Romance and story…

Note: A lot of the stuff in this week’s post comes from me as a reader… As a writer I’m really still trying to figure out how to do this right!

This week I found an unexpected point of agreement with one of the student workers in my wife’s office, we are both leery of romance fiction (Note: neither she nor I am leery of romance in fiction, just the romance fiction where the romance is the front and center item of the story).

For some, my own dislike for romance is fairly obvious, I’m a guy! But (surprise, surprise) maleness does not imply an aversion to romance anymore than femaleness implies an addiction to romance. There are cultural differences in how romance is seen and dealt with but guys can be interested in romance. To quote Billy Gram: “The word romance; according to the dictionary means excitement, adventure and  something extremely real. Romance should last a lifetime.”

Excitement? Adventure? Last time I checked guys value those, and basic psychology will tell you people want to be loved and appreciated no matter what their gender or sexual orientation.

As a young creative writing student I found that my class, as a group, preferred to avoid romance in stories. It was just as well, none of us were skilled enough to deal with it in writing, and very few were experienced enough to deal with romance in life. As for myself, at that point I was rather alone and really didn’t want to deal with it.

Writing romance, and about romance, without enough experience in life is reeeaaaly hard to get right.  You have to understand romance to write romance well. There is much more to it than candle light dinners and sexual innuendo! Danielle Steel put it this way: “Lust is temporary, romance can be nice, but love is the most important thing of all. Because, without love, lust and romance will always be short-lived.”  And for my dollar not just any flavor of love will do. To quote Marilyn Monroe: “Experts on romance say for a happy marriage there has to be more than passionate love. For a lasting union there has to be a genuine liking for each other, which in my book is a good definition of friendship.”

OK, here is a big block of why I support romance in fiction, but not romance fiction. You need time and space in a story to show the love and friendship. You can do that  in story parts that aren’t romantic. You also need the contrast, the time and space where romance isn’t happening. There is even an argument for a romanceless romance. Natalie Portman has said, “I always think the most romantic books and films are the ones where the romance doesn’t happen, because it makes your heart ache so much watching it.” I think that is part of the draw and the power of romance in fiction, hoping for what could be  and mourning what could have been.

The second block can be summed up as “less is more”. We as humans tend to seek out the things that we desire. If we are willing to work for something (and reading is work) we often maximize our return on those things. Two weeks ago I watched my eight year old niece dig through a five gallon bucket of rocks to pick out shiny green stones less than 1/8 of an inch in size, people who want romantic meaning will work just as hard to find it in their fiction. People who really want it, will extract every last bit.

The thing about this is that the law of diminishing returns is real. We hit a point where we are getting less and less out of each bit of rock/romance/whatever, and then another point where we just don’t want any more.

I like cheesecake (I really like cheesecake) but if I eat seven or eight whole cakes, I really don’t want anymore for a while. The same thing applies to romance in fiction. If it’s all romance, romance, romance you get overloaded, but if you have some romance while other things are going on you can be nicely satisfied but not overstuffed.

Another point under the less is more principle is that it is hard to suitably describe and fulfill some one’s desire for or ‘perfect’ image of a romance. Sometimes it is better to put together a framework and let the reader/viewer fill in the details. This allows the reader to create their own perfect version and cuts down on “that wouldn’t happen” complaints.

Remember the non-romance romance? Trust your material and process, the people who want a romance won’t mind assembling the parts you provide and the non romantics can move on to something else (the same rule applies to sex and fight scenes. The more details you provide the more likely you are to have some ‘expert’ try to shoot you down).

Now, all that said, romance in fiction is highly desirable. My background is in psychology and I am highly interested in character. What do the characters think? What do they want? What motivates them?

Romance is a strong desire and motivator. It really has a place in fiction, just don’t over do it and spoil it! Honestly I do like stories where there is a romance or romantic element, it’s just that if that’s the only thing going on it overloads me fairly easily.

Want to make your romance really interesting? Drop it into the life of a character who is not really a romantic. Watch it ingrain itself in the thought process of someone who is not experienced with it, doesn’t think he/she can have it or has something to do. These things can really draw up the romance’s power (probably not telling real romance people anything new here, but I have to say it anyway). These stories also inherently must have something else going on…

The point is that romance is an important and normal part of human life. It is an important and intensely interesting thing, but like other important and intensely interesting things if you over focus on it, it isn’t healthy for your life or your story (and conversely avoiding it can be just as bad).

So give your hero a girl (or give your heroin a guy!). Make him/her work for, and on, that relationship. But have something else going on in their lives and your story, it really helps.

Well, till next time…

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