Summary of this month’s movie:
Natasha lives in New York City and her family is set to be deported back to Jamaica the next day. She’s determined to change this, so she gets an appointment with an immigration lawyer for lunchtime.
Daniel Bae has an interview for Dartmouth's medical school program. He comes from a Korean family, and his parents encourage him to pursue a career as a doctor, even though he wants to do something he’s more passionate about.
Daniel sees Natasha in Grand Central Station and is instantly attracted to her. When he sees her jacket reads "Deus Ex Machina," which he was reading about, he thinks meeting her is fate, but she leaves before he can get to her. They meet again on the street when Daniel saves Natasha’s life by pulling her from in front of an oncoming car. This strengthens his belief that this is fate, and he tells Natasha—who wants to be a scientist and doesn’t believe in fate—that if she gives him a day, he is sure he can get her to fall in love. She doesn’t believe him but is intrigued and agrees to go to a coffee shop before heading to their appointments. When Daniel gets a call saying his interview has been moved to the next day, he asks Natasha some questions to try to woo her, but she thinks it's corny.
Natasha’s appointment is also postponed until that afternoon. With more time to kill, Natasha agrees to keep hanging out with Daniel. The two make a stop at the shop Daniel's parents own. His family shows some overt and more subtle racism, and they leave, with Daniel embarrassed. But Natasha tells him she can’t hold his family’s actions against him. They spend the afternoon together, going to a planetarium and karaoke, where they imagine a life together, with marriage and a son in their future. Natasha meets with the lawyer, who offers to set up a new trial for her parents' case for the next day.
Thrilled, Natasha calls Daniel, and they spend the rest of the day together before falling asleep in a park. The next morning, they rush to their appointments. Daniel meets with the same lawyer who helped Natasha, apparently a Dartmouth alumnus, but Natasha barges into the office and asks what the verdict was for their potential trial. It was rejected, and she and her family must still leave that day. Daniel leaves the interview early to walk her home and meet her family before they head to the airport. They imagine the future, where Natasha is doing fine in Jamaica and going to a good school, while Daniel decides to pursue a career he is more comfortable with. Natasha tells Daniel she loves him. He says his experiment worked, and she leaves.
Five years later, Natasha returns to NYC for grad school on a student visa. She runs into Daniel in the same coffee shop they went to earlier. He walks up to her and asks to spend the day with her, but she only has about an hour to spend. He is okay with that, and they kiss.
Jeni, what’d you think about the movie?
Jeni: This was such a cute movie, and omg, the cast was wonderful! The main actors had so much chemistry, which is really essential in a romantic story. Some things that really stayed with me--those flashforward scenes where we see how they imagine their futures, Natasha’s white pantsuit in their wedding flashforward, especially. I’m a little obsessed with it. I know the actor who played Charlie from a TV show, where he’s very sweet, and I was taken aback by how mean and clearly racist he was in this movie. I really like how they handled theme in this story, especially the themes about immigrants and logic versus passion. I love that the ending isn’t syrupy sweet, and also it creates a lovely sort of bookend to the meet cute. And I love anything that has to do with Grand Central Station because it’s really my favorite touristy place in New York so that’s always fun to see in movies too. Oh, and I want a prequel movie that shows her parents meeting. The little bit we get about their story is so sweet! It reminds me of a Kate Chopin short story. What’d you think?
