40K(ish) Milestone and The Dangers of Being Way Too Literal

Word count from word processor, showing 43,736 wordsAmidst the distractions and technical disasters (nope, still not fully fixed), I finally limped past the 40,000-word mark on the fantasy romance, which encompassed the “Inexplicable Anger That Somebody I DON’T EVEN LIKE Could Have DIED” scene, with a side of “I Saved Your Miserable Life So Now We’re Even/Actually I Only Got In Your Way Last Time Instead Of Helping You So Now I’m Doubly In Your Debt” fries.

That debt might come up later. Just sayin’.

I’m currently somewhere in the overly long and in need of massive remodeling “EXCUSE ME, did you just try to put your MOUTH on me?” scene, which is tricky and therefore will be blown off for a day in favor of a writing rant I swore two days ago I wasn’t going to touch.

Someone complained about the inclusion of the Dark Moment in genre romance, rapidly joined by a chorus of “I hate reading them!” and “I hate writing them!” and “I’m sick of stupid third-act fights!” and “Joseph Campbell can suck eggs!”

Where does ol’ Joe come into this? Campbell is responsible for promoting the monomyth, more popularly known as the Hero’s Journey, a story structure cannibalized by pretty much everybody trying to sell a story structure. They rename and break into smaller chunks, but if you look closely, you can see Campbell’s bones, which are (short version off the top of my head): Everyday World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, First Threshold, Trials and Temptations, Death, Rebirth, Second Threshold, Return (to the original world as a changed person with knowledge to share). There’s extra noodly stuff about goddesses and daddy issues, but we’re not going to squint at the fine print today. He wrote a huge textbook packed with dense, tiny type that “proves” enduring stories from all over the word fit this model. 

(Of course, if he found a million enduring stories that no amount of twisting would cram into his mold, he wouldn’t have mentioned them in his book. Academia is quirky that way.)

I’m not well versed enough in global literary history to point you toward resources contrary to Campbell’s monomyth, but you need look no further than literary fiction to see that structure disregarded. The Hero’s Journey is a plot structure, and literary fiction is often an exploration of character with no plot at all and as such doesn’t even wave at Campbell from a distance. Voilà! There’s proof his structure isn’t necessary when telling a story.

I’m on record as saying Campbell is overrated (“I think The Hero’s Journey is an overhyped tool“), but overrated/overhyped doesn’t mean devoid of value. It is not the only way to tell a story, but it is one effective way to tell a story, and it’s the one most likely to be comfortably familiar to a Western/Eurocentric audience that has been immersed in this form and, shall we say, culturally resistant to broader influences.

The romance beats I mentioned in my synopsis post track back to Campbell. For my purposes, I labeled the “Dark Moment” as Withdrawal. Many Writing Romance for Beginners sources refer to it as “The Breakup,” and here is where supposedly creative people create problems by being way too literal.

“The Breakup” is a bullet point that fits tidily on a workshop slide. It’s not the extent of what can occur here.

I’m going to come at this first from Campbell’s angle because I think hyperfocus on genre romance without wider context is part of the creative problem. (Specialization is great! You can get better at your specialty by adding knowledge from outside it.)

In Campbell’s version, where “Breakup” appears in genre romance, the corresponding beat is “Death.” If you take that beat at face value, you kill the Hero and the Journey ends. The existence of beats beyond that one is a clue that taking it literally isn’t the best approach.

(You can literally kill the Hero. He could rise as a zombie to complete his journey or another character could slide into the role to do it for him. I’m not saying it would be easy to do WELL, but it is a choice that someone could make.)

Here’s a small sample of alternatives to literal Death of the Hero: Someone Hero cares about dies or otherwise leaves. Hero’s sanctuary burns to the ground. A ruler is removed from power. Hero kills someone else. The last barricade holding off an overwhelming enemy force falls. Hero’s entire supply of food falls overboard and is gobbled up by a shark.

Death can be any devastating loss that boots Hero off the path to the goal. He loses the support of a mentor or friend. He loses a lifetime of research or all the evidence against the villain when his office goes up in flames. The queen, whether Hero loved or hated her, is replaced by her demonstrably more evil cousin and the entire kingdom loses freedom. He has blood on his hands and realizes too late he made a terrible mistake, losing his honor and sense of self. The enemy closes in and he loses all hope of survival.

Anything can be sacrificed on Death’s chopping block, literal or symbolic, as long as the result is loss and grief and not knowing how (or even if) to go on after this setback. Hero is forced to question who he’s been, how that got him into this miserable situation, and who he’s going to choose to be going forward, which will prompt change (unless he chooses to sustain the miserable situation forever by being stubborn, which is the stuff literary tragedy is made of).

Now let’s transfer “anything, literal or symbolic” over to the corresponding Breakup slide. 

You can have the lovers fight and break up. If you set up this event in advance, foreshadowing from early in the story that there is a nonnegotiable deal-breaker, you can even do the literal WELL.

