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Once upon a time there was a conflicted princess who was in love with a handsome, noble knight; however, she was sworn to marry an unknown prince from a far away land. Because she loved her father, she did not want to do anything that would shame her in his eyes, but neither did she want to give up what might her only chance for true love. So…
A. She marries the unknown prince
B. She marries the knight
C. She proposes a contest for all the noble men (including said prince) to joust for her hand
So say we pick A. She marries the unknown prince, even though her heart remains with the noble knight. She is terribly unhappy in her new marriage, but she comforts herself that she’s done the right thing. NOW PICK ONE.
A. The prince slowly seduces her, winning her heart, and she is now newly conflicted with being in love with two men. She’s sworn to remain true to her beloved knight, but she can’t help but be seized by raptures in the prince’s bed
B. The prince takes a mistress, and the princess is even more miserable. The prince also berates her for not being very princess-like. She must do something. She can’t remain here; she must….
C. Her beloved knight is also now part of her personal bodyguard. She begins an affair with him, even though she knows if she is caught, they will both die
Those are interesting turns-of-events; however, I’m curious what would have happened if she had married the knight. So let’s go back a step and pick B.
A. She elopes with the knight, but the prince, furious with her betrayal, follows her and kills the knight in a post-honeymoon fight. He takes her back to his castle but plans to keep her as a whore
B. She elopes with the knight, but her father cuts her off. The knight becomes a mercenary, and though they struggle to make ends meet, they still love each other (and can’t keep their hands off each other)
C. After eloping and being cut off from her father, the knight becomes resentful of the constant struggle—and blames her for their lack of financial circumstances. He tells her she should have married the prince, then they’d both be happy
Hmm. That one was a bit dark, but the option A would be an interesting plot development, wouldn’t it? Okay, what if we’d picked C.
A. The prince wins, and she marries him, grudging, but admiring of his skill to even beat her beloved knight. He whisks her back to the castle, unaware she’s still carrying a torch for the unseated knight
B. The knight wins, and she marries him. Her father gives her the dowry she would have gotten for the prince; and they move North to a castle property that belonged to her mother.
C. Neither of them wins. Gareth, Earl of Swinehearth, won the tournament, and he is now the lucky guy who gets to wed her. Only he was such an appalling bastard when they were children, how will she stand it?
Do we see what the problem is yet?
Too many choices. Not all of these are “great” choices; some of them are no-brainer “discard”, but there are several that would actually be interesting to pursue, that would have interesting and overarching conflict for at least 400 pages. What’s a writer to do?
When I first started eating Chinese food, I only ate Twice-Cooked Pork, Crab Rangoon, and Hot and Sour soup. It was so much easier to order when I didn’t pursue other choices to see if there was anything better or equally enjoyable. Now I look at a Chinese menu, and it takes a half-hour to decide what I want. Oh, look steamed dumplings! But oh, oh, vegetable lo mein—how I do adore those spicy noodles! OMG! They have Ginger Chicken. Well, I have to order that, but how can I get that when I’m craving dumplings? And soup. Don’t forget the soup. I walk out with $20 of food that ends up feeding me for the next three days.
You can’t do that in a romance. 400 pages is it. You’re allowed to spend $7.85 and that’s it. Now what do you order? You certainly do not want to be sitting at the table with your selection and go, “Damn, I should have ordered the Ginger Chicken.” You do not want to get to page 300 of your novel and go: “Maybe I should have had her marry the Earl of Swinehearth; he was kinda cute for a bastard.”
How do I know which was the right choice? Because if you’ve done your work on your characters, even your less “obvious choice” characters will be right your hero or heroine. Think of Sweet Home Alabama. Two great hero choices—so it basically boiled down to the guy who was her roots and the guy who was her wings. Mr. Roots won out, but only because he had come up enough in the world to be able to understand her need for things outside their small town and a willingness (and ability) to help with her wings. He could give her both. But does that mean Mr. Wings couldn’t have given her roots? Is small-town family life the only married life that is ideal? Can you not be happy married and living in New York City, vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard, and dropping off your kids at private school?
My friend Tammy said that movie ended wrong. She wanted Patrick Dempsey and couldn’t imagine any woman in her right mind picking redneck Josh Lucas. My best friend and I sighed and said, “Josh.” And Tammy said, “I rest my case.” And secretly I think she’s right. I think Felony Melonie could have been just as happy with Patrick as she was with Josh.
So what’s the right course for your book? What if you have so many options, you feel a bit like Jack looking at his compass, watching the needle spin because you don’t know what you want. You want a happy ending. But happy endings come in many different guises. Which one is the happiest for this character? How do you decide? Put them all in a hat and just start pulling them out?
So choose your own blog ending question:
A. Do you think Felony Melonie picked the right man at the end of Sweet Home Alabama? Why or why not?
B. Do you have this problem with writing? How do you overcome it? Or if you’re a reader, do you read a new plot point and think, “God, why did she go there? That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard!”?
C. Which way would you have told the story above?