My latest contemporary romance novel, The Letter, differs from my others. This time I didn’t kill any of the characters. Not one. Which is a first for me. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not a sociopathic serial killer. At least not in the real world. But as a novel writer, I have to create conflict and drama in my stories to keep them interesting, and when it comes to creating drama, death is about as good as it gets.
Most of the time, the dearly departed is a notorious villain with whom karma has finally caught up with. Big time. In most of my novels a bad guy, or gal, had it coming. The one exception was The Journey, where I had to kill a supporting character who I truly liked. So much so that I tried writing alternate scenes in which she survived, but they just didn’t work as well. Killing this particular character off heightened the drama, making the story more intense and a more interesting read. Nevertheless, having to write this character out made me feel genuinely sad.
There was one character in The Letter I thought of killing off. Like most of my victims, she was a despicable antagonist. However, unlike the others, this character also had a young child, and I simply couldn’t bring myself to create an orphan. So, this time, instead of an untimely if not painful death, it’s a terrifying near death experience. Surely you didn’t think I’d let a villain get away scot-free, did you?
I’ve been busy putting the final touches on the first draft for my upcoming contemporary romance novel, The Letter, and I’m now entering what I call, the cleanup phase.
Something about traditionally published romance novels has always bothered me. The author would reach the big climax scene, and then, once it was over, shazam! Everything magically falls back into place right then and there. It’s almost as if nothing bad ever happened. Then, one or two pages later, everyone rides off into the sunset and lives happily ever after. The end.
Wouldn’t it be great if real life was as simple?
The problem with traditional publishers
Traditional book publishers rely on formulas, and their authors must adhere to said set formula. In contemporary romance, it can mean that the characters have to meet by page ten. The first kiss happens on page twenty-two. The villain must appear by page thirty-nine, and it concludes with the aforementioned happy ending where everything falls neatly back into place.
The problem with formulas is the books become too predictable. I loved reading Danielle Steele back when I was in college. I could relate to her characters. Her stories were believable and entertaining. Over time, however, I started noticing a pattern, and I eventually stopped reading her books. They had become too predictable, and I got bored reading them. It was as if they plugged in a different set of names for the characters, placed them in a different location, pushed a button, and viola! Here’s the next book. And the one after that. And the one after that.
Why I choose to remain fiercely independent
In the real world the only things that are predictable are death and taxes. Everything else is about how we react to whatever we’ve been dealt. It’s all about the choices we make, good or bad. As a writer, it means the possibilities are endless.
I’ve always strived to make my stories as realistic and believable as possible. In real life, when things hit the proverbial fan, it leaves a lot of fallout behind. So, after the big climax, I include a cleanup phase, which is something I might not be able to do with a traditional publisher because it might not fit the formula. However, my job isn’t to follow a strict formula. My job is to tell an entertaining story that is also a believable story.
Why the cleanup phase is important
The cleanup phase gives my characters a chance to regroup and deal with the aftermath of the events that happened during the climax. It can be as short as an epilogue, or as long as several chapters. If a character is injured, readers will see his or her recovery. If a villain gets caught, the readers find out how long their prison sentence is. If a character leaves town, he or she has a chance to say goodbye. The leading characters will work out whatever unresolved conflicts they may have and be reunited for good. In other words, I take the time to tie up the loose ends before I end my story. I don’t write sequels. Therefore, each ending has to be as complete, and as satisfying as possible for the reader.
Most novel writers have to kill off a character at one time or another. We don’t do this because we’re mean or deranged. We do it because it’s needed to enhance the plot.
The first time I killed a character off was in my debut contemporary romance novel, The Reunion.Jason Matthews, a minor character, was one of the villains. He meets an untimely end, but it happens off camera, meaning the readers don’t actually see it. His ex-wife, Gillian hears of his demise in a telephone conversation with a police detective. They say show, don’t tell. However, there are times when telling can be more compelling. Jason was a character who was often talked about but never actually seen. Therefore, revealing his death in the dialog kept it consistent with the story.
In my second contemporary romance novel, The Deception, I killed off another antagonist. It happens near the end of the story. The plot revolves around the character’s conflict with Carrie, one of the lead characters. Carrie has finally won battle. Her nemesis, however, soon figures out a way to get even. This left me with two options. Save it for a possible sequel, or kill the character off. In this case the second conflict was directly related to the first, making a sequel redundant. Therefore, rather than have the story repeat itself, I killed the character off, thus ending the conflict once and for all.
In my soon-to-be released contemporary romance novel, The Journey, I killed off someone who was a supporting character in The Reunion. I honestly liked her, and I really didn’t want to kill her off, so I wrote an alternate draft in which she survives. It wasn’t a bad storyline, but it lacked the drama, and the punch, of the original draft. Her sudden and unexpected death was an intrical part of the plotline. It happens early in the novel, but she still maintains a presence in the rest of the story.
I’ve heard the joke among my author friends about how there are two kinds of people who know how to kill other people. Psychopaths and novel writers. This first one definitely, although I’m not so sure about novel writers. So far most of my characters have died in accidents. Or, like Jason in The Reunion, they were their own undoing.