Monday, February 23, 2009

Two dogs. One bone.

I’ve started a new wip (work-in-progress) and while I’m excited and have a lot of angst and conflict planned for my characters, the core conflict between my hero and heroine doesn’t feel strong enough to carry the entire book. Or at least it’s not fleshed out enough for me to see it. So I started looking around for ways to define that backbone and nail it down. (Ouch, that sounds painful, doesn’t it?)

Insurmountable Odds

The mantra, "If your hero is a fireman, your heroine had better be an arsonist" came to mind. One source attributed this saying to a Sandra Brown workshop. Not that my characters are firefighters or arsonists, but the analogy seemed to fit. I understand the logic behind the above statement, but without some plot details, where do you go from there? Maybe she’s a “former” arsonist? Or someone pressed into torching buildings against her will? Whatever the reason, the reader knows the truth and can root for her, but the hero doesn’t. The idea is to make the conflict seemingly insurmountable for your main characters, but figure out how to actually surmount those obstacles by the end of the book.

If your hero is a rich Roman aristocrat, your heroine better be a Jewish slave.

That’s from A Voice in the Wind, by Francine Rivers. If you’ve never read A Voice in the Wind, it’s awesome. By reading that one-liner , you’d never believe the two could get together. But they do. Torn by her love for a handsome aristocrat, a young slave girl clings to her faith in the living God for deliverance from the forces of decadent Rome.

Redeeming Love, also by Francine Rivers:

If your hero is a devoutly Godly man, your heroine better be a fallen woman.

This is the retelling of Gomer and Hosea from the Bible. Gomer is not a godly woman, and Hosea is a prophet. He buys her off the auction block, not once, but twice. Okay, the Biblical story is about Jesus loving us so much that he purchased us with his blood to save us, so it’s a story within a story, but telling the story again in a new era is even more poignant. Francine does a masterful job of taking an insurmountable premise and bringing these two characters together by the end.

If your hero is a rancher, your heroine better be a vegetarian.

I love this frome Buffalo Gal! Mary Connealy is a master at developing plot premises with characters so far apart we wonder how in the world she’s going to pull it off. The premise of Buffalo Gal is a vegetarian and a cattle rancher go to war and fall in love. I haven’t read Buffalo Gal yet, but I’m already scratching my head trying to figure out how these two will end up in love. But if anybody can make it happen, Mary can!

If your hero is a conscientious objector, your heroine better be a Civil War widow.

Another book that does a wonderful job of setting up two characters who are far, far apart in their ideals is Always to Remember, by Lorraine Heath. For refusing to pick up a gun for the Confederacy, Clayton Holland was branded a deserter and imprisoned during the war. When he returned home to Cedar Gove, Texas, he was given a coward's welcome, spurned by everyone in town. To Meg Warner, Clay's presence was a constant offense: a betrayal of the cause for which her husband and brothers died.

As punishment, she commissioned Clay, a talented sculptor, to create a memorial to honor Cedar Grove's fallen heroes, hoping that every name he carved into stone would carve remorse into his heart. But as Meg spent months watching Clay work, she began to see strength instead of cowardice. And she discovered that a hero could be found in the most unlikely of men. That passion could be sculpted from a heart hardened by bitterness. And that sometimes--like courage--whispers instead of shouts.

If your heroine has sworn off men, your hero should deliberately pursue her.

Camy Tang’s Only Uni: She wants to stay away from guys because of her new Corinthian Rules for life, and he's deliberately pursuing her to make her fail her rules. On the surface, this sounds more subtle than the above scenario, but it’s as life-changing and important for the heroine in Camy’s story. I don’t want to give away the plot points, but read Only Uni and you’ll understand the importance of the heroine’s determination to stick to her rules.

Some romantic movies with Insurmountable Odds:

Pretty Woman
Far and Away
Gone With the Wind

Two Dogs. One Bone.

This is another bare bones plot premise coming from a different perspective. Your two main characters, (hero and heroine in a romance) want the same thing and somebody’s not going to get what they want. Or are they? Again, you’ve got to resolve this to where they share the bone by the end, at least if it’s a romance. Or maybe they both give up the bone for the greater good of someone else. Just like in the insurmountable odds above, the reader’s got to be rooting for both the hero and the heroine.

One ranch. Two owners.

