Michelle & The ‘Meet Cute’: Ideas for Characters’ First Meetings

Barack posted this ‘throwback’ photo on Instagram yesterday (17th Jan) to celebrate Michelle’s birthday.

I have almost finished reading Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming and I’m enjoying it but I must admit, I got frustrated with the first few chapters, about her working-class-but-loving-childhood and hard-working adolescence and getting to Princeton – all very worthy and admirable, of course BUT I wanted to get to the part where she first meets Barack!

I was really hoping it was going to be sweet and funny (you’ll have to read it yourself to find out!). I know her memoir isn’t a rom-com but that was the bit I was really interested in: the (strangely named) ‘Meet-Cute.’

Because people are intrigued by that kind of thing, aren’t they? If you’re part of a couple, I bet you’ve been asked, many times ‘How did you meet?’ People want to know ‘the story’ and, rather like me and my curiosity about the Obamas, they want it to be interesting and romantic (and if it isn’t, their little faces fall).

If you write – or watch – romantic comedies, you’ll know, the ‘Meet-Cute’ is the first meeting between two characters who will go on to fall in love. It’s usually memorable in some way – funny, embarrassing or awkward. Sometimes – quite often, actually (think Darcy and Elisabeth Bennett) – they hate each other.

You can have a lot of fun with the ‘meet-cute’. The key is, it’s inventive.

Mark Kermode talks about it brilliantly, with lots of great examples from films in the ‘Rom Com’ episode from his series ‘Secrets of Cinema’. (It was repeated over New Year and that’s when I saw it. Hopefully, when you read this, it will still be available to view on BBC I-player. You might need to register first!).

If you’ve seen the film Notting Hill, you’ll remember the first meeting between Hugh Grant’s character Will and Julia Roberts, playing Anna Scott, is when they crash into each other on the street and he showers her in orange juice.

In Robert Galbraith’s crime series (ahem, heavily laced with a sub-plot of ‘will they, won’t they?’ between detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin), the two main characters first meet (in The Cuckoo’s Calling) at the top of a staircase, in the middle of a row between Strike and his ex, when 16 stone Strike barges out of a door, slams into Robin and only saves her from falling down the lethal staircase by grabbing her (unfortunately – and embarrassingly, for both of them, by the left breast. Ow).

In Meryl Streep’s Falling in Love (bless, one of my mum’s favourite films), the two main characters are both buying books in a book shop, at Christmas and inadvertently take each other’s purchases home, which makes for an interesting Christmas Day but also, later brings them back together.

In Serendipity, something similar happens – the two lead characters are both trying to buy the same pair of gloves, as Christmas presents, in Bloomingdales, when they meet.

You get the idea.

Actually, I think I need to review the ‘meet cute’ in my novel-in-progress. At the moment it’s probably an anti-meet-cute (it involves a dog-poo bin. I cannot say any more).

So, I’ve been thinking. Whatever kind of novel (or story) that you’re writing, a ‘meet cute’ (perhaps with a less ridiculous name) is a useful trope or concept for bringing two important characters together, in an interesting and memorable way.

It doesn’t have to be funny, after all and the characters don’t have to be potential romantic partners. They could be future adversaries, best friends or work partners.

I wonder how Lewis and Morse first met, for example? Or (showing my age here), James Herriot and Siegfried in All Creatures Great and Small?

My OH has just suggested a great ‘Meet Cute’ between Harry Potter and the giant – and pretty intimidating – Hagrid, in the first HP book, when Hagrid knocks down the front door to reveal to Harry that he’s a wizard. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s a stunning entrance for any character and of course, although Hagrid turns out to be a good guy, at first sight, how can Harry – or the reader – be sure?

Yep, that’s the kind of thing I mean. Perhaps you can think of some more? Impactful. Memorable. We just have to think of a better name than ‘meet cute’, right?


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Happy New Year! And a (quick) review of 2018

The beautiful Lake District

Happy New Year to you – albeit a bit late, as it’s now 11th January!

