Writing Excuses 5.31: Writing Romance

Sarah Eden and Robison Wells join Dan and Howard at LTUE to talk about writing romance. Sarah writes in the romance genre, but we’re not focusing on the genre — we’re talking about writing romance within the context of whatever else we might happen to be putting on the page.

We lead with how to do it wrong, because nothing is as much fun to talk about as bad romance. It’s also educational.

More importantly (and more usefully) we talk about formulas for doing romance correctly. One of the most practical is to pair characters up by finding emotional needs that these characters can meet for each other. We look at examples from each of our work: Sarah’s The Kiss of a Stranger, Dan’s I Don’t Want To Kill You, Howard’s The Sharp End of the Stick, and Rob’s Variant.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: I Don’t Want To Kill You, by Dan Wells, narrated by Kirby Heyborne. It’s true, this book has some great romance in it. Also, murder.

Writing Prompt: Create a character, and then create a complementary character who both meets a need and provides unwelcome challenge.

Everybody’s Lisp: Brought to you by the noise reduction software we used. Sorry about that. It won’t happen again.

The Bonus Game: Bad Romance! Enjoy!

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63 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.31: Writing Romance”

  1. I think you guys should do a full episode “Bad Romance” game. Let it have some room to breath, so you don’t have to rush it so much. I mean, who knew that Dan was such a romantic soul… or that Howard had such depths in his characters…

  2. I felt this really skimmed over romance without saying much. Nothing about some of the most popular romances not ending happily ever after (Kathy and Heathcliffe, Romeo and Juliet, Casablanca). Also, love/romance as a powerful source of conflict and the lure of the will-they-won’t-they style romance.

    A shame most of the cast was spent explaining backstory for romances in books nobody’s read yet. A good topic though and Sarah made some great points.

  3. Is it true that the audience needs to guess right about the romance or they’ll be disappointed? How do you include a romance that is both satisfying and not painfully predictable?

  4. I second Mike’s suggestion for a full podcast of the Bad Romance game. ^_^

    Good ‘cast. I love hearing guys talk about Pride and Prejudice – though my favorite P&P moment in that vein was at a con, seeing a huge hairy bear of a guy on a panel saying that his current favorite fictional character was Mr. Bennett.

    I’m not much of a romance genre reader, but I care about romanctic relationships in the books I read. They work when I REALLY want the pair to get together. As you guys said, I have to be in love with guy and root for the girl (I presume it works the other way round for straight guys ^_^). Something I’ve come across recently is the author just throwing a gorgeous guy in and expecting that to be enough to make me care, and it isn’t. I didn’t fall in love with Darcy because he was gorgeous, he earned it (misjudging him at first gave him an edge, of course, but that just makes us willing to give him another chance).

    Michael, I don’t consider a romance to be about guessing right, it’s about the audience wanting the pair to get together, but the author keeps them apart, so the tension builds, more and more, until the happy ending.

  5. Great advice, though I was a bit disappointed that you guys recommended love triangles. Personally, I think they’re way overused and I tend to get really frustrated every time I see one. But that might be just me. I feel that literature, movies, TV, etc, all seem to focus far too much on three parts of romance: falling in love, love triangles, and breaking up. This may be mostly TV, where when two characters get together the TV producers think that suddenly they’re boring, so they make them break up. But in other places, to, when two characters *do* get together, it’s almost always at the end of a story and we don’t get to see what happens next.

    That’s one of the main reasons I love Chuck so much, because (spoiler warning, if you haven’t seen it) Elly and Awesome actually get married, and have kids, and sure they have problems, but they stick through instead of breaking up in order to make for more “interesting” TV. And now Sarah and Chuck, too, after finally getting together are actually STAYING together. Very impressive, in the face of most of the stuff that comes out nowadays.

    Just my thoughts on the issue. Great podcast. ^_^

  6. I get sick of people ending up with the first person they have ever dated/kissed/been interested in. There is only one pretty girl around and they end up together. Too many Fantasy hero quests start this way, science fiction no as much.

    I guess the converse of that is the mysterious stranger.

  7. Don’t know how to post track-backs, but this episode was so awesome, I had to blog it.

    I have to agree with Williams – the LTUE podcasts are particularly good.

