Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Elements of Modern Storytelling: Romance, A Guest Blog by Kenneth Johnson

by Stephanie Osborn

Today's guest blog on Romance as an element of modern storytelling is by Kenneth Johnson. Ken is an interesting individual. Principal Chief of the Florida Tribe of Cherokee Indians, Ken is also a polymath, a social scientist and culturalist. (J.R.R. Tolkien would have called him a "loremaster.") Ken Johnson is better known as "America's Culturalist." He writes primarily on issues of culture, conflict, and literary allegory. He is rather widely published in various magazines and webzines, and I thought his take on elements of modern storytelling would be intriguing and a bit different. I first "e-met" him after he read a couple of my books and contacted me; we met in person a few weeks later when I appeared at a convention local to him.

So let's sit back and see what Ken has to say.



As a reader, the greatest feat that a writer can accomplish is maintaining a point of view that captures, and retains, my interest throughout a storyline.   I am extremely particular when it comes to emotional vs. sensual writing.  Oft times, I could care less what the character is feeling emotionally and instead I want the writer to be talking about the textures, smells, sensations, etc. of the moment.  As a reader, romance therefore messes things up for me when it is employed.  By this I mean that romance tends to blur the lines and therefore it is very much like dropping a flash bomb in a room.  When done right, it re-grabs the attention of the reader, re-focuses it, and uses the romance as a carrier to a much more elevated storyline.  However, there is far too much bad writing out there and thus the romantic twist just ends up twisting the story so far out of whack that the reader gives up on the book altogether. 

Indeed, in many ways, romance is to a story what salt is like to food.  Too little can make for a bland story.  Too much can kill a story.  So, the writer has to get that Goldilocks scenario of getting things “just right” – which can become a daunting challenge.

Initially, the writer should spend a great deal of time contemplating both the correct timing as well as the correct type of romance to use.  The writer also needs to take into consideration the culture of the reader as well as the culture that the character represents.  Finally, the writer has a professional duty to contemplate and account for the impact that said romantic twist will have on the reader.

It is on this latter concept of professional responsibility to the impact of romance that I first want to address.   Social scientists have well established a link between visual and actual responses to both romantic and carnal/lustful situations.  Researchers have concluded that the subconscious brain cannot distinguish between actually seeing something happen and seeing something depicted in an audio-visual format on television or in the movies.   That is to say, “You know, but you don’t know,” because your conscious brain is saying, “This is a television show,” while your subconscious is like some teenager yelling out, “They’re really getting it on!”  Some researchers are now beginning to hypothesize that this response to stimuli also applies to the written word.  A select few are now going so far as to say that the written word may be even more sensual than real life, meaning that the subconscious brain would be even less likely to differentiate between writing and the real thing.  This hypothesis takes into account the power of human imagination.  Thus, a literary tryst may have a more physio-emotional impact on the reader than them seeing the real thing.  Such arguments have specifically centered around juvenile-based comics, teen fiction, and even young adult fiction due to the added issue of hormones which can potentially, and adversely, “color” feelings and perceptions.

Of course, all of this is all well and good but it is still just theory.  Quite possibly the greatest impact concern that a writer should have is the reader’s expectations.   For instance, if one is reading a story about an Amish farm, one really would not expect to read about how Helga got ravished by Jacob and ended up covered in chocolate sauce in some barn.  However, by the same token, Jacob taking Helga by the hand, courting her, and stealing a kiss might be something that the reader would more likely expect.  Therefore, the writer not only has to ask, “Would the character do this?” but the writer should also consider, “How will my readers react if this romantic twist plays out this specific way?”

Verily, it is the romantic type that matters as much, if not more, than anything else.  Ultimately, all romance can be broken down into six types or categories:  puppy love, teenage drama, young adult passion, erotica, secondary romance, and golden romance. 

