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The 7 Romantic Comedy Beats: Part Three

In my previous two posts, I looked at the 7 beats of a rom com in screen writing terms, as defined by Billy Mernit, and how they can translate to books too. The final one is the resolution or, in Mernit’s lovely phrase, Joyful Defeat.

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Cher, having her Blinding Realisation moment complete with illuminated fountain

I find this breaks down into two main parts. The first step here is the Aha moment where the main character realizes how they really feel and who they really love. If we were being fancy (or just giving rom-coms their proper due?) we could say that this is what Aristotle calls the anagnorisis; the moment of truth. We can also call it the Blinding Realisation moment. For Harry (in When Harry Met Sally), it’s the realisation that, ‘When you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.’ Possibly one of the greatest rom com lines of all time?

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Although this is an interior step, it’s mostly brought on by an outer event. Jealousy is a classic motivator: in Jane Austen’s Emma, the news that her friend Harriet is after Mr Knightley is what supplies the insight:

Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes. She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before.

Note the visual reference here: Austen describes Emma’s insight as, literally, seeing something. Though it’s an interior step, you need an exterior sign too: a bit of overt symbolism never hurts here. In Clueless, they camp this up really nicely with Cher standing in front of a fountain that’s suddenly illuminated as the music reaches a climax. In Love and Other Man-Made Disasters I use a concrete symbol (a Zombie Apocalypse Survival Kit) to show Juno exactly what Boy means to her, and just as importantly what she means to him.

Once the hero or heroine has had that realization, what then? Typically it will seem like it’s too late to win the beloved – but because those feelings are so strong, you have at least try. So the second step, once you’ve had your Blinding Realization, is what screenwriters call Storming the Castle. This is something we commonly see in action/sci fi; the hero(ine) gathers together all his/her weapons and allies for a final effort at defeating the enemy.

Rom coms do this too. But instead of throwing grappling hooks onto a castle wall, the hero(ine) might rush to the airport (bit of a cliché, this one), or crash into a wedding venue and make a heartfelt speech.  In Love and Other Man-Made Disasters, Juno gathers her friends together and borrows a jeep with snow chains to make it to see Boy before she leaves. You want that effort and struggle to be represented with action.

Often, you’ll have an audience for at least part of this. This is fun because it makes it extra embarrassing for the main players. But the audience isn’t just there for laughs. They’re there, I think, for a pretty ancient, primitive reason which is that in every romantic comedy, from Shakespeare onwards, a romance is as much about the community as it is about as the couple. Just as the community witnesses a wedding, it’s a powerful thing to have them there to witness the final resolution.

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Simon Pegg in Man Up, nearly being squashed by his audience for the final resolution.

Whatever form your final resolution takes, the characters will need to heal misunderstandings, which will involve probably explanations on both sides.  Ideally, the person who’s been most in the wrong will do some groveling – and some explaining.

This is often our opportunity to hear the story from the love interest’s point of view – where the hero, say, explains why he acted a certain way. I think of this scene as being like the one where the detective explains how the crime was committed, or the villain boasts about how they did it. That’s why I find it useful to write the love story from the love interest’s point of view – so that you know exactly what’s been going in in their head, even while it’s been baffling to the heroine.

And that’s pretty much it. Except for one thing. In a good rom com, the heroine’s journey isn’t just about meeting a man – it’s about becoming the person she wants to be. This step requires an extra beat – which is why I make it eight beats, not seven. But that can be a post for another day …

 

 

 

 

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The 7 Romantic Comedy Beats: Part Two

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Kristen Wiig, heading right for her All is Lost moment

Yesterday I posted about the first four Romantic Comedy Beats, as defined by Billy Mernitt: the Set Up, the Meet Cute, the Sexy Complication and the Hook.

