Romance in stories is to the creative universe what naquidah technology is to the Stargate universe, or nuclear physics is to our own: infinitely applicable, incredibly sought after, and yet capable of destroying or contaminating everything it touches. And we have yet to really scrape the surface in our understanding.
The problem is that, like a Higgs Boson, we see the effects of our desire for romance in our stories; why even the most basic of badass action movies somehow still needs at least a shallow love interest stapled on, why books almost universally considered to be low in literary quality is one of the largest markets for published fiction, and why the phenomena I mentioned a few weeks ago, shipping is so prevalent. But we don’t really know the mechanism of why it works or what key components make it work.
But I do think I know what makes it not work, and that is what this week’s blog post is about. So strap in, get your chocolates and roses ready, and let’s get ready to talk about bad romance.
… not this one.
The Three Formats of Romance
To flog my earlier comparison to naquidah, much like that fictional element, romance comes in any number of elemental states and alloys and in order to use it properly, you have to know which one you’re working with, otherwise, what you thought was a stable power source to drive your narrative, you get a weapon of mass destruction that will be unspeakable damage to your story, your characters, and your own emotional well-being.
As a person who writes things on the internet, I would be remiss if I didn’t boil this vast and complex array of options and concepts down into oversimplified categories to limit the amount of actual work I have to do. So let’s do that now:
There are three main forms romance takes in fiction:
Romance Novel – These are the tried and true, the bestselling and oft mocked stories that you can find in any supermarket in America, sporting shirtless men and women in period dress on the cover. They’re not really about romance or love so much as passion and the stereotype puts them somewhere above, occasionally dipping into erotica, if not softcore pornography. This is where bodice rippers and forbidden attraction stories live.
Because of the very nature of the thing, if you’re writing one of these, you damn well know it—unless you stumbled into this when your romantic subplot (see below) overran its boundaries and then had lots of sex or at least passionate embraces.
Love Story – All about how people meet, fall in love, and what happens immediately after. Depending on the genre, the immediately after can range from marriage and many fat children, to a bitter break-up, to being slowly ground into chunky salsa by the Dark Lord of the Nine followed by Armageddon. The most visible of these these days are the romantic comedies like Hitch or Fifty First Dates.
Because everything hinges on the what happens next part, Love Stories notoriously have trouble Sticking the Dismount, and the shear age of the genre routinely forces writers obsessed with originality above execution into more and more esoteric means of dealing with this. For the same reason, lazy writers also have an arsenal of cliches and tropes at their disposal that allows them to write these things on auto-pilot.
Romantic Subplot – When the romance novel or love story becomes an integrated arc to a larger plot, you get the romantic subplot, a device so powerful, so awe inspiring and so incredibly dangerous that I firmly believe that what was in the briefcase at the end of Pulp Fiction was, in fact, a perfectly crafted and seamlessly integrated romantic subplot.
When properly deployed, they make any story they’re part of inherently better. This is why Hollywood deploys them in the same manner in which the Valkyrie fighters from Macross deploy missiles: deploying thousands at a time and hoping for one to hit out of a near infinite number of misses.
Caaaaan you feeeel the looove toniiight
Improperly deployed, or badly managed, however, and they can kill your story so dead that necromancers would have to dedicate decades of rigorous research to get it to even twitch again.
They’re a double edged sword, really: Friends (And you better believe I’m going to be mocking them throughout) was, in my opinion, a very good show. But the bungling of the Ross/Rachael relationship is what I think will keep it from reaching the legendary status of shows like Seinfeld, M*A*S*H or the Cosby Show (more on the Cos later). But in the meantime, Third Rock From the Sun was actually funnier in episodes that involved the Sally/Don or Harry/Vicky relationships.
And the number one danger of a romantic subplot is that romance is addictive. It’s why we accept cardboard love interests and overstretched relationship arcs, after all, and writers are not immune to this. When a writer goes too far down that path, the subplot can break containment and take over the story proper, killing all other arcs and character development in its mad quest to gain more page space. This is what TVTropes calls a romantic plot tumor and it is deadly to good stories. Luckily, if the romance is good enough, this might turn out to be a good thing, like the superpower giving tumor from Phenomenon.
