Posted On August 7, 2017 by Print This Post

What Have You Got to Lose? by Kari Lynn Dell

Welcome first timer Kari Lynn Dell with a fabulous post! Go on, read it! What have you got to lose? =)

This question single-handedly turned around my writing career. It has become the first thing I ask my characters as I devise new and better ways to torture them along the road to their happily-ever-after. First, though, let me give credit where credit is due.

About four years ago I was struggling mightily with the manuscript that would eventually become Reckless in Texas. In the course of three major rewrites it was getting, if anything, worse as I twisted and stretched to come up with a compelling conflict. In the depths of my despair, I turned to the place you have also arrived–blogs on the craft of writing. Specifically, the blog belonging to the incomparable Jennifer Crusie.

In one of those moments of divine circumstance that I wouldn’t believe if I read it in a book, I stumbled across the exact advice I needed at exactly the right time.

To paraphrase, if you want to write unforgettable romance, make it so the two of them can’t win at love unless one of them loses. Big. Gives up a cherished vision of who they are, or steps off the path they have laid out for themselves, brick by careful brick. Or both.

That’s when I finally recognized the fatal flaw in my book–I had a hero without a dream. He had nothing of consequence to lose (other than the usual risk of heartbreak, and we can only read so many plots bases solely on stereotypical commitment-shy men, right?)


All of the elements were already in place. Joe is from Oregon, Violet lives in Texas. She is a vital part of her family’s rodeo production business, plus the father of her son lives in their hometown. Violet isn’t going to hurt all of those people to pursue love (and I wouldn’t like her much if she did). But there was no real reason Joe couldn’t pack up and move south.

So I gave him one. The formerly footloose rodeo bullfighter became driven and focused, a man with a plan. A child of divorce and constant emotional upheaval, as a teenager he found refuge working in the wide open spaces of the High Lonesome Ranch, tending the bucking stock raised there. The ranch and the horses are his heart. Year after year he has tolerated verbal abuse, squirreling away every extra penny with an eye to the inevitable day when the ill-tempered, aging owner will have to acquire a partner to continue the operation.

How can he possibly walk away when he has invested everything, including his soul, in this dream? Bingo! Instant, gut-wrenching conflict. These two people can’t win as a couple unless one of them loses their dream.

But wait, you say. Isn’t he going to wake up someday and resent the living shit out of her for forcing him to choose?

And that, my friends, is the tricky part of this kind of conflict. If you give both of them a worthy goal, you are painting yourself into a corner you can usually only escape via either a stroke of unbelievable luck or revealing an alternative you’ve kept hidden in your back pocket to stretch out the tension.

You know what I mean: the out-of-the-blue job offer, or magically becoming a successful freelancer despite a near-complete lack of an established network, or–my personal favorite–the offer of a publishing contract which naturally results in an NYT bestseller and overnight fame and fortune.

Yes, writers do it all the time, and it can sell a lot of books. I call this have-it-all porn, the fantasy that somewhere, somehow there is a path to everything your heart desires without giving up anything. For today’s harried, time-starved readers it is equivalent of the sheik who sweeps the heroine away to his desert oasis thereby solving all of her problems, right up there with the romantic hero who is not only a gourmet chef but does the dishes and scrubs the toilet.

I, unfortunately, am too firmly grounded in reality to enjoy reading, much less writing it (plus I’m married to a wonderful man who will cook under duress and do the dishes, but is apparently unaware that we own a toilet brush).

So what is the alternative?

The tarnished idol. Someone has to be worshipping a false god, pursuing a goal that will make them less as a person. Careful with that, though. Even if it isn’t the path to ultimate fulfillment, their dream has to be valid, even admirable, or they’ll look like a jerk. Or worse, a blithering idiot.

In Joe’s case, his abiding love of the ranch has made him willing to sacrifice his self-respect in order to stay in the old man’s good graces, truly believing the payoff will be worth the occasional blow to his pride. As the story progresses, though, it becomes obvious that he’s literally signing a contract with the devil. He can’t exist in such a toxic environment without letting the better parts of his soul shrivel up and die.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt like hell to leave.

When he does make that choice, though, and allow Violet to slay his demons and carry him off to a life where he can become the best version of himself, their victory is all the more satisfying because of what he has had to endure to achieve it.

So take a look at your work-in-progress or that new book you’re just beginning to plot and ask yourself and your characters…

What have I got to lose?

Postscript: You can find the Jennifer Crusie post at her blog: —

For other examples of books that do this beautifully, check out Virginia Kantra’s Carolina Girl and Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game.


Join us on Wednesday for Adriana Anders!


Bio: KARI LYNN DELL brings a lifetime of personal experience to writing western romance. She is a third-generation rancher and rodeo competitor who works on the family ranch in northern Montana, inside the Blackfeet Nation. She exists in a perpetual state of horse-induced poverty along with her husband, Max and Spike the (female) Cowdogs, a few hundred cows and a son who resides on the same general segment of the autism spectrum as Cole Jacobs and doesn’t believe names should be gender-limited. Her latest book, Tougher in Texas, is out now!

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6 Responses to “What Have You Got to Lose? by Kari Lynn Dell”

  1. This was a good post. I, too, fell into that same problem with other mss I wrote. with the current one I’m putting the finishing touches on, one has to give up something big as well, but knows he made the right decision.

    Posted by Mercy | August 7, 2017, 7:48 am
  2. Morning Kari!

    I agree, good post! That kind of story always makes the HEA a bit more satisfying I think. =)

    Thanks so much for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Peters | August 7, 2017, 8:14 am
  3. Thanks so much for not only describing the way to make this kind of conflict work, but laying out exactly how you did it for this specific example. So helpful!

    (And FYI, I freaking love your books. In case you forgot since the last time I told you a few days ago. LOL)

    Posted by Natalie J. Damschroder | August 7, 2017, 3:03 pm
  4. Excellent article! And it gives me hope for my WIP! 🙂

    Posted by Dana Wayne | August 10, 2017, 1:18 pm
  5. Good stuff. Thank you

    Posted by Dalyn | August 22, 2017, 1:45 pm

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