It’s been a busy time. We went up to the fabulous Lake District (Haweswater, to be exact) for New Year, which was Bonnie the dog’s holiday, as much as ours and she loved it! She is half-goat, we’ve decided, as she enjoyed the rock-climbing as much as the running around. I’ve re-christened her Bonnie Bonington, in deference to the great mountaineer.

On New Year’s Eve itself, the hotel where we were staying, organised a ‘Murder Mystery Night’. Hmm, we weren’t too sure whether it was going to be our cup of tea but it was really good fun.

The actors (in character) mingled with everyone in the bar, before the dinner started (we were marked down as ‘trouble makers’ immediately by the detective, Noah Deer, as we refused to give him our names) and after that, you could get involved in trying to solve the murder, or just sit back, drink and eat.


Each table had to write a limerick during the course of the evening – from a first line that they gave us – and the one that I came up with was judged the winner! Hurrah. Shame the people we were sharing the table with, nabbed the box of chocolates that we won! But I’m not bitter or anything.

I’d never really thought about it before, but I heard one of the actors (when it was all over) telling someone that he wrote all the scripts and there must be quite a skill to writing a murder mystery, don’t you think? The company was called Highly Suspect and although they’re based ‘up North’ I think they travel all over the country. I can certainly recommend them if you’re looking for a fun night!

Our ritual on New Year’s Day: a walk with a mini bottle of bubbly (chilled in a lake this time!)

We’d only just got back from the Lakes and unpacked our bags, when it was time to pack them again and head North once more.

We had a family funeral to attend in Scotland. We couldn’t get flights, our regular dog sitter couldn’t have Bonnie, so we had to drive (ahem, it’s 500 miles, 11 hours each way…) and take her with us!

Beach huts on Findhorn Beach

It was a very long journey.

Of course, we had a lot of breaks. And the M6 ‘helped’ by being closed 3 times, for accidents and ‘major police incidents’, so that all added to the time taken.

The life-safer was, in fact, an audio book that we listened to for 10 hours – Conclave, by Robert Harris – which is about the election of a new pope and I know that doesn’t sound very exciting, but believe me, it was gripping! (And I learned a lot about the Catholic church and popes and cardinals and stuff).

I love Robert Harris books; I think he writes really well. I wasn’t too sure about the ending of this one though. I shall say no more, as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it!

So, I’m back now and hoping that my travels are over for a little while.

I thought I’d have a quick review of 2018:

2018: My Writing/Blogging Year

In February, I reached the heady heights of 800 followers (of this blog, I hasten to add, not of the strange cult that I lead), so I ran one of my ‘random word’ flash fiction competitions, which was eventually won by Jan Halstead. Once I get to 900 followers, I’ll be running another one.

In the summer I accepted an invitation to join the Steering Committee of Evesham Festival of Words. It’s a voluntary role and it’s really interesting (and good experience) to see how a literary festival is put together.
I run the Twitter feed for the Festival, run the odd workshop and my friend Chris and I organise the annual quiz and now I’m also helping to judge this year’s short story competition (closing 22nd March – details here).

In October, my friend and I went to the National Centre for Writing in Wales, Tŷ Newydd, for a fabulous week of ‘Writing Commercial Fiction’.

And here are a few numbers… I wrote 40 blog posts (!) totalling over 23,000 words.

I submitted 58 short stories to magazines (but most of these were oldies/resubmissions – not very many new stories, in other words).

I entered 4 short story competitions (in Writers Forum magazine) and came precisely nowhere with those.

But, to end on a more positive note, at the start of the year, I joined the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme (and have rejoined for this year).

On 31st August, with about half an hour to go before the deadline, I submitted my novel manuscript (when you join the scheme, your fee includes a full manuscript critique).

I’ve now had that critique back, plus one that I arranged earlier in the year, from Alison May and they were both pretty positive, so I’ve got no excuse: polish the novel up a bit and see if anyone’s interested in publishing it! (Oh and start writing another one. No pressure!).

