The Romance Debate

Yeah, I would say that today the conversation Kettle and I had about what means Romance was more of a debate, since we each had some pretty different opinions.  Her post today is called What Makes a Romance.  Even though I’m going to excerpt the [expletive deleted] out of it, do go over and read hers so that you can give her your opinion (in other words, tell her that I’m right [what’s needed here is a little winky smiley, but as I’m sort of anti-smiley just pretend, k?]).

We’re critique partners, if you’re new here, and I am Pot to her Kettle.  It’s my sworn duty to point out stuff I think is off or lacking.  Sometimes with Kettle I feel like The Romance Inspector.  I wear pink coveralls and say, “Please open up your files, ma’am, we have to make sure you’ve got enough sexual tension in there and you’re not forgetting that this is a romance.”

But is it?  I know that Kettle enjoys reading romances, I know she wants a love story to be part of this book.  But does she want it to be a Romance, or am I trying to get her to write this book to order for me?  So I start questioning her on that, and that’s how we got into this whole thing about what makes a book a Romance.

For me a Romance means that the main focus of the book is on the development of the relationship between two people.  Whatever plot vehicle the author sets up to drive that around is secondary.  I accept the fact that in romantic suspense, the suspense plot is considered just as important as the relationship plot, and as long as the relationship plot doesn’t take a back seat to that, and other rules either aren’t broken or are broken well, I’ll consider that a Romance.

Which brings us to some rules.  I’m not going to talk about all of them, but there are some that Kettle and I talked about that she talked about in her post.  Let’s go see what she said…

In our earlier discussion, Pot and I were listing some sort of “rules of Romance.” I started out with 1) a happily ever after, 2) heroines that are not too stupid to live, and she added (because it didn’t occur to me) 3) no infidelity, 4) no multiple partners, 5) no abusive significant others (in terms of heroes). The latter 3 didn’t occur to me because those are just morally wrong in real life and it wouldn’t cross my mind to use them in a book unless I was showing the negative side of some character.

Although I brought up some of those rules to Kettle because I know a lot of people are set on those, for some of them there’s some wiggle room for me.  1) and HEA is an absolute. 2) the thing about TSTL heroines for me is about all books, not just Romance, so it’s not included in my rule-set- it doesn’t help determine if a book is or isn’t. 3) no infidelity- almost always, with the exceptionally rare exception–but please, don’t try this at home, and provide a warning label on the cover if you’re going to shelve it in my section. 4) no multiple partners- well…after what happened to Anita Blake, after she crossed over to the Dark Side and seemed to lose all character, it more than ever seems that monogamy is the way to go.  But I have read stories that invite a third person into the bedroom.  As long as both characters are into it, as long as you make me believe in the emotional attachment between the two, I’m willing to see them entertain a third.  But for heaven’s sake, be careful!  5) no abuse to SO’s- well, first I think the parenthetical is funny, ’cause like if the heroine kicks his ass, that’s ok?  But anyway, I can’t make 5 a rule because a started reading romance in the bodice-ripper era.  And while those were sort of written so that the abuse had to seem forgivable, I think we accept now that it wasn’t.  But abuse happens in some relationships.  If you can show me two people working past it, it can be a Romance.  Obviously, my sense of morality is a bit more fluid.  So I would say that my two big rules are that the story has to have a happy ending, and that it has to be about two people falling in love– it doesn’t even have to be a man and woman, necessarily, though that is my preference, if you can make be feel something.

Because I read Romance to feel what it feels like to fall in love.  I’ve been married for almost 16 years.  I’m in love every day, but I’m not really falling in love, and I miss it.  Kettle says that as long as a love story is a big part of the book, it’s a romance for her.  If I pick up a thriller or a fantasy and there’s a love story, bonus.  It’s more likely I’m going to finish it.  But if I buy a Romance and that relationship I’m reading for, those feelings, that story, fades into the background, I’ve been cheated out of what I read for.  It’s just not fair to say that just because there’s some love story it’s a Romance.  Romance is more important than that.  It deserves more respect than that.  As a romance reader, I shouldn’t be expected to be satified by Mystery, now with 35% Romance.

I realize that the explosion of sub-genres make it confusing.  For me, a book stays in some other section unless the relationship plot becomes at least half of what the book is about.  I asked Kettle a question about her book about determining if it’s a romantic suspense, or a suspense with romance.  I asked, is it a story about a woman who faces this threat while having this romance, or is it about a man and a woman who are trying overcome their past and create a future while laboring under this threat?  Sometimes, when we’re trying to describe a story to someone else, it’s easier to talk in terms of the non-relationship plot because we think that’s the story that makes it different.  It tends to be how we think.  But in your head, what’s the story really about?  Is it about the threat or about the couple? 

