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01:18 pm: Wright's Writing Corner: Romantic Tension Two: Catching the Lightning—Part One

Snufkin (pictured above)
was one of my childhood crushes.

After last week, I felt that there was more to be said on this topic. But first, a brief history:


Before she married my father, my mother was a dancer. (She still dances. She is still taking ballet classes today.) When I was young, she shared with me an observation she had made about dancers. She said that some of the great dancers were born that way. They just arrived equipped to dazzle with the beauty of their dance. They were limber and graceful from the very start.

But the best dancers of all, the ones who outshone all the rest, most often were not the ones to whom dance came naturally. They were the ones who had slaved, who had suffered, to get where they were. Because they had both grace and control, while the first group, who had so much natural talent, often never bothered to do the extra work necessary for them to gain the same level of perfect control.


This has always given me hope, because I did not arrive as a natural storyteller. I only arrived loving stories.



When I got out of college and sat down to start writing seriously, all I had was a love of storytelling and a talent for writing dialogue. Everything else—description, emotion, action, body language, etc—was outside my grasp.


Slowly, painstakingly, I have taught myself one area of storytelling after another. Description was so hard for me. I spent years trying to learn to write even simple descriptions. I would copy by hand passages in books by authors I liked. I would sit and describe the same thing over and over. Sometimes, I wonder if none of the descriptions I write for the rest of my life will be quite as nice as the ones in Prospero Lost…because I polished them over and over and over again. I’ll never have that kind of time again for that. Luckily, nowadays, I can write at least a decent description in much less time.

It is still work, though. My first drafts always just have a spot where the word “description” stands by itself, reminding me to go back and add what something looks/smells/sounds like. Etc.


Then, I worked on action scenes (still a work in progress) and plotting, and more recently, I have been struggling with body language –putting across emotion through actions. I find this devilishly hard—so hard I am almost daunted. But I keep recalling that my mom says that I made a huge fuss when I had to write my first sentence and, later, my first paragraph—those things got easier, so I live with the perpetual hope that this will get easier, too.


As I said last week, the next mountain on my writing radar is: Romance. Now, I have not written much romance, but I LOVE romance. The pursuit of woman by man and visa versa just enchants and delights me. I have loved this since the moment of my birth, when—according to my sainted mother—I smiled at the doctors who had helped birth me. According to Mom, I took off after boys as soon as I could crawl and never stopped (until I got one!)


(My mom tells a funny story about two-year-old me and boys. I had a friend named Carl whom I used to follow around. Carl was an older man. He was four. Carl would run about with his dump truck, chanting: “Truck, truck truck.” I would toddle after him, imitating him.


Only, I could not say “th”, so I said “f”.


My very proper grandmother came upon us one day and exclaimed in horror, “My they are starting young!”)


Enough historical aside. Back to romance.


One of my favorite things about reading romances—either the genre called romance or the romantic plot in any other kind of story—is the moments that zing. By zing, I mean the moments when  that jolt me like I have received a shock, or in a really good book, a lightning bolt. The moments that leap off the page.


First kiss is often a zing moment. But more recently, I began to study these moments more careful, to realize that there were quite a number of potential zing moments and that many authors do not make as good use of them as they could.


A zing moment is the moment when we the reader feel the electricity between the characters. They are the moments when the relationship between the two lovers is intensified…when they realize or admit another step of attraction.


Kissing is one such step, but so is the moment the girl realizes she likes this man better than her other beaux; the moment when he realizes he cannot stop thinking about her; the moment she realizes that she is in love. These are the game changing moments, and the more of them the author stops to highlight, the more enjoyable the story.


Zing moments mainly take place between the lovers, but they can take place from a third person’s point of view: a family member or close friend, a member of the community, and, especially, a rival. The moment these folks become aware of the attraction between the unlikely pair (romance is almost always between ‘unlikely pairs’) often really stands out.


Here is my favorite zing moment, from another person’s point of view, of all time. I am writing it out in full.  Next week, I will say more about zing moments and my ongoing  attempt to list them.


From where he sat at the card table [Pierre] he could see Natasha, and was struck by the curious change that had come over her since the night of the ball. She scarcely spoke, and not only was she less pretty than she had been at the ball, but she would have looked positively plain had it not been for her look of benign indifference to everything around her.


“What is the matter with her?” Pierre wondered, glancing at her.


…Pierre, hearing greetings and the sound of someone entering the room, again glanced at Natasha as he picked up his tricks.


“What has happened to her?” he asked himself, till more amazed.

