Feb 19 2011 2:00pm

Seeing is Believing: The Heroine’s Journey

Mark Twain portraitNovelists often talk about the importance of “showing, not telling” in their writing, which means something like, as Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) put it: “Don't tell us that the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” But this isn’t just advice for general writing: it’s important when developing characters, too. Within the text itself, “showing, not telling” matters, because sometimes we cannot rely on outward appearances to tell what a person is like or how he feels. Romance as a genre is sometimes criticized for “purple prose” and flowery declarations of love, but in fact, one of its great strengths is its focus on the deep significance of action.


Catch of the Day by Kristan Higgins

For example, in the very beginning of Kristan Higgins’ Catch of the Day (HQN, 2007), the heroine is pondering how she managed to fall in love with her totally unavailable Episcopal priest and ends up getting stuck an icy rainstorm, miles from home. She takes a bit of a spill as she tries to bicycle home. Here’s what happens:

Feeling very sorry for myself, I hauled my bike up the bank at the exact moment a car went by. 'Help! Stop!' I yelled, but whoever it was didn’t hear me. Or heard me and was afraid, as I resembled an escaped lunatic at that moment. I watched the taillights of the blue Honda disappear in the distance, noting that the sky was suddenly much darker.

Well, I didn’t have a choice. I started walking, gimping along on my cut knee, until a pickup pulled over. Before I could even tell who it was, the driver grabbed my bike and popped it in the bed of the truck. Squinting through the rain, I saw it was Malone, a silent, slightly scary lobsterman who moored next to my brother. He may have spoken―the words 'Get in' ring a bell―and so I gingerly crawled into the cab of his truck.

The blue Honda driver is the Episcopal priest. And Malone is . . . hero material. This is a bit of foreshadowing on Higgins’ part. She shows us each man’s true character as it is revealed in what he does, not in what he says. Newbies to the romance genre will look back on this scene with new understanding as each man’s character develops, while seasoned romance readers will know immediately what the author is doing. But both will derive a lot of pleasure from traveling with the heroine on her journey of learning to see what the author is showing the reader.

The idea that a good, loving man is hiding underneath the surface of a slightly scary one is very common in certain subgenres of romance: romantic suspense and paranormal romance come to mind. Think of how Roarke is presented in the first couple of books in J.D. Robbs In Death series—a sketchy, arrogant, rule-breaking millionaire who may be a murderer. But look at what Roarke does; there are so many examples of his attunement with Eve.  For example,  when he makes her real coffee, the significance of it isn't just in the fact that it’s an expensive gift in the futuristic world Robb has created, but that he's noticed Eve loves coffee and so rarely does anything for herself.

Then there are all those vampires, shifters, and other creatures of the paranormal night. Both the heroine and the reader may have been told awful things about those guys. But when it comes to behavior towards the heroine, the hero is pure gold. The question is at what point they each recognize it.

Sometimes writers use behavior to reveal the feelings of the hero for the heroine, feelings neither of them is willing or able to admit. Jane Austen, considered by many to be the foremother of the romance genre, does this kind of signaling in Persuasion. Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth had been in love eight years prior to the action of the story, but Anne was persuaded by her family that it was not a good match. They meet again, with Anne still in love, but Wentworth —now a successful naval officer—apparently having forgotten her. Worse, he is actively courting other ladies in Anne’s circle!

But appearances are not what they seem, and Austen writes two scenes that make this clear, if not to Anne, then to the reader. In an early scene, Anne is having a heck of a time trying to keep her two-year-old nephew, Walter, from climbing all over her as she attempts to nurse his injured older sibling: “She spoke to him, ordered, entreated, and insisted in vain.” There are two men in the room, Walter’s uncle Charles and Captain Wentworth. Charles offers an ineffectual remonstrance, but here is what Wentworth does:

In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released . . . [Walter’s] sturdy little hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew Captain Wentworth had done it.

Later, on a group walk, Anne fatigues. Luckily, someone shows up with a carriage, but there is room for only one extra passenger. Anne demurs, but Captain Wentworth, having noticed her fatigue, ensures that she is the one who gets the last carriage seat: “Captain Wentworth, without saying a word turned to her, and quietly obliged her to be assisted into the carriage.” It is events like these that show the reader, and, to some extent, Anne, that Captain Wentworth is still in love with her, despite what he might explicitly say (in this case, the cutting remark that Anne was “so altered he should not have known her again," implying he finds her unattractive to the extreme).

My examples so far have focused on early scenes in stories. But sometimes the most important moment of showing versus telling is at the end. In Susan Elizabeth PhillipsMatch Me If You Can, the hero, Heath, is an ambitious sports agent, kind of like Jerry Maguire. He is never without at least one cell phone, and seems to be “on” 24/7. The heroine, Annabelle, finally despairs of getting Heath to put his personal relationships first, and runs off to a secluded cottage for some alone time. Heath tracks her down, and in an emotional scene, he pours his heart out, telling her exactly how he feels about her. But Annabelle isn’t convinced by words. Deeply sad, but resolute, she walks away.   