Here are the last three:

  1. Swivel: Second Turning-point

This is the moment after the hero and heroine have become closer, when their conflict comes back again, in a different form. In When Harry Met Sally, it’s when the two of them have sex – re-introducing the theme that men and women can’t be friends. In Prudence, it’s a new conflict: Ace turns out to have an old flame, Berenice, who’s coming to visit him. This is also a reiteration of the old conflict, because Berenice is everything Prudence is not: driven, successful, glamorous and very very humourless. If Prudence is Ace’s opposite, Berenice is terrifyingly suitable (this is often a device with Mr/Mr Wrong).

Note: Jilly Cooper always has a scene, before this second midpoint, where the hero and heroine have an idyllic day together. Nothing romantic has happened yet, necessarily, but they get away from all the other characters and share their innermost hopes and dreams. I love this device so much that I shamelessly borrowed it in The Out of Office Girl, with Alice and Sam’s day out at the beach. Then you can plunge them down to earth with a new iteration of the conflict. In the case of Alice and Sam, it’s a surface misunderstanding that’s really about the deeper conflict between them (see my previous post on Inner and Outer Conflicts).

  1. The Dark Moment: Crisis Climax

I think of this as the ‘All is Lost’ moment. Cinderella has left the ball; the coach has turned back into a pumpkin. In When Harry Met Sally, it’s the montage where Sally carries her Christmas tree home alone (recalling the happier Christmas last year when she and Harry did this together). Bridesmaids has a whole series of Dark Moments where Annie goes mental and alienates Lillian, gets fired from the jewellery store, ruins her romance with Chris O’Dowd and gets kicked out by her flatmates.

Jilly keeps her Dark Moment simpler. Pru realises (or thinks) that Ace and Berenice are now a couple. She slinks back to London, and is steeped in misery.

‘For the first time in my life, I became familiar with real hell. You don’t need a pitchfork and demons, just take someone away from someone they love – that’s enough.’

In Jilly Cooper, this feeling of despair is normally connected with a change of place. The heroine is taken away from Yorkshire, the main fairytale setting of the novel (also known as the Magical World in screenwriting) and plunged back into reality. You really can’t make this moment awful enough, I think.

  1. Joyful Defeat: Resolution

This is Billy Mernitt’s phrase to sum up the end of a romance. I love it. It’s a defeat because (generally) both parties have to climb down and admit that they were wrong; but it’s joyful because, well, love! It’s the end of the romantic war and the beginning of a loved-up peace.

It’s also such a big topic, it deserves a post all to itself. Typically, in an early draft I always spend way too long getting to the end of a book, and then end up wrapping it up too quickly. Which is what I’ve done here. So I’ll leave it for tomorrow – and then I’ll explain why I like to add another step …

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The 7 Romantic Comedy Beats: Part One  

I am a bit of structure geek; I love thinking about narrative formulas. Recently I read Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit, which talks about the Seven Basic Romantic Comedy Beats in screen writing. These are rules for film obviously, but they can apply just as well to books. In fact, I found that I’d used them in my own books, without knowing exactly what I was doing or why I was doing it.

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Cher and Josh in Clueless, enjoying their Set Up. Source 

Obviously, it takes much more than a formula to write a successful story, whether on page or screen. But I think it’s still important to know the rules, so that you can break or subvert them; even the most unconventional indie films do this. ‘Formulaic’ is of course the ultimate insult. But a symphony uses a formula; so does a ballet. Depending on the execution, a formula can be painting-by-numbers or it can be a magic spell. There’s something deeply coded in these patterns that we respond to, the same way we do when hearing music or watching a dance. We don’t quite know the rules, but we instinctively recognize them in action.

As an example, I’ll take Jilly Cooper’s Prudence, one of her fabulous early romances which you must read if you haven’t already.  I would bet that Jilly has never heard of the Seven Beats of the romantic comedy but she knows exactly what they are, and uses them to brilliant effect.

  1. Set Up:

This is what it sounds like. We meet the heroine and hero* and learn what their problems are. Pru is a scatty, jokey girl who goes away with her uptight barrister boyfriend Pendle, to visit his family in their crumbling Lake District house. His step-brother Ace is a successful journalist and widower, recently returned from South America. The family, who are a load of overspending party animals, are terrified he’s going to whip them into shape. So the set up is: Opposites Attract. Prudence is fun-loving but looking for love. Ace is too serious for his own good – can he find love again?

