Have you ever read a book where you couldn’t stop turning the pages because you wanted to see the protagonists finally admit they love each other? In other words, for whatever reason, the romance was more compelling than the plot. I don’t know if I should praise these books for their well-developed romance or criticize them for an otherwise uninteresting story.
It is interesting that for some readers, romance in a book is required, and for others it’s not important. But I don’t know why that is. I don’t know what it is about a romantic storyline that creates such a magnetic pull for some and is just another part of the story for others. I, for one, am not a romance novel person, but I do enjoy having a bit of romance, big or small, in an otherwise adventurous tale. Surprise, surprise, that doesn’t mean I’m not picky about it.
I feel like writers think romance is a freebie, and that it’s easy to write. In some ways it is because if the characters are well-developed, it can feel like the romance is writing itself, but just because you have two characters going through that arc doesn’t automatically mean people will be invested. That attitude of believing writing romance is easy creates lazy writing, and writers should be careful not to get so swept along by their whims that they don’t stop to think about what best serves the story.
Maybe you feel differently. Maybe you are struggling to write your romance well. If you are, I think that’s a good thing. It means that you’re resisting the formula you see everywhere else, that you want to do something different. Whatever the case may be, I have a few caution signs that I would like to show you. I’m not going to say that the following list is an example of bad writing because, honestly, cheap, trashy romance sells quite well. What I will say is that these are things that I’m tired of seeing in romance plots that I think should be improved on. We writers should give our stories our best efforts and improve in every way we can, so see if you agree with me that these are romance tropes that need to change.
This is a plot line where my interest in the story mysteriously disappears and is never heard from again. If you’ve read my series on Cheap Storytelling, I give a brief opinion on love triangles. I will still hedge that they are not absolutely forbidden to me, that they can be done uniquely and successfully, but I still need to warn you of their implications.
Firstly, if you have a long, drawn out love triangle like in Twilight, then you are splitting your readers into parties. Team Edward! Team Jacob! Whoooo! It also means that you’re going to disappoint one group of readers. You need to seriously weigh whether that kind of plot point is worth letting people down. This kind of love triangle also devalues the relationship as a whole. Yes, the heroine (because let’s be honest, it’s usually the woman that has to decide) ultimately makes a choice to be with one, but for a period of time, she was indecisive. She couldn’t decide who she wanted to be with so she made a mental list of pros and cons, test drove both of them, and pitted them against each other like two rams butting heads. When I put it that way, it doesn’t sound as romantic, does it? In fact, it makes me hate the one that has to make the decision. You’ve been warned.
On the other hand, if it’s the kind of love triangle where one of the characters never stood a chance, then it’s nothing more than an annoying distraction. It still devalues the romance as a whole because you start thinking the characters really don’t care for each other that much if they’re so easily distracted by the bad boy riding the motorcycle or the hot girl in stilettos that knows how to shake it. Or maybe that third wheel is a decent person and they just can’t get a clue. As a reader, I start to hate the way the protagonist treats this person. Look, I’ve used the words “annoying” and “hate” so far in this paragraph. Are those really feeling that you want your readers to have toward your protagonists?
This is a pattern of romance that I’m absolutely sick of and encompasses quite a lot. Firstly, the readers know which two characters will get together from the beginning. Male protagonist + female protagonist = romance. This may be an unusual perspective, but I have a challenge for you writers. Next time you’re writing a book or story that will have a romance, try writing it without deciding from the beginning who will end up together. If, as you go along, your protagonist ends up falling for the quirky side character, go for it! That character can get promoted to main character. Why do we write as if it’s against the law for that kind of thing to happen? When you make a decision about a relationship from the beginning without even knowing who your characters are yet, you run the risk of a predictable romance with no actual chemistry.
Now for the rest of the formula. Is it really necessary for the love interests to hate each other at first? Or for there to be constant conflict between them, particularly right before the climax of the story? Or for them to always be keeping secrets from each other? Those secrets always come out and lead to more conflict, of course. Avoid the clichés of romantic relationships. Readers are sick of them.
What do you think so far? Do you agree that the romance arc has turned into an equation? I think it’s time to branch out and mix things up. In my next blog, I will cover four more problems that I am seeing in romance. For now, you should start thinking about how to break the pattern in your own writing. It takes work, but it’s worth it.
By: Rachelle Clifford