You could also, less literally (not a comprehensive list, just spitballing):

  • Cast Death upon someone close to Hero. Grief is isolating, and there’s a fine line between supporting a grieving loved one and their perception they’re being pushed to “cheer up.” Or maybe the loved one had a loss in the past and wanted to be left alone and therefore backs off, but this griever needs to be smothered in love and feels abandoned.
  • Flare of jealousy and suspicion upon witnessing some apparently intimate moment between the loved one and someone else BUT instead of flipping out, Hero thinks “Wow, that’s ugly and needs therapy” and decides not to dump every irrational thought on the other person, perhaps because she has experience, personal or secondhand, with jealousy and has made it clear she wants nothing to do with it now, and he thinks he can get his shit together before it affects her. Meanwhile, she notices his mind is elsewhere and he pauses before saying anything to her as if weighing every word, and the lack of communication is a sign to her they’re doomed.
  • An external force credibly threatens to separate the lovers or succeeds in doing so. In romantic suspense, the kidnapper/murderer/whatever would take their best villainous shot here. One of the lovers might even think the other is dead. It doesn’t have to be life-or-death danger forcing them apart, though. It could be a vacation or temporary work assignment that’s ending and sending the lovers to responsibilities elsewhere. It could be the clock running out on a time-travel spell. It could be an heiress’s father promising to frame the love interest for some heinous crime and ruin his life if she doesn’t end the relationship.

There are no fights between the lovers here. They don’t suddenly hate each other as a plot contrivance. There are no easy solutions. External circumstances and/or earnest attempts to cope with personal emotional issues are pulling them apart.

The function of the Breakup beat is to confront the mortality of the relationship (per the beat’s origins as Death). Some form of wedge is driven between the lovers, resulting in physical separation or emotional withdrawal (which is how I prefer to refer to this segment because it’s less easy to take literally). There’s no end of perfectly reasonable things that might end a relationship. Unless it’s their first relationship, they’ve already survived some endings. Why is this end unacceptable? How is this relationship different from the ones they walked away from at this stage? Why, this time, are they willing to do the work to get to HEA?

Because this relationship has changed them for the better. Because this loss would leave a ghost that will haunt them forever. Because they can’t imagine ever feeling whole or at home again without this person to love, so they’ll take responsibility for their own actions, make things right, and do better going forward to make sure they’re never divided again.

Some people will say it’s possible to have these revelations over a nice cup of tea on a peaceful morning without all the angst. Happens all the time in real life. Everything doesn’t have to be high drama. People can just quietly fall in love with no opposition. They’re great the way they are, they don’t need to change at all, their lives fuse painlessly, and everything is fabulous for them forevermore.

I’ll admit that sounds ideal—in real life. You might like to read it in books, and if that is the case, I wish you many opportunities to do so and hope it lives up to your expectations.

I, on the other hand, DNF 40% of what I read, and a significant chunk of that is because NOTHING IS HAPPENING. Oh, sure, words are being said, clothes are hitting the floor, actual bombs may be going off in the background, but if there’s no point to the busy-ness—no goal, no conflict with an obstruction to the goal, no consequences for failing to attain the goal—there’s no sense of progress toward an eventual victory. 

A person, real-life or fictional, who is going to gently drift on an ocean of happiness with no challenges or potential for failure could not be less interesting to me. “Here’s everything you want on a silver platter, no charge, don’t worry about the tip, of course there’s no curse involved, silly” is the sort of privileged ease I want to see fail. I don’t cheer for people who just have to show up to be declared the winner.

I’m heartened by people who struggle and hurt and screw up and gaze into the abyss and then get their shit together and seize happiness with both hands. Those people, real-life and fictional, have damn well earned their victory, and I require that to feel satisfied at the end of a story.

If you associate the 2/3–3/4 stretch of romance with “stupid third-act fights” that you never want to see again, the blame lies with too many authors who (a) are unable to imagine the Breakup as anything but breaking up and (b) don’t bother to properly set up their way-too-literal breakups so they’re logical and inevitable. (Bonus points for making the logical and inevitable a terrible surprise, but “surprise them with what they’re expecting” is the move of a true master.) The problem isn’t the presence of a Dark Moment in a story that’s supposed to make you feel good. The problem is the Dark Moment has been written badly so often people have accepted it as the genre standard.

I wish writers would experiment with other forms rather than writing “mandatory” scenes they clearly hate, which end up being ineffective because not even their creator believes in them. They’re not doing themselves or their readers a favor by grudgingly forcing an unwanted plot point into their stories. Write the smooth-sailing romance of your dreams and love on every word of it. Not everybody will love it as much as you do, but that’s true of everything you will ever write, so cast off the Dark Moment shackles! 

If that liberation turns out to be less rewarding than you’d hoped, you can always come back to Campbell-descended structures with a less literal interpretation of what constitutes a Dark Moment in a romance plot.

There’s tremendous potential beyond “…and the mandatory senseless breakup goes here.”

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