Monday, June 16, 2014

ROMANCING THE BOOK

Under a tree during a thunderstorm; soon to die
One of the most basic parts of life is romance; the attraction between two people that builds into love and a long-term relationship.  The romance novel industry is a large part of the publishing business and most books, even if not a romance, will contain a romantic subplot.  My first book Snowberry's Veil has just such a storyline; Erkenbrand's attraction toward Thealea help shape many of the decisions he makes.

However, romance by its self is a pretty weak book.  In my opinion, you can't really write a full story based on a romance alone.  Yes, many books have been written around romances, but they run into predictable problems.
See the basic story arc of a romance is this:
  1. Two people meet
  2. They get to know each other better
  3. They get together (marry, declare love, etc)
And that's it.  That's a pretty short story.  Sure, its thrilling and wonderful to be the two people involved, but there's not much actual story there.

ITS COMPLICATED
Before you start throwing things at me, bear with me a moment.  What I mean is this: unless you add something else to the story, you don't have a lot of book.  Which is why every romance novel has a long series of often absurd complications added to the story so that its long enough to go to print.  Boy meets girl, but girl lies about her past, or boy pretends to not like girl, or there's someone else in the picture so he gives up, or the girl can't decide between them, or the boy's family keeps them apart, one of them thinks the other is dead, on and on.

And while you can make this system work, most of the time its not done very well.  The complications added to the story are often contrived and implausible.  The whole romance story hinges on someone not asking a question or being pointlessly stubborn.  The complications are too often a series of events no rational ordinary person would engage in or put up with.

Now, that's fine if you're doing a comedy or something absurd, but if you're trying to have your story taken seriously, it becomes difficult to tolerate.  Certainly it can be done; the Harry Potter books are built around a series of events which simply asking a few questions of adults would have avoided in many cases. 

Its fine to have complications to a story; all story types require complications to be a full book.  That story of a guy on a quest only works if things go wrong; Lord of the Rings would have been a pretty short book if nobody got in trouble.  Frodo takes the ring with his 8 buddies, they ride to Mt Doom and chuck it in.  The End.

The problem is that so often in romance books the complications are there not to tell the story but to make the romance take longer to resolve.  They are not a natural and interesting consequence of the characters and setting, but an imposition by the author to create conflict.  Again, this is done in other types of stories (especially ones like the "caper" such as a bank heist) but it seems like in romance stories, publishers and readers have a far greater tolerance for bad complications and contrived events than other books.

It seems that more than most, perhaps all, other genres in books, romance attracts cliches, contrivances, and poor structure of storytelling not because romance writers are poor authors, but because the readers and publishers will tolerate them to a greater degree.  Certainly there's awful writing in every genre, but generally that's recognized as lousy and does not achieve greater acceptance and publication.  Its romance where so often the complications become absurd and even insulting, but are tolerated.

Often, these complications have nothing to do with the romance.  In fact, a lot of stories that are considered romance aren't really at all.  Romeo and Juliet is considered one of the greatest romance stories of all time, but in truth its a tale of conflict between two families that ends in tragedy.  The romance is the device by which Shakespeare tells the story, but its not the story at all.  The story of the two kids is the way Shakespeare pulls you into the tale of conflict and illustrates the horror of this feud.

NOMANCE
At the same time, if you're writing a book, romance is a very valuable, important component. Romance generates situations and challenges that otherwise might not be possible in a story.  It is a simple, reasonable device to motivate characters.  Outside of insanity, its difficult to buy that Batman can be so driven by the tragedy of his parents dying that he still wears that costume and gets beat to a pulp regularly.  But the love of a woman can make a man do pretty crazy stuff he would otherwise not consider and just about everyone understands that.

Further, the feelings your characters have toward each other will reveal things about them that might not be possible to show in another way.  It develops their character and personalities more fully and helps move them toward a change and growth over the story.

And of course, it helps bring in readers.  Ladies, I know it sounds like a stereotype to some of you but its generally and reliably true: y'all like romance.  Putting a romance in the book is a good way to attract female readers.  Its not that all women love romance and no guys do, its that on the whole, the average female reader will be more attracted to your book if a romance is in it.  And that means more sales, better word of mouth, and more eyeballs on your book.

And finally, a romance will bring an aspect to your writing that if you have not attempted it before will stretch your skills and challenge you as a writer. Like any sort of story, romances require using ideas, situations, and characterization that are distinct from other types of stories and that means storytelling that is distinct.  You'll use writing muscles you haven't before, and that's good for us as authors.

So its not that romance is bad, its that bad romance is so acceptable so often, and ought to be avoided.