Raising the Stakes in Your Romance Novel

When you’re a screenwriter, “raise the stakes” is a command you hear often. Put your hero in more danger, make failure more cataclysmic, get your audience on the edge of their seats and compel them to stay there.

Raising the stakes can be difficult in a romance novel. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? Girl doesn’t get boy? Most readers and publishers insist on an HEA ending, so that’s probably not going to go over well.

In GoddessI raised the stakes high by making my heroine a married mother of three daughters. She has a lot to lose by getting involved with another man, no matter how incredibly hot he is. Some readers didn’t like the premise, but other reviewers wrote that they couldn’t put the book down. Nobody said high stakes were pretty. They shouldn’t be.

I was thinking about this last weekend after watching the movie Two Days, One Night. It’s a French drama written and directed by the Dardenne brothers. Sandra, the heroine, has the weekend to convince her co-workers to give up their bonus so their company won’t lay her off.

There are some inherent stakes already built into this premise. We learn that Sandra and her husband have escaped public housing thanks to her job. If she gets fired, they’ll have to go back. Still, it’s not like they’ll be out on the street.

But the Dardenne brothers raise the stakes even higher. Sandra has missed a lot of work because she suffers from depression. (That’s the unspoken reason the company wants to get rid of her.) She’s recovering, but still on shaky ground. If she loses her job, it could push her over the edge.

But wait, as the telemarketers say, there’s more. Sandra now has to talk to each of her co-workers and convince them to vote on Monday to give up their bonuses. Some of them say they’re in financial situations as bad as hers. Others just won’t give up their money to help what they consider to be a lazy co-worker.

Obviously, there’s a lot of drama in this simple situation, and yet there’s one more level of stakes built into the story. Sandra has to keep depression and despair at bay while reluctantly talking to sometimes hostile people. She pops Xanax constantly to get through this ordeal. She’s on the verge of losing not just her job, but her husband, her sanity, even her life. Now those are some high stakes!

You can see how, even in premise as simple as the one in Two Days, One Night, or in a romance novel, there are many ways to raise the stakes organically, without resorting to mob hitmen, natural disasters, or terminal illnesses.

It’s something to think about when you’re outlining your next romance novel.

Happy writing!



Taking Life One Book at a Time

As soon as I first understood that noun + verb = sentence, I became a voracious reader. By the time I was a teenager, I was binging on at least a novel or three per week. I remember absorbing Ross Lockridge Jr.’s massive American epic Raintree County in three days. (Stirring and wildly romantic, it’s a must-read in my book.) Digging through my parent’s basement one day,  I unearthed a wonderful treasure: a box stuffed with paperback versions of pulp fiction and literary classics from the likes of Faulkner, Orwell, Hemingway and many others. Published in the 1950s, they featured lurid covers that immediately fascinated me. I read every one of them.

This was the cover that led me to read everything George Orwell wrote.

But even though my parents had lots of books around, including bookshelves full of hardcover fiction and non-fiction in my father’s study, I never saw them actually pick up a book and read it themselves. They read the newspaper and magazines, but never books, at least in my presence.

That bothered me. My parents were highly educated people. They must have read books at one time. Why didn’t they do it anymore? I never asked them. I just continued my solitary pursuit of devouring one book after another.

Then something happened. I had children. All of a sudden, life revolved around diapers and spit up. I still read to my children every day. (I must have read Jamberry to my older daughter a thousand times.)  But reading for myself fell by the wayside. If I had a few moments to breathe, I would turn on the television. It was so much easier to disengage with TV than engage in a book.

But my oldest daughter picked up the habit I had lost. We read through Nancy Drew and American Girl books together, and then she started reading them on her own. Everywhere I looked, there were piles of books. I bought her a Nook and soon I was downloading e-books for her right and left. I was proud of what a great reader she had become.

But I didn’t feel so proud of myself. What kind of role model was I ? If she didn’t see me reading just for fun, would she lose the habit, just like my parents and i did?

About five years ago, I began to consciously strive to read more. I’m no longer a binge reader, but I feel good that when my kids come downstairs in the evening before bed, they often find me curled up, not with the TV, but with a good book.

I’ve visited many, many book blogs lately as I request advance reviews for Goddess. I’m envious of how many books these bloggers read. Maybe someday, I’ll be binging again too. But for now, I’m happy to to take life one book at a time.

Best Wishes,


Real Moms Don’t Have Sex

One of those classic childhood conversations popped into my head the other day. (To tell you the truth, I’ve never had this conversation myself, but it does illustrate my point.) It’s the one where a kid is incredulous at the idea of his parents actually having sex. Of course, his/her friend then points out that they must have done it at least once.

Moms are sexy, and I know moms are having sex. But you wouldn’t know it from watching mainstream media. Yes, I know someone like Sofia Vergara in Modern Family might come to mind, but she’s now 42 years old. Her sexy days on television are numbered.

Young sexy mothers are acceptable on television and in the movies, but once a woman reaches a certain age… Well, you wouldn’t want to gross out the all-important adolescent male viewers.

If you don’t believe me, check out this very funny and accurate skit: Last Fuckable Day

Well, I’m here to tell you all you boys and girls that not only are moms of any age sexy, most of them even enjoy sex, no matter what their age.

I close with mention of an incident that happened a few months ago that I found very disturbing. Former Iowa legislator Henry Rayhons was arrested for having sex with his wife. Yes, his wife Donna, a mother of three, had Alzheimer’s, but there was no evidence that he coerced her in any way. I would suggest that instead, one of Donna’s daughters and the staff at the nursing home might have been disturbed by the very idea that a woman of “a certain age” would still be having sex. Despite our modern sexual mores, there is still a lingering belief that once an woman has borne and raised children, sex should be something she should put behind her. After all, there’s more important things to be done, like the cooking and cleaning.

Best Wishes,