Reason #5: Your Hooks and Story Questions Are Serving Marmite--Not Butter
6 REASONS YOUR BOOKS AREN'T SELLING--and how Universal Fantasy can help
Back in 2019, I sat down to watch the very first episodes of two shows.
Show #1 had everything I love: S.E.X! A British setting! A bunch of sexually diverse teens fumbling around with love! And international treasure Gillian Anderson!
Show #2 had a lot of stuff I don’t particularly love: a nature-filled setting, high jinks, a bunch of cis-gendered, super-straight small-town folk, and that random blonde/redhead/brunette who’s always showing up for a few episodes of shows I like, but whose name I can never remember. (It’s Alexandra Breckenridge—I had to do a Google search.)
So which series did I end up helplessly binge-watching in under a week while on deadline for a pre-order? And which series did I abandon until several social media posts and reviews convinced me to give it a second chance despite my first impressions?
If you’ve watched the first five minutes of Sex Education and Virgin River, then you already know that I binged Show #2, despite it not being my cup of genre tea.
If you’re a romance writer, there’s a good chance that you too have watched the entirety of Virgin River, Season 1, even if you haven’t picked up a small-town romance in years. And it has nothing to do with your original excuse for giving this show a chance: “I just want to see what kind of romance novels are being made into Netflix shows.”
Let’s talk about why that is…
Here’s just some of the You’ll Have to Keep Watching butter stuffed into the first five minutes of Virgin River:
🧈 A bright red car driving through a gorgeous, heavily forested landscape where you wish you could take Instagram pics of you camping. It navigates winding roads toward where? We’ll have to keep watching to find out. Mystery Location aka Where Are They Going butter.
This kind of butter sounds super simple, but start looking out for the number of creatives who don’t use it. You’ll be surprised at how often they waste the valuable first few minutes of their story with establishing shots of a town sign or characters saying expository stuff like, “I can’t believe we’re moving to Middle of Nowhere, Ohio!”
🧈 She gets in a car accident and flashes back to a meet-cute with a handsome doctor. Who is he to our main character? What happened to him? We’ll have to keep watching to find out. Mysterious Past butter.
🧈 Our heroine is saved by a man who knows exactly what to do, even in the dark, and who’s old enough to be her father. Set-up for Cranky Father Figure butter!
🧈 He gives her a skeptical look when she tells him she’s trying to get to the supposedly beautiful McCrea Cabin. What’s that all about? We’ll have to keep watching to find out—and perhaps get a hit of I Guessed Right butter.
🧈 “You know, folks around here, we don’t pay each other to be neighborly. It’s just something we do,” he tells her when she offers to pay him for rescuing her and giving her a ride. As cranky as he sounds, he’s making a buttery promise of the sort of fantasy small-town life that most of us Uber-and-Triple-A-dependent city dwellers can barely imagine. Cozy Small Town butter.
🧈 There’s a small argument when Mel accidentally reveals she’s been hired to help the old doctor out. More awesome Cranky Father Figure butter set-up, because how sweet is it going to be when Doc becomes the stand-in father Mel needs, and she becomes the surrogate daughter he and his wife never had (without those infamously awful teenage years!)?
🧈 And, last, but not least, You Were Right butter!!! The house Mel ends up in is a literal Fixer Upper. I’m already salivating to see the big reveal they’re setting up.
That’s at least one pat of butter for every minute of screen time!
So, no, this show wasn’t my cup of tea. But man, did I keep on watching and watching until suddenly there were no more episodes left in the season.
Meanwhile, the first five minutes of Sex Education were interesting, I guess….
—One teen boy fakes having an orgasm with his girlfriend.
— Another teen boy named Otis oddly sets the scene to masturbate—a thoughtful pin-up girl image and some tissue. On an odd-production-choices side note: it took me all the way up until a texting scene halfway through the episode to realize this story wasn’t set in the eighties. Anyway, before Otis can masturbate, he gets interrupted by his mother’s 32-year-old overnight guest, who mistakes his room for the bathroom. Mood killed. Otis doesn’t masturbate.
