AUTHORS: Four Ways Fictional Romance Sometimes Reads False

1389610_loversWriting a sweet, romantic moment is probably one of the hardest things to do in fiction. Seriously. I can’t claim to excel at that kind of scene, and that’s why in my novels love stories take a bit of a backseat and become subplots (excepting perhaps “The Magic Council.” But I consider that one even more of a coming of age tale than an out-and-out love story.)

However, I have recognized through some failed “sweet” (read “sickly sweet”) romantic moments I tried to write in my unpublished novels that when my tender moments go wrong, it tends to be for one of a limited set of reasons. I’d like to share those just for reference and to ask if you’ve found this same thing happening in your writing.

When romance feels off, somehow in my writing:

  • Things are too cliche.

We’re talking knight in shining armor, “You had me from hello,” “Not only would I die for you: I just did!” kind of cliche. It’s not only trite, though that’s a major concern. Such moments also tend to be:

  • Way, way overdone. It’s just too much.

A moment that’s meant to be sweet doesn’t have to be cliche to be overkill. Maybe things are just too perfect. Or too melodramatic. Maybe a character overacts to a small gesture of affection.

Or maybe the balance of a relationship subplot is out of whack with the rest of your story (assuming your genre isn’t romance.) Maybe the scene is just too bloated and needs to be cut down… Whatever the case, too much is too much. Personally, I prefer to err on the side of too little and TRY to do that, if err I must.

  •  Tone is off

What do I mean by that? I’m talking about when I can tell that my scene reads as though I’m trying too hard. Rather than coming across as natural and sweet and romantic, a passage reads as though I’m TRYING to write something romantic. This is one effect cliches can have.

  • Too much focus on romance

I find that the best romantic scenes I’ve written are scenes where romance is kind of side effect. It’s not the focus. It’s not the main point. It’s more of a byproduct of someone naturally responding to a situation, or trying to do something kind for someone else.

Maybe the main point of the scene is encouragement. Or consolation. Maybe it’s try to help someone recognize his or her worth.

Maybe the main goal is facing one’s fears, or escaping with one’s life from a real and present danger. Whatever the case, I find that my scenes (and my characters) are most romantic when they have no real thought about whether they’re being romantic. When they’re just doing something they feel needs to be done.

And isn’t that how the best romance works in real life? I think it so. I’ve never felt it’s romantic to try too hard and fall into cliches. It’s not truly romantic to be OBVIOUSLY striving to hit a romantic chord. What’s romantic is being romantic without meaning to be. Perhaps without even knowing that’s what happening.

So, what ruins a romantic moment in a book for you as a reader? What do you find romantic and sweet without going over the top? Do you struggle with this as much as I do as  writer, finding that balance to strike the right chord?

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

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27 responses to “AUTHORS: Four Ways Fictional Romance Sometimes Reads False

  1. Good tips, though I have to admit, I do love romance when it’s the focus 😀

  2. Love conquers all.

    I see this a lot in adventure/romance hybrids. You have two characters who are antagonists throughout the first third of the book who suddenly fall in love.

    “You monster! You betrayed me, tried to kill me, sold my personal information to the tabloids, and got my dog addicted to prescription cough syrup!”
    “Yes, but I love you.”
    “Oh? Well, it’s okay, then.”

    I understand in a theoretical way the intent of the enemies becoming lovers trope, but it just doesn’t work for me. I can see all of their history coming up in future arguments.

    “You didn’t take out the trash again.”
    “Yeah, well, remember that time you blew up my village?”

    • I agree with you there!!! I don’t buy that enemies turned lovers thing either. It just does not feel real or likely or even possible. Love does not excuse betraying or hurting someone else, and I feel like that lover-enemies trope tries to argue that it does or can.

