I’ve been thinking about romances and what makes them work. It’s always a bit embarrassing to admit you’re a fan of romance novels, but there you have it- I’m coming out in blog world. Let’s just state for the record: I prefer romance as a sub-plot, or at least, as part of the plot. There always has to be something else going on as well. Three hundred pages of ‘I love you, no I hate you, no I love you’ does not, a novel, make.
The problem I find with romance novels is that nine times out of ten the actual romance part leaves me cold. I think the secret that no one shares is that a sizzling romance is extremely hard to write. At best, I can enjoy the story as a whole and like the love interests as characters, but more often than not, I’m indifferent to their relationship.
I’m aware that as a reader I’m stupidly hard to please, and there is no failsafe answer for what makes a romance work for me, or for anyone. (Although I’ll just say this: if in doubt, banter, banter, banter!)
But one thing I will say, (and this is only my own opinion and others are free to disagree), is that, as a rule of thumb, the instant I know I’m not going to enjoy a romance is when I find out that it’s from both members of the couple’s perspectives. (This doesn’t mean that I then go into the book with a closed mind. I promise you I don’t.)
Question: What makes romance exiting and slightly scary in real life?
Answer: Not knowing what the other person is thinking or what they’re going to do.
So why would books then take away that aspect of romance? It’s boring to be in both people’s heads, and to know everything they feel for each other. This is telling. Not showing. When character A gets annoyed at character B over a misunderstanding, we can’t share that annoyance because we already know everything. Instead, the annoyance turns on character A because she/he/it doesn’t realise that character B is crazy about her/him/it. It is frustrating to the extreme to know everything and have both characters squabbling like children. We need to share the doubt that character A feels to become immersed in the plot. It is never a good idea to have the reader screaming at character A- he/she/it loves you, you moron!
For me, the driving force of Twilight was not knowing what Edward was thinking, or why he did the things he did. Had the book been told from both Bella and Edward’s perspective (and I’ve read what there is to read of Midnight Sun, which is all I’ll say on the matter) I probably wouldn’t have continued past the first fifty pages.
Romance is about mystery and heightened emotions and uncertainty. (In a book anyway- I’m making no comments about the real world here, folks.) And, in my opinion, the reader needs to experience all of these feelings with JUST ONE of the protagonists. By giving the reader total knowledge of everyone’s feelings, you take away all of the above, and the result is just…flat. Would you read a murder mystery if the killer was revealed in the first chapter? It’s the same type of thing. The drive of most murder mysteries is: ‘who is the killer?’ The drive of most romances is: ‘how will these two crazy kids go together?’ And before anyone asks, ‘isn’t the drive of romance: will they end up together?’ The answer is no. Readers pick up a romance assuming the couple will end up together. The joy for them is seeing how the couple gets there. (I’m actually not just generalising and making up a load of rubbish here. One of my essays at uni was on romance in Women’s Literature. All of the stuff I’ve said about reader expectations comes from a study in a book. A real book. From the library and everything.)
The problem with showing both characters’ points of view is that the reader then already knows how the characters will go together. They’re both vegetarians. They love the same band. She’s a jewel thief and he’s a bank robber. Knowing how they go together is the starting point to figuring out the rest of the book by yourself. Here’s an exercise for you- take two people you know well and imagine a relationship developing between them- imagine how it would or wouldn’t work- all the things that make them click and all the things that make them argue. Do they have complementary personalities? Clashing personalities? Would one be all-give and the other all-take? Does one plan everything to the nth degree and the other live solely on instinct? It’s quite easy to map out their entire romance when you know them well, isn’t it? So if a reader can figure out the relationship before they’ve even read the book, why should they continue to read it?
Now take someone you know and pair them with a stranger. You can't figure that relationship out because you don't know the stranger. You have to wait for your friend to tell you all about their new romance and then you lap up the juicy details like a starving cat provided with milk. It's exciting because you can't figure out what's coming next.
I’ve probably read about five books in my life where I’ve thought- that was a great romance, but one example I will give is Juliet Marillier’s books- Daughter of the Forest and Son of the Shadows. (But not the third book in that series- don’t ever come complaining to me that I recommended you read Child of the Prophecy. I did not.) Juliet Marillier doesn’t always get it right, but when she does, I can’t put her books down. Which is why I’m now busy hunting for substitutes until she releases her next book. On that note- if anyone has read any Juliet Marillier and knows of similar authors who are also good, let me know!
So, what do you all think? What are your formulas for a great romance? And what do you like/hate to see in romances? Have you any favourite romance authors to recommend?? Comment away...