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Feb 14, 2012

5 Craziest Problems Writing About Love


The Five Craziest Problems To Solve When Writing About Love
The only thing more likely to drive a writer crazy than love itself is trying to write about love.  Here are five crazy a$$ things a writer should keep in mind when writing about Luuuuuuuuuv

What could go wrong?
1. Why should I include a love story? 
If you are writing a Romance, obviously, your story is going to have a love story, but even if you are writing in another genre, you will likely want a love story. Classically there are only two good ways to end a story: with a wedding or a funeral. And even the great tragedies had love stories.  Mating is one of the oldest imperatives of not just our species but our whole phylum.
Ok, Tara, but what if I don’t give a rat’s furry tail about Romance? Why should I include a love story?
Hey. Don’t blame me. Blame Plato. That dude had a theory that at the origin of the world, every human being had two halves. Kinda like bivalves. The gods split them up, and ever since everyone’s been searching for Venus on a half-shell. The union of the lovers represents the healing of the soul, the re-union of anima and animus, of psyche and eros. Success in the external relationship symbolizes success of the quest, personal transformation, heist, what have you. Failure in love symbolizes failure of the whole natural order. Just ask Romeo and Juliet.
You can be subtle about it too. When elf princess Arwen gives up immortality for Aragon, it mirrors the Elves giving up Middle Earth to the Third Age, and to Men, those grubby round-eared bastards. And look how well that went. Bitter, meet sweet.



On a completely unrelated note, I really want Barbie and Ken as Arwen and Aragon. Just sayin.'

2. How can I make the reader care about my love story?
Invest high stakes in your love story, and the reader will know they should care about it, but will they actually care about it?
Have you ever seen Attack of the Killer Tomatoes? Near the very end of the movie, a man and woman spot each other across a field. The music swells, the lighting is misty, and they rush across the wildflowers into each other’s arms. It’s beautiful. Except this scene has just come out of nowhere and as far as we know, they’ve never even met before, so why are they running into each other’s arms? We've all seen the scene so many times, that cause and effect are reversed. The mere act of running to meet one another in a field is what makes them a couple in love.


It’s satire, but it hits home because too many movies and books do just that. Even Romances with a capital R. Just throw in a guy and a gal in the right plot slots, announce they are in love, and expect the audience to go along for the ride.
It’s harder than it looks to make a love story have universal appeal. Especially if you are writing a Romance, you want the reader to identify with one half of the couple and fall in love with the other. In fact, one of the reasons for including a relationship element in a non-Romance genre is that this is something pretty much everyone can relate to. In a more realistic story, you have to consider what relationships you characters are in, or have been in, or wish they were in, and how this has scarred or empowered them.
Make the story individual.  It’s not enough to trot out a bunch of clichés about a relationship and leave it at that. You may think that by leaving things vague, you’ll make it easier to relate to your characters. For instance, it’s fine if you want to write: “They talked for hours.” But before you tell us that, give us a sample of their conversation. The witty repartee. The things they have in common—or don’t. The sparks.
3. How do I show attraction?
Sparks. Right. It’s damn hard to write sparks!
Have you ever read one of those stories where it feels like the man and woman are shoved on stage and trotted around like puppets on a string, and then the author announces to the audience, “Voila! They are in love. Because I said so, that’s why.”
And you just don’t feel it.
"I have a bad feeling about this."
 
In books, as in movies, some couples have chemistry. Some have frickin alchemy. But what’s the secret?
Chemistry starts from character. If you have vibrant characters, with strong goals and distinct personalities, then bring them together…sparks will fly. This should be as true of a “bromance” or a girlsfriends gaggle as of a romantic couple, actually. Bring strong characters together and let them rub personalities, and that static electricity should zap out in snappy dialogue and cool scenes.
Take Clark Kent and Lois Lane. They work a lot better than most superhero couples because Lois Lane is a person in her own right, not a decorative accompaniment to the hero like so many superhero “girlfriends.” (*Cough* Mary Jane *cough* ).
With a romantic couple, you have to go one step further, and show the eros at work as well as the pyche.
In Marjorie Liu's paranormal romance, Tiger Eye, here’s Dela’s reaction to Hari, an imprisoned tiger-shifter hunk, who has just emerged like a genie from a lamp, to be her slave:
Shocking, worthy of multiple aneurysms, explosions in her shrieking brain. Dela skittered off the bed so quickly she almost lost her towel, but her own near-nudity felt less outrageous than the impossible figure towering over her, the top of his head a mere hand’s length from brushing the ceiling

