Into the Dreaming Imaginative Fiction from Author, Reviewer, and Writing Coach Christine Amsden

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Keeping Secrets in Romance

I’ve written more than one blog article on the dangers of withholding information from the reader. If the point of view character knows something that the reader does not, the story keeps the reader at a distance and they can’t properly connect to the characters or events.

(Please note, the reader doesn’t need to know a thing that the point of view character does not know. In fact, the reader and main character can enjoy learning secrets together — that’s called a mystery.)

Yet time and time again the romance genre, I see withheld information being the principle “conflict” in the story. The theory seems to be that the reader finds out when the romantic partner discovers the truth, but this is a failing strategy. Let me explain why:

Romantic conflict is a simple formula: That which draws them together vs that which keeps them apart.

When “that which keeps them apart” is a secret, the whole thing falls apart. Why does she keep pulling back? Why does he? The worst part is if they do get intimate before the secret is revealed because there they are, connecting to one another on the page, when I have yet to connect to them.

Here’s the bottom line: Romance writers, you don’t get an exception to this writing rule. It has failed for bestselling authors such as Julia Quinn and Lorraine Heath. It will fail for you, too. Let us get to know your characters, inside and out, and let us feel the true pain of their inability to have a relationship. That’s what romance is all about — that feeling of perfect pain.

Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow

This was an exciting, well-done scifi action flick. The premise is something like Groundhog Day, except there’s an actual reason why the day keeps repeating and staying in the loop is a matter of saving the planet.

Aliens, time travel, fast-paced action, and an ending that managed to surprise me.

Basically, watch it!

TV Review: Jessica Jones

Netflix’s new original series Jessica Jones is a dark superhero series set in the Marvel Universe. As with many such stories, it was once a comic book. And as with many such stories, especially those set in the Marvel Universe, I didn’t care for it.

First, let me be clear: I don’t care if something was once a comic book; if you make it a movie or a TV show then it has to stand alone in that medium. So while I am judging this without having read or been a fan of the original comics, I feel entitled to do so.

Jessica is a boring character. She has super strength but this came up so infrequently during the show that I managed to forget more than once. She’s dark, brooding, and a drunk — a modern cliche. She’s low on intelligence and high on self-pity. She did possess some compassion, which would have been a redeeming characteristic if she hadn’t been such an idiot about it.

Basically, Jessica had about a thousand chances to kill Killgrave. She chose not to because she wanted to prove a girl innocent of murder on the grounds that Killgrave (mental compulsion) made her do it. Meanwhile, Killgrave kept killing more and more and more and mroe and more people.

Killgrave was the reason I started watching the show; I knew David Tennant played the role and I’m a fan of his. Indeed, Tennant is a marvelous actor who brought life and depth to a character who otherwise had very little. Yet even Tennant’s skills couldn’t keep me afraid of Killgrave for long. As I said, there were just too many times he could have died.

I think that this series should have been a movie. There just wasn’t enough content to merit 13 episodes.

The Quest for the Three Magic Words

Put simply, the quest for the three magic words is an irksome phenomenon I’ve witnessed in novels with a strong romantic component, characterized by the stubborn refusal to say the words, “I love you.”

In a broad sense, the goal of any HEA romance is for the characters to fall in love, and often the realization of this love is the climax of the story. The dramatic tension in such a story (or subplot) is the constant interplay between that which brings them together and that which keeps them apart. When these forces are in perfect balance, when we desperately want the couple to find true love and happiness but desperately believe in the obstacles preventing such a union, there can be a moment of true emotional pain.

On the other hand, when he loves her, she loves him, they are both acting on this love, showing one another this love, and the only thing holding the HEA at bay is that one or both is afraid of saying three little words, then you have the quest. What is keeping them apart? Maybe he is afraid of commitment or doesn’t believe in love. Maybe she’s been burned before or doesn’t believe in love. (I get a lot of the whole not believing in love thing, especially in the male’s perspective.) Whatever the reason, they would be blissfully happy together if only one or both would pry open those lips and say a few words. Nothing else really needs resolution – there’s no anger, mingled feelings of hatred or jealousy, or even guilt over betraying a deceased love with this new love. (Though I should say that in all of these situations, when the angst goes on for too long, I’m still liable to brand it a quest.) There’s just a refusal to say the words and possibly a fear of commitment (which becomes all the more ridiculous in regency romance novels in which the couple is already married).

