I love romance. Straight up, putting it out there and feelin’ no shame: I looove it. A friend of mine once told me I was in love with love. It could be true because a good love story gives me the fuzzies, the butterflies, the squees. Whatever you want to call it, a romantic sub-plot so does it for me. It takes a really good writer to make me not notice its absence because I usually feel like the story was missing something when there isn’t one.
So, you can imagine I’m pretty familiar with what sucks about them. I’ve read stories where the plot/worldbuilding/characters are all amazing, but for some reason they shoved in a glaringly bad love story that dragged down all the good. My working theory is that there are authors who think they have to have a love story in order to catch the attention of readers who prefer stories with them (like me), but they don’t actually read/write much romance themselves and thus don’t have a good feel for what it should look like.
Whatever the case may be, I’ve boiled it down to three main things that make readers despise a romance — and which give the romantic sub-plot in books a bad name.
1. Melodrama & Manufactured tension
I’d put the love triangle/square/hexagon mess under melodrama, because really, what a problem it is when one JUST CAN’T DECIDE between multiple hotties. The triangle can work. I’ve seen it done well and it was awesome, but most of the time it’s a total blunder. Also, I have a hard time rooting for a character who strings love interests along under the rationale that they don’t want to “hurt” one of them, or they’re “so in love with them both”. Lord, give me a break.
This is also the category where I file the miscommunication gag that could be solved with a single conversation, and the dumb arguments where one side is mad at the other for something ridiculous that wasn’t even the other one’s fault. If they’re gonna fight, let it be for something real. There’s plenty of that to choose from.
2. Insta-Love/No chemistry
When Romeo saw Juliet from across the room and fell in love, proclaiming that “she doth teach the torches to burn bright”, his best friends immediately told him he was an idiot and ribbed the crap out of him. “You were in love with someone else not five minutes ago, man!” (uh, paraphrasing here) So, yeah, insta-love is hard to believe in, and with only a few exceptions I’ve come across, it does not work well. Insta-attraction, hells yeah, that exists. But love is familiarity. Love is seeing their sadness while everyone else sees a convincing smile. That takes work to convey on the page.
Similar deal with the no chemistry thing. That relationship needs to be grown from a bond that’s believable, one based on mutual understanding and a genuine affection. Readers know the difference between a connection that’s real and one that’s inserted to check off the romance sub-plot box.
3. Abuse as romance
This is a big one. It takes many forms but to avoid the endless rant I’m capable of I’ll outline one specific thing I’ve noticed recently, especially in YA:
I don’t know how many times I’ve read a book where the pair started off as enemies (which is okay) but one of them imprisons/physically harms/threatens with death/verbally abuses/endangers or abandons the other one who eventually turns out to be the love interest later on (which is incredibly NOT okay).
I really don’t understand this or why people love the trope so much. If the relationship started out as harmful, HOW can the one harmed grow to trust and love the other one knowing what they are capable of in the absence of those lovey feelings?? The memory, the echo of that fear, does not just vanish no matter how sassy-tough the character is. If the harm happened on the field of battle — like, literally, they were in opposing armies attacking each other — that’s something else. It’s the intentional cruelty at the beginning of their association that I don’t feel can be overcome. Forgiven, sure, but turned into a romance, noooo. A complicated introduction can be done without this element!
Anyway, I promised not to rant, so I’ll stop there.
You might be wondering at this point, given how badly a romance sub-plot can go, why am I still a fan? That’s easy. When a romance is done well, when time and effort and, you know, love is invested in it, it can make a story that was good into something transcendent, one I’ll read and reread over and over again.
Two big reasons:
1. Love is transformative
Don’t everybody roll your eyes at me! The world is a cynical place and we are surrounded by tragic endings, and injustice, and wrongdoing, but this does not mean that love isn’t a force that can change everything. In books, I don’t think that love should replace personal strength, or require the sacrifice of one’s own dreams, or that it can cure trauma, but it can be the spark that shows the characters that there is more than despair. It can be the safe space offered by someone who loves that person for who they are, who will support them no matter what. It’s someone saying, “I believe in you” when the world is shouting the other down. Tell me that isn’t something that can turn defeat into victory and sorrow into joy.
2. Love is fun
You know what I mean here. Love is banter. It’s inside jokes, teasing. LAUGHTER. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read where the romance was so friggin’ seeerious with the smoldering gazes and angst and agony that I just couldn’t get into it. I remember closing the book and thinking, “You know what this story could’ve used? Some funny.”
For me, humor does not deflate intensity. It actually makes the romance–the bond–seem more real. And when they’re torn apart by *insert terrible thing happening in the plot*, the longing each character suffers is visceral because I feel the absence of that bright spot in their life with them.
These two things together are why I still adore the romance sub-plot even though it gets mishandled. An occasional disappointment, yes, but always eclipsed by my joy when a story does it well.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for today on the subject.
As you can see, it ends after tomorrow, so hop over and see if there’s an awesome read for you. The sale includes my own fantasy novel, A Ransom of Flames, which is 99¢ until this sale ends.
Happy Monday and have a great rest of the week!