Carly: I thought it was so sweet too! It was such a lovely story to get into and go on that journey with them. I loved that it all took place in one day and how we can find people in the right moment that give us exactly what we need. My biggest problem with the movie though was how they did so many things in so little time. Like, she has 4 hours to her meeting and somehow they run uptown to run an errand, go to the planetarium, get food, go to a karaoke bar, and something else I’m not remembering. Like no… public transportation to all those places would eat up half that time, you would have no time to actually do the things. But also, I was the slow walking New Yorker… so I just learned to stay far to the right side of the sidewalk so people could pass me. But still. I also loved the ending, but at first I wanted it to end with her leaving and their separate lives. I kind of liked that they just fell in love for a day and that was it. But by the end of the epilogue, I was happy they found each other again. But also, she says they kept in touch for a while, why was it so hard for her to find him? Maybe I missed something. Anyway, I loved the somewhat bittersweet ending where we could revel in the happiness of a moment, of a day, without it needing to be “happily ever after.” So Jeni, what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Jeni: Romantic tension. For romantic tension to work, we need to see the characters’ attraction, but we also need to see the things about them that are different, both internally and externally, and we need to see what keeps them from just immediately jumping into bed together. Haha So we start with that attraction. In a movie, a lot of that comes down to the actors, like that chemistry I mentioned. I remember the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman movie when they were still married that many people felt the actors lacked on-screen chemistry. It’s hard to buy into a romance when we don’t feel that spark between the characters. We need to see that they are attracted to each other in various ways. It’s important for the reader to see how your characters fit together before we give them too many obstacles. We need the reader to be invested in the characters themselves and in the relationship. Part of that is creating that feeling of wanting to squee at how adorable the couple is together, even when they don’t even realize it themselves. Most often when we think of chemistry, we’re thinking of it in physical, even sexual terms, but that definitely isn’t the only kind of attraction and stories written with only physical attraction may feel shallow and fall flat with readers. Consider what kind of person your character is normally attracted to. Yes, think about this from a physical standpoint if it applies, but also consider what qualities attract them to someone else. Brainstorm a list of traits, and where you can, pinpoint how that fits into their character--or how it doesn’t. For example, just because I’m a nerdy cinnamon roll doesn’t mean that’s who I’m usually attracted to. I mean, I am, but that’s not the point. Then consider in what ways their love interest fits some of these traits and in what ways they don’t. Some of my favorite romances have characters falling in love with someone they feel like they wouldn’t normally attracted to. What is one person missing in their lives or that the other person needs and vice versa? How do the characters offer each other new perspectives or ideas? Remember that romance isn’t about people “fixing” each other as much as it’s about how people come to know themselves better through their relationships with other people. And the deeper the connection, the more the characters learn and grow.
Carly: So how do you build romantic tension? What causes it? Conflict! Obstacles! Another word for tension: discomfort. It is all about making your characters uncomfortable with a situation, for various reasons. They can be uncomfortable with the attraction they feel because of their emotional wound or an external obstacle, or they can be uncomfortable with what they are hearing from the other love interest because of a misinterpretation. In this movie, we see Natasha resisting the romance that Daniel is so sure exists between them. She is resisting it because she needs to focus on her main life/external obstacle: her family is being deported and she wants to stay in New York. Sure, romance would be fun right now, but her future is on the line and she has more important things to think about. Yet Daniel makes that last day memorable and wonderful. He creates a lasting memory of New York that she can hold onto, not one mired in sadness and lawyer visits. So how are our characters uncomfortable with each other? First of all, Daniel and Natasha have just met, they don’t know each other well at all, but the world (and Daniel) keep throwing them together. The viewer feels that discomfort because of how new everything is. Tension created through newness can be useful because readers will meet your characters as your characters are meeting each other. It is that awkwardness of “I just met this person, what is okay to say?” Readers will latch onto that discomfort because it is something we’ve all experienced in some form or another. These characters also experience tension in how they view the world differently, in their different opinions. Again, readers will relate to this level of discomfort and in turn feel the awkwardness. But the main romantic tension between Natasha and Daniel comes down to Natasha resisting the pull of romance. She wants to give in, but she can’t because of her external goal. Resisting the romance is a great way to build tension and push your characters towards conflict.
