Chemistry 101–Mini-Lesson 1

Reader Beth had suggested that I make a blog post of the workshop on romantic chemistry that I gave at RWA National.  My immediate response was a demurral.  I had 11 pages of speaking notes–it couldn’t be done.  But then I gave the workshop again recently to my local RWA group, and afterwards I thought, you know, the best part of any such workshop is always the examples.  And I definitely can put up the examples and why I used them as a series of blog posts.  So thank you Beth, and here we go.

What makes for good chemistry?  Great conflict.

What makes for great conflict?  As my critique partner Janine asks, what are the lies that your character tells himself to get through the day?  Who is the person who by the very fact of her existence, by everything she says and does, exposes your character’s lies to himself as just that, lies?

In other words, who is this person who would cause the greatest amount of emotional disturbance in your character?  Who is the person your character most fears for the truth she represent, and yet who cannot be dismissed, precisely because of the truth she represents?

Put these two people together and you have tension, conflict, and chemistry.


People could not keep their eyes off her.  Yes, she played it very well indeed, the role of the simple, serene martyr, giving up her life and all its brilliant promises to save her people from annihilation.

She basked in the attention.  And she broiled in it.  This had been the part of her Calling she loved the most–that was, before she came to hate the Calling itself.  She still got shivers from it, the way some people looked at her, in sincere, almost head-shaking admiration.

And then there would be others who watched her because she was the freak, a dead woman walking.

Ten days.  They were all that remained to her, before she marched into the maws of death.

If she marched into the maws of death.

“May I have this next dance?”

She turned around slowly.  There were exactly nineteen mobilecams bobbing in the air about her, several representing various media outlets from her home planet of Pax Cara, the rest bearing logos of the interstellar communication conglomerates that were on hand to cover the glamorous goings-on.

The mobilecams had been trained on her, as she gazed up at the dance sphere, her expression the tranquil wistfulness she’d long ago perfected for such occasions.  And she knew just what the voiceover would say too, above heroic music played at a muted volume: What is going through the mind of this young woman, knowing that the fate of her people rests on her shoulders, that her life will end before it has fully begun, and yet her name will live forever?

The man who asked for the next dance had just as many mobilecams hovering around him.  Eleian of Terra Illustrata, the most beloved prince in living memory, the one person she resolutely did not want to meet.

The heir of a non-ruling house, he’d come of age during a time of great instability for his thirty-system principality.  A decade-long civil war that had begun before he was born had produced a dictator who held power by brutal oppression.  After the dictator’s death, chaos threatened to reign once again.

With almost unbearable courage–for his life could have been forfeit at any point-the young prince had stepped in and stood up to those who sought power solely for their own gain.  Against all odds, he’d guided his people back to their nearly forgotten tradition of representative government.

“Your Highness,” she said, with a searing admiration.  And envy.  And a resentment that almost choked her.  His had been true valor, whereas hers was but the appearance of it.

And he’d survived.

“My lady,” he inclined his head.

She was a commoner.  But here the media had taken to call her a prince of her people, and styled her accordingly.

The mobilecams swarmed close, eager to capture the expression on her face.  What would they see?  She had not practiced for this, for dealing with this one man who reminded her with his very existence the fraud that she was-and the bigger fraud that she planned and prayed to be.

(This is from a SF romance novella that I’m working on, as part of the One Beginning anthology with Janine, Meredith, and Bettie Sharpe.)

He certainly disturbs her on a most profound level, doesn’t he, merely by breathing?  And I swear I didn’t alter it after hearing about Janine’s remarkable thesis on chemistry.  This was how I conceived it: the one who plans to run from her burdens vs the one who faced his head on.

Come to think of it.  It actually gets a little better.

“Then why?” she asked.  Why would anyone want to marry a woman who was about to die a very public death?

The Quiet Girl,” he said.

The Quiet Girl was a documentary film about her, shot when she’d been seventeen.  It had been produced as summer project by a pair of student filmmakers and sent to a Sector-wide vis-media festival on a lark.  To the surprise of everyone involved the film had been selected for inclusion at the festival; to their further shock it had won the grand prize.

The film’s subsequent dissemination had garnered her a degree of interstellar fame that had been unheard of on Pax Cara.  She’d always turned down each and every request for her to go off-world: Modesty, or at least the appearance of it, was an important part of her persona.  But she had enjoyed it, the fame, and the adulation that came with it.

“What of The Quiet Girl?” She hoped he didn’t hear the tremor in her voice.

“I saw it when I was nineteen–and struggling with the course of my life.  I had my aerie in the mountains.  Our princely hold of Terra Luminare was at peace.  I needed not involve myself in distant political turmoils.  Moreover I was afraid: I’d had little dealing with the more uncouth elements in life.

