I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but I always stress over the first part of my story. Perhaps because I write backward. Well, I don’t really write backward, but the ending of the story usually hits me first, and I work from there.
Hence, my struggle with the opening chapters. Really, that is the most important part of the story.
Let’s face it. I write romance. By choice. There are twists and turns, circles and triangles and squares. In the end, it always leads to the same place. The happily ever after. By some definition or another.
But since I also tend to like gritty characters, the redeemable bad boy types, I really have a hard time making them seem loveable in the beginning. Depending on the way you’re wired, you might find them sexy. Totally doable, in the biblical sense. Redeemable? The way I position them, that’s a stretch.
With the vast array of books being pumped out every day, the writer has about three seconds to catch someone’s attention. And really, isn’t that a byproduct of our impatience in general.?
Facebook turned to Vines and evolved to Snapchat.
Since I’m of a certain age (don’t ask—I wouldn’t tell you answer anyway), I’m still in the Facebook stage of my technical evolution. I don’t know anything about the other two platforms I mentioned. What I do know is that they exist because they grab the public’s attention. Quickly. And first impressions are everything.
So if I’m writing a story in which the male lead is a total dog, no matter how well it turns out in the end, it’s all for naught if someone hates him in the first fifteen hundred words.
There is a formula, and writers follow it, strictly or loosely. Until they don’t.
The vast majority of writers takes the recipe, adds in a few ingredients to make it their own, and you—the reader—get the finished product. It’s like a cake, all pretty, with smooth icing and those little flowers that dot the edges. But there’s some writers out there, the really talented ones, that can add chili powder to a plain old chocolate cake recipe and make…magic.
Ah, to be one of those writers. The rare individual that can break the rules. I can bend them. But if I go too far, I can hear the tone in my editor’s voice.
“You can’t do that.”
And what she means by that is “I” can’t do that. That’s not to say it can’t be done.
Enter the anti-hero.
At some stage in my career, I’d love to be able to write a story about an anti-hero. A character that is utterly screwed up, from the top of his head (where his twisted thoughts lurk) to the tip of his toes. And still, we root for him. We want him to succeed. We want to believe in him when all the arrows on the compass point in the opposite directions.
Let’s take Kurt Sutter, for example. Since I love a bad boy, and a biker, I fell in deep love with his show “Sons of Anarchy” when it hit the airwaves a few years ago.
Several characters in his series were bad boys. And by that, I mean murdering bastards with no scruples.
Slowly, but surely, these characters met their demise. Since Kurt is a BRILLIANT writer, we mourned these characters in all their badness, but we knew they must die. It’s the formula. The recipe. The way of the world.
But there was this one guy. The pivotal lead character in his series. The way he was positioned, he was hard to love at times. Totally unredeemable. Yet we redeemed him. Right up until the end.
In the final episode, he killed his mother. KILLED HIS MOTHER. At her insistence, no less. You saw him standing there with the gun, pondering, suffering. And right up until the end you didn’t believe he would do it. But he did. Not to mention, he killed the guy that had been a lifelong champion of his family…just so he could get the chance to kill his mother.
Sure, he had his reasons. His mother “accidentally” killed his wife. But aren’t there laws for things like that? Courtrooms and prison. All that kind of stuff. Nope. Not for our anti-hero. He opened her head like a canoe and left her lying in a pile of her prized rosebushes.
At that point, you must hate him, right? It’s THE RULES. You see the ugly truth. The writing on the wall. He is truly unredeemable.
Without going further into this plot line—which I could discuss for days, by the way—our anti-hero somehow manages to evade the law for a precious few hours. You find him speaking to his dead father. You find him saying goodbye to his sons. Because you know he’s going to die. And you should be happy, right?
I wasn’t happy. I cried. Over a TV show.
Why? Because Kurt Sutter is a genius. He positioned this impossibly unredeemable character in such a way that we were rooting for him. He did this in subtle ways. Perhaps Kurt writes like I do. And he always knew this would be the lead characters fate. But instead of taking the easy way out, Kurt put a whole cup of chili powder in his chocolate cake recipe. And we ate it. Every one of us that was a fan of his story. Sometimes we had to choke it down, but right until the end, “The Final Ride,” we rooted for the anti-hero.
Someday, when I have the skill, I would like to be able to write that story. I would love to be able to take my readers on a journey into hell and have them thank me for the ride.
Until then, I will go back and do the revisions. I will make my cake, and there will be no chili. There might be another couple of crazy ingredients. But they will be sweet—not bitter—to the palate. I don’t have the talent to do that.
Some of us are Gordon Ramsey, and some of us are just some guy that works at a really nice restaurant. We will never know who the “some guy” is, but we can enjoy the food. Just like I will never be Kurt Sutter. But I too am a writer. And you might never know my name or remember it after you put down my sweet little romance. But I bet you’ll enjoy it. The sweet little romance that is.
And since I get to do what I love for a living, there are worse things than following the rules.
But someday…don’t be surprised if you pick up one of my stories…and get a big old slice of chocolate chili cake. And if a few people really like that crazy concoction, I know I will have done what I set out to do: make a new set of rules.