Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Thing About Romance

I'm ready to take a break, for a while at least, from stories with the following plot:

Boy likes girl, but is terrified to talk to girl. Girl indicates in several ways she would not mind being talked to, including usually late in the story outright saying "I was really hoping you would come and talk to me." Boy overcomes his pants-wetting terror of girl and talks to girl. Happy ending.

Science fiction, for better or worse, has a certain expected fan and author base, and I probably wouldn't run across this so much in other genres (though we could have a long hard talk about awkward boys and terrifying women in horror). Honestly, it's even a good story, and I wouldn't mind it at all if I didn't come across it so often. But it's not really a story about a relationship.

I don't completely understand why we romanticize awkward, inhibited, adolescent-style love the way we do. I mean, yes, there's something charming about the purity of an ideal before it comes into contact with reality, but it means the conflict you get is often completely internal and the character being lusted after is by definition a frightening, alien, mysterious object. You can play that ironically and make it great fun, but so often it feels like people are playing it very straight. It can't be because we never really grow out of that phase, because I look at these stories and think Jesus, I'm glad that horrible chapter of my life is over. Maybe it's because adolescent-style love is automatically bound up in more emotion than love as part of a well-balanced set of emotions- but that also kind of fixes it in this amber of hormones and stupid decisions. More than half of the stories with the above plot that I've read lately did not have protagonists who were teenagers, and when they love in a teenage way, it's hard not to think of them as stunted and a little pitiful (though then again, part of that is a lack of sympathy to the proposition that women are terrifying other beings that are in no way to be expected to respond like people).

There are so many stories about the approach, or the chase and catch, and so few stories that are actually about a relationship between two people. We have these predetermined cut offs- when he talks to her, when she says yes to a date, when she agrees to sex, when she's getting into his car so they can drive off into the sunset. We almost never seem to follow them down the road to the motel, or the fast food restaurant, or the campground, or whereever it is they stop on their sunset-ward drive. Is that not also interesting? Is there no story there?

Reading in the short form is also probably working against me here. There's only so many beats available. The formulas are high-yield for drama and emotion.

Still, I'd like to read something else. 


  1. Interesting thoughts, as always.

    Seems like many of the SF and fantasy magazines say or imply that they don't want to see sex in their stories. Obviously, in short stories, a lusty scene that goes on for even a couple of pages can come to dominate the whole thing (and perhaps turn it into erotica), so I can understand their reluctance here. Short stories often do end at an implied achievement of some goal.

    In novel length works (aside from romances themselves) romance is often a subplot that is interwoven into the other plots and themes. Sometimes it is resolved only at the end, sometimes not. I agree the things authors use to keep characters who clearly dig on one another apart can seem contrived at times. But humans of both sexes do seem to be intrigued by the chase. Still, I can think of some novels where the romance is resolved before the end, and where it is sustained (and the relationship tested, perhaps) in sequels.

    Writing a story where a couple is happily together can actually be more challenging, which may be why so many long running TV shows went down hill when the male and female protagonists finally got together (Moonlighting, from the 80s is an oft-cited example). Of course, there are plenty of shows where the couple is a couple at the beginning and the plot revolves around family life, but it seems rare for their to be one where the protagonists successfully make the transition. Could be because for TV, at least, the shows have different target demographics.

    I was thinking of doing a blog on romantic subplots in fantasy novels, so I'm racking my brains trying to come up with some general examples of how different writers handle it.

    1. Oof, sorry I didn't check back sooner. I didn't realize this'd get as many comments as it did. So, in order:

      Erica- I've seen a lot of pretty sex oriented stories in science fiction magazines- Strange Horizons and Apex spring particularly to mind here- but yeah, I think some of the others like Asimov's and Intergalactic Medicine Show go in the other direction. I get too the allure of having a goal, but the very early "characters acknowledge their attraction" or "character agrees to meet other character again" sort of feels like ending your story about a character overcoming their nervousness about a race by stopping with them jumping over the first hurdle. It's not an invalid choice but it's kind of a weird one.

      Pride and Prejudice is the only romance-focused novel I can think of that I really liked where the characters only got together in the end. Most of my favorite romantic plots or subplots either start the book as a couple or hit coupledom about half-way through and then have to deal with staying a couple or not based on the changing circumstances of the rest of the novel. Then again, I have to admit I can't think of many books at all where the romance was one of my favorite things about the book, or even something I wasn't skimming through.

