Elements of Modern Storytelling–Romance

Red Cascade miniature climbing rose.

Red Cascade climbing rose, photo by the Antique Rose Emporium, Brenham, TX

Over on Comet Tales, Stephanie Osborn has a bunch of writers talking about elements of modern storytelling. She asked us first to consider where does romance fit in a modern tale. How did we do it, and why that way and not another? The answers were fascinating, and all over the map. My response follows.

Where does romance fit as an element of modern storytelling?”

Stephanie Osborn asked this question, and my immediate thought was “as a subtle puzzle piece.” I know that is not the usual response to the question. Half the fiction books published in this country every year by major New York publishers are romances, in almost every flavor you can imagine. (That is, if by flavor you are imagining one woman and one man who end up in a HEA–Happily Ever After–or, more recently, HFN–Happy For Now–relationship. Everything else slides in from the shadows, makes a surprise appearance, or even has a small independent publishing line somewhere else.)

Where does romance spring from?

I’m not asking in a technical sense, or a scientific sense. We know that chemistry and biology triggers the first flush of attraction, and we can research to find out where the modern Western concept of romance began. I always think of it as starting with Jane Austen—a woman choosing to reject offered security for the hope of at least liking and respecting her partner. That she ended up with a man whom she also loved, who was solvent enough to support her and their children, was a bonus. For most women, having it all was a fantasy, but a lovely dream. We can go back further, into legend—but most of those famous lovers did not end well.

Cover for novel Pride and PrejudiceThinking about it now, I wonder if romance novels were simply a woman’s first reach for respect and mutual affection in a relationship—to regain the ancient courtesies between the sexes, the respect for each sex’s wisdom and knowledge that still lingers in some tribal cultures. The current tribal forms may not be at all what modern women want in relationships. But in the past few hundreds of years in Western culture, women were mostly shut out of commerce and expected to make the home (and that was big doings before the Modern Era of electricity and convenience foods.) All they could hope for was a marriage where their intelligence and personality was respected. Marriage was often a financial transaction, or a melding of two families’ talents and assets. Respect, humor, liking the person you were going to share a life with—those were traits to be desired. Romance was the dessert, the last thing you wanted but could only dream of, because so many failed to get it.

Then more people began to marry for love—for better or worse. But did they understand each other? I think women learned to understand their men, to try and keep a home their husband wanted to return to, a refuge for their men. But too often the men had no clue what was going on in the heads of the women.

A thesis was once written proposing that women read romances—pure romance, not the newer stories escalating in sexuality—because it is a story where a man becomes obsessed with a woman and is spending all his free time trying to figure out how to understand her, please her, win her. I suspect that the root of romance lies in understanding The Other—the other sex. Or if they do not completely understand the other person, they still unconditionally accept them.

I don’t write pure romance, I write fantasy, science fiction, and mystery. I am interested in putting people into unusual or challenging situations and watching them work their way back out to their new life. But there is always a romantic thread in my stories, because whether people plan on it or not, romance happens. Sometimes one of two people thinks “hummm….” and starts working at it, like my young would-be rebels in Hidden Fires. Sometimes two people look at each other simultaneously and think “Why did I never notice this person in this way?” as the protagonists of my short story “Feather of the Phoenix” do. And sometimes people are working together, surviving together, laughing together, and along the way they realize that something new is growing between them, even as they are saving their corner of the universe, as in Fires of Nuala.

Sometimes there are challenges to the relationship, or temptations. Some fans want to see Alfreda and Shaw from my Night Calls series finally make a match of it. Shaw and Allie are only young teens, and they have skills that demand training—they aren’t the kind of people who will fall willy-nilly in love. But if they awaken to it, after challenges, and others who attempt to lure them in other directions (for if they are both worth winning, they are worth winning by others) then they will fight the world to stay together.

But getting there can be subtle—until the moment it is everything. I think I write romantic subplots for those of us who position ourselves in things we love in life, and hope to be surprised by love. Just like in a romance!

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Elements of Modern Storytelling–Romance — 9 Comments

  1. I would begin romance with Jane Austen, but not because the novel was concerned with marrying the heroines. Pretty much most novels of the eighteenth century included marriage of a pure and innocent heroine (as her just desserts), if they weren’t the purpose, such as Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, in the mid-century.

