Ah, love. On the surface it is one of the most simple and effortless things in the world, but truthfully it is one of the most complex. Much the same can be said of writing romance. I grew up on my share of Lifetime Movie and Hallmark Channel dramas(before they got crappy), as well as a love of Japanese anime with heavy romance themes, like Sailor Moon, and anime’s graphic counterpart manga. All over the world we tell great and sweeping love stories that capture the mind, pull on the heart, and make you feel as though you’ve fallen in love yourself. It doesn’t matter where you are people share these amazing stories. One of the most complex love stories I’ve ever read is a manga called Hot Gimmick, which has since been novelized. Nothing has compared to “not really siblings” falling in love, semi-abusive emotionally fragile lovers, easy siblings, hurt childhood friends, and the complexity of Japanese morality. Those are only some of the major parts of that series. What makes that series so gripping is those plot points are not uncommon in Japan, but the grace and intricacy Mika Aihara put into the story made it superbly unique in romance fiction across the globe.
Overall there is a trend in romance towards over simplicity and cliches without depth or real intrigue. That isn’t inherently bad but I want to explain what makes those cliches feel tired, and how to make them fresh. The fact is the same old plot points, relationships, and character arch types aren’t inherently bad. There is a reason we all gravitate towards them. However we often miss the boat on what makes those stories work. So I’m going to make a short basic list on what you need to do as a writer. The short hand for this list would be: Question Everything. Don’t just write. Think. Because if you don’t you may miss out on what could make your next story, book, script, poem, etc. a true gem. Worst of all you may miss out on reaching a whole host of wider audiences. Without further ado let’s get to the nitty gritty.
- Do engage with familiar troupes, cliches, characters, and story telling techniques, but try to surpass them and complicate them.
The very basis of my writing style is that “Authors complicate the common into the uncommon.” What does that mean? It means that our job is to take basic concepts like love, romance, sex, magic, history, or science and make them compelling. That isn’t easy. Millions of people want to write, hundreds of thousands actually do, and out of those groups only a small percentage of them will know how to tell a truly intriguing story.
I wrote stories for years thinking that I made them compelling when I just made them long and dramatic. Most stories I never even finished. Why? Drama doesn’t automatically make a story compelling or even make what you’ve written into a story. Plenty of cliched stories have drama and it means absolutely nothing. It’s fine if you just want to fill a niche and write stories people won’t remember. However the best friend of an author is making sure readers remember your name and what you write because word of mouth is what gets your writing sold. Word of mouth gets people to try new things. These old forgettable stories just don’t cut it like they used to.
“Grandpa left me this farm and now only sexy farm hand Jake can teach me, a city girl, how to save my family legacy.” A new one of these stories premiers every month on Hallmark. They’re almost all white people who are young attractive and make small town America look idyllic. They all look almost exactly the same and out of the dozens I have watched I couldn’t tell what from what except for those that made themselves stand out. This is one half of why the romance genre is thought of so poorly. We retell the same stories and rarely complicate them. Of course people want their fluff. After all their familiar, warm, and toasted marshmallows taste great! But you can’t eat marshmallows every day. It is just silly to do it. Not to mention that eventually 90% of people get sick of it as each one tastes almost exactly like the last. You don’t know if your readers are coming in on their first marshmallow. You don’t know if they’ve never had any before yours. However, chances are you will be someone’s last marshmallow if you don’t do something vaguely special with your writing. Ask yourself what you can bring to the marshmallow game? Hot cocoa in the marshmallow? Can you dip it in chocolate and add nuts? Can you make glutton free Marshmallows? Maybe you will decide to sell s’mores instead. When you start to ask questions you begin to complicate what you’re doing.
What makes your story unique? What makes Gale moving from the city matter? What makes the family legacy matter? What is Jake other than good looking and kind?If you cannot answer those questions you’re probably telling the same story you’ve read a dozen times. You have to reach out of this boring little box because otherwise your works won’t sell as well as they could, but more than that if you only pay lip service to cliches then you won’t elevate yourself as a writer. You deserve to read better and write better. You deserve to get more out of a page whether it is your own or someone else’s. This is a simple path towards unlocking a new array of story telling in yourself. All it comes down to is thinking. Now I’m going to demonstrate more examples of success and failure across media.