How was your writing year? Any resolutions for 2019?

Bonnie on the beach

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My Christmas, actually

So, Christmas is over and it’s time for me to hang up my pudding earrings once more. Hurrah!

Did you have a good Christmas? ‘Quiet’ is the usual, required answer, isn’t it? But mine was anything but… Christmas Day (and Boxing Day and the day after…) was punctuated by my mum’s loud sneezing, nose blowing, coughing and yanking of tissues from a box.

And now she’s toddled off home, feeling much better and I’ve got a tickly throat and a headache… NOOO! I am trying First Defence to ward off the terrible lurgie before New Year. I’ll let you know if it works.

On Christmas Day itself I almost experienced an Emma-Thompson-in-Love-Actually moment.

If you’ve seen the film (we watch it every Christmas but we do have to fast-forward over the excruciating scenes with Liam Neeson’s stepson), you will, no doubt, remember when Emma Thompson’s character Karen finds a gold necklace in her husband’s coat pocket and assumes it’s a Christmas present for her (but on the day, she gets a Joni Mitchell CD instead, the gold necklace being for the evil husband’s lover!).

Well, a few weeks ago, I casually mentioned to my OH that I could do with a new rainproof jacket and, as if by magic, a big box arrived in the post one day and before he could whisk it away, I spotted the label ‘SeaSalt’on the side. Lovely jubbly, I thought.

But on Christmas morning, we exchanged presents and I’d finally opened everything from him and there was no jacket! Who, I thought, had he bought it for?

I was really disappointed (and, er, slightly worried of course, that he might have another rainproof-jacket-wearing woman on the side). But then he uttered the immortal words, “Oh and there is something else….” and the big box was produced (from another room! Sneeky) and here is my jacket! (erm, I’ve just spotted that it’s now half price in their sale! Eek. Don’t tell him).

Someone on Twitter posted a photo of all the books they’d had for Christmas. Honestly, there were tons! It was about a year’s worth!

I only had one, which I think reflects the extent of my reading. It is shameful! I set myself a target on Goodreads this year, of 20 books. I think I might just manage it. I’m on number 19 (Lethal White by Robert Galbraith. Good but very long!) and then I have a little one that I might just be able to sneak in before the end of the year but one of my resolutions is definitely to read more in 2019.

My one and only Christmas book. (But it looks like a good ‘un!)

And finally, remember in my last post, I urged us all to ‘let go of perfect’?

Well, my sister-in-law (who doesn’t read this blog, as far as I know…) certainly did, bless her.

We went to my brother’s on Boxing Day and our dog, Bonnie, disappeared for a few minutes, only to return (from upstairs!) with a bread roll in her mouth. It had clearly been retrieved from under a bed or behind a radiator, or somewhere because it was rock hard, probably weeks, (if not months!), old and therefore, inedible! (even for a dog!)

Happy New Year (in advance!)

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‘Letting Go of Perfect …’

Findhorn Beach, Moray Firth

Hello. I’ve been to Scotland since I last wrote (hence the pretty pics), for a flying visit to the OH’s rellies. There was no snow but believe me, it was cold!

Talking of snow, the snow that usually appears as if by magic, floating down the screeen on this blog every December, hasn’t worked this year! And I don’t know why (and I haven’t got time to investigate) but it’s a shame because it always looks so lovely and festive! 😦

And now, I’m contemplating writing my Christmas cards (something I ALWAYS end up leaving until the last minute, despite my best intentions).

My feelings about Christmas cards are thus:

– They’re are a bit daft and outdated – like lots of things in life – but no-one wants to give them up. We need a brave soul to stand up and say ‘Enough!’ And ban them. Perhaps Mrs May will do it when she gets a moment.

– They’re particularly stupid when you give them to people in the office that you sit next to every day. What on earth is the point? But, I must admit, that when people say, “Erm, I’m not giving Christmas cards this year. I’m making a donation to charity instead”, I do think, “Yeah, right.” Which is a bit mean of me, isn’t it? (They just have to show me the donation receipt and it’ll all be fine).