Prince Andrei was standing before her, saying something to her with a look of guarded tenderness. She had raised her head and was looking at him, blushing and visibly trying to control her rapid breathing. And the radiance of some inner fire that before had been extinguished glowed anew in her. She was transformed: from a plain girl she had again become what she had been at the ball.


Prince Andrei went up to Pierre, and Pierre noticed a new and youthful expression in his friend’s face.


Pierre changed places several times in the course of  the game, sitting now with his back to Natasha, now facing her, and in the course of six rubbers he played continued o observer her and his friend.


“There is something very serious happening between them,” thought Pierre, and his mixed feelings of joy and bitterness so agitated him that they made him neglect his game.

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy


Let me know your favorite zing moments in romance. If they are not already in my list, I will add them!




[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 06:18 pm (UTC)
“It is, to be sure; and when you get to Bitternutt Lodge, Connaught, Ireland, I shall never see you again, Jane; that's morally certain. I never go over to Ireland, not having myself much of a fancy for the country. We have been good friends, Jane; have we not?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And when friends are on the eve of separation they like to spend the little time that remains to them close to each other. Come!—we'll talk over the voyage and the parting quietly, half an hour or so, while the stars enter into their shining life up in heaven yonder: here is the chestnut-tree: here is the bench at its old roots. Come, we will sit there in peace to-night, though we should never more be destined to sit there together.” He seated me and himself.

“It is a long way to Ireland, Janet, and I am sorry to send my little friend on such weary travels: but if I can't do better, how is it to be helped? Are you anything akin to me, do you think, Jane?”

I could risk no sort of answer by this time: my heart was full.

“Because,” he said, “I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you—especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapped; and then I've a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you—you'd forget me.”

“That I never should, sir: You know—” impossible to proceed.
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 06:31 pm (UTC)
Ah yes! That zings with the best of them.

I have not read that book in years, but once I really loved it. I think the older gothics often are better than the modern romances, because they had to do more with less explicitness.
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 10:34 pm (UTC)
Jane Eyre is my favorite book. That passage is exquisite.
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 06:30 pm (UTC)
Then, there's the ever popular "Ack! He's in danger!" moments, when the other character doesn't even have to be on scene.
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 06:33 pm (UTC)
When the 'he's in danger' brings out a sudden recognition of the heroine's feelings it really zings.

A lot of zing moments are when the zingee is alone. They often happen when a character realizes their feelings for their beloved, so the beloved is often not present at the time.
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 06:34 pm (UTC)

On adding the description

Sometimes it's wise to work on one thing at a time and not try to juggle two things you haven't mastered.

I used to write a short story all the way through, and only then go back and put in the motives and thoughts and reactions.
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 06:47 pm (UTC)

Re: On adding the description

Writers have to juggle all balls at once, of course...

>I used to write a short story all the way through, and only then go back and put in the motives and thoughts and reactions.

I do things like that, too, though. I think of it like laying transparencies on an overhead machine...filling in one part of the story, then another, then another. The first version is block action and dialogue, then description, then emotions, thoughts, reactions. Then fine-tuning.

Romance is really a subset of the body language emotional issue...but it has it's own mood and rules.

Someday, when I finish all this, I'll move on to fear. Putting across fear is another subset, one I have no knowledge of how to do. (Though there are scenes in the Prospero Books that my brother found scary, even though they did not seem that way to me...so maybe I'm ahead of where I think I am.)

[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 07:34 pm (UTC)

Re: Juggling

I take to heart William Goldman's advice on writing a novel in The Princess Bride -- metaphorically couched -- in Domingo Montoya's description of designing a sword for a six-fingered man.

As for zings: The fading "As you wish..." as Buttercup pushes The Dread Pirate Roberts down the hill.

Another, by Lois McMaster Bujold in Shards of Honor:

[Cordelia's mother, after Cap. Naismith's been released as a POW, back on Beta Colony] "So what does the man have, anyway?"

"I don't know. The virtues of his vices, perhaps. Courage. Strength. Energy. He could run me into the ground any day. He has power over people. Not leadership, exactly, although there's that too. They either worship him or hate his guts. The strangest man I ever met did both at the same time. But nobody falls asleep whenhe's around."

"And which category do you fall in, Cordelia?" asked her mother, bemused.

"Well, I don't hate him. Can't say I worship him, either." She paused a long time, and looked up to meet her mother's eyes squarely. "But when he's cut, I bleed."

"Oh," said her mother, whitely. Her mouth smiled, her eyes flinched, and she busied herself with unnecessary vigor in getting Cordelia's meager belongings settled.


Cordelia and Aral never state nor think, in the course of the book to that point, the word "love" about each other.