These cliches exist for a reason and you should take every opportunity to ask yourself what you can do to make your take on them more unique.
Warm Bodies and World War Z(the book not the movie) take basic genres and genre elements then completely morph them into something new. WWZ is essentially a gathering of interviews and a sort of post-plague diary recounting this terrible outbreak and that allowed it to reach levels of success even in the height of the zombie craze. Yes, that novel probably hit at the right time, but so did a dozen other movies, books, and even CDs. I can only remember a few of them a few years later because very few of them managed to do something new. Warm Bodies combines zombie cliches with Romeo & Juliet. Hell, it even has love bringing R back to life! This shouldn’t work. Logically it should fail spectacularly, but it doesn’t. Why do these things work? Not only are they well executed, but they tip standard zombie affairs into something newer by doing the unexpected. Now why do you think knock-offs or even adaptations fail? Let’s talk about Pride, Prejudice, & Zombies the film versus the book. I read most of the book and saw parts of the film. The book embraced what the genre was. It like the two previous movies I mentioned dived into the style and source material with wit without sacrificing sincerity. However, the film did not. It wasn’t poorly done, but the film didn’t embrace many aspects of Regency romance, and instead cut itself into an action set piece. Worse unlike the UK trailer the US trailer sacrificed every ounce of this so those why may have been interested in the unique blend got nothing.
Stories fail because they don’t manage to grasp what makes them work. They don’t get that the cliches are inverted or turned on their head. They don’t get that the story isn’t just a love story or a zombie story its both. They don’t get that the book isn’t just a zombie movie or a war diary…its a book about a plague, about zombies, and its written with the mindset of a person having lived through and trying to understand them both. Those twists aren’t just pomp and circumstance. They are sincerely crafted to add something new and meaningful to their genres.
- Write characters and situations together. Don’t just constantly try to crank things up to eleven or paint by numbers.I recently read that “great authors tell simple stories with complex characters and amateurs tell complex stories with simple characters”. I know this is true because I was that novice. It is so easy to get wrapped up with the grand story of story telling that we forget to convince the reader “Why does this matter?”. We just tell a story…and expect people to care, but why should they? Our job is to make them care.
The biggest problem with Bella in Twilight and 90% of female characters is we are never told why we should care about them because they don’t have a personality. Bella isn’t a character so much as she is a prop in a complex story. Truthfully the elements of Twilight could be absolutely fascinating. However they are executed in such a way where the situation goes under explored and that characters given this facade of depth when they are in fact extraordinarily simple. Their motives and characteristics are paper thin or not fully explored. When that happens you find yourself disconnecting from the story regardless of how interesting the situation can be. This is great for other writers like me who see your story and say “I can do it better,” and write their own take of a genre or story element that surpasses your own. But you don’t want them to do that because your goal is to be that author. Your goal is to create characters and situations that work together, and when you fail even a fun thing can turn bad.
*For clarity you can write blank slates as protagonists/narrators, but even in the best stories there is a character even if that character is a whole town(like in A Rose for Emily). The difference is doing your best to execute that by understanding what makes a character feel present versus feeling empty. Bella feels shallow and empty, which isn’t bad. It makes for a light read if not necessarily a great one. However your intentions to make a reader/author insert need to be felt and understood in the text.
Recently my brother and I discussed the recent Hang Over movies, I know random, but he said something very poignant. He stopped liking the movies because the “world became mean”. This was absolutely fascinating, so I asked him to explain further. In his eyes the movie essentially removed many of the redeemable characteristics of these men and with these increasingly exaggerated “Uh oh what did we do now?” moments he began to wonder why he should root for any of the characters. Their wives and normal lives became shallow nagging things, while the abnormal situations and spaces where the insanity takes place simply became parodies of themselves without getting the junk. Essentially my brother felt that nothing in the characters redeemed these increasingly violent and weird plots anymore. At some point it stopped being “these guys find themselves in crazy positions when they drink” to making a chunk of the audience wonder “What’s wrong with these guys where this not only keeps happening but things get more and more out of control?”. The stories shifted from the comedic abnormality to being about the slapstick, the situation, and ultimately the characters became lifeless props he could not care about. That is the worst possible thing that can happen in any genre, but especially comedy. As a viewer my brother was convinced not only does no one in those movies matter, but that they cause so much sheer chaos to innocent and immoral people alike that he actively wished for the characters to meet a grim ending just so none of the other likable side characters would suffer.