The man was lean, long of muscle and bone, his skin tawny from the sun. Thick hair brushed broad shoulders, an astonishing mix of colors—red, gold, sable—framing a chiseled face almost alien in its golden-eyed beauty. His presence engulfed the room with a power that raised goose pimples over Dela’s entire body. A shiver raced down her spine.
Predator, she named him, meeting his eyes, unable to look away. It was the second time that day she found herself in the presence of the arcane, but this was infinitely stranger. Unexpected, bizarre, extraordinary; she had seen the gathering of flesh from light, and still she could not believe. Her mind was screaming no, again and again. Impossible. Unreal. She was so shocked, she did not think of escape. She did not even think of rape, murder—his appearance was that unbelievable.

Notice how Liu has cheated here. The shock of his appearance is partly that he's there at all, since he appeared by magic, but that spills over into emphasizing how excessively handsome and manly he is. Note only is this dude incredibly scrumptious and powerful, but she encounters him when she's vulnerable...in a hotel bedroom, wearing nothing but a towel. There's nothing to stop them from having sex right then and there. You know, if they weren't total strangers, and if he weren't a two thousand year old tiger-were warrior cursed to be a sexy love slave. But more on that in the next section.


In most Romances, the hero is handsome and powerful. The circumstances are sexy. But you don't need Pretty People to write a convincing romance, especially not in books. (It's harder for movies, where we really do want eye candy, hence the "Pretty Ugly Girl" schtick.) More important than whether a character is objectively good looking, is whether the love interest finds him or her appealing.  What matters is one character’s impact on the other. There’s a great scene in The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie – hardly the go-to guy for romance, one might think, and you would be right, since this is a gritty, military fantasy – where he shows Bremer van Gorst’s reaction to Finree.
He could not even bring himself to be embarrassed. He was lost in her eyes. Some strands of hair were stuck across her wet face. He wished he was. I thought nothing could be more beautiful than you used to be, but now you are more beautiful than ever. He dared not look away. You are the most beautiful woman in the world—no—in all of history—no—the most beautiful thing in all of history. Kill me, now, so that your face can be the last thing I see. “You look well,” he murmured.
She looked down at her sodden travelling coat, mud-spotted to the waist. “I suspect you’re not being entirely honest with me.
“I never dissemble.” I love you, I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you…
Abercromie shows Gorst’s reactions to Finree two ways. Obviously he thinks she’s beautiful. But there’s more to it than that, because the reader senses that someone other than Gorst might not think the sodden and wet woman is “the most beautiful thing in history.” His reaction to her is just that strong. But the real twist comes when he realizes she’s out of reach. His pain is just as powerful as his happiness. Which brings us to romantic tension.
4. How do I maintain romantic tension
Marriage counselors hate Harlequin and Hollywood. Marriage counselors are always trying to get couples to talk out their anger, use “I” statements, take turns doing the dishes, play nice. Meanwhile Harlequin and Hollywood are busy selling stories in which you can identify a person’s romantic interest by who they bicker with most. If a woman says of a man, “I don’t care how handsome he is, he’s an overbearing, arrogant bastard and I hate him!” or a man says of a woman, “I wouldn’t marry her if she were the last gorgeous heiress on Earth!” and especially if they say it about each other, you can be sure they’ll end up wed when end credits roll. And probably seeing a marriage counselor shortly thereafter.
How many real, healthy relationships begin with both parties loathing each other on first sight? I’m hoping it’s not that common. So why is it so compelling?
I think it’s compelling for two characters who loathe each other to learn to love each other because that’s the most extreme gamut you could run. Therefore it proves love can overcome everything. There are other extremes that are also compelling: the person I love doesn’t know I exist, the person I love is in love with someone else, the person I love is from an enemy family/clan/country/planet, the person I love is trying to kill me. And so forth. Some of these are more icky than others—I’ve never been a fan of the whole “but she’s your sister” gimmick, Luke and Leia aside. But I love it when lovers are from enemy states, or when one is hired as an assassin to kill the other. This may say something whacked about me, I know.
