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Writing Couples In Novels, by Ben Marshall

After finishing the first draft of my manuscript The Pricking of Thumbs, a spec-fic road-trip into the future with a bunch of murderous circus freaks, I was lucky enough to score an Australian Society of Authors mentorship to help edit it into publishable shape.

Though I’m naturally convinced it’s a work of staggering genius, my mentor, Alyssa Brugman, has pointed out there are one or two (dozen) issues still to resolve. One of which is the relationship between the murderous anti-hero Rousse and his amore, the beautiful but disfigured Sparrow.

My original vision was for these two to hook up early in the piece, link hands and race through the narrative as a united couple.  It was, arguably, a male version of a romance narrative rather than a female one – instead of a long chase, filled with many ‘will they?’, ‘won’t they?’ moments and unresolved sexual tension, I wanted them to fall for each other quickly, and for every action and reaction to bind them tighter.


Okay, Alyssa Brugman didn’t say “boring” but she did point out what I’d already realised – my boy protagonist grows over the course of the narrative, while my girl protagonist doesn’t.  They also don’t grow as a couple, there are no obstacles to their romance, which seems to spring from nowhere, and, most importantly, there is no friction between them to make the relationship interesting.

Even though the challenges to correct these issues are not inconsiderable (and you’re welcome to picture me here butting my head on the keyboard, over and over), this kind of critique is pure gold.  How was I to resolve them?

Firstly, I considered rewriting the book, placing the flowering romance centrally, therefore taking a more feminine and more traditional YA-style approach.  Instead of the romance blossoming almost immediately, I’d create obstacles for them to fight their way past.  For example, Sparrow could be still actively addicted to drugs, which would compel her to struggle and, eventually, fight for her love.  Another obstacle could be that Rousse might not feel he’s not good enough for Sparrow, a legitimate point considering he murders people for money, hates himself, and the circus leaves a trail of dead.

A good question to ask about any literary relationship is what the two individuals want and need.  If those things differ then, despite the mutual attraction, you have instant obstacles to romance.  I sat my couple down, asked them what they thought, and found they wanted the same things – love, security, companionship and family in a time of chaos and conflict.

There was also another issue to consider: I write soap opera screenplays for a living.  In other words, my working day is one damn relationship after another.  Soap opera is often regarded as a ‘feminine narrative’ by virtue of being an unending story about the relationships of people and things, rather than a ‘masculine narrative’ about action and conflict with a beginning, middle and end.  So, on a personal level, I needed to turn my novel into a romance novel like a plumber needs to go home and spend time tinkering to improve the toilet cistern.

My dilemma began to feel insoluble.  I needed to make the relationship interesting and grow, but I wasn’t prepared to enlarge the role of their romance into a traditional narrative.

Then I had a brilliant idea.

I think my genius is to know my IQ barely floats into three figures, so when the going gets tough intellectually, I know to imagine what a smart person would do.  In this case it was to talk through the issues with my wife, and here you’re free to picture me pacing up and down whining in a fairly grumpy fashion, my wife quietly listening until she interrupts with the idea that would work.

Sometimes the best solution is the simplest.  My romantic couple might want the same things but how they chase them will differ simply by virtue of one being a young adult male and the other being a young adult female.

I realised my two problems were now resolved with one solution. I don’t need to rewrite the entire novel. I need only play on the typical differences and emotions that exist between males and females to create interesting friction, and to grow them as individuals and as a couple throughout the narrative.

As a result, I’m now enjoying the editing rather than grinding through it.  I think it’s fair to acknowledge the practical reality that all writing is, to some degree, a collaborative effort.  My thanks to Alyssa Brugman, the ASA and, of course, my wife.


Ben Marshall’s author website:

Ben Marshall’s bio page


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Writing Novels in Australia

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is a wonderful post that I needed for my historical novel. Thanks Ben.

    November 1, 2013
  2. You’re very welcome.

    November 1, 2013
  3. Ian Summerfield #

    very nice, sweetly informative piece Mr Marshall, appreciated.

    November 2, 2013

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