By far the simplest concept to understand is the “puppy love” concept where intentions are pure even though comprehension and motives are likely underdeveloped in the plot line.  While it is the simplest to understand, this type of romance can be the hardest to write because it is so underdeveloped in its motives, rationale, etc.  For this reason, most writers never touch the topic unless in brief to provide a background story or some other accentual element to a much greater storyline. 

Teenage drama is a hot button issue now.  Like puppy love, it lacks rationale – but that is what makes it so great to use!  You can have love, hate, sorrow, etc. all tied in together because the readers are teenagers and they are feeling the ravages of hormonal changes. 

Young adult passion is becoming a more popular segment these days.  Indeed, a number of young readers are tired of carnal-focused romance stories and instead they want to experience the more sophisticated nuances of genuine love between two people who are now more mature and contemplating what to do with their lives. 

By far the greatest bulk of American romance is almost erotica based.  Some of the storylines being developed today are nothing short of something one would have expected from historical erotica writers like Anais Nin.  Such stories hone in on the frustrations of life and provide a release by one giving themselves over to cultural taboos.  But, again, audience and character background means everything.  As a Native American, I am used to intimate body parts being talked about in the casual.  However, the talk of breasts and such, in contemporary society, is deemed “intimate” and so this genre style can be fickle – especially if the writer has a diverse readership or only typically writes from one cultural vantage point. 

Of course, after a while, love oft-times will start to fade.  A growing trend in America is for middle-aged people to have two or more previous marriages in their histories.  So, romance writers have begun to focus on trying to write about reigniting flames in old relationships, finding the right relationship after a long-dead one has failed, etc. 

But, by far, my greatest love of romance storylines is the golden romance where love did not fade and a couple has held on to each other through the years to the point that it has blossomed into something that few people ever experience.  Using a real world example, I remember hearing a story of the late President Reagan.  He was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease and he decided to go on a routine walk with his Secret Service detail.  Walking past a person’s yard, he saw a beautiful rose.  When he tried to pick it, a Secret Service agent politely grabbed his hand and said, “Mr. President, this is not your home.”  To that, President Reagan replied, “I know, I am just getting this for my sweetie.”   For me, this is real romance.  I cannot imagine the horror of losing my mind.  It would devastate me.  Yet, through it all, he still wanted to show his wife love and affection with everyday simple gestures that contemporary society seemingly finds no value in anymore.  For this reason, golden romance is, in a way, much like puppy love – only matured.

Naturally, nothing matters more than timing.  You can have everything picked out and properly accounted for with the readers and characters and still mess up a good story with improper timing.  Simply put, you cannot have someone talking about Prussian military tactics one minute, and then having them in a loving embrace the second, without first properly setting the stage.  This is to say that romance happens on a very specific schedule. 

Case in point, golden romance can never happen between two teenagers because they are too young to understand it and appreciate it for what it is.  By the same token, two middle-aged individuals cannot suddenly break out in teenage romance because they should be old enough, and stable enough, that all of the, “I love you, I hate you, let’s make out, oh I feel so ashamed, let’s do it again,” erratic melodrama is well behind them.  

For this reason, the writer had better put serious thought into what type of romance takes what type of timing.  In the case of the Displaced Detective series, a lot of time had to expire for the two main characters, Sherlock and Skye, to get to know each other.  Even then, Sherlock had an inward battle he had to fight where he was nothing short of a cultural fossil trying to live in a new era with new norms.  This all had to play out.  Indeed, it was not until Skye nearly died that Sherlock had the emotional and traumatic stimulation needed for him to uncharacteristically break out of his cultural shell and engage in an atypical, erotic fashion.  Because both were older individuals, this type of romance had to quickly crescendo and move on to a more stable type of romance more fitting of their age and circumstance. 

Verily, when done right, there is no greater way for a writer to develop a storyline than by way of romance.  By its very essence, it is transcendental.  However, more so than with any other element, it has to be used in the appropriate amount, in the correct manner, and at the optimal point in time to give the story the most bang for the readers’ buck.  Some of the greatest stories of our era are won and lost in how the author handles romantic twists.