Let’s continue the samples given above. Notice that no sooner than attraction is introduced, so is tension:
“If you want my name you will have to command it from me,” said the man, and Dela shivered at the sound of his voice: deep, rough, and unbearably cold. Not the voice of an illusion.
He clamped his mouth shut, and it seemed to Dela that despite his challenge, he was actually waiting for her to command his name. There was a breathless quality to his posture; his size and strength would have hidden the slight tremor if Dela had not been standing so close. His barely perceptible shiver made her feel strange. The edge of her anger dulled slightly.
Very slightly.
“Don’t be an asshole,” she snapped, craving her neck to maintain eye contact. “I don’t know how you got here, or who you are, but you’re looking at me like I’m rat shit and I know I don’t deserve that. Give me some courtesy. You know what that is, don’t you?” She was testing him with her insults; if was going to hurt her, now would be the time. Dela was a firm believer in getting things over with.
Something that might have been bewilderment passed through the man’s face, quickly concealed behind a cool mask, something darker but far cleaner. A cousin to curiosity, dressed in anger.
Dela lifted her chin, demanding an answer with only her eyes and her body. A part of her still shrieked, but she tuned out her fear. Weakness would only invite intimidation.
Honey, you are intimidated. Do you really think this guy’s holding back just because you’re acting tough? Gimme a break. He could kill you with his pinky.
“You will not command my name?” His voice rumbled, an echo of thunder. “What then will you command?”
Dela stared, caught between laughter and a scream. This was all too surreal. “Nothing. I won’t command you to do anything.” She took in his size, his weapons. “How could I?”
His eyes narrowed. “Are you saying there is no battle to fight, no one person you wish me to kill?”
His words were too matter-of-fact, completely chilling. Dela threw up her right hand, while the other clutched her towel. She stepped away. “Hey now. I don’t want anyone to die.”
His mouth tightened into a white line. “I see.” He gave her a slow once-over that, oddly, managed not to feel degrading. “If you did not bring me here to kill or fight, then I was summoned to pleasure your body.” He looked like he would rather impale himself face-first on a bed of nails.
Right away, the conflict is introduced. A powerful, handsome guy has appeared in Dela’s bedroom, and already he hates her guts because he’s enchanted to be her slave, and he assumes she will abuse him.  It’s a nice switch on the usual roles, in that the spell renders him her helpless slave, but she has to show she’s honorable by not taking advantage of him. Yet Liu is careful to show that although he might be a slave, he’s still a powerful warrior, who could easily kill her (or just about anyone) under normal circumstances. So there’s also an element of danger in her freeing him.
Abercrombie introduces tension to his couple just as quickly:
“And are you well, Bremer? I may call you Bremer, may I?”
You may crush my eyes out with your heels. Only say my name again. “Of course. I am…” Ill in mind and body, ruined in fortune and reputation, hating of the world and everything in it, but none of that matters, as long as you are with me. “Well.”
She held out her hand and he bent to kiss it like a village priest who had been permitted to touch the hem of the Prophet’s robe—
There was a golden ring on her finger with a small, sparkling blue stone.
Gorst’s guts twisted so hard he nearly lost control of them entirely. It was only by a supreme effort that he stayed standing. He could scarcely whisper the words. “Is that…”
“A marriage band, yes!” Could she know he would rather she had dangled a butchered head in his face?
He gripped his smile like a drowning man to the last stick of wood.
There are two conflicts here, the inner and the outer. The outward conflict is that the woman Gorst loves is married to someone else. The more serious conflict, however, is that while Gorst worships Finree, she barely knows who he is. While he is a ruined man, she has everything. She is not only married but (possibly) in love with her husband. What can Gorst offer her? Ouch. (Of course, Gorst’s real romantic problems stem from the fact that he is in an Abercrombie novel, not a Liu novel, so he’s much more likely to have his head split by an ax than to win his true love. But that’s too meta for this post.)
Tension needs to be introduced immediately after attraction. That’s the easy part. The hard part is to maintain tension to the end of the story…and still have a believable Happily Ever After. (Or tragic fall.)
The main reason to maintain tension is that as soon as there is no more tension in the relationship, there is no more romance.

