Sounds a bit like those “Plotter or Pantser” discussions, doesn’t it.
The wonderful Aideen Taylor wrote a blog post on Intuition, among other things, on Seven Sassy Sisters. I got a bit carried away with my reply, and as I have been a bad blooger and haven’t posted for a while, I’m cheating. This post is the reply. Sorry if you’ve read it before!
There’s a tricky balance in writing between instinct and “following the rules”.
Following our writing instinct without regard for the rules can lead to a writing disaster. I have several hot messes of stories to prove that! But following the rules without regard for individual instinct leads to dull, lifeless stories, devoid of voice. I have several other stories where I focused so hard on getting the framework right the charactacters are cardboard cut outs stiffly going through the motions.
Intuition and instinct aren’t completely interchangeable. Instinct is what is completely internal to the individual. Instinct bypasses thought, it comes from an earlier more emotional part of the brain. Studies on intuition show it’s something quite different.
The studies I’ve read were based on nurses and doctors. We work a lot on intuition, then we try to find the science to back it up. Like House with his brilliant intuitive leaps in diagnosis, or the nurse who “knows” that particular patient is going to tank and need extra intervention, even though right now they seem totally fine. Reseach has shown that what feels to be pure instinct, gut feeling, is actually a very high level of learning and experience. It looks and feels like magic when it happens, but it’s not magic. More like alchemy- a deep knowing of the “rules” mixed with close observation and a touch of instinct, transformed into something that works brilliantly.
I think that’s what we need in our writing, what Aideen is referring to when she talks about intuition. An internalisation of the rules of romance so they feel part of us, part of who we are as a writer, mixed with enough courage, knowledge of our characters, and faith in ourselves to know when to break or bend the rules.
The rules say the story must be focused on the two central characters. The rules say there need to be external forces that push the characters together (and a strong dose of attraction doing the same), and internal psychological and emotional forces keeping them apart. The rules say everything the characters try to do to fix the story problem should make things get progressively worse until the Black Moment. The rules say the Happy Ever After can’t be brought about by external forces, it must come from change within the characters. Some of these rules I think can be broken. It has to be what is right for the characters, and what is right for this individual story. The writer has to use their intuition.
The one I’ve read so many times in “how to write” books, is the progressive worsening until the black moment, the worst possible outcome. My last story, and the story I’m working on now, both break that one, and I’ve read plenty of published stories that do too. In both, there’s a place about three quarters of the way into the story, where all looks fine. The characters are together, and it looks like it might work out. Except the reader and at least one of the characters know that’s not the case. Their time together might be time-limited and the deadline is approaching. There might be a big untold secret that’s going to blow everything apart once it comes to light. There might be a ticking time-bomb of relationship issues within one character that the reader knows is going to go off. I like this set-up, because the fact it was almost working out makes the pain of the black moment ever sharper. That to me is an example of breaking the rules the right way, of the writer knowing what is best for her story.
The other rules? If the story isn’t focused on the relationship, it may still be a darned good story, but it’s not category romance, it’s single title or some other genre. If the resolution doesn’t come about through action and change on the part of both the characters, if it’s external things that bring the character together, or only one character changes, that’s a rule I hate to see broken, no matter what the genre. For me, a story is only satisfying when they earn their HEA. But we’ve all read published stories that break the rules. That’s where author voice comes in. Some writers can pull off the most ludicrous scenarios, break all the rules, have totally unconvincing HEAs, and we still read them and go back for more.
It takes a subtle combination of rules and voice to write a good romance. “Intuition” , I think, is really the writer’s confidence to follow her voice even if it means breaking the rules.
But yes, she needs to know the rules in the first place to break them successfully.