Hi! I’m Kim Fielding, and I’m so thrilled and honored because I’ve been asked to contribute a monthly column here at Love Bytes. I’ll do my best to be interesting. If you have any burning questions for me or things you’d like me to blog about, please let me know!
This week my older daughter submitted the last of her college applications. It’s been a bit of a difficult time. Decision-making isn’t her strongpoint, and then there were all the essays she had to write. But I think the hardest part for her—and for us, her parents—is the uncertainty. Eight months or so from now she’ll be moving… somewhere. And right now she has no idea where. She doesn’t know which classes she’ll be taking or what her professors will be like or who her friends will be.
Uncertainty can be stressful and unsettling. I know a lot of people have been feeling that way since the US presidential election.
But here’s the thing—uncertainty can also be exciting. And it’s what makes a book worth reading.
Now, if you’re reading romance, a bit of the uncertainty is lifted because, with rare exceptions, you know that eventually you’re going to get that HEA, or at least an HFN. What makes us read, though, is wondering how on earth we’re going to get there.
Imagine a story in which A meets B, they go on a few dates, A professes his undying love and proposes, B says yes, they get married, the end. Yawn. A good story needs conflict—although it doesn’t necessarily have to be flying squid aliens who kidnap A or a gang of hardcore bikers who insist B is their long-lost, amnesiac leader. But something needs to make us uncertain about how the hell we’re going to reach that happy ending.
Maybe the guys hate each other’s guts on the very first page, or maybe they’re madly deeply in love. Either way, something stands in the way of their happiness. And you know what? That something ought to be something big. Like… it turns out one of the guys is kind of socially dysfunctional and sees dead people. Or maybe he’s a sex surrogate. Or in a fit of foolishness, he runs off and joins the Army during wartime. Or he has, er, a romantic encounter with a unicorn horn that leaves him helplessly horny. Hey, author! How are you going to pull a happy ending out of that? That’s the question that keeps us turning those pages.
I wrote one book in which I killed off one of the main characters at the end of chapter four. He’s been a ghost for sixty years by the time he meets the other guy and falls in love. That’s kind of a problem, don’t you think? Not to mention that the living half of the duo has some pretty serious issues of his own, including a lucky streak that gets him nowhere. And here’s a secret—I’m not much of a plotter, so until I got about 80% of the way through writing that book, I was uncertain how I was going to manage a happy ending. I had trust in my muse, though, and I got there.
And that brings me to another point. In order for uncertainty to be fun (instead of nausea-inducing), we have to trust the source. We have to know that even if one guy is a yeti or a hermit sorcerer or an alien with tentacles or a profoundly damaged prisoner, the author is going to get us somewhere safe and happy by the end.
One last thing about uncertainty. It has a close relative called ambiguity. A good story doesn’t always have to spell everything out. In fact, some of the best stories leave certain elements open to question or interpretation. One of my favorite movies is Blade Runner, and I prefer the director’s cut. No pat happy ending, plus a great big question mark about Deckard’s true identity. It’s gorgeous. (And not to spoil anything for you, but I loved the ending of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.) Or consider Harry Potter, where one of my favorite characters is Snape. Whose side is he on? What are his true motives and intentions? In my view, those questions make him far more interesting than predictably evil He Who Must Not Be Named.
Now, in romance we can only take ambiguity so far—we want that happy ending. But some questions can be left unanswered. And if we come away from a book wondering whether Jack was murdered or if it was an accident, or how, exactly, someone becomes a vengeance spirit, I think that’s a good thing. It means the story is staying with us.
What are your thoughts on uncertainty and ambiguity? Do you have a favorite book that makes good use of these? Please share in the comments!
Kim Fielding is the bestselling author of numerous m/m romance novels, novellas, and short stories. Like Kim herself, her work is eclectic, spanning genres such as contemporary, fantasy, paranormal, and historical. Her stories are set in alternate worlds, in 15th century Bosnia, in modern-day Oregon. Her heroes are hipster architect werewolves, housekeepers, maimed giants, and conflicted graduate students. They’re usually flawed, they often encounter terrible obstacles, but they always find love.
After having migrated back and forth across the western two-thirds of the United States, Kim calls the boring part of California home. She lives there with her husband, her two daughters, and her day job as a university professor, but escapes as often as possible via car, train, plane, or boat. This may explain why her characters often seem to be in transit as well. She dreams of traveling and writing full-time.
A complete list of Kim’s books: http://www.kfieldingwrites.com/kim-fieldings-books/