  1. Meet cute/Catalyst:

Thanks to The Holiday, we all know about the meet cute: it’s the memorable first encounter between hero and heroine. Here, Ace walks in just as Pru is kissing Jack, Pendle’s other brother. Not all meet-cutes have to be cute; sometimes they introduce the central conflict. Here, it’s that Ace thinks Prudence is a flirtatious lightweight and Pru thinks Ace is an overbearing bully. Who’s right? They both are! I love rom coms.

  1. Sexy complication/Turning-point 1:

I think of this as the scene where the two characters have their first proper clash, or where the conflict between them first comes out in the open. In When Harry Met Sally, it happens during their drive to New York, where Harry makes his famous observation about how men and women can’t be friends. Sally is outraged because she thinks that he’s making a pass at her although he’s going out with ‘my good friend Amanda’ (who she later totally loses touch with).

In Prudence, it’s a reiteration of the initial conflict, but stepped up a notch. Pru is devastated that Pendle, who’s meant to be her boyfriend, is clearly still in love with his ex Maggie. After a fireworks party where Pru wears a very outrageous culotte dress (so Jilly Cooper) and flirts with Jack throughout, Ace takes her to one side and warns her off Jack. Pru is too proud to tell him about Pendle and screams at him instead. It’s their initial conflict all over again, with added chemistry. I always like it when you get a sense, in these clashes, that both of them are right. It’s not a question of one of them having to change to fit in with the other; both of them will have to change.

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500 Days of Summer – an unconventional rom com that still uses these rules

  1. The Hook: Midpoint

I think of this as the ‘he’s not that bad’ moment – the moment when the heroine first sees something she really values in the hero, which takes her by surprise. Or when she first feels a glimmer of real attraction to him. Ideally, you’ll have both. When you have a flicker of attraction, that’s immediately damped down, you know you’re at the Midpoint.

This can also be the moment when two ‘friends’ first see each other in a new light. In When Harry Met Sally, the hook is the famous orgasm scene. After Sally’s amazing display (however faked) Harry is forced to see her in a new light, as a sexual being. Now he wants what she’s having.

In Prudence, it’s a moment of vulnerability that brings out the hero’s caring side. Poor old Prudence develops flu. Ace surprises her by being incredibly kind and even brings her a kitten from the stables to cheer her up. SOLD. Prudence tries to tell herself, ‘He won’t be nearly as attractive when his suntan fades’. HOOKED!

Note: sometimes these beats are singles scenes, sometimes they’re whole sequences. It’s definitely the latter in Prudence.  Ace does a few kind things for Prudence but it’s the kitten that stands out … Irresponsible pet ownership but very romantic. He also learns a lot about Prudence: like, how kind she is to his neglected niece Lucasta, how intelligent she really is, and that she and Pendle are definitely over. In The Out of Office Girl, there are a whole series of Hooks, where the attraction and friendship between Alice and Sam gradually builds and builds – culminating in the infamous (to me anyway) Pool Scene.

Tomorrow, I’ll post about the last 3 classic romantic beats, as defined by Billy Mernit: the Swivel, the All is Lost Moment and the Joyful Defeat.

*Note: I’m using ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ in this but obviously that’s subject to change.

 

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Are you a teen (or anyone) worried about the world today? Then this is the book I wrote for you.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, I started reading the newspapers. Big mistake. Murders, bombs, genocide in Rwanda; I was terrified, but I couldn’t stop myself from inhaling it all. Until one day, I came home from school, got into bed and basically refused to get out again until the world was a better place.

That plan was nixed. (Just as well, clearly, as otherwise I’d still be there waiting.) Instead, my mum told me to remember all the places where war doesn’t take place, all the people who don’t murder each other, all the planes that take off and land safely. (I still think of this, every time I get off a plane).

It was good advice. I got over it. I grew up, and became sensible – or complacent. And it’s been many years since I’ve threatened to go on strike until the world improves.