Jeni: So, going off of what Carly just said, just a quick refresher on the types of conflict. There are two types of conflict in any story: internal and external, referring to actions that take places outside the character and then what’s going on inside their mind and body. The external conflict is essentially what makes up your plot, and the internal conflict is what makes up your character arc. These two types of conflict are intrinsically linked though, and they feed off of each other. So we need to see the external stuff impacting the internal, as well as the other way around. So in this movie, there are several external conflicts, but the main one is the romance--the characters meeting, falling in love, the things that keep them apart, and how they try to overcome them. The internal conflict will vary by character. Again, we see several internal conflicts in Natasha and Daniel, but one of the most important is that he is motivated by passion in life, whereas she is driven by security. We see how these external and internal conflicts impact each other. Natasha’s actions toward Daniel are driven by the resistance Carly just talked about, and because she resists, he pushes harder, driven by his belief in fate. But then the events of the main plot force the characters to have to re-examine their beliefs as well. Daniel had to question whether this really is all just coincidence, as Natasha states at the beginning, and Natasha is forced to confront that maybe love is actually more than just hormones. As the plot progresses, this interplay is what creates the full story--the internal causing external reactions make things happen that then create more obstacles, which the characters have feelings about. It builds to the climax when everything gets resolved.
Carly: External is what we typically think of first in terms of conflict. Typically in romantic conflicts there are rivals, situations, and misunderstandings. Essentially, a rival is an outside factor your couple has some control over, a situation is an outside factor your couple has no control over, and a misunderstanding is an internal factor, that the couple has control over, but fails to control. Rivals can include rival love interests, external goals that take up time, familial obligations, work life, etc. Situational conflicts can vary vastly because it accounts for any outside source that your character can’t control. It can vary from an evil king pushing everyone into battle to having to move to the other side of the country. In this case, Natasha’s family is being deported, and no matter how hard she tries, it happens. She has no control over this external obstacle/situation. The important thing to remember is that your external conflicts need to affect your romantic arc. Not only does the external conflict need to affect the lives of your characters and how your plot moves forward, but it also needs to impact the romance. In this case, Natasha’s life is forever altered by her family’s deportation. We see in vignettes how she moves on from this obstacle and overcomes the transition to make a life for herself that she wants. But it also impacts the romantic arc in that it pushes our protagonists closer together because they are coming up against the obstacle with each other, and it impacts the romance because they don’t end up together (or maybe they do long term). In this way, not only does the external goal affect their lives, it also affects their romance by accelerating it and possibly halting it. As your characters deal with their external goals and obstacles that the plot ennacts on them, the romantic arc also needs to deal with those same external goals and obstacles. It can utilize them to strengthen the romantic arc or to break the romance apart. No matter the external conflicts your characters face, it must have an impact on their romance.
Jeni: The base of internal conflict comes down to a character’s emotional wound. Before the story even starts, the characters have goals based on those emotional wounds. So in this movie, Daniel’s internal conflict is that he wants to live a life he’s passionate about. This means he doesn’t want to be a doctor, even though his parents are pushing him to go to school for that. And Natasha’s internal conflict is about feeling socially and financially insecure. She doesn’t want to leave New York, which is what feels like her home, since she left Jamaica as a young child. This underlies everything else for them before they even meet each other, and it’s what is behind a lot of their actions and reactions in the movie. You wouldn’t necessarily think that would make a difference in a romance, right? But for example, Natasha is very reluctant to believe she can fall in love with Daniel, not just because of her belief that love is just a chemical reaction in the brain, but because she is pretty sure she’s going to have to leave the next day. And who wants to fall in love with someone just to leave them? As each of the external conflicts comes up in the story, the characters have to face those internal conflicts and decide how to proceed. Some important things to think about when framing your characters’ internal conflicts are their values, beliefs, and view of their place in the world. What are the needs each characters has? How are they not currently being filled, and how does the other character present an opportunity to fill those needs? How does each character react to something stopping them from getting what they want--in this case, from being with the person they want to be with? What thoughts, emotions, and feelings in their body come up as a result, and how do they express those? This is an essential part of the process--understanding what is going on inside your character so you can use it to make their actions feel real and grounded in their personality. So how do you show this on the page, as a writer? This is going to fall into two categories: action and reaction. In terms of showing the character’s internal world, the actions are those of expression. So, dialogue, facial expression, gestures, body language. The reactions will be on an internal level--thoughts, observations, opinions, and judgments; emotions, both stated and implied; and visceral responses like heartbeat or tightness or a sense of relaxation in various parts of the body. A fabulous resource for this is The Emotion Thesaurus, which I feel like we recommend every episode because, yes, it really is just that good.
