Being a Better Writer: The Convenient Romantic Subplot

Welcome back, readers! It’s Monday, and you know what that means! Time for Being a Better Writer!

But first, a slight aside. Dave Freer (you may have read something of his) wrote this little blurb that caught my eye from my morning feed on the Mad Genius Club (their name, not mine) about large books. More accurately, on books that dive past the “normal” length of 40,000 to 100,000 words. I found it interesting, both because well, the “normal” length for me is hovering around 325K per story, and because Freer is writing this as someone who doesn’t write such long books and is putting forth his thoughts on both why he doesn’t and where they may fit with readers and the industry.

I found it interesting, especially as it does point out how much of an outlier I am with the breadth and scope of what I do. Those of you who are fans of my work, take a look at his thoughts and see what you think. If you’re so inclined, if you think he nailed something or was way off, leave a comment!

Okay, news aside. Let’s talk writing stuff. Now, today’s topic isn’t a requested one. In fact, it’s not even on my Topic List. No, this is one that came to mind as I was sitting reading through another book last night (a short story collection, in this case, but I hit the library recently, so I’ve been mowing through a literal stack of books). I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately—more than the norm—and naturally, I was noticing a lot of trends as I read through. One of the most common, which I’m sure many of you readers, movie-watchers, and the like also notice, is the sometimes dreaded romantic subplot.

Naturally, I started thinking about it. Why we use it. Why it’s become so blasted common and cliche, and yet still sticks around despite that. Why so many feel the need to stick a romantic subplot into an otherwise good story (this, by the way, is often called a romantic plot tumor when it doesn’t belong). Why so many dislike it, and yet it constantly shows up, again and again. Personally, I felt it was worth talking about. Because I guarantee you, a number of readers of this site have sat down to write out their story, and almost immediately thrown a romance subplot in without even knowing why.

Now, I do want to make a caveat here: I am not talking about the romance genre. I’m talking about romantic subplots. You know, a side plot to the main story. Not a story where the romance is the story, but a story where the romance is something happening alongside the main story, but not the crux of the plot. The protagonist has a journey, a foe to face, a mountain to climb, an alien planet to explore .. whatever. And along the way they fall for someone.

All right, with that catch explained, let’s talk about romantic subplots.

So, first of all, why do so many stories throw in a romantic subplot? This is a question I hear all the time from friends and family (“Why on Earth was that in the movie!?”) but have you ever stopped and really thought about it? Why do so many stories default right to a romantic subplot? What’s to gain?

Well, actually it’s quite a lot. Which is why people keep using it. A romantic subplot is actually a bit of a shortcut in multiple ways, one that allows a creator to skip or simply gloss over a number of other story aspects. If you recall my bit on writing fanfiction, where I mentioned that one of  the appeals of fanfiction is that the universe already exists, thus doing much of the heavy work of worldbuilding? Well, a romantic subplot is like that: It does a lot of the heavy work for the creator.

How? Well, here’s the thing. A romantic subplot makes for a convenient excuse to do a lot of things for the story. Take, for example, a character dynamic. We’ve talked about character foils on here before, and writing good dialogue. We’ve talked about building relatable characters as well. Well, guess which of those things a romantic subplot introduces?

If you said all of the above, you are a winner! Collect your sense of pride from the right-hand box, please.

Think about it for a moment. A romantic subplot automatically means you have a set series of interactions between two characters, interactions that can handle that tricky task of “character development.” After all, the two need to learn about one another to fall in love, right? So boom, you have them talk to one another, maybe throw in a romantic misunderstanding … and badda bing, badda boom, you’ve got your character development out of the way! And since the two characters have to talk to one another for this to happen, or interact, or at least bounce off … we get a character dynamic. People talk about predictable romance plots all the time in part because we see this done specifically for this reason. Ever seen a story where two people don’t like one another and fall in love anyway? Yeah, that’s a pretty easy way to introduce a character dynamic. They don’t like each other, sparks fly, yadda yadda romance and love.