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Juno, in Love and Other Man-Made Disasters, is like me aged fourteen, but on steroids. She’s scared of climate change, war and terrorism.  (She’s also worried about the zombie apocalypse, urban foxes, and her mum being killed while riding on her new stepfather’s scooter.)  She’s the sort of girl who seriously worries about what skills she could use in a post-apocalyptic scenario. The story is about how she learns to live in the world with those fears, without letting them overwhelm her.

These kinds of fears can hit teenagers harder, because they have access to so much information about the world but have limited experience of it. When I started writing the book, around two years ago, I assumed I had outgrown Juno’s fears. Certainly I found the news worrying but it didn’t keep me awake at night. Now … well, let’s just say the zombie apocalypse seems a lot closer. But I still find that the things she learns, over the course of the story, are the same ones that I remind myself of these days, to keep me sane.

  • Keep perspective. It’s essential to remember that there ARE good things happening in the world. For example; with the tragic exception of Syria, war is actually at a historic low. So is absolute poverty. Increasing areas in Africa are now malaria free. Global carbon emissions have flatlined. (And yes but Trump, but still). Our brains just aren’t built to deal with all the world’s horrors; we need balance. Juno starts to realise this when she meets Boy, who’s able to tell her a few nuggets of good news, including about a robot arm that will help people who’ve lost a limb. (You can read their conversation here). It’s not a total cure for her anxieties – far from it – but it’s food for thought.
  • Self-care: it’s not just a marketing tool! Sleeping enough, eating properly, exercise, Netflix, time with friends: these aren’t selfish, they’re vital to being an effective advocate for your causes. You can’t help anyone if you’re falling apart yourself. It’s no coincidence that Juno starts to be able to relax more while she’s discovering a new physical activity (skiing). Which also involves facing her fears (though see 4, below).
  • Take action, however small. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, but even the tiniest action – volunteering (I volunteer for this organisation), campaigning, donating, joining a political party – instantly makes me feel better and less helpless. Juno makes a big decision, towards the end of the book, about her future that will mean she can actually do something about her worries instead of being consumed by them. And yes, all these individual actions are drops in the ocean. But as David Mitchell puts it in Cloud Atlas, ‘Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?’
  • Be patient. I gave Juno quite a harsh lesson to learn, which is that overcoming her fears isn’t one magic moment that fixes her for good; it’s something she’ll have to work on forever. As a friend of mine said, these life lessons we get are pay as you go; you have to continually top them up. But it gets easier.

The other thing that helps balance out Juno’s fears is falling in love. It’s hard to recommend this as a cure-all for everybody, but it does help. It means that all her intense feelings find a new outlet, or get diluted at least. But I was also trying to show that it’s important to develop your own life instead of feeling you have to fight the good fight all of the time. It’s OK to build relationships that are meaningful to you instead of trying to devote yourself to the world at large. And, as Boy says, when the apocalypse comes they can be on the same team.

You can order Love and Other Man-Made Disasters from your local bookshop, or read the beginning and order it here.

 

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Well, it’s been a while

The past six months have been crazy. On a global level but also on a macro personal level, and blogging is always the first thing to go. Now, things are looking both up and down … (but mainly up). I have a new teen romance coming out this summer. I’ve heard lots of nice things about the ‘old’ books. I still haven’t reached my ambition of seeing someone reading one on the tube (I blame Kindles). But! I have seen my books popping up in unexpected places, including on this lovely floor tile display. Fame at last!

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Picture me just out of shot, unable to quite reach the Cotes de Whatever it is. Or on a more optimistic note, this could be you this evening reading, say, Maggie’s ski adventures in Girls on Tour. And you don’t even have to stay on the floor.

More blog posts soon, I promise.

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Today on blog tour: review by Sophie

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Today on blog tour, it’s the turn of the amazing Sophie of Reviewed the Book. Sophie’s reviews are always really smart and perceptive, and generous without being uncritical. She never just says generic things; she always has really specific reasons why she likes things and if she doesn’t her reasons are always fair and well explained. I was really interested in her take on the two main characters – I hadn’t set out specifically to make Boy different from the usual teen love interests but I’m glad he is (to be fair he is quite an oddball, but he’s also partly based on some boys I’ve known).

