I’ve been struggling for months with the structure of my novel, and the main problem is back story. It’s the kind of romance where the hero and heroine were once very much in love then something happened, and now their marriage has been hell for a year or so. Then the story happens.
The only problem is, as soon as I tried to weave the earlier part of their story into the current one I just started writing the whole thing chronologically, from when they meet. Am just running with it at the mo, and figure that I’ll hit about 200,000 words then re-structure the whole thing – and that most of what I’m writing now will someday be a website extra.
Then yesterday I read the first chapter of Jennifer Crusie’s upcoming release, and was gobsmacked by how effortlessly she creates a whole history between her two characters that was over and done with ten years ago. All they’re really doing in this scene is having a pretty banal conversation, but she has managed to evoke a world of unfinished business and electric chemistry.
So, some thoughts on how she managed it:
1. She’s Jennifer Crusie.
2. Most of her character descriptions relate back to the previous relationship the two had, e.g. Andie jerked her head up and a lock of her hair fell out of her chignon. She stuffed it back into the clip on the back of her head as North’s neat, efficient secretary smiled at her, surrounded by the propriety of his Victorian architecture. If that secretary had a chignon, nothing would escape from it. North was probably crazy about her.
Crusie’s being very efficient here; we get to see the character, but we’re also getting a lot of information about what their relationship used to be like. It also tells us that Andie is still ever-so-slightly obsessed with North.
3. They’re still in love. This might seem kind of obvious, but even though the characters aren’t admitting their love to themselves, the way they observe each other is defined by their feelings. So we, as readers, see them in that heightened love kind of way, and it creates a real longing between them.
e.g. he looked up at her over his glasses, and the years fell away, and she was right back where she’d begun, staring into those blue-gray eyes, her heart pounding.
The other thing this does really well is ask the reader to imagine the scene where they began – what did Andie feel back then, staring into his eyes with her heart pounding, without any of the anger and bitterness of intervening years? Being asked to imagine it ourselves allows a lot of room to build their previous relationship without much input at all from Crusie.
4. Antagonism is the inverse of love. I can’t say why this is true, but when two characters who long to be together are kind of mean to each other it makes for a good read. I guess if they weren’t, you just wouldn’t think they cared. It kind of gives an inverse idea of what they used to feel.
5. Andie and North don’t see each other clearly – they’re listening for what they “know” to be true of each other. These points of view are very telling, as far as figuring out what happened between them.
The place is isolated, but the children seemed fine with their aunt, so we agreed it was best that they’d stay there with her in order to disrupt their lives as little as possible.”
And to disrupt yours as little as possible, Andie thought.
North waited, as if he expected her to say it out loud. When she didn’t, he went on.
Also, after we’ve heard Andie think about how North was a workaholic and didn’t even seem to remember she existed, we go into North’s head and reading between the lines we get that he didn’t think he was exciting/interesting/good enough to hold onto Andie, and that he was just making her miserable. Again, we get this by the way he sees her, how he “knows” she is.
6. They have some telling dialogue with each other, and also North with his brother, but it doesn’t feel contrived. I think the reason is that Crusie has begun the book at the point where they see each other for the first time in ten years, which creates a context for conversations about their marriage.
She also doesn’t go into a whole lot of exposition and just gives details that feel relevant to the characters. (She doesn’t have the brother say, for example: “Who’s Andie again?” giving North a lead in, or: “Oh, Andie, your ex-wife who blah blah blah.” In fact, the very familiar way the characters talk about her, without needing to fill in any gaps, gives a very strong impression of who she was in their family back then.
Which leads on to
7. Crusie gives very specific details. Our writing teacher is always asking for much more specific details (“When you remember high school you don’t just remember this general amorphous thing called ‘high school’, you remember specific details.”) and this is a great example of why.
When Andie remembers leaving, she remembers ten years ago when she’d bumped her suitcase on the door frame on her way out of town— and when North and his brother are talking about her, the brother remembers a very specific time that he met her, which gives us a world of information about her character and how stupidly besotted North was.
So I think the main lesson here is: Only write what the characters are still fixated on themselves. If the past is still very much alive for them in the present – in the what they think, the way they talk, the way they understand/misunderstand each other – then that will convey their whole history in a way that is still alive for the reader.