“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true…Or is it something worse?” ~Bruce Springsteen, The River
Bruce Springsteen has long been an iconic superstar in the music business. You might love his music or hate it, but you know who he is and more than likely you’ll recognize at least one of his songs. Born in New Jersey in 1949, he had a life that was fraught with many of the elements and tensions other kids his age grew up with. But instead of letting his family angst get the better of him, he used the emotions he experienced in his music. It wasn’t immediately accepted. Before he made it to the big time with his particular blend of music, he played the bar circuit. His popularity grew and he had moderate success in his early career.
And then he wrote an emotion-packed, story-song that Springsteen refers to as: “A breakthrough song for me. It was in the detail.” The song he refers to is “The River,” and it was based on conversations he’d had with his brother-in-law after the man lost his construction job and was struggling to support his wife and child. The wedding in the song refers to Springsteen’s sister and brother-in-law, who married young. The exquisite attention to the small details and the seamless way Springsteen presented them in the song told an emotional story that haunts the listener in the same way as the broken dreams and faded memories he sings about in the song.
As writers of fiction, we struggle with our creations, too. What to include, what to leave out. How much does the reader need to know? We may have had some moderate successes but maybe we haven’t hit The New York Times top ten yet. So in the meantime, we learn things and practice them…we hone our craft.
It’s no surprise to me that Springsteen’s breakthrough song was “The River.” When Springsteen states the success is in the details, he may have been speaking of all the emotional minutiae of the story that he told from beginning to end—not only did he tell a story but the song conveyed the feelings of sadness and frustration and the longing for happier times. He did this quite well with the words. But he also did it with the way the song is paced, which is, in itself, a detail. The verses that speak of the ongoing story itself are slow and carry a sad flavor. But with the mention of the river and all the carefree memories and sense of youth the river represents, the tempo of the song picks up to a livelier and happier beat.
As romance readers, we feel anxiety to get to the heart of the story, to see the couple come together that first time in a kiss, or a caress in the moonlight. We are restless, wanting to see them work through their issues and come to an understanding. Depending on the heat level we read, we might want the big reveal love scene. Knowing these things are ahead of us is part of what keeps us turning the pages of the book and reading the story.
As romance writers, it is a struggle to not simply skip the preliminary dancing around the mat and get to the center of the ballroom for the big dance. After all, we know what we want when we’re reading a book – to get to the meat of the story. So why not start at the meat and heat?
When we read over our own creation, however, maybe it seems to fall a little flat. It doesn’t produce that same desire to keep turning the page. We may lament and wonder why it doesn’t flow as smoothly or what it’s missing. When I’m asked this question as an editor, the answer in almost every case is the same. The writer moved the couple from encounter to encounter, and gave nothing in between these interactions to show who they are, what’s happening to them as individuals, and what is keeping them apart.
The answer is in the details. Some details the reader needs to know. And some details are part of the overall story. If you leave these out, you risk unbalancing the story. Is it still a make-up love scene if you omit the fight that sets up the need to make up? What to use or leave out is all in the detail of pacing. If you don’t lead your readers along a trail of fear and trepidation, or allow them to remember when they used to be happy, give them a taste of future happiness…if you don’t take the time to build the chemistry between the couple through evoking emotional responses in the readers, when you get to the love scene, you’re shortchanging those readers by showing them just another day in the life of a romantic couple. You’ve removed the C from the GMC (goals, motivation, and conflict), and reduced your readers to nothing more than voyeurs in the lives of ordinary loving couples.
If I could offer new romance authors one bit of advice, it would be to build chemistry between your main characters by setting a pace that will at once interest and frustrate your readers. The balance is tough because you don’t want to send your readers into tearing out their hair saying “get to it already.” But the romantic aspect needs to follow a reasonable progression of time and events. Not only that, but it must take a few back steps that also follow reason. Consider this romance you’re portraying like a sword fight, to include dancing (around the subject), engaging (sometimes nicely, sometimes with a sharp edge to the tongue), parrying (giving back as good as they get), and, well…you get the picture. I promise if you build slowly and evenly, rather than diving headlong into the kissing and sexing, when you finally get your reader there, the explosion of emotion will make an unforgettable read.
It really is in the details – what to include and not include…all the elements that drive the pace.