Interesting point of view, and I had not thought of dividing up the different "types" of love before, nor of how they necessarily provide for different timing! 

If you'd like to read more of Ken's work, you can find a lot linked to his website: 

-Stephanie Osborn

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Elements of Modern Storytelling: Romance, A Guest Blog by Christine Amsden

by Stephanie Osborn

This is blog 2 in our Elements of Modern Storytelling: Romance series. It's by Christine Amsden, a very successful and imaginative fellow author at Twilight Times Books. Christine always has some interesting things to say, so let's get to it.



Where does romance fit as an element of modern storytelling?

Romance is more popular than ever and it's not hard to see why. Modern storytelling is intimate by its very nature, and modern readers want to get to know their favorite characters in ways they never did before. We crave that closeness. That connection. And romance is the ultimate human connection. 

These days limited omniscient third person point of view is so commonplace that we scarcely think about it any longer. Back in the old days, if you wanted to get “inside” a character's head, you needed to use a first person perspective. These days that's not necessary. You can use “he” or “she” to your heart's content and still put us right there inside their skulls, sharing everything they think, hear, see, feel, touch, and smell. In fact, readers have come to expect this.

Why? The answer is simple – movies. These days, books have to compete against movies to provide an enthralling storytelling experience. And let's face it, books can never compete with movies on sights or sounds. Classic books often described a scene from the distant perspective of an omniscient narrator. They would set the stage by describing sights and sounds, what the characters looked like and wore, what they acted like and what they said. But this distant narrator rarely got inside a character's head and when it did it wasn't intimate. It was usually just expedient. 

Imagine modern books trying to use a distant narrator, when live-action movies can show us sights and sounds so much better? How can a book even hope to compete?

Intimacy. The one thing a book can do that a movie cannot is create a connection between the reader and the character. Whether an author uses first person or third person, the expectation is that we (the readers) get to know him or her in ways that no movie could show us. We want nothing more or less than the deepest desires of their heart, and the attitudes behind them.

Coming back around to romance, it is not hard to see that once you've given us a true connection to your character, the busybodies of the world (and most of us are whether we want to admit it or not) want to see those characters happily settled down with the right man/woman/sentient being. Even if that's not what the story is about, once we've established a true connection to a hero or heroine we look for him or her to establish connections with other people. The same way we do in real life. 

Having said that, I often think romance is overemphasized in modern stories. The romantic relationship is not the only way for people to connect with other people. We have friends. Family. Mortal enemies. 

I also worry that the romantic relationship is a true fantasy in many stories. And I'm not talking about magic – I'm talking about things that don't happen in the real world. The way love is often presented, it is indistinguishable from lust, and it establishes a false framework for what a real lifelong commitment is about. 

One challenge authors face today is reader expectations. And as much as readers swear they'd like to read something different, the truth is usually that they want to see something that pushes them just outside their comfort zone – not something that propels them out of it. Which is why I will be a very old woman before I write the non-happily ever after romance I'd love to try (if I ever do).

In the meantime, I'm trying to use romance to support other aspects of story and character, rather than as a focus for the story. (Or even as a superfluous subplot.) In so doing, I'm hoping to create a subtle honesty to the romance in my stories that belies the traditional lust-based undercurrents. In addition, I'm trying to include other important relationships in my characters' lives. 

My Cassie Scot series is an excellent example of what I mean. A lot of my reviews point to the “family drama” in the series and Cassie's friendships as being as compelling as the romance. Seeing these comments warms my heart because this was exactly what I wanted to do. Cassie will eventually be a wife and mother, but for now she is a daughter, sister (six times over), and a friend. 

When it comes to the romance in that series, Cassie isn't ready for it yet. Between magic, mystery, romance, and family drama there's a lot to keep her busy but the arc that drives the story is Cassie's personal coming of age story. She can't be with someone else until she's okay with herself (which she's not at first). Thus the romance supports the story/character and not the other way around.

