3 tips to avoid writing a cheesy, shallow romance

2 Feb
Image by benketaro

Image by benketaro

Two attractive people meet. Adventure ensues. They get shot at together. One or both of them shares a moving past experience with the other. Suddenly, it’s love.

Sound similar to the romance in your story? Sorry, it’s also the romantic subplot in pretty much every action movie.

Or maybe yours sounds more like:

Two attractive people meet. One is awkwardly hesitant. One is powerful and forward. They are inexplicably drawn to one another. There are a lot of smoldering gazes and fluttering hearts. It doesn’t matter that they’ve only known each other weeks, days, hours. They know they can’t live without each other.

The problem? You’re just making Cool Whip. The relationships are based on nothing but physical attraction and a few gushy player lines. Corn syrup, oil and air.

You might have done this unintentionally. You might have intended to write something that spoke to the human condition…and watched with horror as the cheesy Jerry Maguire you-complete-me dialogue came oozing out of your fingers. “I’m supposed to be the next Markus Zusak,” you spit at your computer, “Not Stephenie bloody Meyer!”

I know. It’s happened to me.

So here’s the approach I’m taking: Try to forget for the first eight tenths of your book that there even will be a romantic relationship.

Develop the characters individually before you develop their romance.

It might help to think of primetime dramas instead of movies or books—the ones where the two leads are always dancing around a relationship. They work together, struggle together, probably see the best and worst of each other, and still go home alone at the end of the day for years. This means:

  • The audience really gets to know the characters.
  • The characters really get to know each other.
  • You build a ton more tension.

Pretend you’re writing about two people becoming friends.

In literature, as in life, it’s best to build the friendship first. This will force you to stop depending on the cheap thrills of his devastating smile and her million stomach butterflies, and start finding substance on which to build a real relationship, like:

  • Values, fears and interests they have in common.
  • Things they can teach each other.
  • Ways they can grow together.

For some reason, we don’t usually think of these things when we think of romance. Perhaps because most of it’s so cheaply crafted. But a few classics remain shining examples; Pride & Prejudice just celebrated its 200th anniversary.

Sure, it shares elements with a lot of shallow romances: things that appeal to our most basic desires:

  • To be singled out by someone selective.
  • To be adored and sacrificed for.
  • To be protected and provided for.

But it goes much deeper. The heroine and hero of P&P:

  • Value each other’s integrity and intelligence.
  • Discover their own faults by interacting with each other.
  • Become better people from having known each other.

They should fall for each other’s actions, not each other’s words.

There’s little mention of Mr. Darcy’s looks, and no pretty words but one impassioned proposal, which didn’t work for him anyway. It’s Darcy’s actions that win our hearts, from his awkwardness in pursuing Lizzie, to his strength in saving her sister whilst enduring horrible humiliation.

And while Edward Cullen is immortal by way of being undead, Mr. Darcy has been alive and adored for centuries. And, by all accounts, for centuries more.

Aspire to that.

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11 Responses to “3 tips to avoid writing a cheesy, shallow romance”

  1. Ink and Papyrus February 2, 2013 at 2:11 am #

    Great post. I loved the line about aspiring to be Markus Zusak not she-who-must-not-be-named. :D

    • Stephanie Orges February 2, 2013 at 11:23 am #

      Haha! Voldemeyer.

      • jubilare February 2, 2013 at 10:47 pm #

        Oh, that brings up all kinds of ideas. *has brain explosion*

  2. jubilare February 2, 2013 at 10:32 am #

    Gosh yes! It also helps if the relationship between the “couple” is not the only relation focused on in the book, or so I feel. Relationships in real life (healthy relationships, at lest) don’t exist in isolation. Reality and interest, therefore, comes from interactions from a myriad of characters. Since you use P&P as an example, Lizzie’s relationship with her family and how that plays out, Darcy’s sister, aunt, cousin, friends… it makes the story so much richer and so much more believable!

    I worry a lot about the dysfunction of my characters being taken as an approval of dysfunction in relationships. I think a lot of people “settle” and put up with truly horrible treatment from their significant others in the impression that it is somehow “normal” and the fiction we consume contributes to that.
    I don’t want people looking at one character and saying “well, he’s an alcoholic, but he’s still sweet, so maybe I can date this alcoholic and things will turn out ok.” Sure, my alcoholic is a pretty sweet guy, but his alcoholism is a destructive battle that he, and everyone who loves him, will fight their whole lives. There’s that fine line between accepting that no person or relationship is perfect, and accepting bad behavior simply because no person or relationship is perfect.
    What are your thoughts on such things? One can avoid idealizing the flaws, sure, but how does one accept that humans and relationships are flawed without sending out the message that people should be satisfied with potentially abusive relationships? How does one show flawed people finding eachother without seeming to say “look at the nice romance you can have with people who have X dangerous flaws?” I think about this because of the people I have seen idealize relationships in books such as Jane Eyre, or Twilight (from what I have heard). I hope that is at least vaguely coherent.