Later, Annabelle returns to Heath, who is still outside, soaked and shivering in the cold and rain (of course!) and asks him (1) where his cell phone is, and (2) why he hasn’t returned phone calls from a talented young QB he has been desperate to sign. His answers are (1) he doesn’t know, and (2) the QB can wait. Phillips writes, “Her legs gave out from under her, and she sank down on the nearest rock. ‘Oh, my God. You really do love me.'”

Romance writers have the gift of understanding the significance of behavior to characters who may not even know what motivates them, or who need signs when words are not enough. And readers return to romance again and again for the thrill of the realization by those characters, and sometimes by us, of what seemingly trivial actions really mean.

Jessica Tripler, who lives in Maine with her family, runs the book blog Read React Review.

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Miranda Neville
1. Miranda Neville
What a lovely post, Jessica. Made me tear up a little. Have you thought about writing a novel?
Miranda Neville
2. Liz M
I love this too. What great examples. I never noticed before that that Higgins scene is a version of the parable of the Good Samaritan (who helps you when you're lying by the side of the road?). That's really resonant.

The priest is Catholic, though, isn't he? An Episcopal priest isn't totally unavailable (unless married, of course). Says child of one.
Charli Mac
3. CharliMac
There is nothing better than feeling the moment with characters. Not being told what the moment felt like. It makes you part of the story and vested in its outcome.
Jennifer Ma
4. Jen X
Wonderful post. As a romance reader it is those "show, don't tell" moments that steal my heart. I think I'm going to get my hands on that Higgins book now.

P.S. Have you ever read Laura Kinsale's, The Dream Hunter? There is a wonderful exchange involving plum pudding between the H & h that epitomizes the significance of behavior in romance. I feel a re-read coming on! :)
Miranda Neville
5. ElaineGolden
Great post, Jessica. It's one of the things that I love about writing romance, is looking for ways to show little things about character this way. Or, better yet, discover them as the characters grow in my imagination.
Miranda Neville
6. Ann Somerville
who is still outside, soaked and shivering in the cold and rain (of course!)

I think this is less 'heroic' and more 'too stupid to live' myself. Hypothermia as proof of devotion is just so nineteenth century.
Jessica Tripler
7. JessicaTripler
@Miranda -- thank you!

@LizM -- I never thought about the Good Samaritan but you are so right.

@CharlieMac -- I so agree. When I read the Higgins I had an important epiphany. For a second, I thought, "This is so obvious!", but then I realized that it's the heroine's journey, not mine. The joy is in the moment when SHE puts all the pieces together.

@JenX -- Jen, I have never heard of a Kinsale called "The Dream Hunter" but I am a huge fan of those of her books I have read, so I will look for it.

@ElaineGolden -- It must be magical to be the person who writes this journey. I so admire your ability to do it.

@annsomerville -- LOL. Well, he wasn't quite hypothermic so I cut him some slack.
Miranda Neville
8. Merrian
I love the realisation when all these shown moments of care and insight lead to the vulnerability of being open to each other. That is what I read romance for. You are so right Jessica, it needs to be shown not told because words are not enough.
Miranda Neville
9. Kaetrin
Great post Jessica - you've just reminded me of some of my favourite romances!
Miranda Neville
10. Janet W
A good book blog makes a person want to re-read a book that they dismissed, for whatever reason. And reading the tale of the forgotten cell phone makes me want to try again. I'm really iffy about SEP: she has written some forever faves and her latest just annoys me.

Roarke and coffee. Just the most perfect gift. And, in these days of e-readers, let's not forget her first gift to him was a 1st edition of Yeats poetry. No wonder I adore that series.

Persuasion is such an azure book I have to be persuaded to read it again. Maybe I could take out the film?

Great first blog: looking forward to more!
Andrea DaRif
11. Cara Elliott
Lovely post, Jessica. It's the little details that tell so much!
Myretta Robens
12. Myretta
How did I miss this post? It's a wonderful exploration of the importance of understanding character.
13. EvangelineHolland
Great first post, Jessica!

I haven't yet read any of Higgins' novels, but as I examine my own writing style in the context of the romance genre, I have had to force myself to slow down and savor each bit of imagery in my writing. It made me realize that accusations of "purple prose" stem not from overblown writing, but from overly descriptive writing which serves no purpose. Sure, it's fun to describe the spotless cutlery and sumptuous courses of elaborate supper party, or set the mood across a desolate and muddy moor, but this can grow sloppy because each word should work to support and foster a particular emotional significance for the romance. So thank you for giving me food for thought!
Keira Gillett
14. Keira
I think it's interesting to note that the true declaration scene wasn't the hero pouring his heart out, though it's certainly loved, the true declaration is the change in behavior and the actions the hero takes. Great insight Jessica!
Miranda Neville
15. Kristan Higgins
To be mentioned on this blog, with those writers, from Mark Twain to Nora to SEP and Jane Austen...well. I am absolutely humbled and utterly thrilled. Thank you so much, Jessica! Lovely post, and not just because of the nod.
Myne Whitman
16. MyneWhitman
Lovely insightful post, the ending reminded me of why I love to read and write romance. Beautiful.
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