– And then, there are the ones you send through the post, mostly to people you don’t see from one year to the next and actually, it would be quite nice to hear a little bit of their news (as long as it’s not too gushing) but you either get NOTHING (just ‘Happy Christmas!’, which seems like such a wasted opportunity) or, as we did this week, you get a 3 page missive of closely-typed wordage, so detailed, it practically tells you what the person had for breakfast every day and ….agh, is simply too much.

I think part of my procrastination is that I feel I should, somehow, strike the balance between no information and too much information and it all seems like such a headache, that I just keep putting it off.

Pebbled beach

Of course, what we should all be doing is ‘letting go of perfect’ – and embracing ‘good enough’ (and I’ve blogged about this before, here).

We were urged to ‘let go of perfect’ in the Waitrose Weekend magazine, a couple of weeks ago, in an article entitled “Make Time For You” (hashtag #selfcare). It sounds like a great idea but then, a few pages later, in the same magazine, I spotted another article on ‘Creating the Perfect Home at Christmas’.

Ah, I give up.

More Findhorn Beach on the Moray Firth

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The ‘Crime’ – Or Joy – Of Not Finishing a Book!

I so agree with this post on The Guardian website, about how it’s OK not to finish a book you’re not enjoying, that I had to write a quick post and ask what YOU think?

I have to admit, that I probably give up on as many books as I actually read, these days. Life’s too short! And there are too many other books that I will enjoy (if I can just find them!) that I can’t bear to waste time on a book that’s boring or irritating or has characters that I just don’t care two hoots about.

Someone very clever once said that the definition of a good book (or a good short story, for that matter) is when you ‘forget you’re reading’. You’re so ‘into’ that fictional world that, like a dream, if feels real to you. Isn’t that a fabulous, amazing thing? (And makes reading one of the most relaxing things you can do). So why spend time on books that don’t make you feel like that? Books in which, as a writer, you can ‘see the joins’ or (even as a non-writer!) you can guess the ending or confuse the characters so much that you feel like throwing the blasted thing across the room….

I know some people can’t bear to give up on a book. (WHY?!!!). They feel guilty! (WHY???) or like a failure. But actually, if there’s a ‘failure’, then it’s the writer, who didn’t engage you sufficiently. Just say no! Put the book down… slowly.. on the ‘charity shop’ pile.. and pick up something else to read.

I thank you. And have a good weekend, whatever you’re reading!

Posted in Books, Novels, Short Stories | 24 Comments

What’s Your Problem?

My problems are (very First World-y – ie: not problems at all):

1. I have failed at NaNoWriMo, due to TMGO (too much going on, including a laptop breakdown!) and I’m thinking that perhaps I will try again in January, when things might have calmed down. If you’re still battling away at it, good luck – and I take my hat off to you!

2. While my mum was staying here last week, we started a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. This was a very bad idea. It’s a long time since I’ve done a jigsaw. Who knew they were so hard? (and time-consuming and addictive?). It’s about two-thirds done and is covering the kitchen table. We are having to eat standing up.

3. I am listening to the audiobook of Sarah Water’s The Night Watch in my car.
It’s unabridged and very good but there are 17 CDs! And I’m only on 11 and I’ve been listening to it for at least two weeks already. I seem to have got embroiled in Things That Are Taking Ages.

But, on a more positive note, since my last post I have had a story accepted by The Weekly News and 3 article ideas accepted by Writing magazine (just got to write them now) and, despite friends (you know who you are!) saying I could ‘never do it’, I have resisted watching I’m a Celebrity which I have, in the past, described as ‘one of my favourite TV programmes’. So that’s self-discipline for you!

And all this leads me nicely onto today’s offering which, because my brain is still not in writing mode, is something I wrote for Writing magazine a few years ago, about using problem pages to get plot ideas:

What’s Your Problem?*

Most good short stories contain some kind of ‘conflict’ (see my last post!). If everything’s hunky-dory, your story’s going to make very dull reading. And the problem pages of magazines, newspapers and websites are a good place to look for ideas for drama and conflict.

