A Fine Romance

15 Feb

I’m a sucker for a good romantic storyline. In books, movies, tv shows, songs . . . whatever. But what makes a romance plot thread a good one? I mean, I know it when I see it, but I’ve been letting this question percolate for a while to try to articulate the answer a little. And two things that have crossed my path in the last few weeks have helped to clarify it for me a little.

The first: Entanglement Theory. If you wikipedia that, you’ll come across a pretty dry definition. But I was clued into it by the To the Best of Our Knowledge podcast from January 23, “The Wonder of Physics.” At the end of the episode a writer explained it as the quantum physics theory that when two subatomic particles are spend a significant amount of time in each other’s orbits, they shadow each other . . . even after they are separated. If one spins a certain way, the other will, even if it’s moved far, far away. It gives me little goosebumps when I think about applying it to us, too, and the people we let enter our orbits–whether romantic, platonic, or family.

The second: the poem that Molly posted yesterday, “Those Who Love” by Sara Teasdale.

Those who love the most,
Do not talk of their love,
Francesca, Guinevere,
Deirdre, Iseult, Heloise,
In the fragrant gardens of heaven
Are silent, or speak if at all
Of fragile inconsequent things.

And a woman I used to know
Who loved one man from her youth,
Against the strength of the fates
Fighting in somber pride
Never spoke of this thing,
But hearing his name by chance,
A light would pass over her face.

But without further ado, here’s what I’ve come up with as some keys to a good romance. I’m sure there are things I’ve missed, or exceptions to the rule. Feel free to point those out in the comments!

1. The main story–the orbit–has to be about something other than the romance itself. Love stories are best when they’re subplots. The characters need an orbit to be in with each other, after all.

2. The two characters have some sort of immediate connection. Not necessarily a good one, but something that fascinates, intrigues, or challenges.

3. Their interaction is neither neat nor easy. There are complications, heartbreaks, arguments. The two of them don’t necessarily even know that they are in love, or that it’s going to work out. (Are you thinking Darcy & Elizabeth Bennet with these last two? I sure am. And West Wing‘s Josh & Donna, and MWT’s Eugenides & Attolia, and Graceling‘s Katsa & Po, and DWJ’s Howl & Sophie, and Sarah Dessen’s Wes & Macy, and . . .  see, I told you I’m a sucker for romance.)

4. Most of the romance is not directly talked about. It’s there in gestures, actions, reactions, and feelings, but rather than telling the reader how the characters feel, the writing makes us feel it along with them. As the poem points out, do the strongest loves need words? Are there even any words that could contain it right, anyway? Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t any direct declarations. There have to be one or two scenes when one of the characters holds a stereo over his head, or tells the other “how ardently he admires and loves her.” It’s payoff for all the signals and longing–and we do need to know that the characters realize what they feel for each other.

5. Along the same lines, a lot of the romance occurs in small, subtle details. It’s the build up of those everyday moments that make the grand gestures mean something. (I know I for one always think about the moment at the end of Lioness Rampant when George is there to catch Alanna before she even knows her knees are going to give out.)

6. There’s build up, yearning, tension as the characters circle each other, sometimes coming closer, sometimes further apart.

7. The ending isn’t a “happily ever after” that’s all sunshine and marshmallow fluff. Rather, it’s a hopeful choice that both characters are making together. They are a team by the end, a team that will take on whatever comes next, which is bound to be imperfect, but good because they can count on one another.

So, what do you think? Is this list a good start?

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10 Responses to “A Fine Romance”

  1. Heather February 15, 2010 at 5:30 pm #

    Aw–great post! You outlined all the things I like best in a romance.

  2. Emily M. February 15, 2010 at 10:47 pm #

    Yes! You nailed exactly what I think: the best romances are not about the romance itself. I am so glad to hear someone else say this. This is why I’m not usually a fan of genre romance. It’s all about the romance, and that makes it too easy. I just don’t care if that’s the only thing I am supposed to care about.

    The thing I would add to your list is that they have to make each other laugh, or be witty with each other somehow, or I just don’t believe in their love. This is the difference between Han Solo and Princess Leia and that painful Amidala/Anakin romance: Han and Leia are funny. Amidala and Anakin are way too serious, too intense, as though they are trying to prove that They Are In Love. If you can’t laugh with the one you love, there’s something wrong.

  3. Martha February 16, 2010 at 7:44 am #

    Emily, you’re right! I forgot to put that in!

    I also already thought of one exception to the “it’s got to be about more than the romance” point: Bridget Jones’s Diary. I can’t remember the book that well, but the movie certainly is mostly about Bridget finding a guy. Though there are a bunch of other threads, too, so maybe it’s not a total exception.

  4. Christy Lenzi February 17, 2010 at 11:42 am #

    I turned on the radio this morning to the song “More than Words” by Extreme and immediately thought of the second point of your post. Had to come read it again! Thank you–lots of good stuff to ponder. (And I love the Entanglement Theory.)

    • Susan February 26, 2010 at 10:43 pm #

      Just today I was sitting at the hairdressing salon, covered in dye, and daydreaming about the story line for my YA book. Indeed I was awakened to see that you wrote about those very things that I had included in my story. Interactions that are seemingly part of the subplot, that are perhaps forbidden, or longed for or just plain difficult to work out. Interactions that happen in just moments, not in words, but in feelings. The intensity of feelings that don’t come with a story board, but rather flow from the page with raw emotion. I hesitated when I first started writing these thoughts down because I wasn’t sure that some of them were a good idea, but then I read your post… Thanks so much for sharing this information.

  5. Julie Reinhardt February 26, 2010 at 11:36 pm #

    Aw, Emily. I’m such a sap for Star Wars analogies. So true.

  6. Molly Hall February 28, 2010 at 4:20 pm #

    Wow, this is awesome. Perfect timing for me, as I am working away on a revision. I’m also a sucker for romance and tend to bring it more to the forefront. It’s helpful to think of it as a subplot, so my heroine can be dealing with a larger struggle, but still have her heart “entangled” with someone. Thank you!

  7. Christina Farley December 23, 2011 at 6:12 pm #

    This was a great post. LOVE how you explained it. Printing it out now so I put it in my writer’s notebook and reread.

  8. HK Savage December 23, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    Fabulous point and one I always hope to get my characters to participate in. As a counterpoint, the love triangle. My least favorite bit of romance storylines. No one can truly love two people, not in that long standing way that a real love needs. Just a thought.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [review] Bitterblue – Kristin Cashore « Mermaid Vision Books - May 1, 2012

    […] other, but it is when they come together that they are strongest. As Martha Mihalick puts it in her post on romance: They are a team by the end, a team that will take on whatever comes next, which is bound to be […]

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