Okay, that was a bit harsh. But many of you likely agreed with it, having seen more than one story where this came off as cheap as I’m painting it. There are good romantic subplots, but we’ll come back to that.

Dialogue. I mentioned that above as well, and it fits. Sometimes getting two characters to interact, to talk and move things forward can be a challenge. But if they’re secretly or openly interested in one another romantically? Well, that’s a free pass because of course they want to talk to one another, and the dialogue itself? Well, they’re interested in one another, so you’ve got a focal point to write around, something to kickstart their conversation.

By this point, I hope you’re starting to see some of the reasons just why the romantic subplot is so widely used: It brings a lot of heavy lifting to the table for what’s usually only a little effort (and we’ll get into that in a bit). This makes it a great device to slide into a story that doesn’t have a subplot yet. Yes, it fulfills that function too. A romantic subplot, in addition to giving you a framework excuse to pull out character dialogue and interactions, is also a great way to “shore up” a weaker plot. Got a story that needs a subplot to fill in the downtime? Add a romance! Downtime solved!

Yes, Hollywood loves to use this one to pad out weak films.

At this point, you’re probably getting the picture: A lot of creators use the romantic subplot because of its utility. Because of the ease with which it can be applied to almost any story and bring openings for other areas to be fleshed out with it (and again, this is not a bad thing in some cases, and we’ll come back to that).

But before we do go into the good and bad of using this, let’s talk about another reason this subplot shows up so, so often.

It’s appealing. Above I mentioned relatable characters. We want our characters to have interests and goals that the audience can empathize with. And what, I ask you, is more universally seen as a goal for most if not all of any audience but love? Or sex, depending on the type of subplot and story. But yeah, how many people out there desire love (or again, sex)? A lot. And that means a romantic subplot appeals on multiple levels. Not only does it make the characters more relatable to the audience (Hey, they’re looking for love too!) but it also pulls a double-duty by (99% of the time) succeeding and giving the audience a vicarious romantic victory.

As an aside, this is especially, true of the way most industries view the female audience. You want female viewers? You need a romance. Whether or not you personally think this works, this is how industries like the film industry see the female viewer. Which often results in love-subplots being stuck into films that don’t need them (with The Hobbit trilogy, for example, female viewers was the reason given by producers for shoving that awkward, horrid love plot into the film). Mind you, this holds true for industries that are dominated by women, like the publishing industry.

“Okay,” you may reply. “But it’s been done and done and done and done a million times over. Aren’t people tired of it, since so many of these follow the same beats and hit the same notes?”

Well … yes and no. Long-time audience members, yes. They’ll start to see the pattern for “stock romance #3” being slid into the story and immediately know all the beats. But the younger, newer audience? For them, it might be the first time they see “stock romance #3” and it is completely fresh and new. And while a large part of even the remaining audience may have seen #3 before as well … that was in a heist film, and this movie is clearly a thriller, so … different.

By this point, I hope you’re starting to get a picture of why the romantic subplot is so common among stories, movies, even games. By introducing a romantic subplot, you automatically gain a wealth of optional material, from dialogue to situations, for your characters and story to exploit. You get a subplot, lots of interaction … and all for something that only really requires two characters share a mutual interest in one another.

Okay, so all this said … is a romantic subplot bad?

No. What it is is a tool. A very powerful tool that can sit in your toolbox and be brought out as needed. The reason so many of us are so tired of it? We’ve seen it overused, and often poorly, like a hammer being used to drive in a screw instead of a nail.

Romance subplots, used well, can be wonderful tools that give your story a new dimension to its characters, provide a sense of relief from the main story, introduce new tensions, or even bring comedic relief. Crud, I’ve written romance subplots into my works before. But I’ve also written stories that don’t have any romance because not all stories need a romatic subplot. Not all stories work for one. And you definitely don’t need one.

Which is where a lot of us learn to dislike a romantic subplot. Earlier, when I mentioned a romantic plot tumor? Yeah, it happens. An author has a story that is either too light or two weak, and decides to get the “romantic subplot tool” out of their toolbox because it is the biggest and most powerful tool they know? This happens. A western I watched once had this problem (and is actually singled-out online for the “romantic plot tumor) when it tried to throw in a romance to pad out its runtime. The problem was that the protagonist’s journey was too short: He was wrongly hanged, then given clearance to hunt down those who tried to kill him and kill them. He did so. End of story.

