Moving On

Losing at love is a common topic for a romantic plot line. That’s because the fall from a state of bliss creates anguish, which is an ideal way to foment ongoing tension in a character. Remembering the good times makes use of time shifts, a narrative technique that readers enjoy. In many cases, the unhappiness is succeeded by a new attempt at love, and the mistrust engendered by the past partner creates trust issues with the new one. As a plot premise, a broken heart has to be rated as A+.

What works well as a book opens, however, can become depressing, even annoying, as the story ventures forward. Part of the reason is that despair is bleak, and there is only so much of it a reader can take. We already know life sucks; why do you think we’re escaping into a book? Hand in hand with this feeling, a novel usually holds out a reason to hope. There is a way to higher ground, if only the character can find it.

Another reason is stagnation. Once the initial circumstances of the past love affair—the winning ways of the partner, the relief from prior loneliness, the fun escapades shared—are laid out, often over a lengthy course, maybe a few hundred pages, a character can be increasingly seen as running in place. Get over it already. Don’t you see that new guy likes you? Are you blind?

This growing perception is driven by the forward momentum of other characters in the novel. They are getting somewhere in their quests, and thereby they draw a reader’s interest. By contrast, a character still moping becomes a less desirable plot line to follow. With that character, the second verse is the same as the first. And the third. And the fourth . . .

An author often responds to this urgency by cutting down on background scenes, limiting the past thoughts to a paragraph or two before pushing forward into the present. In some ways, this transition period is worse—because that sort of work is distant storytelling. We’re not even getting a fully realized scene anymore. Even if it occurred in the past, at least the reader can immerse himself in it.

A better tack may be to transfer the bitterness caused by the old lover onto the new one. The sourness becomes a distorted prism through which the present is viewed, one that is broken by the growing realization that love rules all, even a new, not as amazing, love. However tempered, it does represent forward progress.

Exercise: Once the original scope of the past love is laid out, over the course of a few scenes, mix in the new love interest. Give the reader some hope, even if the light is all the way at the other end of the tunnel. By halfway through, the past can be intermixed with the present—by the new partner demanding to be taken seriously.

“I think about you. But I don't say it anymore.”
—Marguerite Duras

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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