  3. Laying on the romance too thickly puts me off. I like it to add flavour to the story, not dominate it.

  4. I never actually thought about it that way, but yeah, it seems the most “romantic” moments between any characters I write is when they’re not trying to be–and that’s what works best in other books. I’ve seen in multiple series that when hints are given, but no confirmed romance, it can really get an audience invested. (Unless the “will they or won’t they” dynamic gets dragged on too long…)
    I must admit, I sometimes use a cliche moment–but if I do, there’s always an acknowledgement that it’s a cliche. Like from the “I’d die for you–and I just did!” above, there would most likely be someone in the corner pointing out, “But you ALWAYS die, that’s nothing new. Go take a bath, I can smell you decomposing.”
    Probably why I never have, and probably never will be, a romance author.

  5. What gets me is when the dialogue is unrealistic (especially if the guy doesn’t sound like a guy):
    “Oh, Juliet, the image of you, in your Dior halter dress, is delightful!”
    “Oh, Morgan!” Juliet batted her lashes. “Do come and kiss me!”

  6. For the love scenes, I think a really good editor is pure gold. Mine will tell me in no uncertain terms – too contrived, too melodramatic, too wordy, too trite etc. etc. You get the picture. Not always easy to hear but oh so necessary. It’s too easy, as the author, to get caught up in the emotion of a scene and not see it for what it has become. Great post.

  7. I can’t read romance just because book/movie love and real life love are so different. No matter how fantastical the story, some elements must be realistic and for me, love is one of them. And real love isn’t always worth a 400 page novel.

    • I can definitely understand that point of view! 🙂 I definitely am not a fan of the romance genre, in film or novel.

      • Hi Victoria; I’m with you…Real romance is a side effect of another situation. It happens in real life. You’re doing one thing, and something else comes along. And it might not even start out ‘ROMANTICALLY’. It might just be a friendship or even be somewhat adversarial to begin with. That’s a scenario I’m working on. Then again, sometimes the characters end up telling the writer if they’re meant for each other. If the writer (like any other match maker) attempts to pair two people who aren’t meant to be together, what good the story may have is ruined by a ‘fake’ romance.

        • I agree with this a lot! And I love healthy friendships or romantic relationships that develop from tough or rocky beginnings. Real life is like that sometimes!

  8. If you ever watch the various documentaries about the making of Star Wars, there’s an interesting part about the trouble they had with the romantic scenes in The Empire Strikes Back. They wanted to include a love story between Han Solo and Princess Leia, but it just felt weird and out of place. The actors were unhappy with it because they felt their lines were out of character.

    The solution they used was to shoot those scenes from farther back, to create a little more space between the characters and the audience so it felt less like we, the audience, were intruding upon these personal moments. I’m not sure how to apply that lesson to writing, since we can’t simply reposition our camera crew, but maybe there’s something to be learned from what they did.

    • that is so cool!!! I had never heard that before, but Empire is SUCH a classic. Their approach definitely worked for that film.

      • That part in the carbon freezing chamber was another issue. The script said Leia says, “I love you,” then Solo says, “I love you too.” Harrison Ford changed the line to “I know” on the fly, because he thought it worked better for the character.

  9. Interesting, Victoria. I sometimes wonder if not focusing solely on the “love relationship” is why some romance readers find my stories too “people-oriented.” My heroes and heroines are involved with family members and friends, not just themselves. I like to use secondary characters to help illustrate my protagonists’ personalities and temperaments. Yes, there is “romance,” but we all know that it takes more than that to make the world go ’round–even in our fictional worlds.

  10. I’ll never understand wanting a cliched romance… 🙂

  11. What ruins it for me is when things aren’t realistic. The kids magically fall asleep, the dog doesn’t bark to ruin the moment, the phone doesn’t ring, his broken leg incredibly doesn’t bother him, clothes shred at the touch of a finger….etc. Absolutely great article. I loved it! Thank you for it!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Taylor!!!!

      • Hi Victoria; I’m with you. A good, HONEST romance is more often a side effect of another situation. It might not even begin as a romance. The characters could be pushed together by exceptional circumstances, or they might even start out being somewhat unfriendly, though, sometimes, that’s almost as cliched as the “You had me at Hello” bit.

        I’m working on an idea where characters, from opposing sides of a hot issue, become at least FRIENDS….. at least as far as I’ve figured out to this point. I just don’t want to force the issue.

  12. Pingback: It’s June now, right? (slightly early links) | Becky Black

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