Because they don't, Cordelia's admission falls with the weight and acuteness of a guillotine.

Date:May 26th, 2010 06:35 pm (UTC)

Memories That Weren't....

I don't know if this counts, but here goes.

A kind of "zing" moment that popped up, quite naturally, in the story I'm working on was inside the mind of a female character. She is in her late 50s and the man she loves is even older -- the point being always hinted that they had long loved each other but never quite acted upon it: never expressed it in any explicit words, never married, never had a family. The little hints in the first half of the novel point to a certain sadness, to an opportunity passed up. But it's never openly discussed.

There is a moment when the woman comes upon a sudden and passing danger of death while trying to rescue this man from danger. In that moment, her mind becomes flush with images that she was able to keep at bay before: a wedding that never was, the image of his face as the father of her children, a life spent in warmth together, the cold feeling of regret absent, embraces, etc.

The moment passes but it changes the character and drives her to forget the regret and live for whatever few days or weeks or months may be left.

I guess that is the type of "zing" moment where a character who has been holding back feelings suddenly has that control taken away; has those feelings tear through their soul like uncontrolled winds, like the feeling of chaos, dangerous yet beautiful, that is the experience of "falling in love".

Does that fit here?
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 06:35 pm (UTC)

Re: Memories That Weren't....

Sorry...that was my post. I forget to sign in!
[User Picture]
Date:May 26th, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)

Re: Memories That Weren't....

Yes!!! That is it exactly! Even your description here had zing! Especially the wedding that never was, etc.

It is those exact moments: the moments when the characters must acknowledge what the reader may well know already...that their feelings are more engaged than they were willing to admit.

Sounds like a wonderful scene!
[User Picture]
Date:May 27th, 2010 04:19 am (UTC)

going straight to the heart of this post


My spousal unit's eldest son had a bit of the same trouble, when he was young. He not only had difficulty with 't's, but also trouble with words with more than two syllables, combined with a great love of KFC. As they would drive past a Kentucky Fried Chicken establishment, his grandmother would point it out to him and say, "Look! What's that?"

I'm told his response was loud and enthusiastic, and drew some considerable attention from pedestrians.
[User Picture]
Date:May 27th, 2010 11:48 am (UTC)

Re: going straight to the heart of this post


Kids are great.
Date:May 27th, 2010 11:38 am (UTC)

The opposite of zing

Of course, the opposite of zing is what is provided by authors that want you on tenterhooks for every line. Their characters apparently can't walk down the street or draw breath without being afflicted by desire, and every single man they meet is a buffet of yumminess which they must describe in thought.

Holy crud, I get so tired of that. Especially since they seem to think that emerald is a common eye color.

(Since I can rarely make out anybody's eye color without the aid of a camera close up on the screen, or being practically at nostril distance in real life, I really really get tired of the whole eye color trope.)

(There are a few people out there who really do have noticeable eye color, but usually it's the result of contacts, not nature. It is a riveting effect, particularly when real; but that's because so few people do have eyes with colors that stand out. Brightly colored eyes, or pale pale eyes, are just not normal in most populations. If somebody has hazel or otherwise nondescript eye color, nobody's going to be able to tell without getting very close.)

(Sorry. Rabbit hole.)

Anyway... zing does require pacing. Unexpectedness is good, and looking at the matter at different angles and moments is good. But not every moment has to be in alt.
[User Picture]
Date:May 27th, 2010 12:12 pm (UTC)

Re: The opposite of zing

That's a really good point! And I really agree with you!

(Though not on the eye color thing. I love eye colors. Your example made me laugh because my main character Miranda has green eyes that she describes as matching her Emerald dress. But that is her talking abou ther own eye color (and, in the long run there's a reason why the Italian girl has such an unusual eye color.)

(In real life, I find I notice some eyes and not others. My youngest son's blue eyes often get commented on. My middle son, the Cherubim, has eyes the color of mercury...kind of green and yellow combining into gray...but it's not the color of his eyes one tends to notice.

(I once fell in love with a picture of a child from Ethiopia because her eyes reminded me of the Cherubim--these gorgeous, open, almost magnetic eyes that seemed to look right into you. We inquired about her (We had been waiting for China for more than two years at that point and I was wondering if we should try some other country.) and discovered she was just like the Cherubim. John felt two autistic children would be too much for us, so we continued to wait for China...but I still pray for her and wonder how I was able to pick her out just by her eyes in a photograph.)

But yeah...telling me that the POV character feels desire doesn't do much for me...unless the author makes the character being oggled desirable first.
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