Romance fiction, the kind with the bare-chested male on the front cover, has always been looked down on. It sells very well, but no one is very impressed by it. Most modern YA books have a strong romance element to them, and are often equally derided for their wish-fulfilling maelstrom of passion. The kind of love they contain is, in a word, corny.
However, love is a strong motivator and part of most stories, but the simplest things are often the hardest to articulate (especially without resorting to clichés). Why does person A love person B (and possibly also person C)?
If the answer is along the lines of: He was so cute; she had a nice smile; his eyes were so blue; I felt a knot in my stomach the first time I saw he; there was just something about the way he moved... then the writer is asking the reader to take it on faith. Forget why, it’s just how they feel. And in many cases the reader will agree to overlook the exact reason why the “okay-looking” girl who no one talks to is suddenly the most desired girl in school.
But what if you were able to demonstrate how it happened, if you could show the moment love took bloom? And in a way that made the reader go: Okay, I see why that person’s special. How would you go about that?
The thing about love and romance is it is easy to understand, clear as a bell when you feel it yourself, but very hard to communicate to others (or make them care). Having one character proclaim it is the usual way to go about it, but it’s pretty weak in terms of connecting with the reader (unless they happen to be the type of person primed to feel it no matter what you write—and certainly there are plenty of them out there).
Consider this: A woman is in court defending her husband in a murder/robbery case. She loves him very much and doesn’t believe he’s guilty, and she wants the jury to know what kind of man he is. If she tells them how the first time she saw him, his dimpled chin and piercing green eyes flecked with gold, she knew he was the man for her and would never let her down—what effect do you think that testimony would have? I’m sure the people on the jury would believe she felt that way, but what bearing would it have on anyone else?
Now consider if she tells the jury how when she first met him he was a big deal in the city, earning loads. But then he dumped her for no reason, gave up his job and disappeared. She managed to track him down, angry as hell, and found him living at home, looking after his elderly parents, both of whom had Alzheimer’s and were a nightmare. He’d given up a fortune to do a thankless job. She realised then what kind of man he was, and the idea that he would kill a man over a few thousand dollars was ridiculous. Now, would that story have any influence on the jury?
You could look at this as a simple recommendation to show instead of tell, but even then it’s very simple to make the same mistake in another form. If Jack loves troubled Kate so much he kills the man who abused her as a child, that shows HOW MUCH he loves her, but it doesn’t tell us WHY he loves her. It’s very clearly a case of showing not telling, but it still requires a leap of faith from the reader.
If you establish that Jack always ends up with women who are damaged and tries to fix them, and always fails, and then he meets Kate who is strong and perfect, until her step-father comes back into her life and then she falls apart etc., then you can see a causal relationship without even needing to be told exactly what’s happening.
It isn’t just about show-don’t-tell, it’s about linking pieces together to make a rich, complex inner life for your characters that goes beyond looks exchanged across a crowded room and brushing fingertips that make hearts race pitter-patter.
Thing is, it’s not easy. In real life that feeling is enough, you don’t need a reason, you don’t need to explain it—but that’s fin if it only concern YOU. When you write for an audience they can’t feel it, they need more if you want to create a genuine emotional connection. Coming up with believable, interesting, succinct reason for why someone would fall for someone else is fucking hard. But if it was easy anyone could do it.
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