Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Don't love me for fun, girl

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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MC said...

My next writing project is going to have a strong romantic element in it and I this was very insightful. It's true that in real life we don't need to explain love, but when we write we have to describe every detail of it to the reader. Thanks for the great read.

nutschell said...

Great post! This is definitely going to help in the YA book I"m currently writing. :) you rock!

Laraqua said...

Another way to put it (in a very romantic way) is that people often have a hole in their hearts that only a few people can fill. When they find one of those people, whose personalities and life stories are shaped a certain way (and who pass a certain personalised measure of attractiveness), they fall in love.

The question so often is: Why that person? Why not someone else?

The answer so often is: Because that person answers a question for me that I never knew I'd asked.

Unfortunately, in most novels the answer more often seems to be: Because s/he has a fit body, nice eyes, and smells good enough to make my heart race.

Not the most romantic of reasons!

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Not sure why people look down on romantic fiction, unless it's romance that is poorly written. Well-written romance will stand the test of time, such as Jane Eyre, and Pride and Prejudice.

julie fedderson said...

This is exactly why some romances fail--they spend so much time focusing on the look and physicality of the characters but never explain why the hero/heroine fall for one another. Lust only gets you so far, and writing about the emotional connection is damn hard, but it makes a heart-stopping romance.

Samantha said...

Great post! I will definitely be re-tweeting this!


Writing Through College

Peggy Eddleman said...

I will always love a book SO MUCH MORE if the author has made ME fall in love with the characters. You-re right-- it's so much stronger than when they make us take it on faith!

Laoch of Chicago said...

This is a well structured and thought out post.

In the end people search for emotional truth from their fiction. The closer the author is to expressing things that are universal and meaningful the more lasting the effect on the reader.

JJ Roa Rodriguez said...

Wow! This is one of the best post I ever had encounter. Surely a great help for a lot of writers ESP those who are starting.

Thank you very much for this!


mooderino said...

@MC-cheers for the comment.

@nutschell-nice to have you back after your world trip. It's raining in England today.

@Laraqua-once that unknown question is asked and answered it helps if you let the reader know what it was. It's too easy to use romantic language and never look any deeper.

@Karen-as I said in the post I mean romance in the barechested man on cover type, not Jane Eyre.

@julie-I tink it's because the descriptive stuff is a lot easier to write.


@Peggy-thanks (and also for following the blog).

@Laoch-and it's often those universal truths that are hardest to express in a meaningful way.

Cheers guys.

Matthew MacNish said...

My main problem with YA romance is that it just doesn't work that way. Sure, lust may come about in a matter of days or even minutes, but not love.

That's why I enjoyed Hermoine and Ron's relationship so much. It took time to build.

Javid Suleymanli said...

yeah great post! thanks for sharing the truth :)

Margo Berendsen said...

I wish I could broadcast this post to all YA (and romance) writers!!! Yes, this is how you do good romance. Sure, a beautiful pair of eyes or a certain attitude can get your heart racing, but it's what he (or she) DOES that really shows why a character is in love with him/her. I like your example with the guy that disappears to take care of his ailing parents.

in other words, a Save the Cat moment. Doesn't necessarily have to be an altruistic action, but it must be an action that someone can identify with.

Juliana L. Brandt said...

Great post! This is one of the biggest things that makes me put down a YA book- when the people fall in love for no apparent reason. Too unrealistic for me.

Weaver said...

Wonderful post, Moody. I love your courtroom example. It's so true. Eye color and how someone moves may trigger and initial reaction, but it's got to be something deeper that makes it love. Look at Elizabeth Bennett. Was it really Mr. Darcy's fancy house that she fell in love with, or the side of him she saw--in his defense of his little sister and then later Elizabeth's little sister--that she'd hadn't previously allowed herself to admit could exist.

Suze said...

I don't think it's 'fucking hard' once our attention has been drawn to the simplicity of our initial efforts-- rather I see it as a welcome challenge exposing the rudimentary for what it is and shoving us onward to that which most writers are well capable of if we do not allow ourselves to settle for the plentiful cliches, sterotypes and flat narratives and characterizations that tend to populate our first, second and even third go rounds.

So, in this regard, I thank you.

Christa Desir said...

Yes to this, but there is a strong and vocal group of people out there who want romance with the "I felt it when I saw the golden flecks in his eyes" so you need to balance. No, not cliche adult romance writing, but more a full understanding of who you are writing for. Some people want to hear more about the flecks, and some just don't.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Excellent post and difficult to pull off. Kudos to anyone that can.

PK HREZO said...

How very poignant. It's the difference between a superficial crush attraction and a profound, endearing love with every fiber of your being. It's very difficult to capture that, and I believe it really is only thru showing a meaningful scene that the depth is understood. It's a great exercise for writers, in trying to nail that down.
Awesome post as usual, Moody!

dolorah said...

I don't read "romance" for itself, but I do love romance in my novels. Gotta have that deep, meaningful relationship. I do write romance into my stories, and make it more about a shared experience - something emotional, not physical. The physical attraction has to be there though.

Well done with the concise thoughts here.


mooderino said...

@Matthew - I think in fiction you can make anything seem real if you're good enough, but most of the romances in YA have all the authenticity of the plumber who walks in on the naked nympho in the shower in pornos.

@Javid - Word.

@Margo - the way I look at it, the way that requires less thinking and working out is probably the wrong way, althoug that's why most people choose it.

@Juliana - on the other hand I'm sure it's also part of their poplularity. Young women love the idea that a guy might fall for them for no reason (or effort on their part).

@Donna - P&P was a favourite book of mine when I was younger (don't tell anyone).

@Suze - you're welcome.

@Christa - certainly, and Dan Brown and Clive Cussler and all the other poorly written but brilliantly realised books out there make it clear that first and foremost you need a story that captures imaginations.

@Michael - I'll add my kudoa too.

@Pk - thanks.

@Donna Hole - I agree, i think the bond between people is a key part of most stories.

cheers for all the thought provoking comments.

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree that much romance in YA and adult is over the top. Show me why they love/are attracted to one another. Physical manifestations only go so far.

cookie said...

YA romances drive me nuts for exactly this reason. I may end up with sprained eyes from all the eye rolling I do.

One of my favorite romances in literature, aside from Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, is Aragorn and Arwen. It is a very minor sub-plot, yet you still get the sense of a great love between them (of course, the movies beefed the romance up more, but still). Arwen is willing to give up her immortality for Aragorn, and even though they spend very little time together in the books, it becomes apparent why through his actions as a man, hero, and friend. That is a perfect example of show.

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