But that was too short a story. So, I kid you not, this film took a random female character from the opening quarter, and in the last third, throws an entire romance subplot in. So what happened was that he was hanged, given clearance to hunt down his would-be killers, spends several days wooing this lady (who, by the way, there was no chemistry or logical romance with), then hunts down and kills his attackers. End of story.

The biggest problem with this was that the “romance” was only thrown in to pad out the story, and everyone knew it. There wasn’t any real grip or reason to it. It was just filler.

Effectively, a romantic subplot is a powerful tool, yes. But as anyone who’s seen a few episodes of Home Improvement can tell you, more power is often not the best answer. Which is where a lot of romance subplots go wrong: they’re too much for a story, and worse, are only there to fill in the story’s other weak areas.

Look, if you have a weak story, simply slotting in a romantic subplot, while it brings many strengths, likely won’t fix all the problems the base story has. It may shore them up, but it won’t make up for it, if you catch my meaning. And any audience members that separate the two in their mind will notice that the rest of the story is weak without the romantic subplot filling in the gaps.

Okay, let’s step back for a moment and breathe. What does this mean as far as the title of this piece goes? With all the shortcomings of a romantic subplot we’ve just talked about, how can you walk away from this with the titular goal of being better at your writing craft?

Well, it’s actually pretty simple: Don’t use a romantic subplot as a crutch because it’s the biggest, strongest tool that’s the easiest (hah!) to use. Instead, go back and shore up your story first. Look at other subplots that may work better and improve core parts of the story. Crud, find a subplot that actually fits the material; a romance often doesn’t.

Basically, while a romantic subplot does bring with it many strengths if done well, you should be seeing those strengths as adding onto your story, not filling in gaps the story currently has. The Empire Strikes Back, without Han and Leia’s romance, would still be a gripping film with solid characters and interaction. The romance builds on that, but even without it there was a rock-solid foundation in place already.

And again, you don’t need a romance, despite what Hollywood says. Don’t try to force one between two characters that don’t have any chemistry (a common problem with romantic subplots). Above, where I mentioned trying to use a romantic subplot to shore up a weak story? You can also create a weak romantic subplot too. Just throw some characters together and go through the motions? Weakness compounded. More power means more opportunity to mess things up for your readers.

Lastly, a final warning before wrapping up: Keep things human. No, I don’t mean confine your romance to strictly human characters. After all, Beauty and the Beast is still one of those giant hits in folklore. But keep the characters true to themselves. Let them be who they are. Don’t shove two characters who wouldn’t be together together for the sake of a romantic subplot, and don’t force them into contrived, cliche areas of a romantic subplot just because. Let them be themselves. Even if that means it doesn’t work out.

So wrapping up: Romantic subplots are plentiful because they’re a powerful subplot type that brings with them a lot of character development and intrigue by the nature of the path they follow. This makes them powerful … but also means that a lot of works simply “default” to the romantic subplot both as a crutch for their story and a form of audience appeal. Which in turn is why we see them so often. Sometimes, they’re used in such and ill-fitting way that they become “romantic plot tumors,” distracting and doing damage to the story they’re supposed to serve.

If you want to use the romantic subplot, do! But be aware that it cannot take the place of an otherwise weak story. You can add its strengths to an already strong story, but adding its strengths to a weak story leaves you with a weak story and a decent subplot. Make your core story strong. Maybe that means having no romantic subplot. It happens! A strong story can carry itself.

Lastly, if you do use a romantic subplot, don’t force it. Don’t shove characters who would be unwilling in and make them your romantic pawns. Let them be themselves, and carry a romance the way they would.

Romantic subplots are a tool in your toolbox. Use as needed.

Good luck. Now get writing. And if you’d like what you see, consider becoming a Patreon Supporter! It keeps the ads away!

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