 
If there’s nothing to stop the couple from consummating their love, there’s no reason for the reader to keep reading. Even in erotica, where the couple might roll in the sheets, they still have to have some emotional distance. When psyche and eros are in conjunction, the reader is satisfied and the story is finished. Unless, of course, the writer throws in another obstacle. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this rule was made literal: the minute Angel knew perfect happiness (physical and emotional union with his true love), he lost his soul and became a sadistic, homicidal a-hole. Whoops. Hello new Season !


By the way, readers “hate” it when writers pull the rug out from under two lovers who are just about to know happiness. Readers hate it so much they keep coming back to read more. A raging reader is better than a bored reader.

BUT. This is a serious "But." There is one big danger besides too little tension, and that is to mistake conflict for "behaving like a jerkwad." The other big mistake is to have a couple conflict which could be easily resolved if they each told one another what they were thinking. (The one fair exceptions are "I love you," "I am a spy" or "I am Team Jacob too." Because in real life, people are pretty reticent to share crap like that.) Conflict needs arise naturally from character and situation. If it feels artificial, it will fall flat.

The other caveat I have is not a rule, but my own personal preference. I favor romances where the conflict is driven as much by the internal goals of the characters as by external factors. The dragon captures him and carries him away, and she has to rescue him. That keeps the couple apart, but it's only external conflict. Add another layer: She wants to slay dragons; he wants to keep her safe in the castle. She gives her word she'll stay put, but then a dragon attacks and carries him away. She fights the dragon to rescue him, but instead of making things better between them, things are worse because she's broken her word to him. That's much more interesting.

5. How do I balance the romance with other elements of the story?
Depending on the genre and purpose of the novel, the romance may be front and center or off on the sidelines shouting occasional encouragements to the other plot elements. But even in a Romance with a big R, there should be some other plot elements. The only story I can recall off the top of my head that is nothing but two people in a room discussing their relationship was Scenes from a Marriage, which could have also been titled, Prelude to a Divorce. Moral of the story: do not sit around in a room doing nothing but discussing your relationship, that way lies the crazy. Fight some orcs or slay some vamps or solve some mysteries together, it will do your relationship good.
Ideally, you have several forms of conflict, inner and outer, romantic and otherwise, braiding in and out as the story progresses. Then, one by one, you wrap up each problem in a neat little bow. (I don’t even want to talk to you “ambiguous ending” people. But if I did, I’d say the same still applies, except your bow is not neat.)
A rule of thumb is to wrap up the problems in inverse order of importance. The most critical issue of the book is the last to be resolved. However, there is some leeway for this rule when it comes to romance. Your hero can discover the killer, have the climatic battle and then go kiss the girl. Kissing the girl in this case is more like his reward than a wrap-up. So what he cannot do is have one last argument with her after his battle. That has to happen first. Unless it is a Romance, in which case reverse all that. One mistake Romances make is to have the hero and heroine resolve their differences and then go after the bad guy together. That works in a thriller or epic fantasy, but it is deadly for a Romance. They should fight the bad guy together before they have resolved their own issues. Only at the very end should they confess their love and live happily ever after.


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7 comments:

Jai Joshi said...

Great post, Tara! Lots of good points here. I find that if I know my characters and understand their deepest fears and desires, it's much easier to deal with the romantic side of their life.

Jai

KLo said...

Very cool :-)

Truth is, the best love stories are such in spite of themselves. Let's be real, "Romeo and Juliet" features a mentally unstable creeper who watches from the bushes as a girl pours her heart out on her balcony and a thirteen-year-old girl who's in the throes of middle school-esque infatuation.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Lots to absorb here. Very good points on making the reader care about the romance.
Wagging Tales

Jackie said...

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Donna Hole said...

Wow, that was an awesome post. Speaks to me because I'm not a romance writer (with a capital R) but I do want to put romance as a secondary plot into my novels. This post made me think about a lot of issues.

Thanks Tara.

And, you've sold me on that Liu book.

........dhole

Kris said...

This is great in-depth post, Tara. I have yet to insert a "romance" angle in any of my fiction, but this inspires me to do so. However, I am not partial to happy endings but this is still an awesome post to learn from!

socknitster said...

Absorbing article with nice use of examples. Timely for me as I just started writing scifi/romance. Much food for thought. Thanks!