In Marrying Mariah, my 2004 Golden Heart winner, there’s one ranch and both the hero and heroine believe they own it. It wouldn’t be much of a romance if one ends up with the ranch and the other rides away, would it? So either they end up with the ranch together, or even someone else ends up with it.

Julie Lessman supplied me with her pitch for A Passion Most Pure, saying she wasn’t sure if it fit a simple formula: Rival sisters with strong faith—one in God, the other in herself—turn the head of a heartbreaker who proposes to one and falls in love with the other.

This story is somewhat more multi-layered than a tradition romance so we get two for one. Not to compare poor Collin to a bone, but we could say that Faith and Charity are fighting over Collin. Another layer to this book is the insurmountable issue of Faith’s faith in God vs. Collin’s lack of faith. One or the other must give in from their stance at the beginning of the book.

Two gals. One guy.
If your heroine is a devout Christian, your hero better be an unbeliever.

A few movies with two dogs, one bone:

Princess Bride: the princess is the bone
Pirates of the Caribbean: the Black Pearl and the treasure are the bones
Shrek works for both Insurmountable Odds (Shrek and Fiona) and two dogs, one bone (Shrek and what’s-his-face both want to marry Fiona.

I’ve outlined two basic premises, the “if he’s a firefighter, she’d better be an arsonist” where total opposites meet in the middle, and the “two dogs, one bone” idea of fighting over something tangible.

One other thing. A great story will have more layers than just one. I’m sure if we get into a discussion of Pirates, (and we probably will! lol) we’ll discover several layers, but I’m looking for that main thread that is woven all the way through the book. The backbone, remember? That’s the thread you’ll come back to over and over throughout the book, and the one that the reader wants to see resolved satisfactorily in the end.

What are some other catch phrases that might jumpstart story ideas? Also, what books or movies fit into one of these categories?


  1. How about You've Got Mail? If your hero is a mega bookstore owner who eats up small bookstores, then your heroine better me a small bookstore owner.

    I love this kind of theme, of course the two dogs one bone theme is pretty fun! You even see that in the new movie Bride Wars. Two brides, best friends, and one Wedding date. :)

  2. You made me see one of my all-time favorite movies in a whole new light. In "The Way We Were" Barbara Streisand is a Jewish girl and Robert Redford is a gentile boy.

    I guess it isn't a classic romance because of how things turn out (I don't want to spoil it for others by giving details).

    I also see that my WIP has this kind of set-up but I think I need to bring it out more.


  3. Oohh, Sherrinda, these are both great examples. And in Bride Wars, the fact that they're best friends just ups the ante, doesn't it?

    For the record, tell us the turning point of You've Got Mail? How do these two resolve the problem?

    Since Bride Wars is new, maybe shouldn't explain that one!

  4. Hey, Ruthy dropped off some kind of coffee blend, hazelnut and there's white mocha cappucino over on your right.

    AND the Beagle Bagle Cafe delivered muffins the size of platters: blueberry, banana nut, chocolate chip. They're melt-in-your-mouth delicious!

    Dive in.

  5. Cathy, that's what started me on this journey of discovery. I knew my hero and heroine are facing the insurmountable odds thing, and now I've got to actually make the transition from them being so far apart to falling in love and then making their relationship work.

  6. I've got some appointments this morning and won't be around until after lunch, but the rest of the Seekers will take care of everyone while I'm gone. I'll check back in as soon as I can.

    Have fun!

  7. Interesting post, Pam. You've given great examples for how to create external conflict.

    Liz Curtis Higg's Bookends is an excellent example of "One bone. Two dogs." The heroine's trying to preserve a historic site while the heroe's building a golf course/ club house there. The h/h are worlds apart personality wise too. A fun book.

    I used the "One bone. Two dogs" in the external conflict between Luke and Mary in Courting the Doctor's Daughter releasing in May. In this case a child is the bone.

    Susan Wiggs recommends fleshing out your heroine, then making the hero the heroine's worst nightmare...another way of saying give them insurmountable odds. I used that tip with my wip. My heroine's father destroyed his family by gambling. The hero is a reformed gambler. Secrets make great conflict.


  8. Pam -- this concept is one we know in theory, but it's really, really hard to develop it so it doesn't come out sounding ho-hum and "been there done that" to readers (or to ourselves when when we want to get excited about what we're writing). Anyone have any tips for making the tried and true concepts sound fresh to someone who is standing in a store reading back cover blurbs or sees a 2-3 line review in RT? How can we as writers find that "twist" that gets US exciting about writing yet another story about the hero wanting to build a condo complex on the heroine's beloved grandmother's farm? Or the heroine hiding a "secret baby."

