by Janelle James
Years ago, I had the chance to train for the circus. Alas, I am not currently traveling with Ringling Bros. But I don’t consider the experience a waste. I learned an important lesson from tightrope walking that helps in my current endeavor as a romance novelist. Tightrope walking and novel writing might not seem to have anything in common, but they do. Both need tension. Without the rope being pulled tight in opposite directions, it will sag, and without characters in a novel being pulled in opposite directions, the story will sag. And sagging never leads to success.
I’ve seen blurbs on books that read something like, “A shy librarian has been burned by love. When she meets the town’s new fireman, will she learn to trust again?” Boring, right? The story is sagging before it even starts. Where is the tension? The conflict? The insurmountable obstacles the characters need to overcome in order to be together?
Attraction needs to push your hero and heroine together, while the circumstances of their conflict continues to pull them apart. This tension is what creates an exciting story.
One of my favorite authors, Susan May Warren, is a master of tension. In Finding Stephanie, a beautiful Texas rancher wants to keep her small western town the way it is, while Lincoln Cash, a Hollywood Heartthrob wants to turn her town into a thriving movie set. Opposite agendas lead to lots of sparks.
How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days is a great example of how Hollywood often gets tension right. In order to win a big marketing campaign, Benjamin Barry bets his boss that he can make a woman fall in love with him in ten days. Andie Anderson has ten days to make Benjamin break up with her so she can write a magazine article about the needy and demanding things girls do to push guys away. In one amusing scene, Andie gives Benjamin a fern to symbolize their love, but her real agenda is to make him think she is a nut. It works. He thinks she is a nut alright, but he can’t send her away because he needs to win the bet. The fern becomes a symbol of their diametrically opposed agendas. In the final scene Benjamin presents Andie with the Love Fern as he declares he actually has fallen in love with her.
In my current manuscript, the hero is a wealthy Jamaican sugar plantation owner with one thousand slaves and the heroine is an abolitionist missionary. What other scenarios would create tension? An environmental activist and a developer. A PETA member and a cattle rancher. An Occupy Wall Street organizer and a billionaire. These are extreme examples, but the greater the circumstances pushing your hero and heroine apart, the greater the reward when they overcome their obstacles.
Keeping the tension strong between your characters will keep your readers turning pages. Remember, in tightrope walking and in story writing… no sagging allowed.
Janelle James loves her career as a social media specialist working with Fortune 500 brands everyday. She also loves burying herself in books…either reading them or writing them. She lives in San Francisco with her husband Nathan, who she met at an ACFW conference, and her daughter Annie. Thankfully, her older daughter Chloe and her son Wyatt live close by.