Monday, September 18, 2023

Time Traveling

Some people call it insta-love.  It’s a criticism of books and movies where the audience is expected to believe the main characters are truly in love way too soon, within days if not hours of meeting the beloved.

As a romance fan, I’ve rolled my eyes at many examples of this.  I’ve read that a heroine knew she was madly in love because of a light-headed feeling.  I wanted someone in the book to ask her if she was sure she hadn’t just stood up too fast.  That can happen.  I’ve been told characters were in love when they’d barely had a conversation because of all the things their eyes had communicated.  That is called infatuation.  A gaze across a room doesn’t say if he’ll mock her religious beliefs or if she’ll want him to quit his job to raise donkeys in the desert.

And I can’t say how many times I’ve watched that movie where a young woman has to return home to the family [ranch, B&B, vineyard, farm, flower shop, etc.] for some big event.  (I can’t say partly because I’ve lost count and partly because it’s an embarrassing admission.)  She meets a guy who is either the competition or trying to shut down the business.  No matter what contrived conflicts or ridiculous misunderstandings arise in the two or three days before the event, she is madly in love with him at the end because, well, because she said so. 

Let’s not analyze that any further.  I’m not trying to sharpen my knives here.  These examples are brought up in fun to illustrate something I try to avoid in my work.  Yes, my books are fluffy and light-hearted.  But they still need to hold to the truth that real love takes time to develop.  Superficial relationships aren’t funny.  You need to know someone before you know what makes him laugh and before you know how to push her buttons.

There are two ways to avoid insta-love.  The first is to establish that the main characters knew each other before the story started.  Maybe they’ve been friends for a while, maybe they have shared history.  When there is already some sort of relationship, I can use a short timeline to create a romantic shift.  Pop quiz: Name the books in which I’ve used this strategy.

The other, and in my opinion more difficult, option is to stretch out the timeline.  I can’t do that by simply including a sentence that begins with “six months later.”  Readers will want to know what happened in those six months.  I will want to know what happened in those six months.  The rest of the book is going to be weird when I make references readers don’t understand or have characters who don’t seem to have said or done anything in all that time.

Another terrible way to jump ahead is to pick random days to illustrate.  Here’s what happened on this day, and two weeks later there was this other event.  Then I’ll show you what happened on a day with snow so you’ll know it’s later in the year.  My couple will be getting along great and readers will be happy to see them holding hands.  No one will care that we missed the first time he reached for her or how they resolved that issue that caused an argument on the warmer day.  Right?

Even worse would be a complete summary of events.  I could simply inform readers that she agreed to spend a lot of time with him, that he said some sweet words at some point, and now it’s time to believe they’re headed for happily ever after.  It doesn’t work to say it isn’t insta-love.

So if those are some of the wrong ways to move the timeline ahead, what is a right way?  It’s all of the above.  I mix up the wrong ways – a bit of skipping, a bit of summarizing, and even a bit of randomness – and hopefully end up with a plot that gives the characters enough time to start to love each other without missing any of the highlights.  This is why it’s difficult.  I have to squeeze all these lemon ideas into sweet lemonade.  If I squeeze too hard, I’ll end up with seeds and pulp in the story.  Or I’ll just ruin the metaphor.

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