But seriously–count them. Please!
I’m coming off yet another poorly-written romance novel simultaneously catching up on the TV show ONCE UPON A TIME, and I recently re-watched BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. All of them are supposed to twang with heart-rendering romance, yet they all fall flat. What the heck is going on? Let’s take a look so we can all avoid the same problem.
In all three cases–novel, TV show, movie–the writers don’t bother to count the ways their protagonists love each other. The heroine and hero of the romance novel (which I’m not naming because it was so awful) see each other at a horse show, of all things, fall instantly in love, try a number of times to consummate their relationship in various and interesting places, and finally manage it on their wedding night. But as far as I could see, the only reason the heroine loves the hero is because he looks so handsome and studly next to all those geldings. And the hero loves the heroine because she walks into the barn right when he’s feeling lonely. I’m laughing when I should be sighing. They’re in love only because the book says so.
On ONCE UPON A TIME, the centerpiece romance is supposed to be between Snow White and Prince Charming (and I admire actors who can call each other “Snow” and “Charming” without cracking up). But they spend almost all of first season separated. In fact, “I’ll find you” becomes a running joke. It becomes so ridiculously overdone that I just can’t call it a theme. They finally unite at the end of the season, only to be split up again in season two. And yet, these two people, who have never spent more than 30 consecutive minutes together, somehow share a love so deep, it can cross dimensions and break curses. They’re in love only because the script says so.
I really, really wanted to adore BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. I showed up at the theater in 2005 with a big box of Kleenex for my tears and a jar for my shattered heart. But ultimately I said, “Meh.” The movie was well made and it needed to be made, but my heart remained unscathed. I just wasn’t drawn into Jack and Ennis’s relationship. Sure, the acting was first-rate. Oscar-level. Left the sheep standing. Trouble is, I couldn’t see why these two cowboys fell in love. What is it about Jack that makes Ennis fall in love? And vice-versa? The movie fails to show us. They’re in love only because the script says so.
Yes, I (and any number of readers) will believe in quick attraction. Hell, we’ll even believe in love at first sight. But we need REASONS for the relationship to stabilize into long-term love. What, exactly, does the hero admire in the heroine (or other hero)? Besides looks, I mean? In order for us to come along with this romance, we need to see the building blocks. These can include common political views, common hobbies, shared activities, in-jokes they create together, restaurants they both adore, or a shared hatred of Fox News.
If the couple are opposites, then go into that, too. If Character A is quiet and introspective while Character B is outgoing and impulsive, then A needs to ruminate on how B is rocking his/her world with all these new experiences and blowing this safe, dull world apart, while B needs to realize that A is providing a much-needed stability that makes B feel safe and wanted.
It’s not enough for two characters to stare deeply into each others eyes and murmur, “I’ll love you forever.” By the time they reach that point, we readers (or viewers) need to have counted a hundred other ways they’ve already said it.
–Steven Harper Piziks
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