Of course, there are a lot of books out there and a lot of approaches to romance. I am in no way suggesting that every story should be the same. There will always be a place on readers' shelves for steamy or heartwarming romantic fantasies. I read them myself and enjoy them quite a bit. 

But as romance is inserted as a co-plot into more and more stories, the opportunities for literature as a whole are endless. I've seen more stories about married couples, for instance, showing us that life doesn't end at “I do.” And there is often a great deal of honesty in these tales. 

However it's spun, tales of romance are human connections. And if there is one simple answer I could give to the question of where romance fits as an element of modern storytelling, that would be it: Human connections. 

Christine Amsden


Secrets and Lies (Cassie Scot - Book 2) (December 2013)
Cassie Scot: ParaNormal Detective (May 2013) 2013 Global Ebook Award winner
The Immortality Virus (June 2011), winner of the 2012 Eppie Award
Touch of Fate (November 2007)


Human connnections. I think she has something there. I knew it would be interesting! Thanks, Christine!

More to come next week with another fellow author!

-Stephanie Osborn

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Elements of Modern Storytelling: Romance

by Stephanie Osborn

Last week I promised you a new series of blogs, to include many guest authors, on The Elements of Modern Storytelling. This week we start the first element, which I have chosen to be Romance. The plan is for me to lead off each new element with my own blog post, followed by views from other authors. Some elements may have more posts, some less, depending entirely on the inspiration of my guest authors, and it's entirely possible that my own schedule could get wonky, in which case someone else may lead off on an element. But that's the plan. And we all know that a good plan never survives first engagement with the enemy (Time, in this case), so we'll see. Anyway. On to the disccussion.


I write, as most of you know, principally science fiction mysteries. It's a deliberate cross-genre blend. But I also usually have some element of romance in my stories as well. I even (GASP!) allowed Sherlock Holmes to fall in love in my Displaced Detective series. That in itself has created a lot of stir. And a significant number of science fiction fans (mostly male per my observations, interestingly enough) think that romance has no place in sci-fi.

I beg to differ.

Few things are so revealing of one's character as one's behavior when falling, or fully, in love. This is as true in real life as it is in fiction. Granted, it is possible for some to hide their true natures; it's why people get immersed into a relationship only to discover that the partner is abusive, and the like. But in general, I think it's so. When we were dating, my funny, impetuous, spontaneous now-husband grew a serious, gentle side, a courtly side, and he's never lost those things. Meanwhile, curious, serious, reserved me, always with a plan, discovered that spontaneity could be fun. We learned something new about ourselves. It wasn't so much that those things were never in us to begin with as it was that each helped the other discover it in themselves.

This is why I use romance as a tool in my writer's kit. Romance enables me to more fully flesh out the character. To me, it is one of the things that helps bring a character to life in the mind of the reader. And if you'll recall some of my recent posts, that's my ultimate goal in creating a character: bringing him/her/it to life in your imagination. I used it on both protagonists in Burnout: The mystery of Space Shuttle STS-281, in different ways, to pretty good effect, I think.

So if watching the internal struggle, the anxieties, fears, joys and triumphs of a person in love cannot bring that character to life in the reader's mind, frankly, nothing can. It is a microcosm of life.

Okay, fine, so why the [expletive redacted] did you make Sherlock Holmes, of all people, fall in love?

Well, I didn't. That was sort of his idea. And once he explained it to me, it made sense. He's also stubborn enough to insist on it anyway, whether I liked it or not -- which he did, but initially I didn't.

[See, the characters, on some level, become real to me, too. I have yet to decide if the theory of alternate universes where literary characters exist as actual people might be real, or not. But sometimes it surely seems as if the ideas come from somewhere Out There.]