So where do stories go wrong? Well…
All stories need structure unless you’re writing the kind of thing literary critics crave. That would be a beginning of some sort, a middle, in which stuff happens, and an end, where you set up your sequel hooks because you’ve gotta eat and creating a new world every time is hard. As mentioned, for a Love Story, this structure is (roughly) ‘meet, fall in love, and what happens next’.
Typically, ‘what happens next’ is where a lot of writers stumble and fall. The weird part, which might say some disturbing things about the love lives of writers and has me sharpening the old noose, is that the problem doesn’t come up when you break the characters up or kill them off, but when you keep them together. A terrifying number of writers (and some even admit) have no idea what to do with a couple who fails to self destruct besides ‘end the story here’.
I know I’m going to a well I’ve been to a lot, but some of Spider-man’s worst stories have come about over a two decade long, desperate crusade to get him out of his marriage. Strangely enough, one of his best stories was the result of the writers not knowing what to do with his stable relationship.
This is why the Last Minute Hook-up trope exists; the writers want certain characters together, but have no idea what do to with the relationship, so they delay until the story is over. This is understandable when the story is a pure Love Story, because that part really is the end, but if the relationship is a subplot, why can’t the characters get together in the middle?
What’s annoying is, nine times out of ten, you know who’s going to get together very early on and have to be subjected to the same old tricks over and over to keep them apart because the writer is afraid to write a couple. One of my favorite shows, Castle made it clear in episode-freaking-one that Castle and Becket were going to end up together. The creators and actors didn’t even try to pretend not. I have seasons 1-3 on my shelf right beside me and guess what? It’s fifteen discs of teasing, drama-adding fights, Paolos, and every other character shipping them in-universe with no romantic resolution yet.
The show manages to be great and awesome because everything else is so great and the two characters interactions are still strong and interesting. It’s just that once you know the tricks writers use to stretch out a relationship arc, you want to yell at your TV whenever you see it, like when CSI enhances a grainy photograph to see reflections in someone’s eye.
In fact, I’ll give most TV shows the benefit of the doubt on this because they don’t know how long they’ll actually get to develop these things most of the time, and they have to work as a team of writers so even if one or two know how to write a good couple, they’d have to fight the fears of the rest of the room to make it happen.
What I won’t let pass, however, is when it happens in books and movies where typically there’s a lot fewer people doing the work and a clear, set amount of time to work with. At that point, it should be clear to the writer that they don’t want to handle a couple and so they should at least have the courtesy not to jump the gun with it. Things would flow much better and require far fewer overreactions to minor slights and other padding that requires the characters to be idiots if they just waited to put the relationship in play.
Again, this is where Friends failed, even though it is a TV show. They put their cards on the table about Ross and Rachael in the first few episodes, took little time to establish chemistry, and then immediately had to walk it back with the introduction of the romantic false lead, Julie. Then they made Julie too nice and likable and had to derail her character something awful to try and go back to the well on Ross and Rachael again. And ’round and ’round it went. The mess could have been avoided by smaller teases, playing things closer to the vest, and only making the attraction clear when the time was right.
Speaking of which…
Writers walk as gods upon the scorched earth of the pages. In our hands, a million universes can be born or die in the blink of an eye. Life and death and rebirth are in our hands We engage in Acts of Creation.
And we crave conflict.
Which is bad when we’re trying to write believable romances.
Like romance, conflict is addictive. It’s the fuel that makes plot go and gives characters motivation. It’s the thing that puts the reader’s ass in the seat. No one wants to read a story where nothing happens for no reason. They just like to give it rave reviews and literary rewards. And the easiest way to create conflict is to, as the great sages of our time, Limp Bizkit once said, ‘Break Stuff’.
‘Stuff’ in this case meaning couples. Up. Breaking them up is what I’m saying here. Making them not want to be together anymore.
The false break-up is the plot creating weapon of choice for the lazy writer and it often has their caffeine and burger grease encrusted fingerprints all over it. It makes sense: if the couple breaks up, they have to do things to fix it, thinks that will add valuable page count to a work and provide plenty of chances for angst and drama and maybe throwing things. Yippee!
Less yippee is when you’re dealing with a longer form story like a TV show, or comic book, and now the opportunity to do the same thing again. And again. And again. Somehow, the lazy writer things that each break-up will have the same impact and reaction as the first, but in reality, it just goes to illustrate why these two people should just give the hell up and date other people.