You can read Sophie’s review here. And please check in tomorrow when I’ll be doing a Q&A with Agi where I discuss how Love and Man Made Disasters got published, what I’m writing next, and why I have a plan for if I’m ever burned at the stake.

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Blog tour begins today!

Want to read an exclusive extract of my new book? Then you’ve come to the right place. Or rather the wrong place. You need to be over with This Chick Reads today, where you can read Chapter 14 of Love and Other Man-Made Disasters. It’s the first proper conversation between Juno and Boy where he learns about her fears and she learns about his interest in robot arms and chicken coops. Enjoy!

Here are the other blog tour dates, don’t miss them:

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The inspiration behind Love and Other Man-Made Disasters

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Genuinely one of my favourite London bus routes.

One of the questions writers get asked most often is ‘Where do you think of your ideas?’ I can be very precise about this in the case of Love and Other Man-Made Disasters. I thought of the idea when I was on the 46 bus near King’s Cross, on my way from work in Holborn to yoga in Hampstead. (Side note: I love this bus route. It takes you from Maida Vale to Hampstead Village and then to Bloomsbury – it feels like the kind of bus Virginia Woolf would have taken. It’s also always stuck in traffic which is good for thinking.)

But I know people don’t mean where, they mean how. Here’s how: I had been reading about someone who was traumatised by watching too much 24-hour news, and thinking about how pervasive anxiety was these days. And I decided to write about a girl who’s scared of everything. Somehow I knew it would work best if she was a teen (who doesn’t still have nightmares about A-Levels, or in my case the Leaving Certificate?)  I’d been approached ages before – maybe two years – by a publisher who wanted to know if I would write teen fiction for them. I hadn’t had the right idea for them yet, but I knew this was it.

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Urban fox: one of Juno’s many fears

Initially Juno, my main character, was going to have actual anxiety. But I nixed that, since there are so many other writers who’ve already written about it brilliantly. As it happened, no sooner had I pitched it to the publisher than I read a press release saying that Sophie Kinsella was writing her first YA book about a girl with anxiety – multiple discovery or what? I also wanted to write about worries that weren’t irrational but actually highly rational. I was very traumatised by the news when I was about fourteen, and I still find it all pretty upsetting. I think Juno is right to be scared of the future and climate change and the tanking economy and Donald Trump. (The book was written pre-Trump but she would definitely be scared of him and his hair-piece becoming President). I am scared of these things also, which is why I wanted to write about them.

So Juno is a worrier. She’s also highly organised and has a list of things she’s worried about, in descending order, from climate change to urban foxes and A-Levels. Other pressing worries include cancer, zombies and being burned at the stake.  She’s obviously not a fan of dangerous sports which makes it even worse when she’s dragged away on a skiing holiday with her new stepdad and his eight-year-old twins, who are of course better skiers than her.

Enter the love interest: Boy. I was stuck for ages on his name but then decided to just call him Boy – it’s the kind of nickname his posh uncaring family would give him. He’s a ski instructor, who lives in an unheated room above a garage that reminds people of the Blair Witch Project. He’s saving up to climb Everest and he’s liable to dive into a road full of traffic to retrieve 20 cents. He’s not scared of anything – or is he? Of course (spoiler alert) he is. I wanted to write about the kind of tough-yet-vulnerable boy I would have adored at Juno’s age … And to show that her fantasy of rescuing him isn’t going to turn out exactly as she’d dreamed it does.

As for Juno’s fears, there isn’t an easy answer to them. But she learns that she can handle them, and face them. She also makes a really great decision to do something about her worries instead of just fretting pointlessly. I’m still working on that, to be honest.

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‘The Dirty Dancing of YA’: Best review comment ever.

