THE MOONLIGHTING CURSE: And No, We’re NOT Talking Werewolves

by | Jun 6, 2018 | Uncategorized | 8 comments

June. Love is in the air, weddings abound, and this month’s topic is “love and the single spy.”
And that begs the question: Is it possible for spies to have a love life? I can only imagine this is a balancing act for the real-life spy, especially when the stakes are high. But what about their fictional counterparts? And how do you sustain this love-life in a multi-book series?

starring Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepher on my desktop.
For those of us old enough to have watched the TV series Moonlighting, we probably remember how the two main characters, Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, walked a tightrope as they tried to work together while denying their sexual attraction. (Okay, they were PIs, not spies, but the example holds.) The fans tuned in each week for the will-they/won’t-they-EVER-get-together set-up. And then, one day, it happened. The two got together. And the show went downhill from there. 
In fact, the ratings dive was so significant, it’s known in the TV writing world as the “Moonlighting Effect” or “Moonlighting Curse.”  In novels and movies, that push/pull of the (often) main characters as they deny their sexual attraction is an integral part of the story. Sure, we tune in for the weekly episode to see if they survive, solve the mystery, save the world. But when it comes right down to it, what we really tune in for are the characters.  We are invested in them. We want to root for them. We like it when there’s a love interest. In fact, we love it when there’s a love interest. The most successful movies/books quite often have some element of romance in it. Why? It’s not about the sex. Not totally. Nor is it all about the sexual tension which can add depth to the story. 
What it’s really about is conflict. 
That, Rogue Readers, is a word dreaded by almost all new writers. We know good conflict when we see it, but creating it is a lot harder than it seems. We’re not talking about the little fights and misunderstandings easily resolved. We’re talking about the major stumbling blocks and obstacles that keep our protagonist from reaching his/her goal.  Without conflict, at least in the romantic sense, we get to the “Moonlighting Effect” much faster.  The whole idea is to keep the viewer or reader glued to the seat, anxious to turn the pages to see how these two are going to get together—if they’re going to get together. (Should you be wondering how this pertains to spy thrillers, think 007. Every James Bond flick managed good conflict and sexual tension in each and every incarnation. It’s why the movies are still very popular.)
We watch (or read) a story, that, if it’s done well, has us feeling that essential chemistry between the two characters. We want to know more. And, just when we think “ha!” they’re going to get together, that pesky conflict gets in the way. Or the bad guy gets in the way. Or the kids, the ex, etc., etc. 
Case in point. The Sydney Fitzpatrick FBI forensic artist series. Sydney, the main character, an FBI agent and forensic artist, meets up with Zachary Griffin in book two of the series, THE BONE CHAMBER. They are definitely attracted to each other. Problem is, they work for two different agencies, usually on opposing sides with completely different goals. Knowing I wanted the series to run the length of several books at least, I had to come up with some clever ways to keep them apart. By the fifth and last book of the series, THE KILL ORDER, we know/hope these two are destined to be together. But, we also learn that Griffin technically is under orders to kill Sydney. (Remember those opposing sides I talked about?) So, what’s a spy to do? Well, clearly the book is about how they get around that particular obstacle–while saving the world. 
I must have gotten something right, since THE KILL ORDER was named as one of Library Journal’s Best Thrillers of 2014.
But what happens when your spies are married? Now that I’m co-writing with Clive Cussler on the Sam and Remi Fargo books, I have a whole new set of issues. Okay, technically, they’re not really spies, they’re treasure hunters, and in our most recent outing, THE GRAY GHOST (5/29/18), the Fargos are hunting for the stolen prototype of the 1906 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Even so, this husband/wife duo fight off villains evil enough to give James Bond a run for his money. (And without all the cool spy gadgets, too.) Regardless, Sam and Remi are happily married, so no worries about the Moonlighting Effect dampening the novels. 
And that, Rogue Readers, presents a whole new challenge. How to add conflict and excitement to a multi-book series with married protagonists. 
What I’ve discovered after co-writing our third Fargo book (the 11thin the series) is that the surrounding characters, new and old, can pick up the slack in creating obstacles and conflict that help to enhance the story. In THE GRAY GHOST, the conflict comes from the past, an old journal telling a story of cousins at the turn of the century, which in turn leads to clues and conflict in the present-day story as the Fargos hunt for the stolen Gray Ghost. I think Cussler and I pulled it off quite nicely in this book. So far, the reviews have been very positive, with Kirkus giving THE GRAY GHOST a starred review.
So, Rogue Readers, I’m wondering if you have any examples of the “Moonlighting Curse” in anything that you’ve watched on TV or read in a favorite series? Leave a comment and I’ll enter your name in a drawing for a free copy of the audio CD version of THE GRAY GHOST (read by the incomparable Scott Brick). 
I’d love to hear what you think!
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  1. S. Lee Manning

    The only "moonlighting" curse I vaguely remember was an old series Lois and Clark – where Lois and yes, Superman, eventually get married. I watched it with my kids when they were young. However, I think that the problem was not them getting married – but the various weird contortions to keep them from getting married in order to drag out the conflict. By the time they actually got married, the show and jumped the shark so to speak.

  2. Karna Bodman

    Robin – you are so right about how important it is to keep the "sexual tension" going in a good story. I recall a conversation I had years ago with the great writer, Vince Flynn (sure do miss that guy who died way too young!). Vince created the hero, Mitch Rapp (now "continued" in the new series by another terrific author, Kyle Mills). In my chat with Vince, I asked him how to "keep it going" in a second novel when the guy and girl have "gotten together" (though not married yet) in the first story. Vince said he had that very problem when he had Mitch Rapp marry the love of his life. In a subsequent story he said, "I had to kill her off and start again." Well, I didn't kill off one of my leading characters, but I did create a "triangle" in the next book. Thanks for a thought-provoking post (and if I don't "win" that CD version of your thriller, I will buy it).

  3. Robin Burcell

    Jumping the shark! We could probably have an entire month on that topic alone! (Hmmm… Makes note to self.)

  4. Robin Burcell

    Didn't Patricia Cornwell kill off a love interest, too? It's been a long time, but I vaguely remember readers being very upset. I have to admit, it's a good way to shake things up, but how hard it must be to drop the axe on one of your characters!

  5. Anonymous

    I loved the Mummy movie series with Brendan Fraser. Unfortunately, although they got married the tension was great in the second movie, they fast forwarded too soon. The couple had their own son as a big part of the plot at 8 or so and then he was all grown up in the third movie (after a gap of 10 years of so in the making). The third movie started out like Remains of the Day in a weak comedic sense. In other words, the archaeologist and the adventurer aged much too fast.

  6. Robin Burcell

    Loved the Mummy series, too! And I agree with you, that they fast-forwarded too soon. Maybe they'll remake them and add a few in-between to slow the progression!

  7. Lisa Black

    How to keep the tension going is the worst!!! I thought Jeffrey Deaver found a great way around it in The Empty Chair, when his couple, Amelia and Lincoln, disagree not about love but about a case: he thinks the suspect is guilty, she doesn't. It made for a very believable schism between the two.

  8. Robin Burcell

    Good example, Lisa! Believable conflict isn't always about sexual tension. Or killing off the love interest. And Deaver is a master at creating believable plots.