    But Austen was the first whose narrative voice made it clear that what the women thought mattered. What’s more, she didn’t contrive form her novels around the usual pure, innocent, and utterly passive heroine. Charlotte Lennox had sort of tried to represent what females thought (her novel is about a girl who passionately reads novels, almost gets herself in trouble, then through wise male counseling gives up novels to become a good girl, who is then promptly rewarded with marriage), but Austen was the first to give her heroines actual faults, agency, and the ability to direct their own fortunes. Only after one reads a ton of period literature can one understand how stunningly modern Charlotte Lucas is, for example. Ditto Lydia Bennet, who does NOT die conveniently of consumption for her sins, but ends up with exactly the same sort of awful marriage one would expect a girl would get who runs off with a con man at the age of fifteen.

    Fanny Burney came close. She influenced Austen heavily, probably more than anyone else, except maybe for Fielding’s humor. But Burney’s central heroines were always good, pure, and passive. The side characters are the ones to read for. There is a cultural sea change between Burney and Austen, though they overlapped in actual lives and production. Burney published before and after Austen, but Austen really represents the birth of the modern novel. Romance dovetailed off from there, being primarily aimed at women, about women.

    Its tropes and above all its language gradually developed over the years, but for a good deal of the first half of the nineteenth century, men as well as women were reading primarily romantic tales.

    • For me Charlotte Lucas harks back to older attitudes: marriage as an economic transaction, with its primary purpose being to provide security and an income for the woman who otherwise would have a poor chance of either. Medieval and Roman women of the upper middle classes would have made similar decisions.

      It feels as if she’s a foil for Lydia in some ways. In others, she’s Lizzy’s “There but for the grace of God.” And Lizzy of course gets the big prize. (Pemberley!)

      • The crucial difference is that Charlotte manages it all herself. She doesn’t wait passively for her father to sell her off. What’s more, though she takes the initiative, she does just fine. That was revolutionary.

        Lydia also does exactly what she wants–and she doesn’t pay the required dramatic price. She gets just the kind of man, and marriage, you’d expect. That, too, was revolutionary.

        Equally revolutionary was Lizzie turning down the otherwise perfect man. He had to change before she could love/respect him.

        • This is what I love about Austen, and especially Pride and Prejudice. Up until this point a young woman did pretty much exactly what her parents wanted her to do. Novels were published that encouraged her to surrender to the “wiser understanding” of her elders. But Charlotte Lucas–who is considered a plain woman of good breeding in her time and place–sees that if her friend doesn’t want that marriage, Charlotte would be a fool to scorn it. Is it what she wants? I did love the BBC version of this tale. No, it has all the faults such a marriage might have…but Charlotte has her security, for herself and children, and can live with her choice. Her choice–she had as much agency as any woman could hope for in that time.

          Lydia also lives with her choice. She doesn’t die of it, which may be a better object lesson. But Jane and Lizzie end up with both what they believe they want, plus marriages their families and society approve. That’s a romance. More–as Sherwood said, Lizzie turns him down the first time. He needs an attitude adjustment (as does she!) before they can have the marriage that is both love and respect.

          Lizzie and Jane have the example of their father marrying for the wrong reasons, and having to live with it. Austen gave them a better chance and choice. (Even if Jane’s SILs were going to be Difficult.)

  2. I can’t imagine not having an element of romance in a book I write. Is not the whole point of the exercise to administer artistic misery to characters? And where can you find a vaster and deeper field of agony than the romantic complication? There are those who claim that Girlz and their concerns have no business in SF, that the genre should be techno-oriented and not have all this squishy stuff. Nonsense.

    • Yes, and no just killing off the girlz and having the guys buck up and go out to win one in their memory. That’s the thing a lot of writers don’t seem to think about. Romance–relationships–are hard for most everyone. None of us are mind readers. You have to work at the relationship. Which is why romance novels make sense. If 51% of the story is about the romance, to do it justice, it’s no wonder that a good relationship usually takes several books in a mystery or fantasy/SF novel.

      • I’m trying to write something different. To get past the boy-meets-girl scenario, and have a book where the couple are a couple — a marriage, rather than a courtship. I believe Lois Bujold did it in her Sharing Knife books.