As far as dramatic tension goes, this quest quite simply puts me to sleep. In fact, in a straight-up romance with no subplot, I’ll usually stop reading as soon as the story devolves to this quest. Why? Because I know how it’s going to end. Sooner or later, they’re going to say the words and live happily ever after. It’s just not that interesting to find out how he or she finally comes to realize what is already so incredibly obvious. She’s afraid to risk her heart? What? It’s already gone!

I’ll tolerate the quest if another parallel plot such as a mystery or suspense is holding my interest, but even then it often earns an eye roll. This is because of the other issue I have with the quest for the three magic words: In my mind, it is more important by far to actively love someone than it is to say you love someone. Call me quirky if you like, but I guess I’ve taken the old writing advice, “show, don’t tell,” to be more than a useful trick for bringing a story to life. It works in real life relationships – show me you’re my friend, don’t just tell me. Show me you’re an expert, don’t just tell me. Show me you love me, don’t just tell me. Yes, you can say the words too, but in the grand scheme of things it simply is not that important. And that is the key characteristic of the quest for the three magic words – they’ve already reached their HEA. I know it. I feel it. They’ve shown it. They just haven’t said so.

I suppose the point of the quest is to show a person coming to a turning point in his or her life in which they finally realize the truth about themselves, a truth previously blocked by a host of preconceived notions (eg the hero doesn’t believe in love). And since the quest for the three magic words is such a popular part of the romance genre, I imagine that it must work for a great many readers, perhaps readers who have had a different experience with life and love than I have, but for my part, you can feel free to imagine me rolling my eyes anytime you see these words in a review: I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a quest for the three magic words.

Helix Season 2: WTF?

Finished the second (and last) season of Helix and I have no idea what I just watched.

Don’t get me wrong, season 1 had quite a bit of WTF going for it as well. I mentioned as much in my review a couple of weeks ago. But it had a degree of intrigue that had me willing (if not precisely eager) to move onto season 2. And watch season 2 …

Well, you know how you can’t look away from certain things? Like Donald Trump? Helix Season 2 was like that.

I thought (naively) that there would be more development of characters, world, and themes in this season. That we would get some answers. What I got instead was … I have absolutely no idea.

Strangely, despite all that, I’m sad that there’s no third season!!! Not because I could possibly recommend this show to anyone, but because I still have this need to understand WTF is going on.

TV Review: Helix Season 1

Just finished watching season 1 of Helix — all 13 episodes in under a week. It definitely had me intrigued, and kept me guessing! Just when I thought I knew what the show was about, something changed and I once again had no clue.

Which makes it hard to leave a review!

Let me start by saying that at the end of season 1 I feel slightly more confused than intrigued. There is just so much going on that I don’t know which way to turn! I do plan to continue watching season 2, but I’d rate season 1 as a weak 4 stars (rounded up largely because I do intend to keep going).

The setup: A team of CDC doctors and scientists get called to an arctic research facility to handle an outbreak of some new contagious disease. The setup is very good, actually. The pilot introduced a strong central problem as well as some secondary character issues that either helped or hurt the overall plot — I’m still not sure! The team lead was once married to one of the women on the team who slept with his brother who happens to be sick with the virus. Plus, the young hot brilliant fresh-from-the-schoolroom chick has a crush on the main guy.

Follow me so far? Great. Because there’s more. Everyone’s hiding something, and some people are hiding more than one thing.

My first impression of what this show would be is the story of the start of a bio-engineered disease gone wrong. You know, BEFORE it escapes the lab rather than after, with the obligatory shot of dead scientists slumped over coffee mugs. And I guess that’s sort of what it was, but there were a lot of distractions. I kind of wished this series would have had half the number of episodes, as some of them felt unnecessary and created the need for the main CDC doctor to do some stupid things (theoretically because it was his brother who was infected). If he hadn’t spent quite so much time putting his own personal interests ahead of the good of the human race, things might have gone better. Or maybe not, but it would have taken less time. :)

At any rate, I tentatively recommend this if you’re looking for a new science fiction show. But be prepared to leave season 1 feeling like you know less than you did when you started it!

Best Book Couple

Madisons Song

TV Series Review: Z Nation


Just finished watching seasons 1 & 2 (all that is currently available) on Netflix and …

I liked it!

I should probably preface this by saying that I’m not really into zombies. They make no sense. I mean, sure, a disease that turns humans into ravening monsters intent upon biting other humans could be interesting and frightening, but how those same humans stay alive for years without food or water? There are these things called the Laws of Thermodynamics. Just saying. Vampires and animal shape-shifters are much more logical. I’d say zombies are the least sensible fantasy/paranormal/scifi monster.

