Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What's Love Got To Do With It?

This is a question I’m asking myself at the moment. My book is not a romance, but a love story threads its way through it as a subplot and being in hyper-critical, dissect everything to the nth degree, revision mode, I’ve been asking myself – why? Why the romance? Is it necessary? What does it add to the story? Conversely, does it detract from or weaken my book?

I’ve read more than a few books where the romance seems tacked on, included as an excuse to add in a sex scene or two for titillation purposes or (and I’m afraid this sounds sexist but I think it’s common enough to be true) to show how virile and manly a male lead is (Wilbur Smith - yes, I admit it, I’ve suffered through a handful of his books - is a pretty bad offender in this, IMO. Yeah, he’s published a trillion books to my zero, so what do I know, but hey, this is a subjective business and it’s my opinion!)

The tacked on romance fails because there has to be a point to the romance for it to ring true. Without a point, readers will see it for what it is - window dressing, for voyeuristic or prop value only. And if we don’t explore the romance themes in our books as fully and honestly as we explore every other theme, readers will feel we’ve cheated them, and the romance – if not the whole book – will leave them cold.

Below are a few examples of love subplots that really work (and I’m afraid this list exposes how narrowly I’m reading these days, but meh, I’m on a historical mystery jag, what can I say?):

The Sebastian St Cyr mysteries, by C.S. Harris.

A murder mystery series beginning with WHAT ANGELS FEAR, these books include a love story that explores the pain and agony of insurmountable obstacles that threaten to keep star crossed lovers apart (and without wanting to be too spoilerish, OMG, the obstacle in this book is a whopper!)

The Lady Emily Ashton mysteries, by Tasha Alexander.

Beginning with AND ONLY TO DECEIVE and billed as “novels of suspense”, the ongoing love story between Emily Ashton and her late husband’s best friend is a graceful study upon the way love can bloom from friendship.

The Adelia Aguilar mysteries, by Ariana Franklin.

Set in England during the reign of Henry II and commencing with MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH, this series is the story of the anomaly that is Adelia Aguilar, a woman trained in the art of dissection and forensics. Beyond the murders she investigates, however, is a love story that explores the difficulty and heartache in choosing between a hard-fought-for career – a calling, really – and the possibility of love.

But movies really show this best.

MY FAIR LADY, starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.

This is one of my all time favourites films, not least because the romance is so not the usual fare. There is not a single kiss, not one “I love you”, and Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins are pretty much at each other’s throats the whole movie – not your standard romantic couple at all. But the love relationship serves to show the growth of the Professor; through being exposed to larger than life, heart on her sleeve Eliza, Henry, the curmudgeonly old bachelor, self-satisfied, self-righteous and set in his ways, comes to see he’s been lonely for a long time without ever realizing it, and in the end does something totally out of his usual pattern of behaviour when he decides to take a chance on the woman whose gotten beneath his skin.


Han Solo and Princess Leia. Oh boy, do these two zing! (Side note - I always loved Han. Luke and his wide-eyed, “howdy-doodyness”, just never cut it for me.)

This love story really is all about feeling love and not knowing what to do with it – hence the trading of all those witty barbs:-

Princess Leia: Let go.

Han Solo: Shh.

Princess Leia: Let go, please.

Han Solo: Don’t get excited.

Princess Leia: Captain, being held by you isn’t quite enough to get me excited.

Han Solo: Sorry sweetheart. I haven’t got time for anything else.

But even when they do fall for each other, their love is more than just that. They have a solid respect for one another, they’re partners, and they depend on and support each other without question.

These love subplots work because they address love honestly; they have something to say about romance, rather than just tacking it on; and the particular romance in each story adds to and deepens the overall theme/s of the book or film.

So, looking at the romance in my own story … well, there’s a bit of Han and Leia in there, a tad of Henry and Eliza, and a helping of career vs love, a la Adelia Aguilar. All of which supports some of the themes in my book … identity, knowing your true self, and how, very often, you are the very last person to know what it is you really need. So I think I can safely say that in the case of my story of serial killing, blood and suspense, love has everything to do with it!

And since I’ve inflicted my list upon you … what are your all time favourite romantic couplings, book or film?


  1. Er, besides Jamie and Claire? :-)
    Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe come to mind, partly because I just reread their stories and partly because they took so darn long to get together that it's very satisfying when they do; but meanwhile each of them are having full and complete lives on the side beforehand.
    I also really loved Helen MacInnes' Friends and Lovers, which takes place in the 30s or so but doesn't feel jaded at all.

  2. Oh, I've always loved the banter between Han and Leia! Especially that bit. Hehe. And yeah, Han -fans self. HOT.

    A dicey thing, the romantic subplot. Because as you said, if there is no point to it, it feels gratuitous. I wonder if the examples you listed work because the story centers around the most defining points in the protag's life. As falling in love (or finding one's soul mate) is one of the definitive points in a life, it seems natural that it should happen as well. Make any sense? I haven't yet had my coffee. :)

    -you know, when I was a kid, I always wondered why Audrey had any interest in that whiny old guy when that cute one was singing about her on the street corner. lololol

  3. Deniz - ah, yes, of course, Jamie and Claire! And I really should get around to reading Ann of Green Gables, one day ... :-)

    Kristen, yes, you make perfect sense, caffeinated or not. (g)
    And Henry Higgins vs the Soppy Dude ... see, I always thought Eliza got it right. As Michelle Obama said (in a Vanity Fair this year) "cute doesn't last."

  4. I agree with Michelle. Only, my adolescent self always thought old Henry was a jerk. lololol. As for now? I see him more as the guy who pushed Eliza to be more than she ever could, and to find herself. Which IS much more romantic than the lamppost guy. ;-)

    --and I don't know what Michelle is referring to, Obama is pretty hot...

  5. If I had extra copies I'd send 'em to you Rachel! Anne Shirley would be very upset that you spelled her name without an e :-) I;ll keep an eye out at book fairs and bazaars and try to find you a set of the books...