Sainsbury’s supermarket used to print a problem in its in-store magazine each month (not sure if they still do! Anyone know?) and offered advice from a psychotherapist as well as members of a readers’ panel.

One issue featured a letter from a reader who’d taken a newly-divorced friend under her wing, only for the friend to start flirting outrageously with her husband (cheek!). She didn’t know whether she should tackle the issue (for fear of losing the friendship) but was seriously concerned that her marriage was under threat.

Another reader had introduced two of her friends to each other and they hit it off so well that they’d started spending time together as a twosome and often didn’t invite her along. She felt jealous and left out and was asking for advice on what she should do.

Either of these issues could form the core of an interesting short story. You just have to work out the ending. Although, of course, if you take the trouble to read the advice given, you may just be provided with a possible ending for your story too.

And it’s not only women who seek help from ‘agony aunts’. Questions to the Guardian’s ‘Private Lives’ problem page (which invites replies from readers of the newspaper), included a plea from a male reader, ‘My wife and I often sulk. How can we avoid becoming ‘grumpy old people?’ (which just goes to show that not all problems are deadly serious) and to Bel Mooney, the advice columnist in The Mail, ‘My mother-in-law thinks I’m not good enough for her daughter.’ There’s plenty of room for drama and conflict in that one!

It’s worth bearing in mind that the writer of any problem page dilemma may well be exaggerating, or deceiving him or herself. There is something of the unreliable narrator in most problem page letters, as there’s always another side to the story, of course, which you, as the writer, are free to imagine.

Aside from their value as potential plot generators, problem pages can also provide some useful writing practice. As an exercise in my classes, I sometimes hand out a real-life published ‘problem’ to my students, for study and discussion in small groups. I ask them to give names to the people involved and to imagine some more background to the issue and then, taking a character each, they write a monologue from that person’s point of view. This is great practice for getting into the head of someone very different from yourself (and possibly, someone not very likeable) and really trying to understand their feelings and motivation.

An alternative exercise is to write one of the pivotal scenes that the problem has suggested (for example, the scene in which the woman finally confronts her friend over her inappropriate flirting).

As writers, it’s important that we don’t shy away from writing dramatic scenes. They can be difficult but beware of having your pivotal scenes taking place ‘out of sight’: your reader will feel cheated.

And a final note of warning: reading the on-line forums, in particular, can be very addictive and time-consuming (rather like doing a jigsaw, in fact). Please don’t write to me if this becomes a problem!

* A longer version of this article appeared in Writing magazine in 2012

Posted in Books, Finding Time To Write, Magazines, Television | Tagged | 12 Comments

An A-Z of ‘Character Conflicts’

The bad news is, my entry to the Writers’ Forum ‘A-Z’ competition (they wanted an 800-word A-Z feature on any aspect of writing) DIDN’T win or even get an honourable mention 😦 BUT that means, WF’s loss is our gain because here it is, just for you: the A-Z of character conflicts.

We all know a key element in fiction is conflict but it’s easy to think this just means ‘fighting’. It took me a while to realise conflict is more about giving your character problems or obstacles (both internal and external) to overcome. I’ve often thought a list of possible conflicts would be useful. There are many more than 26 of course but here are some ideas (and for the purpose of brevity, ‘hero’ in this piece stands for any main character, male or female):

A: Addiction. Drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling, nicotine or shopping: give your characters an addition and you give them problems.

B: Bullying. It’s not confined to the playground: bullying happens in the workplace and within marriages too.

C: Cowardice. Many heroes start life as cowards, resisting the ‘call to action’. eg: Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Part of reader satisfaction is seeing a character change and grow. If your hero’s fearful, force him to face those fears.

D: Difference: ‘Fish out of water’ is a popular theme in fiction. If your character is ‘different’ – an outcast or an oddity – that isolation and struggle for acceptance could drive a compelling plot.