Carly: Exactly. Romantic tension is vital when the romance is the main plot. That may seem obvious, but it is important to remember internal and external romantic tension as you build your plot in a romance. It can be easy to only have your love interests come up against external obstacles that affect them individually. But you need to make sure it is clear that your couple can’t be together at the beginning of the story. You want to build that tension so that your characters are in a dance with each other, figuring out how to make a relationship work or even be possible. Each scene should bring your two main characters either one step closer to or farther away from each other. Whenever the lovers are together, whoever is being pushed toward the most tension is the POV we should be in. When romance is your main plot, every scene, once your love interests have met, they must think of each other in some way, even if they aren’t together. They can think of each other longingly, angrily (but is actually longingly), or fondly. They can b e annoyed with the love interest for how they irritated them or got in their way, they can miss the person because they are their best friend, they can wish the person was there to share a moment with them, they can miss the touch of the other person, etc. As long as your characters have each other on their mind through every scene and every obstacle they come up against, the romantic tension will build. The tension must increase with frequency and intensity as the novel progresses until they let go of their external goal or obstacle temporarily for the sake of the relationship. We see this through Daniel and Natasha in that they both pursue their goals separately, but eventually let go of them to just be together for the limited time that they have. While Daniel doesn’t want to be a doctor, he runs out of his familial obligation in order to spend a few remaining hours with Natasha. While this movie touches on very important subjects and life-changing events, romance is still the main story. And how they fall in love and support each other is the satisfying resolution that we need.
Jeni: When the romance is the subplot, there are a lot of similarities to what Carly just said, but it’s not going to be the main focus of every scene. In fact, you may have scenes that don’t forward the romance element at all, but you don’t want to go too long without having some mention of the romantic subplot. Ideally you should touch on each subplot in each chapter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be a part of the active scene. So, what does this mean for a romance subplot? It might look like a character having a quick stray moment where they think about the last time they saw their love interest, something could happen that reminds them of their love interest, or they could simply have a visceral feeling of missing the other person and longing to be with them. The key is to make sure it happens in places that feel organic. So, you don’t necessarily want to have a flashback to a conversation at dinner in the middle of a big, intense battle scene. As always, consider the overall tone, mood, and intent of the scene and make sure you’re putting these thoughts and feelings into places that feel right with the rest of what’s going on. Subplots will also feed into the main plot. So when the romance storyline is a subplot, ask yourself how it works with the main plot and adds to it, as opposed to being entirely separate. One fun hard question I like to ask when a client is struggling with subplots is: what does the main character get from this subplot that they need to overcome the main obstacle at the climax of the story? So, going back to what we said earlier about the characters complementing each other’s personalities, how does that romance make the main character stronger, smarter, wiser, more aware, etc, in order to contribute to the final action in taking down the big bad?
Jeni: This month our query is also a YA contemporary story that highlights some issues modern teens struggle. Carly, what are your thoughts on this query?
Carly: Okay so wow, this story touches on very important subjects. I love the message and dark topics this story will grapple with, however it is focusing too generally on the “issues.” The query starts off by telling us how these issues can be concerning and triggering to teens in general, and it is missing the focus on the main character and the actual story. It is so focused on teaching us about the issue that it is losing sight of the plot. Focus more on your characters and the plot and trust that your story will convey these themes and help others to deal with these struggles without having to teach or tell us about them. You get into your character more as the query progresses, but taking out the sentences that focus on the issue as a whole, away from your main character, will bring us closer to your character and to feeling the issue instead of hearing about it.
Jeni: Agreed. I also wanted to see more about how you raise the stakes as the story progresses. Another question I had is what does your protagonist want outside of her mental illness? Even though that’s the main focus of the story, I just wanted to get a better idea of who she is and what she wants. But the bio paragraph and info about the book’s stats--word count, age category, and genre--are good. I do want to mention that there’s a prevalent idea in the writing community that you have to have a big social media following in order to get an agent. That can be very helpful with nonfiction, but with fiction, it doesn’t have as much sway with agents or acquiring editors. So if you’re new to social media or just have a smallish following, don’t stress about that hurting your chances to sell your book.