      I do feel like it shouldn't be that hard to have functional couple teams where their relationship isn't a major part of the conflict (and for God's sake where the villain doesn't kidnap and menace one of them (I'm looking at you, Mark Millar's run on Authority)). The only thing standing in its way is the idea that a relationship isn't interesting unless it's conflicted- not just complicated but specifically conflicted.

      But yeah, that "will they- won't they" thing that a lot of people seem to love (and honestly, I'll admit, I do like when they tease an audience with something very close and then thwart it or pull back) does seem to rely on the idea that once they get past that, everything will be smooth, and then people seem to get disappointed when it isn't, I guess because you spend all the time before the relationship dwelling on the reasons they should be together and the time after dwelling on why they shouldn't. (My favorite TV pair I can think of that got together in a show was actually House and Cutty, and I think that has to be because they very thoroughly established what a terrible idea the relationship was, and had to work pretty hard to get them there, so on the flip side they're still working hard to keep them there against pressures they'd already established).

      Hmm. Stuff to think about.

  2. I agree. There was a period in the mid-aughts where I was writing/planning out nothing but stories about romances, but they always either started with the couple already established or glossed over the initial meeting and attraction. (Easy to get away with in tragedy.) I have no patience for will-they-or-won't-they-oh-god-just-get-it-over-with crud. It's fiction; the tropes and their endgames are obvious from the start when they're employed. There's no drama in it.

    The latest wave of feedback on my novel asked me to further complicate the early attraction stuff. "They shouldn't be that into each other that quickly/easily" and such. I am hesitant to do that for the reasons given here--very easy to veer into the zone of cliche stalling tactics. Just get it over with and proceed to the destruction, I say.

    1. Yeah, I would rather not see that on Sev's part, because he's supposed to be a crazy impulsive person, and Valishi's just basically a puppy dog who wants people to love him. Have you put in the counter-offer to play up further that the quickness with which it's taken up is rooted in the particular pathologies of both characters?

      I find I can take will-they-won't-they better when either option has both positives and negatives, so that either getting together or not is a conscious choice, rather than just ceasing to offer resistance to the inevitable. But more often, especially for lady characters, there's like their dream art school in Paris that they don't hesitate to give up because the football boy in the letter jacket loves them now, and seriously. That's a bad choice.

    2. I have, but they parry with "Isn't this guy supposed to hate humans? Why is that not ever a roadblock to sex happening?" Which makes sense, I guess, but he's been delusionally excusing Valishi as non-human from the beginning. And to be honest, the whole "No, I cannot love him! He's a Romulan/investment banker/Scientologist!" stall tactic when the person is obviously fine and transcending their background doesn't do anything for me either.

      It would also require the addition of even more scenes featuring nothing but talking heads or hand-wringing, which I don't need.

  3. This is an interesting post for me, because I don't really see this all that much. I see (and write) most stories that address relationships from the tail end of it: the conflict that leads to the end of a relationship. Or maybe that is just the takes I tend to take, and the stories that stand out in my mind as memorable. The sort you describe, Lesli, are... yeah, kinda meh.

    But aren't there really just three conflicts with which to address a romantic relationship? The establishment of it, a conflict/reaffirmation of it, and a conflict/ending of it? A story where there is a conflict but nothing changes would, in my mind, fall flat.

    1. I love a good end of a relationship story, so long as there's a relationship there that's conceivably worth saving. I don't really tend to have patience for stories that are about the euthanasia of a relationship that died so long ago the participants can't even remember why they started it.

      I'd definitely add a fourth to your three, which is restructuring of a relationship, which I guess is sort of conflict/reaffirmation, but also not- the people are still together, but in a different (sometimes very different) way. Then again, reaffirmation's a pretty broad category- off the top of my head, you can build it around affairs, illness, injury, addiction, finances, children, growing slowly apart, sudden epiphanies or political changes, mutually exclusive desires, lies (even well-intended ones), truths...

      Actually, of those three, establishment kind of feels the most restrictive, but that's probably because I'm thinking of it in terms people who don't know each other well voluntarily coming together. Once you start bringing other social pressures and accidents of circumstance it actually does get more interesting.

      With regards to your last point, one of my favorite literary stories "A Day" by William Trevor is about a couple that are in this increasingly unstable stasis. The husband has had an affair and the wife has become an alcoholic and neither is confronting the other about their very known "secret". The full sense of it slowly unfolds as it recounts the wife's activities over one day. Nothing changes- indeed, you get the sense this day is not even particularly unusual- but it's still so good, probably because it feels so unspeakably fragile.

      Actually, complex, nuanced, ambivalent relationships are where literary fiction tends to be a head and shoulders above genre fiction. Which is why I love them.

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