So that’s how I came to write Love and Other Man-Made Disasters. Hopefully, it’s like a hot chocolate; warm and comforting and satisfying but not totally empty calories either. I originally pitched it to my agent as ‘Dirty Dancing in the snow’ which I thought might be pushing it, but luckily this brilliant review has called it exactly that – or rather ‘the Dirty Dancing of YA’ which might just be going on my tombstone.

You can order Love and Man-Made Disasters from your local bookshop (if they don’t have a copy, they should be able to get it for you the next day), or read an extract and buy it in paperback it here. I hope you like it.

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Love and Other Man-Made Disasters is out today!

Today is publication day! My first ever YA book is out now and you can order it from your local bookshop, or buy it in paperback or Kindle HERE.

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I had planned a much longer post talking about the book, what it’s about and what inspired me to write it. However, I just got back from New York and have been plagued with the most gruesome jet lag I’ve ever had. I’ve never had it so badly even when coming back from California. Example: yesterday, I had a meeting at 2pm. I woke up at 13.56. It was absolutely mortifying. (I made an apologetic phone call, fell into some clothes and into a taxi, and luckily got there ‘only’ 30 minutes late). Then last night, I went to bed at midnight and got to sleep probably around 5.30 am – I set my alarm for 8.30 am and I do remember hearing it but I woke up at 10.30. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I am not bringing my A-game this week. But! Next week I’m on blog tour talking about the book in various places. And I’ll update also on my NY holidays which were fabulous. Meanwhile I’m off to have another coffee.

 

 

 

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Inner and outer conflict

In every single first draft I write, I get the note that I need to introduce more conflict between the hero and heroine. Every. Time. I can’t help it. I write a nice guy, and a nice girl, and there’s a bit of disagreement but then they get together way too smoothly. Maybe it’s because I’m a sap. But it’s also because I think love should be simple. Ideally, when it works, it works – no messing around or decoding texts needed. When I hear someone say, ‘So I texted him, and he didn’t reply but then he DID Whatsapp me, but then I replied but he didn’t get back to me …’ I pour them a gin, and say, in the words of Mallory Ortberg, ‘I wish you a speedy recovery from your feelings.’

But. If love is simple all the time, then writers of romance go out of business. Darcy meets Elizabeth at the ball, they hit it off right away and there’s a double wedding on the next page. Harry and Sally have such a great time on their drive to New York that they don’t bother finding two apartments. Etc. Hence: conflicts.

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Looking way too cosy for Chapter Two.

There are two kinds of conflict: outer conflicts, and inner conflicts. Outer conflicts come from characters’ circumstances. Eg: he’s got a girlfriend, or she has a boyfriend. She’s rich and he’s poor. He’s running an evil empire of megashops and she owns a tiny shop-around-the-corner. These are fine, even necessary as a starting point – but they’re not as powerful as inner conflicts, which come from deep inside us. In Four Weddings and A Funeral, the outer conflict is that he’s a bumbling Englishman and she’s a glamorous engaged American. But the real, inner conflict is that he won’t grow up, and that she doesn’t believe in love any more. These inner conflicts can be linked to the outer conflicts – maybe the evil empire CEO has lost sight of his true values, as represented by the heroine – but they remain even when the outer conflict is taken away.

When I wrote The Out of Office Girl, I knew I had to have a conflict between Sam, the hero, and the heroine Alice. So I made them antagonists at work: he’s the protective agent of Luther, the film star, while she wants Luther to tell all in his memoir. But that was too easily resolved. In my big major horrible redraft, I realized that to really drive them apart, I needed something deeper. The real conflict between them comes from the fact that deep down, Alice doesn’t believe that she’s worthy of Sam’s love, because she lacks confidence. More than that: she’s scared of getting involved with him, because he’s real, and Luther – her previous crush –  was just a fantasy. Sam, on the other hand, is a control freak who needs to change his lifestyle and trust other people more.  In this way I was able to tie their conflicts into their character arcs (but that’s a post for another day).

And that’s where I think the best conflicts come from – from deep inside the characters themselves. Yes, love should be simple, but sometimes, we are our own worst enemies. Sometimes we’re like Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, or Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids; on a hiding to nowhere and driving away nice guys.