Writing Nowadays–Scripted Romance

Elizabeth Browning wrote, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” and people take that as a metaphor.

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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Writing Nowadays–Scripted Romance — 13 Comments

  1. Insta-love has been the engine driving romance for a long time. And it still works for very young readers, partly because they haven’t read much, and partly because young hormones are just that ready to glom onto the next cute thing, and stick hard.

    Showing how and why a romance develops is really tough, but when a novel does it (Pride and Prejudice, anyone?) readers come back to it again and again.

  2. (hugging myself) In my current WIP, my hero loves her because she rescues him at least five times — I may be missing one or two. She loves him because not only is he Safe, he thinks of her as his personal Samaritan. And then I frustrate them…

  3. I have been tremendously irritated by they’re-in-love-because-we-say-they-are plots too; perhaps this happens more often in TV and films because they have less time to develop relationships and they can count on their actors to supply signs of emotion lacking in the script.

    I admit to crying buckets at ‘Brokeback Mountain’, but not until the end. It’s a long time since I saw it, but I think my impression was that Jack and Ennis fell in love through sheer desperation to some extent – finally encountering another gay man in their macho, homophobic world, in a moment of freedom to express their attraction to one another. It’s the scene at the very end where Ennis finds Jack has hung their shirts together that really got me, tissues-wise.

    Has anyone read the short story on which it is based? What did you think of the portrayal of love there?

    • My take (and I’m another who wept a small inland sea at the movie) on the romance in Brokeback Mountain was that, in part, Jack and Ennis fell in love because each was the only person the other had met who had the same, um, interests. People do fall in love (as opposed to love each other) for no good reason, but most people fall out of love when they get a wider acquaintance with the world. Jack sort of gets that wider acquaintance (however marginal), but Ennis never does. I think that Ennis actually winds up loving Jack. He may be nuts to do so, but I did see that progression happening.

      That being said, the Cinderella style “he loves her because she’s beautiful and she loves him because he’s a prince” romance makes me want to bite someone. As my daughter observed, when watching the movie as a kid, “What are they gonna talk about?”

  4. I read Annie Proulx’s short story, too, and it was very much the same–no explanation of why the two fell in love. I think she was counting on the idea of two macho cowboys falling in love being so unusual that more showing wasn’t necessary. Sigh. It was a good story, but it should’ve been better.

    • I agree with those who felt they each were so desperately alone in themselves, finding a kindred spirit was enough. Add to that the lure of forbidden sin holding them apart for years with only memories of a somewhat elegiac period together, and I think it was enough.

      Had they been able to stay together, they might not have stayed together. The very fact that they couldn’t became a bond of its own sort–filling them with longings and yearnings and might have beens.

  5. Yes, the whole allure of forbidden fruit thing is something that one can have a great deal of fun with. Between that, and the difference between Sexy Friends and Just Friends, oh! you can complicate your characters’ lives forever!

  6. Perhaps a really good example of this kind of flawed romance is “Like Water for Chocolate”. Paco is in love with Tita and she with him. But he’s drawn to her simply because of the food she cooks and she likes him because…well, it’s not really stated. He’s handsome, I suppose, and the movie made of this novel certainly cast a really good-looking man in the role. But he seems to have no other virtues.

    He gives her up to marry her sister, an act even his father condemns. Then he states that he did it to get what he wanted: access to Tita’s charms. Tita adores this and agrees to play the role of his live-in mistress. So Paco gets everything: the house, the wife, the child, the attendant wealth when his well-to-do mother-in-law dies and a hot girlfriend on the side. Poor Tita gets a corner in her sister’s house, a tenuous position that she could lose any time if her enraged sister sees fit to oust her from her home.

    When she gets an offer of marriage from another man, Paco jealously assaults her, taking her virginity. Apparently, it’s fine for him to marry without love but he’s not about to let his girlfriend get the chance.

    Incredibly, the other man still wants to marry Tita. But Tita’s so besotted with Paco that she gives up this perfectly decent man to continue being Paco’s hidden girlfriend. All this because they supposedly fell in love at first sight. Unbelievable.

    The novel seemed very romantic to me when I was younger–star-crossed lovers being the kind of theme that appeals to youth–but it became considerably less so as I attained maturity. This kind of love story is suff and nonsense, with the characters doing nothing in particular to gain happiness except a lot of screwing. They attain happiness together only when Tita’s mother and Paco’s wife die, a convenient out that doesn’t require the two loves to do anything but wait.

    Then, after all that, Paco himself dies while having sex! Far from being romantic, it’s so laughable you could choke. Garbage, sheer and utter garbage.

  7. “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.”

    I’ve been writing and selling romance novels for thirty years. Those two sentences from the end of your post are the best explanation of what I’ve been aiming for, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Thank you!

  8. What a great post. I agree. We don’t expect our teens to instantly fall in love so why do we expect that to happen in romance. For that happy ending but sometimes it doesn’t work. That said I’m loving Grace Burrowes series which is all about friendship first and then love. Like I say to hubby, “I married you because you’re my best friend.”

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  10. Thanks for this reminder. I’m writing a novel where the protagonist falls in love with a character she is not romantically attracted to at first (as opposed to the one she is) and I need to make sure readers have a good answer to “Why would she fall in love with him?” besides “Because I said so.”