POV character's goal may be, make sure that there are obstacles to overcome. For example, have the heroine spill coffee on the hero in the elevator on the way to her job interview — only to find out the hero is the one who'll be interviewing her for the job. Or, have the hero discover that his best chance for a lead in his murder investigation has just been murdered. Find the conflict in your scene and use it — or delete the scene.
Conflict doesn't mean that your characters are continually arguing. Conflict just means your characters are continually struggling — whether with themselves, with other people, with nature, etc. A romance novel needs characters with clearly identifiable goals, motivations, and conflicts — otherwise, it's little more than a well-written essay.
Sometimes a new writer forgets to explain the hero's or heroine's motivation, especially when the character is behaving badly. As a result, the reader begins to find the character unsympathetic and will no longer root for the character's success.
Romance novels, more so than any other type of commercial fiction, need sympathetic characters. After all, readers want to connect emotionally with the heroine and hero — they want to root for them, laugh with them, cry with them. A reader isn't likely to form that emotional bond if she can't understand a character's reason for behaving in a certain way.
Clearly establish the character's motivation for behaving in any manner that might make him or her appear unsympathetic. For example, if the hero is unexpectedly cold and distant to the heroine after they've made love for the first time, the reader may be turned off by his behavior. However, if he acts that way because he's afraid he's falling in love with her and will get hurt, the reader will understand. Make his motivations clear by inserting lines foreshadowing it in previous scenes.
Sympathetic doesn't have to mean likable. Often, readers will love the heroes and heroines of romance novels but hate the villain. Still, readers find the villains “sympathetic” — meaning they can understand the villain's motivations for committing murder and mayhem.
The final newbie mistake is perhaps the most important one on the list. Namely, giving the reader a reason to stop reading your book. Most often, this happens because a chapter or scene ends on an anticlimactic moment.
If the action has slowed, or the tension lessened, the reader may get distracted and put aside the book. When that happens, you run the risk that the reader won't pick it up again.
Always end your scenes/chapters with a hook. Keep the reader wondering Why? How? and the all-important What Will Happen Next?