When I was a kid, my dad liked to joke that the devil came out after midnight, which is actually good advice for writers. Crucial moments (positive and negative) in life and in writing often require a window of opportunity. Under normal circumstances, we simply go about our lives; drama occurs only when our routine has been upended. After midnight, in other words, we have the opportunity to make decisions that aren’t open to us at other times.
In stories, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction, we need to find those windows of opportunity when the devil can show his face, when characters can act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t. A great place to study such moments is in romance novels, and there’s no better place to look than in Karen Ranney’s latest novel An American in Scotland. You can read the opening pages here.
How the Novel Works
An American in Scotland is a romance novel, and like most genre novels, it has a fairly predictable plot when boiled down to basics: two people will fall in love, and that love will eventually be consummated. Before the consummation, though, the characters must overcome obstacles, and it is this overcoming that gives the novel its appeal. (It’s the same with detective and espionage novels and certain kinds of monster novels: the reader knows the basic plot arc before reading a single page, and so it’s the particular obstacles that provide pleasure.) In this case, there are a variety of obstacles that would normally prevent Duncan and Rose from falling into each other’s arms. Or, as the back cover puts it: “Rose MacIain is a beautiful woman with a secret. Desperate and at her wits’ end, she crafts a fake identity for herself, one that Duncan MacIain will be unable to resist…Duncan is determined to resist the tempting Rose, no matter how much he admires her arresting beauty and headstrong spirit.”
So, it’s clear that, first, Duncan will resist, but then he’ll give in. Then, the secret identity will be revealed and that will drive them apart—until they find a way to be together again. With each major obstacle (resisting, revelation of secret), the characters are set onto tracks that do not converge. Duncan can resist Rose’s charms forever unless something happens to knock him off his routine. In short, he needs a moment when the devil comes out, a window of opportunity to act in ways that he normally would resist.
One of those moments comes aboard a ship. Duncan and Rose are sailing to the Bahamas for a business deal. There’s tension between them, but Duncan tells himself, “She was simply his relative who was accompanying him to Nassau.” But then the merchant ship gets caught in a storm off the coast of Ireland:
He clamped his hands on the end of the chair arms and stared at the door leading to the stateroom. He hadn’t heard anything from Rose since they separated after dinner. He sincerely hoped he hadn’t agreed to take her to Nassau only to have her drown on the voyage there. Perhaps she would have been safer on a commercial vessel, something designed to handle passengers. No doubt they would have stewards running throughout the ship, reassuring passengers that all was well, they weren’t in danger of plunging to the bottom of the ocean.
He couldn’t reassure anyone right at the moment.
That final line highlights the window of opportunity: He’s been determined to resist her, but now he fears for her safety and fears that he is the one who’s put her in danger. His self-confidence has been shaken. It’s not so different from the half hour before closing time at a bar; people’s usual logic has been diminished, and so they make decisions they normally wouldn’t. Duncan’s logic (I’m in charge, my will is strong) has been diminished.
As a result, he begins thinking dangerous thoughts:
What a pity he hadn’t taken advantage of the moment in the garden when she’d been reading Burns. He could have gently put the book aside, leaned over and kissed her.
As most readers will guess, the kissing isn’t long to come. The window of opportunity has opened, and he’s going to jump through it.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s open a window of opportunity, using An American in Scotland by Karen Ranney as a model:
- Create the temptation. In a romance novel like An American in Scotland, the temptation is clear: love and sex. But there are many other temptations available to characters: money, power, attention, security, or any object that offers or symbolizes those things. What drives your character? What occupies your character’s mind while doing other things?
- Put the character on a track that leads away from it. The track can simply be a character’s intention, like when I tell myself that I’m not going to eat jelly beans this year. Life is full of such intentions: we’re not going to call that person, go to that place, consume that substance. The track can also be anything that keeps a character otherwise occupied: work, friends, family. Or it can be some convention (sense of propriety, rules) that doesn’t allow certain activities. You can also use geography (the temptation is kept physically distant).
- Find the character’s weakness. In An American in Scotland, part of Duncan’s weakness is his sense of his own power and will. Many famous characters contain such weaknesses: Achilles in The Iliad, Sampson in the Old Testament. The weakness doesn’t need to be a fatal flaw, as with Achilles. It only needs to make the character susceptible to the temptation, the way that going outside on a winter day without a hat (according to some) makes you susceptible to catching cold. What weakens your character, even a little?
- Create the window of opportunity. Find a set of circumstances that does two things: weakens the character and brings the temptation close. In An American in Scotland, the ship/storm confines the characters together in a limited space and also frightens Duncan, weakening him. Very often, the window of opportunity is a literal disruption: a storm, a power outage, a natural disaster, a flat tire, a missed connection. So, figure out your character’s routine. What would disrupt it? What unexpected delay or interruption would knock the character off his or her track? The disruption can be catastrophic, but it can also be something subtle that doesn’t at first even seem like a problem.
- Let your character act. Once the character is weakened and the temptation has been brought near, let the character think about the temptation. And, of course, once the thought enters the character’s head, action is soon to follow.
The goal is to create drama by giving a character the opportunity to do something he or she normally wouldn’t.