Trying to think about stakes in a romance
I’m about to write the Act One moment in a book. The book is kind of a romance. It’s obviously more complicated than this, but the book is about a guy who really wants to be friends with this other guy, and he also really wants to go out with the other guy’s unrequited crush. And in Acts Two and Three, other things happen that raise the stakes and put these three people more directly at cross-purposes with each other, but for Act One that’s basically it. It’s about the development of these two relationships: one between this guy and his perhaps-someday-best-friend, and another between this guy and this girl.
And this is a very different kind of novel than I’ve written before. In Enter Title Here, there is an explicit antagonistic force that’s introduced relatively fast. There are intimations of it in the first three chapters, and then it comes in right at the halfway point of Act One. It makes for a fair bit of tension, and I’d unconsciously believed that’s how a novel should be. You know, thrilling. There should always be thrills.
Here, at least in this draft, it’s not like that. Here the inciting event is the moment the girl, more or less, tells the protagonist that she likes him. At that point, there are two things that are clearly in some way opposed. The guy’s friend is still holding out for the girl at that point. They obviously both can’t get her, and while it’d certainly be possible to both be friends with the guy and dating the girl, it’s not clear that’ll be the case here. So there’s some tension here. But I’m wondering if that’s enough to carry a book.
Anyway I’m not really looking for answers here. All I’m saying is that this has led me to think about other romances I’ve watched. Many of them got by with very little in the way of conflict, particularly in the first act. For instance, I just watched this one with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini, Enough Said, which was about this woman developing simultaneously developing a friendship with another woman and a relationship with the other woman’s ex-husband (this is actually very similar to my novel I guess). And that’s it. Here the inciting incident is the moment when Julia realizes the connection and the first act break is when she decides to exploit that connection to find information about the guy. At that point, there are clearly stakes. But before then? Ehh, it’s just kind of a misunderstanding.
In Bridget Jones’ Diary, too, where are the stakes? There’s nothing. Just like in my book and in Enough Said, the tension is caused by a choice the woman has (without realizing she has it) between the right guy and the wrong guy. But nothing really happens–her life remains outwardly the same–until the end of Act One, when she starts to sleep with Hugh Grant. As I recall, there’s somewhat of a feeling of danger. You know that in some sense Hugh Grant is a cad. But it’s not a set-in-stone thing. He’s certainly no worse than many another romantic comedy hero who eventually reforms.
I think in my book all I can do in the first act is to try to delineate and justify these two desires–the desire for friendship and the desire for love (though they’re really both the desire for love)–and to convincingly make the case that they are in opposition to each other.
OR, I could put in a prologue where I show that there’s a huge bomb under the floorboards of the school, and that it’s going to explode in exactly seven days…