“I was inclined toward cowardice until I watched your story.  Your determination and wisdom quite shamed me.  And you faced certain death, whereas I face only danger and the possibility of bodily harm.”

Stop, she wanted to say.  Stop.  That me no longer exists.

But she listened with a stark hunger.

“And whenever I thought my courage might fail me, I would watch it again.  I can recite word for word what you said near the end of the film: ‘I would have liked to live a thousand years, for life is such a remarkable and marvelous thing, is it not?  And yet I cannot say I regret being chosen for this task.  I live more incandescently for it.  And I am not afraid to die when I have lived so.'”

She’d watched The Quiet Girl not too long ago, hoping to find a renewal of courage in her unquestioning bravery of old.  Bu all she’d felt, as she watched herself give that little speech, had been a numb despair.

He brought them into a closer spin.  “It would be a privilege if you would accept my suit and allow me to share the rest of you days.”

The rest of her days.  All ten of them, unless she managed her escape.

I think Janine might say I did pretty well in setting up this conflict.  🙂  It’s not a particular original conflict, that of the erstwhile romantic ideal fallen from the pedestal.  But it is a good one.  Oh boy, is it a good one.

Rest assured that the rest of the examples I will use are not mine.  I wasn’t going to use any of mine at all.  But there I was, at the hotel in D.C., fretting over my workshop which wasn’t coming together, and boom comes Janine’s remarkable insight–related by Meredith, I must add.  And suddenly I said to myself, wait a minute, I have something exactly like that on my C drive.  🙂  And it went into my workshop.  The first part, that is.  I didn’t even think of how the second part works on the same principle until I was putting together this blog post.

Next one in the series in a couple of days.

And in the meanwhile, today I’m being interviewed at Romantic Crush Junkies.  Come say hi.

6 thoughts on “Chemistry 101–Mini-Lesson 1”

  1. Aloha Sherry!

    I’m not a creative or romance writer but I learned something from your Chemistry 101 post, thanks. I’m very selective about what I read and when I read historical romances, I really don’t analyze them — I just enjoy the story and the characters and I love it when romances make me teary-eyed. But I’ll probably be more mindful about certain elements next time.

    By the way, thanks for answering my question on Romantic Crush Junkies! Chinese Moms are the best! And I’m glad you’re not writing about the Cultural Revolution!

    • Hi Etirv,

      Thanks. Glad the post was of some use to you.

      I’m actually not a very analytical reader myself. I much prefer to just get sucked in and pulled along and emerge at last with a “Phew” of happiness. When I write, I also don’t think very hard along technical lines. And as I noted in the post, this particular insight actually came from Janine.

  2. I think Janine might say I did pretty well in setting up this conflict.

    Yes, I do think you did a great job.

    I was watching Charlie Rose last night and he was interviewing the French actress Juliette Binoche, and asking about the different men she had been involved with. Binoche made a very astute comments that relates to this discussion, and since I’ve found the transcript online,here I’ll quote from the relevant part.

    JULIETTE BINOCHE: No, no, but what I wanted to say, actually, is it`s about, in a couple, is that you actually — why do we go back to it is that it reaches an intimacy that it doesn`t reach in an another relationship where there`s not, let`s say a physical relationship or intimate relationship.

    And I think that each time we go back to it, because there`s a sort of interaction inside ourselves that we can only reach because of the other. That`s what I believe.

    And it`s actually more about being in touch with the depth of
    ourselves or the hidden place of ourselves that we want so much to be with the other, because I don`t think it`s about the other. Do you see what I’m saying?

    CHARLIE ROSE: It`s your own what?

    JULIETTE BINOCHE: It`s because you get in touch with places that you`ve never been in touch with before you met the person. So that`s why it`s unbearable sometimes, that`s why it`s so wonderful sometimes, that why it`s — because you`re reaching different spaces inside you.

    The whole interview was great BTW, but this particular comment really resonated with me because I think it’s so true, and part of what makes the best romances so good.

  3. Forgive me for coming to this so late…but THANK YOU! 🙂 I’ve been (at last, after a long, busy hiatus) catching up on my favorite blogs this morning and discovered your marvelous posts on chemistry. Again, thank you for deciding to delve into this. It’s not only a fascinating topic, well-explicated by you, but it has also introduced me to some fine writers. (Meredith Duran, where have you been all my life?)

    And I’m excited to discover this excerpt from your SF novella; when will it be published?

    • Hi, Beth,

      Glad you found your way to this post. And sorry for this late reply. I’ve been totally bulldozed by my deadline.

      Meredith Duran has been saving the world in a cape made from pages of the Oxford English Dictionary, that’s where she has been all your life. 🙂

      Lol, the novella. Let’s worry about when it will be published when it’s been finished for shopping around.

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