But if you can set that aside for a moment …

What the SyFy Network (still hate the name) presented us with here is a post-apocalyptic world and a group of survivors on a mission to save what’s left of humanity. I like apocalypses. (That didn’t sound right, did it?) I like heroes. This was an interesting group of characters.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, the action was great, the characters were believable, and survival was not guaranteed. I won’t give anything away, but let’s just say Z Nation took a leaf from George R. R. Martin – who appropriately made a guest appearance in season 2!

As with most series, some episodes were better than others. The pilot got things rolling, though, so if you want to tiptoe into this story, that’ll be a fair test of whether or not you’ll like the rest of the show.

I was worried that after pulling off a great first season, the second would go downhill, but it didn’t. There was a slightly different tone – they had a little more fun with the premise in season 2 and took themselves less seriously. That tone worked for me better at some times than others (as you would expect). What’s important is that the stakes continued to go up throughout season 2, we learned more about what was going on, and by the end I was thirsting for more.

Good news: Season 3 is scheduled for next fall.

Bad news: Season 3 isn’t until next fall!

My only real criticism of this show, aside from the fact that zombies aren’t my favorite trope, is that I think there are some internal inconsistencies. I say I think because there are still some lingering questions that the show’s makers could answer in a way that would make it all pull together. I’m just … well, again, I don’t want to write a review with spoilers. And this wasn’t such a big problem that it will keep me from watching; more a minor annoyance.

All in all, I do recommend this series, especially to those who love apocalypse stories. I’d give it a strong 4 out of 5 stars.

“The Force Awakens” is Okay (Spoiler Warning)

Spoiler Alert: There are a few spoilers in this review. Don’t read if you plan to see the movie.

After a great deal of anticipation and a weekend of watching out for spoilers on the Internet, I had my chance to watch “The Force Awakens” last night. And it was an enjoyable movie, true to the original series in many ways, full of both nostalgia and interesting new characters.

It wasn’t great. And at the risk of inviting bodily injury from many friends and scifi peers — the original trilogy wasn’t great either. It was ahead of its time … trendsetting. The sheer simplicity of the story made it accessible to a wide audience, putting a scifi flick in the mainstream.

Now, 35 years later, I honestly had different expectations. I wanted more depth of character. I wanted the battle between good and evil to mean more, especially in the wake of the final moments of “Return of the Jedi” where Anakin Skywalker rejects the dark side. IMO, that moment is what turned an okay adventure story into a memorable one. But the prequel movies failed to demonstrate how Anakin turned to the dark side in the first place. There was backlash there, enough so that I hoped we’d deal more with light vs. dark in this new movie.

And at first I was hopeful. A storm trooper — Finn — refuses to obey an order to kill innocent civilians and abandons the First Order. What made him turn against his upbringing?

No really, what made him turn against his upbringing? I’m still waiting to find out.

But nowhere was the shallowness of the dark vs light conflict more apparent than with Kylo Ren, wannabe Darth Vader. And in this, too, the problem may be lack of understanding. He’s got a history that was only hinted at in this movie, but a history I needed to know in order to understand his desire to do evil and especially the confrontation with his father.

Luke Skywalker worked very well as a hero because at the beginning of the trilogy he was no one going nowhere. He didn’t have a history. The show became his history. Han and Leia were archetypes more than characters.

But in this new film, I just felt like I was missing things. It wasn’t even immediately clear who the main hero was supposed to be. The cocky pilot, Poe, didn’t end up playing much of a role after his intense intro. And Poe was meeting some old man who for some reason had information on the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker. Who’s the old man and why does he know anything?

There were a number of plot problems like that. The biggest one, IMHO, was R2D2 being in low power mode and suddenly waking up at the key moment for no apparent reason other than the plot said it was time. This movie relied too heavily on coincidence. Han Solo stumbling across the Millennium Falcon is another example. (Though they tried to hand wave that one away.)

The best and worst part of the movie was Rey. I liked her. And I was glad to see a woman in such a strong, central role. In fact, I generally liked that more women were involved in this new movie. And Rey is smart and tough, the way a good Jedi should be. But in a confrontation at the end of the movie with Kylo Ren, she somehow managed to come out on top despite the fact that she had no training in the force whatsoever. It was an unbelievable scene. (I mean that literally.)

I did like the nostalgia. I liked BB8. I’m curious to learn more about Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren. I’ll watch the next movie.

But I’m not going to pretend to be blind to its faults. “The Force Awakens” was okay. And ultimately, that’s all it was.