— Anyway, Otis and the overnight guest end up at the breakfast table drinking coffee with Otis’s mother. That’s when Otis accuses his mother’s 32-year-old one-night-stand of having a pre-midlife crisis because he drives a motorbike. Otis then goes on to insinuate their breakfast guest must have an Oedipal Complex because he slept with Otis’s mother (played by a then-only-50-years-old Gillian Anderson).
—His sex therapist mother launches into a lecture about how being attracted to older women is perfectly natural and should be destigmatized. At this point, Otis is coming off as a judgmental brat—not someone capable of dispensing sex and relationship advice as the show’s blurb insinuates.
—After that, the guys leave, and Otis meets up with his best friend, Eric, who thinks the motorbike-riding overnight guest is hot. Eric says he wishes he had a sex guru for a mother. Otis resentfully replies, “No, you don’t.”
And that’s the first five minutes of Sex Education.
The beginning scenes are filled with interesting situations, for sure. But what are our reasons to keep watching?
To find out more about the interesting characters, maybe?
To see if Otis ever gets a chance to masturbate? I didn’t care about him not getting the chance to do so. But maybe someone else watching did?
And I suppose you could stick around to see why that guy lost his erection. I, personally, did not guess it was an actual issue, though, and actually sort of forgot all about this scene until it came up again while he was smoking weed with Otis’s mother while Otis awkwardly watched on (long story).
Main Point: five minutes into Sex Education, I had no idea how this series was going to play out, nor did I particularly care. The show was different, for sure—I’d never seen situations like these presented in a high school series. However, the first episode barely had a scrape of butter.
So, did I just have to keep on consuming it as I did with Virgin River?
In 2019, the answer to that question was no. And boy did I end up regretting my decision in 2020 when SE turned out to be my number-two favorite Netflix teen show of all time.
How did this happen? Why did it happen?
Well, the first five minutes of Virgin River is a perfectly executed all-American meal, filled with vanilla ice cream that I can’t help but love, even when I’m on a diet and should know better.
And Sex Education is Marmite.
Marmite and its Australian cousin Vegemite are savory spreads made of yeast extract. And to the American pallet, it tastes really, really different the first time you try it.
In my opinion, Marmite is delicious…eventually, after you’ve smeared just the right amount of it on white toast and thought for a moment or two about what kind of open-minded foodie you want to be after your first taste of this gooey, dark brown spread.
If you’re reading this and had no idea what Marmite was before I told you, you can probably see the problem with a Marmite show. It spreads like butter, but it’s a weird, dark yeast you have to decide you like.
And to be clear, Marmite is fine—excellent, even!
I recommend everybody watch Sex Education. There are loads of great situations that you won’t see in other shows, loads of actual sex education, and so much representation across the sexual spectrum.
But as I (and many Brits and Aussies) will tell you, the absolute best way to eat Marmite or Vegemite on toast is with a nice smear of butter underneath it.
As an example, let’s talk about the TikTok viral sensation It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover*.
One could argue that this outlier book is so successful because she gives us a nice helping of Marmite with tons of butter underneath.
I mean, debate whether It Ends With Us is a romance all you want, but…
Who wasn’t immediately hooked when the main character meets the Wounded Man on Top of the Roof by page five?
Who wasn’t ALL IN when she encounters the Wounded Homeless Boy Who Needs Her Help in the flashback?
And, how much did that buttery backstory soothe all the Marmite we ended up eating in between the flashbacks?
Butter Pro-Tip (for those of us who like to write different): Creatives don’t have to choose between groundbreaking Marmite and delicious butter. Layering the latter underneath the former will hook your readers into your story—even if it’s not one they’re expecting.
Homework: Read the first five pages of your WIP and make double sure there’s at least one buttery hook or story question in there—if you can do a butter-to-minute/page ratio like Virgin River, even better.
✳️Question: Has anyone else used adoring Colleen Hoover before her viral TikTok fame as a weird reader flex? Just me? Lol! Let me know in the comments if you’re in the, “I read It Ends With Us before 2019” Club!
And read the last reason your books might not be selling….
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