Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Little Romance: The Mechanics of a Love Story

I've been asked to appear as an expert, of sorts, for middle school writers.  The subject? Romance.

Yeah, I know.  I struggle with smooshy, mushy romance.  But they asked for romance, so romance they shall have.  I spent some time thinking on the subject of Romance Theory (which seemed to dovetail with the blog on The Vow, come to think of it).

Good romance is the most character-driven of all genres, so if you're going to do romance (or a believable romance subplot/thread), you've got to know your characters and be able to communicate their essence on the page.

I mean, *really* know your characters.  Because the reader has to believe both characters as people, be invested in both of them, and believe that those people could/would be into each other. Obviously, there will be obstacles - that's what drives the turning of pages.  The reader has to:

a.) want the two characters to get together


b.) not be certain it's actually going to happen.

If one of those is missing, you've got a problem. If the reader doesn't want them to get together, she (we'll just assume the gender here) will hate you in the end when they do.  And if you make it too easy, there's not enough plot.  The love story can't be a foregone conclusion.  There have to be roadblocks, there have to be difficulties. For your characters - your hero and heroine - to be motivated enough to persist through those roadblocks, they have to be more than likable. They have to be desirable.

(Sorry. The italics just kind of happened there.)  If you skip out on desirability, your reader will sit/read/watch and yell at the character (the one who's romancing the undesirable) to RUN, RUN FAST, RUN FAR, IT'S NOT WORTH IT!

Think of The Bachelor, for this one.  Sure, the girl the guy likes most may be pretty, but if she's also evil, no one will want them to actually fall in love.

Conversely, it can also be a problem (for some plotlines) if your characters are too desirable.  The Vow is a good example -  they were both too pretty and desirable for us to believe they weren't even remotely attracted to each other. If one or both of your characters are very pretty (either inside or out), there had better be some good obstacles!

As far as I can tell, there are three core types of romance -

1.) The "will she/won't she" romance - will the heroine fall in love with him? Will she??  Stories that fall into this category include Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Anne of Green Gables,

2.) The "will he/won't he" romance - will he fall in love with her? Austen examples include Persuasion  and Sense and Sensibility. YA examples include Anna and the French Kiss and The Princess Diaries.

3.) The "can they be together" romance (a variation on this is how long will they be together - especially applicable in Nicholas Sparks books).  The Princess Bride is a good example.

Those are the core types.  Many stories are a combination of the two. Stranger than Fiction is a "will she/won't she" with a twist of "can they be together" - Maggie Gyllenhaal's character has to decide if Harold Crick, the tax man's flours are charming enough, but even after they all for each other, there's this niggling reality that Harold Crick is going to die.

You've Got Mail is a "will she/won't she/can they be together" mashup - they fall in love online first, but have to reconcile their real lives and true selves with their online personas before they can be together.

Something to consider with love-triangle plotlines - it's still a will she/won't she with a twist of  which one should he/she choose (most successful triangles involve a woman choosing between two men).  It can be kind of  a cop out. The question is "A or B?" rather than "Do I love A with my whole heart? Or should I ditch A and B because this situation is disturbing?"  My take is the same in fiction as it is in real life -  if you really can't choose, the answer should be neither - because you don't love one enough to give up the other.

(This is why I'm neither Team Edward or Team Jacob, but rather Team Go Find a Strong, Reliable, and Loving Human Man With Less Baggage. And don't tell me humans are boring within the framework of Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Because: Aragorn. End of conversation.)

My personal preference is for a combo of the core types - it gives the characters two kinds of drama.  While you're figuring this out, though, you've got to make sure you're maintaining both believability and likability.  It also works best for stories where the romance is a subplot. Your main plot throws your characters just as many curveballs as their love lives.

So - there's my short masterclass on plotting romance. What do you think?

Brief Update: Found this rather awesome article about female stereotypes in chick flicks - you know, the women you see onscreen but NEVER meet in real life. Worth the read.


  1. Love triangles - I prefer romances without a love triange. Although, if done right, a love triangle romance can be entertaining. Thanks for sharing your advice. I hope you have a blessed weekend.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Cecelia! Agreed about the love triangles - they're tricky!


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