The problem is that they’re walking a razor edge: any argument big enough to break up over is going to make one party look bad, even if it’s a misunderstanding because misunderstandings in stories usually mean that the confused party refused to ask for or listen to an explanation. Conversely, any argument small enough to be cleared away in its totality probably wasn’t worth fighting over to begin with and someone was over reacting.
Depending on how bad the overreaction and how justifiable the misunderstanding, this reflects on the relationship as a whole, where one partner or the other is either too untrustworthy or untrusting of the other or not accepting of their basic character traits and hobbies. It compounds every break-up/make-up cycle until the couple’s relationship seems to be held together not by bonds of love and trust, but by industrial grade plot-onium bailing wire.
It stops being believable and becomes a sick joke.
Sort of like…
Instant Perfection, Just add Wuv
I myself have been ribbed about how much I like the Teen Hero/High School setting and that’s understandable because I do. It’s a very interesting dynamic that’s really very freeing in so far as high schoolers don’t have jobs or responsibilities that need to be hand-waved for an adult.
On the other hand, I sometimes worry that too many writers aren’t familiar with romances more advanced than those first frenzied, passionate and utterly brain dead high school love affairs. And yet, they can’t seem to remember them all too well.
I’m pretty young, so I remember the awkwardness, the not knowing if I was acting in a boyfriendly manner, the major faux pas moments and the accidental cute ones too. I also remember those odd times where you’re not sure if you’re even ‘officially’ dating someone at all and the problems that brings up.
But my colleagues seem to draw all their knowledge from a scene that plays out every morning and every afternoon in probably every high school in America: that one cartoonishly saccharine couple who hover by their lockers, locking in an embrace, usually rocking slowly back and forth, but always peppering each other with sweet kisses.
If you went to high school in America (and probably most other places) you saw them. If you watch TV or movies involving couples, you’ve seen them. But raise your hand if you ever were part of that couple? And if you were, was that all you ever did?
As pleasant a those moments may be for the participants, they were moments in time. And for many writers, they see to be the only moments that take place in a committed relationship even beyond high school. You get up, you go to work, maybe see your friends, but the second you and our significant other come within five feet of one another, you cease to be individuals and fuse into a hellish composite beast that cares only for kissing, hugging and assorted rubbing. You separate for dates, but those dates are generic standards: dinner, movie, walk in the park.
It’s kind of sad really, and once you realize that this is all some writers think committed couples do, you start to understand why they’re so eager to break them up to start some drama.
But there’s a better way! It’s called: let them be human. Jay-sus Aych Kroist! I’ve shared hobbies with most of my girlfriends; we played Magic: the Gathering, or watched sports (why do all fictional women hate sports? Why do all fictional geeks hate sports? Why are hardly any fictional women geeks?), or just roamed town, checking out all the weird stores, or just sat and babbled about whatever. Maybe I’m missing something for having never been a symbiont, but I’m pretty sure they were fun times. My best date ever was hunting for a TV show in a Sun Coast store. My worst was a movie.
When you try to establish a couple as perfect, of course they’re going to be boring. That’s what perfection is: no quirks, no flaws; everything of interest smoothed over into oblivion. There’s nothing out of place and therefore, nothing special. And can love really exist without special? Hell no.
Remember when I mentioned the Cosby Show? Most people seem to remember it mostly for the great Bill Cosby’s excellent humorous fatherly speeches and manic facial expression and hand gestures, but there was some real magic in the characters of Claire and Cliff and how they were portrayed as a loving, stable couple who were still incredibly dynamic and funny.
At age ten, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted Phylicia Rashad to be my wife or my mother.
A good couple are still individuals and they love those parts of each other. They do some things on their own, some things together. They disagree without it turning into a fight, and they can fight without it becoming a break-up. And they support each other when adversity rears its head.
Am I the only one that thinks that sounds interesting too?
Let me know in the comments or on the forum.
Also, a buddy of mine, A. Starkey, has a book of poetry going up for free on Amazon Kindle this weekend. It’s called You’re Dying, Start Living, and you should definitely give it a look.
Bookmark the permalink.