  8. @Rafael? Why no love triangles? I mean, competition is a reasonably common conflict, and pow — that’s three in a triangle? Or do you mean the one-way setups, where John likes Alice, but Alice likes Bob — who could care less about her?

    And no unresolved sexual tension? Again, why?

    No rules without rationales, please?

  9. I agree that game rules. A whole episode of that is excellent world build and stealing like a thief material.

  10. So much to respond to…

    1) The “Bad Romance” game, along with other games, can be heard on The Appendix, a podcast featuring Robison Wells, Sarah Eden, and Marion Jensen. We’re not going to steal it from them (even though we’re really good at it…)

    2) The Love Triangle is just another formula you can use appropriately or abuse carelessly. It is tried, true, and troped to the gills. Saying you will never use it is a little bit foolish, because there are reasons it works well: it happens all the time in real life. It’s possible to write it so that it doesn’t feel like a 90-minute romantic comedy, and it’s a great way to flesh out some characters — especially if the resolution of the triangle is an unexpected one.

    3) If you’re complaining about what gets focused on when we talk about Romance, remember that Romance is about falling in love. It’s usually NOT about long-term stable relationships. You can certainly include those in a romance, but they’ll usually work best off to the side. If you want to focus on a long-term, stable relationship then there will be elements of Romance in it, and you can use many of the tools we talk about, but what you’re writing is something else entirely. I don’t even know what it’s called, genre-wise.

  11. The Love Triangle gone wrong: Your characters are all whores and you know it.
    The Love triangle done right: Your characters that’s doing the choosing is hopelessly indecisive.
    The Love triangle plus roll ones eyes: A stupid fantasy of getting as many guys in a single building as possible in a race to do so. (See Love Triangle Gone Wrong)

    I tend to hate Love Triangles because I can’t quite get past the idea of “Character is a (man)whore” and I tend to dislike indecisive characters that waver back and forth, especially on a whim.

    Plus, really, if a girl is bent on sleeping with the floor of an office of 50 men in the space of 3 months, there is an issue that goes beyond the romance problems, there are also the STI/STDs to consider in such a bad move. I’d also consider putting her up for some psychological care.

    Long Term Romance is hardly done front and center, but I think that’s more Romeo arguing that he doesn’t *have* to do the laundry because the maids can do it and it’s a woman’s job anyway and Juliet trying to tolerate his mannish behavior by telling him they ran away from the palace life together so they have no maids. She’s also figured out what’s in a name–the better to call him with to do his chores already instead of going into town to hang out with the minstrels.

    Or you can go for the slice of life… where personal problems of the couple threaten to tear the couple apart, such as the loss of child, etc.

    Long Term Romance tends to be done more in other cultures than ours. I’ve seen it done in Bollywood, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Filipino films. Older novels used to deal with how to keep a marriage together as well–L.M. Montgomery comes to mind with some of her stories. The US seems more fascinated with the falling in love part, though–the heady feelings, etc.

  12. @Mike

    1) I find Love Triangles to be unrealistic outside of high school dramas. Either someone is being ignorant or exploitative. I find them frustrating to say the least. It also feels artificial as well, just there to create tension as opposed to something that would arise naturally from the nature of the characters.

    2) Same goes for UST, although it doesn’t happen as much in books as it does TV, where entire series revolve around will they or won’t they. It based on the assumption that one the relationship is consummated/resolved then the audience will lose interest. And of course you need to throw in a lot of secondary characters whose only purpose is to keep the main characters apart (decoy romantic interest) who also create flimsy romantic triangles as well.

    Both are tolerable as side plots, but once they take center stage they feel to me like romantic plot tumors that get in the way of the story. I’m more interested in honest relationships arising and the characters dealing with the challenges/problems there in, not only in the hook-up, but the relationship and even the break-up.

    Ironically I am a fan of romance within any work. Love like War is a great place for conflict, character growth and the like. But I am not a fan of Romance or the Romance genre because it overuses the two set-ups above. It shatters my suspension of disbelief.