When you fail to make your stories and characters truly depend on each other you fail to tell a convincing story. It can happen in any genre even comedy where many times people are supposed to be just props, so don’t think your story will be an exception.
- Don’t assume opposites attract: More importantly convince us they do! I like realism in my escapism. What do I mean? You and I have both heard a dozen stories about couples who bicker like Punch and Judy, but who really love each other. This is a specific cliche, but I think it is broad because it speaks to a larger issue of writing, which we just touched on moments ago…convincing the reader your story works. Often our characters get together because we decide they should. As writers that is just what we do, but as writers we have an obligation to make sure our character’s motives can be interpreted and understood as appropriate. As romance writers you have to create scenarios that feel viable and real to people. **This extends to people who used to be in relationships as well. At some point they loved each other, and if we don’t get it then it is a missed opportunity**
If you have two characters who despise everything about each other then why would they get together, and why should I, as a reader of your story, believe a word of their romance? One common example…Draco and Harry is very popular as a fan pairing in the Harry Potter fan fiction universe. They have nothing in common from what I’ve understood. No interests or hobbies. No love of their crafts. Nothing. Draco was raised to despise people with muggle blood and while he certainly can and does get over that in time it is a prime reason for him never to be involved with Harry. The mutual horrors they witness as Draco struggles with his own growing sense of purpose, morality, and angst simply wouldn’t give way to a relationship under even the best of circumstances. And I’ll tell you authors rarely bother to make the circumstances make sense for the relationships. To them it doesn’t matter. To them it is a distraction from enjoying it and you shouldn’t judge them. Well I’m judging.
The main reason these pairings happen is “Oh its hot.” I have read dozens of stories with the same sort of pairing and it almost always comes down to altering the characters initial personalities to put them together or making their hate sex so steamy they inevitably fall in love. It feels insincere, not holistically enjoyable, and quite frankly dull.
That isn’t how emotions work. Try as you might to do this (even if I enjoy your story) I walk away thinking “Harry and Draco are done-zo as soon as the puppy love wares off”. Why? You haven’t built a a strong relationship. It is just strong sex and if that is your intention then go forward with the grace of the gods and my blessings, but if not…redraft! I have built many a story around characters in love who actually have no reason to love each other…and thank god I now know better! It has radically improved my story telling into something far more engaging.
Plenty of people believe they write a simmering back and forth with sexual and emotional tension. A great example of that would be Kyle and Maxine from Living Single(circa the 90s). They were incredibly intellectual, snarky, enjoyed culture, had great sex, and could keep up with each other on an intellectual level few could. They thought they wanted partners who were “perfect” in the traditional sense; partners who would be exciting, un-aggressive, but loving in their intellectual debates. But over time they came to realize what they wanted and needed was a challenge. They reacted heatedly not because they genuinely disliked each other, but because they enjoyed poking fun, and the depths of how much they enjoyed each other genuinely scared them. When most authors write that is what they think they are building. 9 times out of 10 what they are actually building is a heal-face-turn, an abrupt and sudden, change in character and their dynamic. These characters had no reason to hate each other or their hate changes in an instant after one event, reducing multi-faceted characters to simple props while eliminating key differences between them. Play with those difference. Figure out how people fit together. This only helps you in the long run
So what does this all mean?
GO DEEPER. Just like sex. If all else fails take your time, slow it down, and then just try your best to go deeper. Understand your characters. Understand their motivations. Write out what sort of person they believe they want to love, and then write out who would actually be a good fit for them. If you cannot take the characters who are supposed to fall in love and say 50% of what would be a good fit and 20% of what they think they want is in their love interest then you probably don’t have a good case to convince the reader that this love is real.
Essentially if you don’t do this Dido won’t go down with your ship….and let me say that again for certain types of erotica: No one will go down if the characters relations don’t convince them they’d fuck. Strangers, people who meet online, friends with benefits, long time lovers, employers, and whomever got their relationship to that point, so make us believe how and why. It is your number one job in this genre.