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LDS Fiction: Romance Plots and Pet Peeves

March 17, 2009

Okay, I’m not into romance as a genre, or even romance in books. Except when I am, and then I love it. I’m so grateful when romance is well done, and so irritated when it’s not. Here is when I am not into romance:

1-When the plot is a bad imitation of the basic premise of Pride and Prejudice:
the heroine/hero take an instant dislike to each other, or at least one of them does, but it’s not well-founded or well-explained. I don’t mind good imitations of the Pride and Prejudice basic plot. But the book has to set up the couple’s initial dislike for each other very well; it can’t just be “I hated him/her at first sight but then grew strangely attracted.” There’s got to be more substance to it than that.

Who does the Pride and Prejudice plot well? Well, Jane Austen, of course. And Shakespeare–Much Ado about Nothing has a similar dynamic. And the movie You’ve Got Mail is excellent at this.

2-When the plot is a bad version of the married-but-still-need-to-fall-in-love romance.
This is when the couple is forced to act married or engaged at the start of the book, but they don’t really love each other, and as the work progresses they fall in love, and eventually they declare their affection for each other.

Mostly this plot doesn’t work for me when the characters involved are boring or cliched. The ending is a foregone conclusion: it’s a romance, and these are the two main characters, so of course they are going to get together in the end. No question. So the author has to build up tension in other ways. I have read cheesy versions of this plot that make me cringe, where it seemed so fake I struggled to turn pages.

But I’ve also read versions that do it well: I really enjoyed the Seeking Persephone version of this plot. Orson Scott Card uses it in Enchantment to great effect also. And, of course, there’s L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle. Brandon Sanderson’s upcoming novel Warbreaker uses this plot too. I loved each of these books. I think what made them work was very strong characterization, that overcame the contrived nature inherent to that type of romantic plot.

3-When the romance is all the characters care about.
If it’s all about love, I’m outta there. I’ve thought about this a lot lately; IMO, a successful romance has to have the romance as a side attraction in the characters’ lives. They need to want something else in addition to romantic love, or they run the risk of becoming boring. In The Blue Castle, Valancy wants freedom even more than she wants love. You might not think of Elantris as primarily a romance, but it’s got a great romance going on. Raoden and Sarene both want something besides their romance, though: they have problems to solve, things to get done.

Some books pay lip service to this idea, giving their protagonists a fake task/want/interest, but they spend almost all the time inside the character’s head dwelling on the romance, and nothing on the other task. That makes the task seem not important, and the characters feel flat as a result.

4-When there is constant physical description of the love interest from the other person’s point of view.
It just grates. Note that I said “constant.” I don’t mind description every so often. I’ve never been annoyed by the way Shannon Hale does it–a tidbit detail here and there, nothing too heavy-handed, but enough to give you a sense of attraction and mystery. But no, please don’t tell me what the person is wearing or about their eyes or their hair every time the two encounter each other. Don’t tell me what they are wearing too often. Don’t notice muscles more than once, if that, and be so careful when you do, because it can be over-the-top. Let them fall for each others’ minds and hearts first. Then when you give a physical detail, I will believe and appreciate it more, instead of being irritated by it.

5-When there’s no sense of humor. There’s got to be laughter in the book, they have to make each other laugh, or I’m just not buying the romance.

I have more to say, but my timer has beeped, and I’m off to make green cookies. I do love a good romance. But it’s such a delicate thing, very hard to pull off. Kudos to all who attempt; even bigger kudos to those who do it well.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ruth permalink
    March 18, 2009 2:43 am

    I take issue with #3. Why can’t a romance be just a romance? Think Shakespeare’s comedies, Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen. I find it much more annoying when romances pretend that the heroine has no interest in love. Possibly such women exist but I don’t really want to spend time with them.

  2. Emily permalink*
    March 18, 2009 2:54 am

    Hi Ruth! Thanks for stopping by.

    Hmm, good point. I guess that my problem is I very seldom read a romance that’s just a romance that I enjoy these days, whereas I read a lot of books that have romance as a secondary goal that succeed quite well.

    Austen and Shakespeare and Wilde are all about love, and they do it well. But IMO it works for them because they have great, deep, well-rounded, interesting characters.

    And I wonder if you analyzed those texts if you could find other goals beyond (or at least parallel) to love. Take Emma–she wants to control everyone else’s love life, and the book is not just about her own love life, but the way she has to accept loss of control in order to love. Or Anne in Persuasion–in order to find love, she’s also got to assert herself, trust in her own desires instead of Lady Russell’s.

    The characters have enough depth that in order to find love, to make it work, they have to grow first, discover something inside of themselves that will make their love work.

    I think that’s what I mean: not that the heroine has no interest in love, but that love is just one aspect of her life, and that if love is the dominating value, she’s got to grow and change to be able to succeed in it.

  3. Shalissa Lindsay permalink
    March 19, 2009 2:28 am

    Love this post. I’ll add one: plot with two suitors… One is boring and known since childhood (or the like) and the other is wild or exotic but unpredictable. Most teen romances (Sunfire, ugh) use this and resolve toward the boring guy turned gold. Perhaps that’s helpful to the teenage psyche. Perhaps it just helps girls dream that maybe boring Jim in math could be pure gold. But when used repetitively, this is the quickest way to ruin a story.
    Love you Emily!

  4. NyNy permalink
    March 7, 2013 3:20 pm

    A nice list you have here! I totally agree with most of your points, it really annoys me! “bad version of the married-but-still-need-to-fall-in-love romance” Hmm…reminds me of a story I dragged myself through to complete (though I’m still unfinished). On your 4th point, can you give me some advice on to tone it down? I’d really appreciate it 🙂 By the way, I wrote a post about my own fiction pet peeves on my blog so I hope you will read and comment with your own opinion telling me what you think!

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