  9. Hey Pam, GREAT blog, GREAT title!! It's so much fun to see the "Two Dogs. One Bone" conflict illustrated this way.

    And you're right about Mary Connealy being a master at this. I just finished Gingham Mountain (awesome, by the way!), and her two dogs/one bone scenario is: if your heroine is an orphan abused by an adoptive father, then your hero better be a father who adopts orphans.

  10. Eek! Great post and I love that you gave examples. I love the movie Far and Away too.

    Since I just started a wip, this is a great reminder to check my plot. Thanks!

  11. Whatever he has to have, has to destroy her.

    I've heard it put that way and I like it.

    In Montana Rose, coming in July: She's a pregnant widow in the unforgiving west trained to be absolutely submissive. He's a kind-hearted rancher who refuses to give orders. She nearly destroys his ranch trying to GUESS what he wants her to do.

  12. Thanks Pam! Over the weekend I decided on my next project(s) and had moved into brainstorming what to do with the characters. This (even though it's not new to me) has my brain in overdrive, understanding the characters I have. Makes me want to do a jig, but first I'll make a few notes since I have the memory of a goldfish. LoL.

    This was wonderful timing for me!

  13. These were great! And what a great way to gauge your conflict before you ever start writing a book.

  14. I like this post, Pam! It may seem obvious to seasoned writers that the hero and heroine should have opposite goals or they're fighting over one bone. But in my second manuscript (which was rejected for good reason), I had my hero and heroine as friends without much of a conflict between them. Eventually I realized I set up the story all wrong and it fell completely flat. But I learned a lot from that error!

  15. Pam, this is a point-blank great way of examining conflict. Thanks so much for a clear, concise picture of what makes a book tick.

    I love the movie "Hitch" with Will Smith and Eva Mendes. Great fun, romantic comedy with a wonderful dialogue, snappy reparte and did I mention it stars Will Smith?

    Will Smith = Yummy.

    Simple mathematics, right?

    In "Hitch" you have the ardent but scarred New York City gossip columnist and an undercover male matchmaker who doesn't reveal his identity until he picks a client.

    She has the power to ruin him.

    Pam, this is a great reflection for me. I've got a manuscript that needs an additional layer of conflict that doesn't sound like I contrived it because I couldn't think of anything else to throw at the protagonists.

    YAWN........... I hate when authors do that.

    You've given me impetus to dig deeper, and probably re-write the whole book.

    Add a SIGH to that YAWN.


    Ruthy (who is greatly enjoying a mid-day pick-me-up with this cappuccino... Sooooo good!)

  16. Sherrinda, I love, love, love You've Got Mail.

    Oh mylanta, what a fun, fun film with no gratuitous sex but jam-packed with romance, romance, romance because of the conflict, conflict, conflict.

    And Pam wants the turning point?

    I'd have to say it's when Joe Fox's father wonders out loud if he's ever really loved any of his wives, and Joe realizes he wants more and can't blow this chance.

    Love it thiiiiiiiiiiiiis much.


  17. What a way to start a Monday -- full of conflict, LOL! Thanks for the reminder of what makes a good romance tick, Pam!

    I loved your example of Always to Remember. Loved that book. It's a keeper I've read so often the spine is broken. Masterfully handled showing the realistic change evolving in both characters. If you haven't read it, do yourself a favor and find a copy!!

    Good job, Pam!!

  18. Hi Glynna Kaye:

    I think many fans, like me, often buy books for the theme. Every so often I want to read a ‘hidden child’ book because it makes me feel good in a given way.

    Often I want the 'same thing' only different. Of course, you can always write outside the box. For example:

    ‘Divorce of Convenience’ -- a psychologist gets a chance to head a large foundation providing help to divorced people (at a huge salary), but he can’t have the job unless he is divorced, which the Board of Directors thought he was when they offered him the job. Since his marriage has died long ago, he and his wife get divorced but soon find themselves thinking about how good it was when they first married. This revitalizes the romance.

    “Hidden Child” – the child knows his ‘adopted’ parents, or potential adopted parents’ are really his biological parents but they don’t know this and he can’t tell them because it would endanger all their lives. (The child has overheard something he should not have.)

    “Adolescent crush” The older man, who had a crush on his best friend’s little sister, desires her now that they are both adults – but she sees him only as an older brother.

