A well-told story is about more than just stuff that happens. Beneath even a comical plot are undercurrents, honest portrayals about how life works and what it means to be human. In other words, good books not only entertain us, they give us life lessons.
The stories we love—and our favorite songs too—are about more than one thing. So as you write, consider this: Are you telling a one-dimensional story? Or do you raise questions that will simmer in your reader’s mind? Is there subtle resonance? What will your reader take away once your book is finished?
Fiction is powerful stuff. I don’t want to play the heavy here, but what the heck are we doing when we write? What will our daughters—younger women who read our books—learn from our romantic fiction? That a handsome male, predatory—but wealthy! and hot!—who gives in to his passionate desire and ravishes the heroine, will later fall in love with her? So deeply and completely that he begs her to marry him? And thus become a wonderful husband? Friends, think. Is this how life works? Is it?
Don’t make your reader check her brains at the door. Give her entertainment—something to cry over and laugh about—but also give her truth. Honesty is the stuff of timeless fiction, and it’s why quality writing is so blasted difficult. For your goal is not only to be read, but to be reread.
Here’s an example of what I mean. As we saw in Saturday’s K post, my heroine has decided to marry for money—what woman hasn’t toyed with this idea, right? Marriage offers independence and rescue from her father’s pending bankruptcy and social ruin. She’s made several desperate attempts, and in so doing has attracted the attention of men she previously would have considered beneath her.
What will my readers take away from this scene? Plenty of Ick, if I’ve done my job right. Because this is how predatory-but-wealthy men are. Only in our day, a similar fellow sports sunglasses and a tan, an open-necked shirt, and a prominent gold chain. And perhaps—oh dear—youthful dental implants?
Sir Henry enters the story as a semi-comic figure, and we roll our eyes. But then…
Church Street was narrow and the buildings on either side of it were tall, yet there were many passers by. Sir Henry Farley was well known; she dared not cause a scene by tearing herself from his grasp. But how could she escape?
Meanwhile his voice—so quiet and yet so penetrating! —droned on. He must now describe to her in detail her own beauties—the luscious curve of her neck; the shine of her luxuriant hair (which he knew was waiting to be released from its bonds); the hidden deliciousness of her figure. To hear such things made Elizabeth’s skin crawl.
“Surely I’m imagining this,” she told herself. Sir Henry Farley was her father’s friend. How did he dare to say such things to her?
“What I like most in you,” he was now saying, “is your independence, my sweet. You are your own woman. You are not bound by social conventions or by the opinions of others.”
“That is not true, Sir Henry,” she said.
He merely laughed. “My sweet, your modesty is charming! But dissembling of this kind is unnecessary with me! For I have seen you with him myself.”
Elizabeth’s head came up. What had he seen?
The man’s eyes were bright and mocking. “The fellow in the brown coat,” he said, smiling. “One of your many conquests, no doubt.”
“I have no idea of whom you are speaking,” she said, with a confidence she did not feel. “Bath is filed with men in brown coats.”
“But this was a most unusual fellow. Oh, you needn’t fret; I don’t object to a woman’s having adventures prior to entering my protection. Experience gives a certain spice to life, does it not?” He lowered his voice. “I don’t know him of course, but I do remember this: his coat had patches on the elbows.”
Elizabeth gave a gasp. He had seen her with Patrick Gill!
Sir Henry chuckled at her blushes. He laid his gloved hand over hers and gave it a squeeze. “Charming, he repeated. “Absolutely charming. His was the admiration of a truly desirable woman. I salute you.”
Elizabeth fought to maintain composure. If Sir Henry had seen her with Mr Gill, what else had he seen? How much did he know? And when she refused his offer, as surely she must, what would he do?
“You were made for Paris, the eternal city of lovers,” he murmured. “In my younger days, that is exactly where I would have taken you, to my house in Paris.” He pressed more closely against her. “As you know, these arrangements are understood in Paris.”
Bile rose in Elizabeth’s throat. She willed it down and kept walking. The Abbey walls came into view. There were angels carved into the walls—angels climbing a ladder to heaven. Elizabeth wished she could climb with them, away from Sir Henry’s abhorrent whispers! To reach the Abbey door was now her object. Surely he would not accost her in church!
“My sweet, you have not been attending!” He smiled, revealing a set of even, stained teeth which once must have been quite fine. “You have not yet given me your answer.”
“You are too kind, Sir Henry,” she managed to bleat.
“Ah! But I long to be kinder still.”
Hating herself, Elizabeth said, “Must I give an answer now?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Do not keep me in suspense, my sweet. For having aroused my interest, I shall not be kept waiting.” He lowered his voice further. “The sap must come out of the tree, you know.”
For tomorrow’s M post—April 15th—I’ll talk about Money. Because the hero gots to have some.
[excerpt from Mercy’s Embrace: So Lively a Chase by Laura Hile, 2009]