  13. The only love-triangle I’ve read that worked really, really well was the Hunger Games trilogy. She’s too busy stabbing things to think about it most of the time, and the conflict makes a lot of sense — long-term friend, or the guy who shared horrors with her no one else can understand? There’s no time to get angsty about it, because the stabbing kicks back in.

    As for long-term romance, the show White Collar does a great job of this as a side-plot. One of the main characters is in a happy marriage, with the occasional day-to-day kind of quibble. I found this really refreshing because so often, investigator-types are jaded men with a bunch of ex’s behind them. The dynamic between the married couple is great. One of the episodes up on Hulu right now, “Power Play” actually starts with a marital quibble (and I nearly fell off my chair laughing). Later in the episode, when the wife sadly relates the fight she had that morning (the husband’s been kidnapped) another character stares at her. “Have you ever seen a real fight?” Anyway, I find it a really endearing relationship. Realistic people with difference who still love each other 100%.

  14. I second many of the comments about love triangles. I despise them, generally speaking. I think they’re overused and poorly used. I feel that too often they are thrown in just for the sake of creating romantic tension, as opposed to actually arising from a situation in which or a character for whom it would be believable. The result is that the whole romance feels contrived. I’ll allow that it could be done well, but I’ve rarely seen it. It’s a staple of the romance genre, but does that mean it should necessarily be imported into a romantic subplot in another genre?

    I thought that this podcast was interesting but could really use to be broken down into two or three podcasts going a little deeper into the subject. I’m not usually a huge fan of romance as a genre, but I do like a well done romantic subplot in other fiction. I think the subject needs to be broken down into subtopics and explored more thoroughly than this one podcast allowed, and perhaps more in the normal format of, “Let’s talk about what we mean, and now let’s talk about how to do it well.”

  15. I loved the triangle in PRIDE & PREJUDICE quite a bit with Darcy, Wickham, and Elizabeth. I thought it worked marvelously.

    Characters don’t have to be indecisive for the reader to feel a dilemma. Indecision is only one way to make a triangle work.

    I loved the triangle in CAST AWAY with Tom Hanks. It’s a killer. There’s no indecision in that one. Although you might argue it’s not a romance.

    I enjoyed the triangle in SENSE & SENSIBILITY.

    I really loved the one with Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond in SABRINA. And that one featured a character who thought she was deciding one thing but wasn’t.

    If you personally hate triangles, then you do. However, I seem to find it can be used quite well.

  16. Bravo Mr Brown! Although, personally, in CAST AWAY, I think Tom should have stuck with Willson. The opening love triangle, (package going to cheating husband) was one of the more fun uses of the POV cam in a movie intro I can think of. Perfect example of a love triangle gone bad, (not a badly done love triangle, just bad love).

  17. Hmm. I hadn’t even thought of those as love triangles — usually the phrase brings to mind someone fretting between two people to pick. In the Jane Austen examples, the girls pick…and then unpick the person (or the person unpicks themselves). Or Sabrina — she knows what she wants, until Mr. Ford tells her he’s looking at what he wants…I love the dialogue in that movie.

    Great food for thought — thanks John.

  18. I think the key is that the options are in the reader’s mind. We can hope and fear for Sabrina and Linus even though neither of them recognize what’s going on. Which his why we feel tension when Elizabeth begins to go after Wickham instead of Mr. Darcy. It’s about reader tension.

    BTW, with CAST AWAY, I’m not really talking about Wilson, but his wife in the beginning and the end. Just in case you thought I was serious. Him wanting to get back to her. And the new husband. Killer. :)

    Here’s another triangle that worked so very well: BACK TO THE FUTURE.

  19. My favorite love triangles are more like Triangles in Triangles in Triangles.

    In any case, the love triangle isn’t so much of a trope as it is an archetype. It works because it is real. Not writing it would be like not writing stories about orphans. There is a reason why the Orphan archetype works, and it is because it taps into the subconscious drives of humans. Same thing with Beauty and the Beast stories. The same thing works for Dragons in general. It’s why the father/mentor usually dies.

  20. @ John Brown

    There wasn’t a love triangle in Cast Away. The girlfriend married someone else while he was away, he comes back and she tries to blame him, and then he leaves. Twenty minutes out of a two hour film doesn’t make a love triangle. After all, he never showed any signs of wanting to ‘win her back’.