    This is the “Do the same thing backwards’ creative approach. I think these themes would be much harder to write but more interesting to read.

    Can anyone think of any more themes that could be done backwards - that are not now being done backwards?


  19. Ugh. I just made it back.

    Long day. Sorry.

    Then blogger ate my comment.

    Anyway, the comments have been wonderful and so informative! I'm glad this has jumpstarted some creativity.

    The next step is to take that one-liner and develop a STORY around it. Harder than it looks, friends!

  20. I think the Divorce of Convenience idea is hilarious. I've never heard that before. Write it Vince.

  21. One conflict I remember loving... I can't remember the book now sorry but the plot was... she was committed to preserving the downtown historical district and wnated a big old house to convernt into an antique story to be the center of the towns new vitality.

    He believe the downtown area is blighted and wants to tear down the big old house to build a church, using his modern flashy architectural style he's become noted for. That will revitalize his town.

    It was a great Two Dogs. One Bone story.

  22. Pam,
    Great job taking a difficult concept and making it understandable! Love it! This is a keeper blog for sure.

  23. Great post, Pam! And great examples!

    I went to see Confessions of a Shopaholic last night. So cute!!! And in that one, you've got the editor for a financial magazine paired with a shopaholic who has dept collectors coming after her. :) Oh, and she's fallen into a job at his magazine by lying on her resume.

    Great story!
    Now if only I could figure out what I'm going to do on my new proposal!

  24. Pam, I think Ruth is right about the turning point in You've Got Mail. Joe persues her albeit under a false identity. She falls for him while transforming herself into an author instead of book store owner (and thus is not a dog anymore wanting the same bone!) I just love a false identity!

    This has been the best blog with such great comments! You guys have a lot of fun here!

  25. You know, it's been years since I watched Far and Away. I might have to watch it again to find the turning points in that story.

    For research, you understand...

    Night all! Today was fun even if I wasn't around much.

  26. Great post, Pam! I'm going to link to it on my Story Sensei blog. This really simplifies conflict while opening the doors to ideas for writers.

  27. Hi Pam, Late here but glad I checked in. You gave me just what I needed as I'm starting a new wip also. It really helps to find a strong focus in the conflict.

  28. What a great article, Pam! At first I was thinking, oh, I'm not too good at this. Then I started remembering my plot from my WIP and realized I have the elements, I just need to play them up a bit!

    My heroine is terrified of marriage because she's seen her mother give up herself and live only for her husband. Then when the heroine's father dies, the mother sort of loses her mind and emotionally abandons the family. She doesn't want that to happen to her. But she falls in love, while trying hard not to, with a guy who is doing something very dangerous which will likely get him killed.

    Also, he lives in the small town where he grew up and she hates small towns and is trying to get back to Nashville.

    But don't you think there is a such thing as too much conflict? I have read books that irritated me because it seemed like the writer was just following that advice "think of the worst thing that could possibly happen and make it happen, over and over." That gets annoying to me after a while. Maybe I'm the only one.

  29. Melanie, I get irritated, too. It drives me crazy to have one thing right after another, especially if they don't seem related or even matter.

  30. Melanie, I threw some ideas for my wip at the Seekers the other day and Ruthy targeted this exact problem for me....

    She got my hero's GMC that directly related to the heroine, but the heroine was getting lost in all the external plot points I threw at them. What part of the heroine's GMC kept her from the hero for 300 pages?

    From the gist of her comments, I gathered that all the external angst and intrique about her family I had thrown in the pot worked great for the story, but since it's a romance, I needed to nail down the heroine's GMC.

    Hope all that made sense!

    From what you posted, I don't think you have too much conflict...if it works for the story.

    If your heroine's father died doing something dangerous, then it sounds like her GMC regarding the hero is pretty solid.

  31. Great post and examples Pam! I can't think of any to add that you haven't already covered.


  32. I don't know if this has been mentioned yet - as I haven't read through all the comments.

    But with all the Twilight mania. How about:

    If your hero is a vampire, your heroine better be a human with delicious smelling blood.

    Great post! And excellent way to start a story with lots of conflict!

  33. Oh, Katie, just saw your comment about Twilight!

    Yes, wonderful example of Insurmountable Odds!!!

  34. I just received Janet Dean's Courting the Doctor's Daughter, and it's got a great premise:

    Doctor's daughter vs. snake oil saleman.

    I can already see the conflict there!