Degree of Difficulty
Writing fiction isn’t like competing in the Olympics in terribly many ways. This is, for the most part, a good thing, as my training regimen falls a tiny bit short of Olympic standards (actually, it’s just this side of couch potato standards). One way in which they’re similar, though, is that, like many Olympic participants, writers get extra credit for degree of difficulty.
I’ve always shot for a certain degree of difficulty with my novels. In When You Went Away, I tried to express an entire father-daughter relationship through journal entries. In Crossing the Bridge, I created a major character who doesn’t have a single line of dialogue until one of the last chapters of the novel. In The Journey Home, I doubled down on degree of difficulty (do I get extra points for alliteration?) by having one viewpoint character with dementia and another with amnesia. In my novel, Spinning, I tried writing a romantic story where the protagonist falls in love twice.
Writing friends advised me that this was a risky move. There are certain conventions to love stories, they told me. One of these is that you can’t ask readers to invest in two relationships involving the same guy. Come on, I thought, is that really tougher than landing a triple axel/double salchow combination in figure skating? Since I can barely stand up on skates, I can’t answer that question, but I do know that it was tougher than I expected. The novel begins with Dylan, our protagonist, opening the door of his apartment in the middle of the night to find Diane, an old lover, and her three-year-old daughter on the other side. Over the first portion of the novel, they rekindle their relationship and truly fall in love this time. But soon tragedy strikes and Diane is gone. Then, somewhere around the middle of the novel, Dylan falls in love with a close friend, leading to all kinds of complications.
When I laid out this plot, I figured I’d have no problem with the two-love-affair issue. It all worked out rather neatly on the Excel spreadsheet I use to storyboard novels. When I started writing Dylan and Diane’s relationship, however, I really liked the way they were together. I wanted to see them make it. If I wanted to see them make it, were readers going to want to see them make it as well? How were those readers going to feel about the fact that they don’t make it? How were they going to feel about Dylan when he lets himself fall in love again so quickly? Would readers give their hearts to this new relationship if I broke their hearts over the previous one?
This required quite a bit of finessing. In the end, I think I found a way to make both relationships work. Did I get enough rotation on my turns, though? Did I stick the landing? Did I enter the pool with the minimal amount of splash? That’s up to readers to decide, but I hope they’ll give me at least a bit of extra credit for degree of difficulty.