  21. @ James,

    It’s true it’s not the main story, but it doesn’t have to be. A triangle is a certain type of problem and can show up in the main line or the subplots or as a turn.

    We start with a couple in love. We’re hoping as an audience he can reunite when he’s on that island. I was. He gets off. We’re expecting a joyous reunion. Instead the bottom drops out with the scene in the airport (at least, that’s where I think it was). But that’s not it. He goes to her house later, it’s raining, they’re out in that vehicle, if I recall. They love one another, but both realize it just won’t work. She gives him the keys to the car they once shared. And they part.

    Of course, he loved her. Are you kidding me? It’s a full plot arc: love, problem, complication, resolution. The audience is put on the horns of a dilemma. I was. Maybe you weren’t. But I certainly felt it. And the killer dilemma revolved around the the third person in the triangle. The fact that the new husband was darkest moment complication instead of the initial problem shouldn’t make a difference. It’s still a triangle. And it was still delicious. :)

  22. @ John Brown

    I didn’t say that he didn’t love her, I was saying that as soon as she told him that she was married he backed off and didn’t try to advance anything. Thus, no love triangle.

  23. @James
    I think that the point there is a love triangle doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out process. There was definitely a time in that sequence of CAST AWAY where it could be seen as a triangle. There were three people, two of them guys who love the same woman, and she loved them both. There is a moment or two when that reality crashes in.

    But she made her choice, thus resolving the triangle. It was quick, and painful for Tom’s character, and absolutely suited the story.

    If the story had been ABOUT the triangle, that would be another matter. But here the triangle was not plot, it was part of the denouement (if I’m using the term correctly). Either way, it was wrap up, not story.

  24. Simply put; Love Triangles are not entertaining. Who cares if Jack love Jill who is also loved by Pete? Nobody. They’re annoying and need to be abandoned post haste.

  25. The relationship on Cast Away was nothing more than a metaphor. Tom was out on the beach barely clinging to life, contemplating suicide, living like a caveman, and talking to a beach ball. Helen was a symbol of civilization and reason that he clung to in order to make it through. Helen? I couldn’t have cared less about her or hooking back up with her, because Tom returned to society to find that civilization doesn’t wait for anyone and had moved on.

    That was the ‘relationship’.

    PS metaphors don’t have love triangles.

  26. “You’re welcome to your opinion but I doubt it’s shared by all.”

    This was a stupid thing to say. When one states an opinion it is a given that the speaker is expressing his thoughts on the matter without the need to clarify this with the phrase ‘in my opinion’. Pointing out what another says is an opinion does not strengthen one’s argument or aid in a conversation in any way. This is a ploy to shut-down discussion on a topic in which the opinion-pointer-outer has no adequate response.

    Perhaps, for instance, you can point out examples of love triangles which were entertaining to you or even by others. Or perhaps defend love triangles in a different approach such as showing how it can deliver a message or strengthen a particular story. But you didn’t and instead gave a ‘well that’s your opinion’ response.

    IN A CONVERSATION ALL YOU CAN DO IS STATE YOUR OPINION.

    If this seems a bit harsh, yes it was. I am getting a bit sick of this crap.

  27. @Some Bloke
    So what you wanted was a rational, reasoned discourse, carefully and lovingly researched and presented…

    … for ‘some bloke’ who declared “Nobody cares” and didn’t offer anything further.

    Thanks, but no thanks. That’s not conversation.

  28. I know, and I’m sorry for my part in itn. I just didn’t appreciate the hypocrisy of the criticism.

    If I’ve annoyed anyone other than some bloke, my apologies.

  29. It may be worth noting that over here http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TriangRelations there are at least 13 types of love triangles listed, along with examples of each. I suspect that part of the difficulty in discussing this lies in confusion of the types — e.g. someone who is thinking of type 1 (A wants B and C, and can’t decide which) and someone who is thinking of a type 3 (B and C want A) are likely to have different views of “the love triangle” (since one is basically indecisive greed, while the other is simple competition). Take a look, then try imagining various relationships between three characters.

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