Now, I'll admit that I deliberately challenged him with a brilliant, genius-intellect modern woman. Mostly because I wanted to see if this was a stressor to him. The whole point behind the first Displaced Detective story (which takes place across two volumes, The Case of the Displaced Detective: The Arrival and The Case of the Displaced Detective: At Speed) was to take the great intelligence of the Great Detective, along with all his imagination, creativity, strengths, foibles, preconceptions, and faults, and plop him down in a situation that was so outre that a lesser man would have gone mad. And then I wanted to see what he'd do. This was an experiment on my part, because I didn't have any particular clear plan for what would happen, save that I knew major plot events and I knew who the antagonists were. I set the initial conditions and let it run, following what was in character for the various personae dramatis.

There is also one other thing that I added to the mix as a running theme, and that was the concept of parallelism. If we are going to discuss parallel worlds, universes, then we might as well look at how they are similar -- or not -- across multiple continua. And so I introduced the idea that there were parallels to Holmes' native continuum in Skye Chadwick's, and one of those...was her.

You see, in her own continuum, the one to which Holmes moves, at least until his advent she WAS him. She was her world's Sherlock Holmes. Only, just as other, more direct, versions of Holmes didn't all become detectives (this is mentioned in some of the later books, which haven't come out yet), so too did Chadwick fall into another field of endeavor, namely hyperspatial physics. She is (in her universe) to hyperspatial physics what Albert Einstein was to relativity. (No, not really another parallel. Just a metaphor.)

Well, I mean really. Holmes has been accused of being narcissistic. So doesn't it stand to reason that, when presented with a version of himself in reasonably attractive female form, he might fall? Especially if he's in a highly charged emotional situation such as being yanked to a freakin' different spacetime? He thought so, and when once he had laid out his logic, I did, too.

"I have never loved, Watson, but if I did and if the woman I loved had met such an end, I might act even as our lawless lion-hunter has done."
~Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Devil's Foot

Right here, in Arthur Conan Doyle's own story, he admits that he knows his own emotions would be powerful, in the circumstance. So what if...?

And once again, romance proved a useful tool. Because we -- "we" being Holmes and me -- were able to demonstrate that the great intellect still functions well even through the throes of a tumultuous beginning love affair. And, that relationship having been firmly established, he reverts even more to the Victorian gentleman he always was. And Doyle was right -- the powerful intellect has powerful emotions, even if he does keep them largely hidden from the rest of the world. ("Still waters run deep," and all that.) And such a relationship is capable of being to him the distraction, the divertissement, that an active mind sometimes needs to be able to see the forest through the trees.

I always knew Holmes was a strong character. My intent was to make Chadwick a strong character as well, a strong woman to Holmes' strong man, an equal. How much the more, then, when they have formed such a strong attachment to one another, yet each must still let the other go marching into danger? I've found the arrangement to be ripe for displaying their strengths and weaknesses.

I think it is, also, one of the reasons why the series has a strong fan following.

Romance. It's good for way more than just a fling.


Next week, Christine Amsden's take on The Elements of Modern Storytelling: Romance.

-Stephanie Osborn

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A New Idea for an Old Blog

by Stephanie Osborn

I've been trying to figure out some interesting options for this blog. It's been around a few years now, and I wanted to do something different for my readers. An online chat with a friend and fellow author generated a spark, and I have that idea, and more, agreement from the appropriate people to help me pull it off.

So, starting next week, I'm going to have a running series of posts -- some guest, some my own -- that answer the question,

Where does [insert element here] fit as an element of modern storytelling?

Hopefully this will result in some interesting dialogue between authors and readers, hopefully in the comments of this blog (which for some reason, people seem to be shy about commenting upon, despite the fact that I have a goodly international readership), and elsewhere. So please stick around while anywhere from 8-12 authors discuss the elements of telling stories and how each one personally incorporates them. And by all means, post your thoughts and reactions in the comments.

I think it will be worth your while. And I think we're all about to learn some stuff.

Heads up: Next week we begin...
Where does ROMANCE fit as an element of modern storytelling?

-Stephanie Osborn