My comment to Kettle’s post says that I think we have a difference of opinion on the word “primary”.  I think it’s preceeded by a “the”, whereas when she uses it it follows “a”.  I think the relationship should be “the primary” focus of the story for it to be a Romance (and despite the fact that Outlander broke some rules, I still think it focused on the relationship and would shelve it Romance).  Eve and Roarke’s relationship in JD Robb’s books is not always the center stage, even though it’s been a huge part of most of them.  That probably makes it “a primary” focus, but like I said, 35% isn’t good enough to get into my Romance section and I’d probably have to shelve those elsewhere (though with the greatest love and care).

About her own writing, Kettle says:

But the relationship is rarely the single focus. It’s usually couched in some sort of drama, suspense, paranormal event, etc. Houses of Cards is about the heroine outsmarting a serial killer. She has a bunch of relationship issues she has to deal with on her way to the HEA with the hero, but that’s secondary to the whole keeping him alive thing. Whether this is going to remain the case, I’m not sure.

No, I don’t think the relationship should be the single focus.  If it were, it would make sub-genres impossible and we’d lose a lot of good storytelling on which hang a lot of great love stories.  It’s a matter of importance.  Making the relationship, the falling in love icky love stuff important.  Always have that in your mind while you’re writing.  I’m not talking sex sex sex, but what Kettle quoted me as saying:

Don’t forget to remind us how they long for each other, how they don’t touch but want to, each for their own reason. Etc.

Sure, keeping your guy alive is important for the health of any good relationship (don’t confuse me with the technicalities of relationships with the undead right now).  I see where she (the character) is coming from.  But why?  Why is it so important to keep this man alive?  Just because it’s the right thing to do?  Or because she loves him, needs him, can’t live without him, wants to have his 2.5 babies?  If, while she’s thinking about keeping him alive, she’s thinking about that why, that’s what helps to make it romance.  And if, while that’s going on, he’s looking at her with desperation and longing, and she’s torn apart by the need to go to him and the need to maintain distance at the same time– !!!

As for this part:

When I get the germ of an idea for a book, it often begins with either a character or a scene.  And I’ll see these two interesting people and know that they’re going to be together and wonder how they get there.  But I don’t have a real system or method in place for making it a romance or some other kind of story.  It’s all kind of organic, I suppose.

I think that is similar for most writers.  And I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone should follow a formula or a checklist for developing their story.  But I think that when, in deepening your thinking at this stage, you start creating a story out of this twinkle in your mind, where you go with it has a lot to do with where your own interests and priorities lie.  You have the power, at this stage, to direct that twinkle into becoming a romance, or some other story in which the romantic aspects are merely a pleasant and fairly important aspect.  For some people this will be a conscious decision.  For others, it’s natural and unconscious.  Organic. 

So I don’t know if this post makes sense to anyone else, or even if it makes sense to me, for that matter.  I have a lot of thoughts on what makes a Romance, but I guess my main one for today was that putting in some man/woman stuff does not a Romance make.  I think too much of the genre to think that’s good enough.  And if you don’t want to write me a story that’s about two people falling in love while XY&Z are going on, that’s ok.  That doesn’t make you a bad person.  We can still be friends.

What do you think?  Besides that I’m unfocused and long-winded?  What do you want to see in your Romance section?


Filed under ideas, Kettle chat, love, romance, sex, writing

3 responses to “The Romance Debate

  1. Pingback: What Makes A Romance? « A Field of Paper Flowers

  2. gypsykitten

    I think you pretty much nailed it on the head by saying the love story, the relationship between the hero and heroine, should be the focus of the book. At its heart, a romance novel is about the two main characters falling in love, being in love, and finding their happy ending.

    There are lots of sub-genres or cross overs where I would say the romance part of the story is 50% of the focus, and the other genre is about 50% of the focus. (To borrow your example, the J.D. Robb mysteries are a good example of that to me. BTW, I really enjoy those mysteries. At this point, I think the same could possibly be said about Linda Howard’s more recent novels, and Elizabeth Lowell’s more recent novels. Focus has shifted from all romance to more of a 50/50 split.)

    For me to be able to enjoy a book, it’s either got to be a romance, or a 50/50 split (50% romance and 50% mystery or fantasy or action). You get under 50% romance, and I start to lose interest. I spent a lot of time in college reading “great literature” (yeah, former English major here), and so, yes, I have read more than just romance in my life. And if required, I can read other genres. But I don’t generally enjoy it. I take the occasional side trip into mystery (Janet Evanovich being of my exceptions), but my book cases are 90% romance novels.

    In fact, what tends to tick me off is when they try to market “chick lit” novels as romance. There isn’t enough romance in them for me. They’re more like 80/20 — and the 20 % is the romance portion. Can’t tell you how much $$ I was suckered into spending on chick lit when it first started coming out, thinking I was getting a good romance, when I wasn’t.

  3. gypsykitten-
    The thing you said about chicklit is one of the things I was thinking of. Yeah, it’s got a love story on the way to the heroine overcoming whatever issues she has, but it’s not about the love story, it’s about the chick’s issues. Not good enough. I think I harbor some bitterness about the time and money lost to chicklit thinking it was going to be Romance. I wish they’d have some kind of clear warning label or something.

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