    • Stephanie Orges February 2, 2013 at 11:46 am #

      Oh, gosh. Good points. And good question. Really good question. I’ll have to think on that one for awhile. We womenfolk definitely feel drawn toward the bad boys, because we want to be the only ones who can fix them. So a lot has to do with whether or not both people are aware of the flaws going in to the relationship, and how they handle them. A woman who married a man who seems perfect but later turns out to be / becomes an alcoholic is okay, I think, because the message there is that things aren’t always as perfect as they seem, and maybe she should have gotten to know him better first, etc. But if they both go into it knowing he’s an alcoholic with a kind of “love conquers all” attitude, that’s detrimental. It’s foolishness on her part and a lack of commitment on his – she ought to know she can’t fix him, and he ought to sober up before entering into a serious relationship. If the ultimate moral of the story is that they SHOULD have done that, that should be okay. But some people will glorify the bad parts no matter what you do.
      Jane Eyre is a good example. Rochester knew his own flaws going in but decided to ignore them. Jane suspected his flaws and was very uncomfortable at the start of the relationship, and wisely refused much physical “messing around” before their marriage. Then when she discovered the truth about his crazy wife, no matter how much he begged her to stay, she had the guts to leave – even though she was in love with him. Not until a horrible tragedy taught Rochester a lesson and he CHANGED did they reunite and get married. I thought Jane was one of the strongest female characters I’ve ever read, and the book had a great message. But you’re right; people still glorify the early parts of their relationship, when it was really dysfunctional. He was this dark, mysterious rich man who chose plain ugly Jane over the rich beauty, and she simply could not believe her luck that such a man would notice her, let alone love her, and so on.
      It is a difficult question. Deserves a whole blog post! Yeah, I need to think on it some more.

      • jubilare February 2, 2013 at 11:08 pm #

        Oh, yes. Please blog on the question! It’s well-worth exploring, I think, though it is uncertain ground.
        Change and effort are big, it is true. There are nuances. I just worry about the influence stories have on some people. The reason I brought up Jane Eyre is because a friend of mine, who used to think the whole book very romantic, is now training to become a counselor. She re-read the book recently and now that she has been trained to recognize dysfunction, she is horrified by what she considered romantic when she was a teenager (we have probably all been there…). I think Charlotte Bronte was knowingly exploring forms of emotional abuse, and made very specific choices when she wrote Jane Eyre, but that does not stop people from getting a very skewed message from the story.
        Writing relationships that are good examples are difficult with deeply flawed characters. Not impossible, but difficult.

      • Stephanie Orges February 4, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

        Maybe there’s something to using minor characters as a good example. Something the main characters aspire to, like…like…Admiral and Mrs. Croft, from Persuasion, perhaps? I seem to remember they were the heroine’s ideal idea of a married couple. Not in a “look how happy they are; they don’t have any problems” kind of a way but in a “look how they handle their problems as a team” kind of way. I don’t know. Could sound forced.

  3. oliveriver February 4, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

    Sorry for intruding here, but I’m trying to get as many people as possible to read and critique the opening of my new book here:

    http://oliveriver.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/clocks-opening-v3/

    I know, it’s by no means relevant to this actual post, and I feel a little awkward commenting trying to gain publicity for my own ends, but if anyone at all reads it and gives feedback I’ll be very grateful.
    Great post by the way. Maybe I’ll have to rethink some of the romance in my novel slightly.

    • Stephanie Orges February 4, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

      That’s alright. This is really the best place to put it right now. I wonder if I should create a page where people could specifically ask for critique and stuff – one hub where the community could go to find more reading, lend their opinions, etc.
      I’ll look in on your piece when I get a chance, Olive!

  4. jubilare February 5, 2013 at 6:13 am #

    I guess, at the point in the process where I am, it’s best just to push through, then go back and try to see what the story is saying about people and relationships. Every choice of ever character has implications in some way or another.

    • Stephanie Orges February 9, 2013 at 10:34 am #

      True. Best to not worry about messaging too much at first and just let the characters progress naturally.

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