Gay romance fiction

Wham Bam: the power of eventful thinking

by Damon Suede

So as fate would have it, next Monday (12 March 2018) I have a new book called Verbalize on characterization and story craft coming out inspired in part by posts I've done here at Romance University and conversations I've had in the comments. One of the techniques the book tackles is way events can amplify characterization and simplify structure.

Events are instinctive. Every story’s power emerges in moments of collision. Characters collide as they confront obstacles and opponents in pursuit of happiness, and these intersections change everything. Each collision between your characters releases energy, much like nuclear fusion or fission, as they reveal their internal struggle in the face of external challenges. How much energy your story accesses depends entirely on your ability to tap their essential nature via actions and reactions.

Your audience reads to experience a satisfying emotional ride. Your entire job as an author is to provide that experience as seamlessly as possible. Everything happening in your story doesn’t mean squat unless the reader feels something entertaining and satisfying.

For a story move anyone, characters have to make your readers care.

Each collision releases more mojo into the story’s world, disrupting the circumstances, unleashing disasters, and forcing characters to make high-stakes choices. Whether these clashes are internal or external, public or private, intentional or impulsive, these moments in the story become events…pivotal, irrevocable shifts in the flow of the character’s options.

An event is any significant disruption of the status quoEvents create tangible effects on anyone party to them because they inherently alter the story’s progress and the character’s choices from that point forward: arrivals and departures, blessings and curses, decisionsand disasters, revelations and reversals, lies and confessions, accidentsand jackpots, assignations and departures.

As Henry James said, “What is character but the determination of incident, what is incident but the illustration of character?”

Events force the characters and the readersto stop everything and pay attention. They are watershed moments because they mark points of no return for one or more characters. Smart writers tend to show events happening for the first or the last time because the irrevocability alters the character and shifts the plot.

Instinctively, most people who enjoy books, movies, games, or comics gravitate toward events. They are the fabric of pop culture and most showbiz spirals around them inexorably: ramping toward each event and then navigating the fallout before lurching toward the next dramatic crest. Think about the ways your favorite s entertainment is structured: promises, fights, reunions, confessions, disasters, makeovers, betrayals, seductions, confrontations, redemptions. By definition events scramble the options available to a character, altering their options and then forcing them to choose.

The schlockiest mass media revels in shameless event-mongering. Small wonder: events require no explanation and attract instant rubbernecking from most humans. The average viewer can tune in and find themselves unable to touch that dial…because their monkey mind wants to know what happens next…after the wedding, funeral, promotion, birth, bonus, arrest, etc. They’re audience bait coasted in superglue.

Events create instant, fascinatingcontext.

Wise writers learn to think eventfully, because those dramatic collisions motivate characters, galvanize audiences, and anchor any story. You want your characters to do things that matter, that have a meaningful impact, then you need to start thinking about the kinds of impact possible for those characters before you put a word on the page.

I always tell my students to look for the WHAM. Events erupt from a stories steady rhythm anytimetwo opposing viewpoints slam together: goals, ethics, beliefs, philosophies, opinions. Everyone in the story’s world sits there safe and sedated until—WHAM—the ex-husband moves in next door or your car starts to levitate to the in-laws deep-fry your kid for lunch. Your protagonist just bumbles along until—WHAM—she sprouts fangs or inherits a castle or catches bubonic plague. The delicious rub between what characters expected to happen, and how things turned out sucks the audience into the narrative. That contrast draws our attention and the ironic tension rewards us for noticing the disparity.

An event is contrast turned into context. Like a caffeinated truth serum, events force characters to confront their illusions about the world and the reality they’ve been ignoring. First they show you what’s going on and then they kick your butt until you do something about it.

Even better, because characters can cause events or simply deal with events caused by other characters, they must make terrible, beautiful choices that have fascinating consequences. Their conflict becomes character growth in front of our eyes and in our hearts…because we live the choice alongside them. And because this happens in a book rather than our real lives, we get to experience impossible decisions at a safe distance. All of the emotion with none of the direct danger to our safety. Yay, genre fiction!

Thinking eventfully will save you from writer’s block and ramp up the emotional punch of any project. One easy way to tackle events is to think of them in the context of a movie trailer… look for the highlights:

  • What three or four moments would fans of your story want to see on screen in 30-second preview?

  • What characters would receive the most screen time and how can you give them something fun and physical to do that conveys character?

  • How can you signal your vibe, voice, and subgenre clearly in these preview moments without explanation or exposition?

  • What details or elements help these events cohere so that they obviously come from a single story?

  • How can you make these big events stand out from every other event of their types in your genre and subgenre?

  • If you had to cut one of these preview moments from the trailer, which one would you ditch and why? Weigh what makes this the weakest event in the list to see if you can improve it.

Whether pantser or plotter, noob or veteran, you can gather rough events almost like a mise en place… assembling the components to create a dish. You may not use all of them but you can compile the tasty options. Look for the fun possibilities, the surprising depths, the startling reveals that might crack your characters’ (and audience’s) emotions wide open. Consider the events native to your subgenre…  rom-com loves meet cutes and makeovers, historical thrives on social sparring and scandal, erotic romance revels in fresh trespasses and transformative firsts. When you’re weighing an event, look for opportunities to give readers what they want in a way they couldn’t have expected.

As director Sydney Pollack once said, trashy pulp fiction teaches us a valuable lesson in the power of bold choices. Events set you free to explore the limits of your story. Whenever you stall are stray, just ask yourself what the worst possible event would be and then MAKE IT HAPPEN. How do characters react to that impossible collision or make that impossible choice? 

And for any of you pantsers out there blanching at the idea of preplanning events…fret not! You can wander and improv to your heart’s content, but wandering towards and away from pivotal, critical events will help you steer that story even when you aren’t sure where it’s headed.

Remember: what the audience wants from you is an unforgettable emotional ride. The events are the big structural posts that let you build a thrilling rollercoaster for all those hearts. Or is that feel overwhelming, keep it simple: list the critical moments guaranteed to happen in your book and build from them. Dwight Swain once said that all you need to write a book is three or four big events and a satisfying resolution. Even before you know the particulars of character and context, the events can help you lay the tracks.

Whenever you feel the story sag or characters stagnating look to the event(s) before and behind them so you know where they’re headed and how they got there. Events will help you track your character’s path and perspective as the story changes them. Use those events to crack them open like a piñata so you can shower the readers with candy.

Think eventfully and every story will become an unforgettable event of its own.

A professional development article for writers by M/M author Damon Suede

Copyright 2018. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

Originally published as a lecture for Romance University.

If you wish to republish this article, just drop me a line.