In this time of pandemic, lockdown, global warming and general mayhem, I find I’m doing a lot of reading. And not, surprisingly, of SFR. For some reason, I don’t want to read about the future, about technology or science or shiny spaceships going to far-off planets. And certainly not about apocalyptic dystopias. I’ve got enough of that right out my front door, thank you very much. No, I choose to lose myself in the past a lot these days, in a time that may not have been any better, or even simpler, but was different enough from today that I can truly escape from the world of computers and cell phones and television news trumpeting the latest inanity 24-7.
I’ve written before of my admiration for historical romance writer Eloisa James, whose work was my entrée into the subgenre, and her incomparable talent for witty dialogue. I’ve blown through her catalogue and I’m anxiously awaiting her next book. Author Kelly Bowen has a way with broody heroes and quirky heroines. Mary Balogh writes beautifully of wounded heroes and heroines and how love heals. But right now I’m in the middle of a long string of books by Grace Burrowes, who is devilishly good at setting up what appears at first to be an insurmountable dilemma for her hero and heroine.
This, of course, is the essence of the drama in a romance novel. In the girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-gets-boy-back, happy-ever-after romance arc, the central dilemma is behind the whole loss part. The loss, or black moment, is inevitable, if you’ve set up the dilemma correctly, because the hero and heroine have different goals and motivations, which lead to an underlying conflict of interest. How the lovers resolve the conflict/dilemma and find their happy ending keeps you turning pages. The more seemingly unsolvable the puzzle, the faster you’ll read, even when you know (because this is a romance!) that the story will have a happy ending.
For example, in A Truly Perfect Gentleman, The True Gentlemen Book 6, the hero is a newly minted country earl with lots of brothers and tenants (not to mention a crumbling estate) to support. He needs to marry a wealthy heiress. But despite the financial pressure, he’s just not the fortune-hunting type. What’s worse, he’s already met and fallen in love with the heroine, a respectable widow who, alas, has not much money. Even she recognizes she’s not the right person for him and tries to bow out gracefully, though she loves him, too. Can they find their HEA, despite disasters at the home estate, uncooperative siblings and several wealthy young ladies who have set their caps at the earl?
Well, yes, of course they can (and do), but all along it seemed like a narrow thing, thanks to the talent of the author, who keeps putting obstacles in her lovers’ path and reminding her readers that success is just impossible. As a reader, I’m enthralled, devouring the book—all Burrowes’s books—in a fever until the HEA is achieved at last. As a writer, I’m constantly trying to dissect the author’s methods, to see if I can learn her secrets.
One thing, at least, is obvious, if not easy to do: you have to keep up the pressure. My mentor in this business, science fiction author A.C. Crispin, once said you have to chase your protagonist up a tree, set a lion at the base of the tree, then throw rocks at your guy (or gal). In other words, you have to do everything you can to make it hard for your hero and heroine, throw obstacles in their paths, set up roadblocks, pile it on. Make your readers believe their situation is impossible, unresolvable. Only then can you perform the miracle of the happy ever after ending.
No danger of that with Grace Burrowes’s books. Every conflict is genuine, every dilemma seems incapable of resolution. Until it isn’t. Because, of course, this is romance, where we are guaranteed a happy ending.