E: Enemy. Most protagonists need an opposing antagonist (for every hero, a villain). This is the most obvious character-versus-character conflict: someone who’s trying to thwart your hero’s aims.

F: Family: marital strife, sibling rivalry, power struggles, ‘boomerang kids’, post-natal depression, arranged marriages and so on. Family relationships offer dozens of possibilities.

G: Guilt: A fascinating inner conflict. Guilt can torment a character, as he tries to hide it or come to terms with it.

H: Hunger. A hungry (or thirsty) or starving character has a basic need to fulfil. It’s a real plot driver and whole novels have been written around it (eg: Helen Dunmore’s The Siege).

I: Indecision. Procrastinating, indecisive characters are in mental turmoil. Just look what happened to Hamlet.

J: Jealousy. Ditto, Othello.

K: Killjoy. A misery-guts can prevent characters from achieving their dreams (eg: a tyrannical father or boss) or – like Ebenezer Scrooge – make life miserable for themselves.

L: Lies. Most crime fiction involves lies but untruths in any kind of fiction create confusion, fear (eg: of being found out) and tension.

M: Money. Lack of cash is a problem in itself but desire for money can also lead to crime and rifts (eg: a shared lottery win, a contested will).

N: Narcissist. Self-obsessed and vain, with an inflated sense of their own importance and lacking empathy, narcissists are the characters we love to hate. Typical narcissists: Dorian Grey and the husband in the play Gaslight, who manipulates his wife into believing she’s going mad.

O: Opposites: put complete opposites together in a confined space (preferably somewhere confined – an office, or the family Christmas dinner) and conflict will naturally occur.

P: Phobias. The hero of The Da Vinci Code is claustrophobic (tricky when his only escape route is a narrow tunnel) but there are hundreds of phobias, from fear of clowns (coulrophobia) to the number 13 (triskaidekaphobia) Google phobias and take your pick.

Q: Quarrel: A courtroom battle, a row over a parking space or a fight between nations. A ‘bust-up’ – big or small – is an obvious conflict but if it suits your story, why not?

R: Religion: Anything that divides society – such as religion – will provide issues and conflict. Your characters may be torn between obedience, doubting their faith, in love with someone from another religion or at war. Great novels inspired by religion include Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience (now a film too), about Orthodox Judaism, Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley (Mormonism) and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson about a girl who grows up in an English Pentecostal community.

S: Society. Person-versus-society – eg: characters who struggle with a community or a controlling government (eg: The Handmaid’s Tale or Orwell’s 1984). It doesn’t have to be science-fiction, though. You could write about slavery in ancient Rome, the suffragette movement or the miners’ strike.

T: Technology. A car breaks down, a plane’s engine dies, a writer’s laptop explodes, robots turn against humanity. When technology ‘fails’, problems ensue.

U: Underprivileged. If your character’s poor, uneducated or otherwise lacking, due to their background, they will struggle to get ahead. It’s the basis of all ‘rags to riches’ stories.

V: Vendettas. Family feuds, often involving misplaced loyalty and forbidden love, will force characters to act, even against their will. An obvious example is Romeo and Juliet.

W: Weather. Snowdrifts, floods, storms, heatwaves. Any kind of extreme weather or force of nature (a landslide, a tsunami) can present your character with a raft of problems to overcome.

X: Xenophobia. Give your hero a fear, distrust or even hatred of someone of another nationality and then put him in close contact with just that person. And let the sparks fly.

Y: Youth. If you want to raise the stakes, it may help to make your character young or naïve (or seemingly young, such as an adult with learning disabilities). That character will be vulnerable, may struggle to interpret the world and might also lack the resources to easily solve his problems.

Z: Zombies. Or ghosts, aliens, vampires, werewolves: take your pick of malevolent forces. They don’t have to be confined to horror or sci-fi fiction. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a 2009 parody of Austen’s classic novel and later, a film. When it comes to character conflicts, as long as you can make it work, there really are no rules!

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