Oct 26, 2011

Romantic Subplots

This week I'm talking about story structure and some of the different elements to how a story is crafted.

Today I'm discussing romantic subplots. I love romantic subplots. Even when there's no prominent romantic plotline, I'll be looking for ways to pair characters together.

The thing is, it drives me crazy when a romantic subplot suggests that certain behaviour is a positive thing when in fact it's really unhealthy in a relationship. Things like where a girl has a brief encounter with another guy and decides never to tell her boyfriend. Or a man who treats his wife badly and, rather than being made to answer for his behaviour, is instantly forgiven with one nice gesture. I'm a big believer in truth and honesty in relationships. A couple doesn't have to share every intricate detail of their day every evening, but no-one should ever feel that they can't tell their partner something, and they should realise that their partner deserves to know about things that have an important effect on them.

I realise that not every story can afford the time to detail every argument and reconciliation in a relationship, and not every relationship in fiction is going to be a positive and healthy one. What worries me is when the author seems to be suggesting that clearly unhealthy behaviour is something to aspire to. This is especially worrying in fiction aimed at teenagers.

I believe quality romantic plotlines can show the consequences of unhealthy behaviour, and the rewards of a strong relationship.

What do you think? Are there any romantic plots that have driven you mad? What about them got your hackles up? Are there any love stories you think stand out as great examples of how to write a romance?


  1. Wuthering Heights has to be one of the unhealthiest books ever - its one thematic saving grace is that nobody really ends up happy as a result of self-destructive or cruel behaviour, so at least it isn't presented as aspirational. I don't think the issue is with the book itself though, which is definitely a gothic novel rather than a love story. I think it's in how the book has been interpreted since.

    I actually love Wuthering Heights, but I don't like to see it presented as a great love story.

  2. Having just (in the spirit of don't mock it if you haven't read it) read Twilight: Twilight.

    Edward is a controlling jerk. He's not even interesting, which Heathcliff at least has going for him! And Twilight is a definite example of behaviour that's controlling, creepy and, (to quote Supernatural,) "rapey" being presented unproblematically.

    I know much has been made of the stalking, but what really struck me while reading it was the complete ignoring of her wishes and desires with the excuse of "it's to keep you safe." I can see how there are circumstances where this can be the right thing to do, but it seems to be the entire basis of their relationship. He physically drags her across the school carpark and puts her in his car to stop her driving herself home!

    Not to mention him ignoring her repeated assertions that she doesn't dance and doesn't like dances (and the ample evidence that she's so clumsy I'm surprised she doesn't have some kind of neurological diagnosis) and surprising her by bringing her to prom without telling her where they're going. Oh, and getting exasperated when this annoys her. It's her line in that scene that really gets me though. She says something about how she wouldn't even be there if it wasn't for the fact that he's a thousand times stronger than her. I believe I screamed "Listen to what you just said and DUMP HIM"

    Quotes of mine while reading it, as recorded on Facebook by my lovely housemate:

    ‎"Oh god, this is the opposite of romantic!!!"

    "I don't want to be with a man who could accidently crush my skull, ever..."

    "Why am I reading this, Sarah???!"

    (In a disgruntled, dejected tone) "I'm not sure I can get through the rest of this...."

    "This is just so creepy! It's not sweet that he stands by the side of your bed at night listening to you AND THAT'S HOW HE KNOWS YOU LOVE HIM!!"

    "Oh, he 's driving again. This time you didn't try to drive yourself, because HE CONTROLS YOUR LIFE NOW!"

  3. Ellen: Yeah, at least Wuthering Heights wasn't written with the intent of being this ideal love story. I'm really not sure where the romantic interpretation came from.

    Janey: I haven't read the Twilight books so all of my knowledge is second-hand. That said, it does seem like a very unusual relationship to feature in a series which is so popular.

  4. You make a good point. I had really never considered ill actions in romance scenes infecting the youth, but it is a very scary thought. Nicolas Sparks - The Notebook - that was a romance without blame.

  5. B.T: I don't know if I'd go so far as to use the word "infect." I don't want to seem like I'm suggesting that a book can have a serious negative effect on a person, just that it might influence expectations.

    As with all things related to children, I believe it's the parents' responsibility to guide them and help them learn from what they experience. Seeing healthy relationships depicted as a good thing would just make that job a little bit easier, I think.

  6. "I believe quality romantic plotlines can show the consequences of unhealthy behaviour, and the rewards of a strong relationship."

    I notice you use the word "can" here rather than "should" which I was almost expecting. It's a tangentially related topic but I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on the idea of an author (or other creators) having a moral responsibility to their audience and/or their culture at large.

  7. Zounds: I'm not certain I meant anything specific about my choice of words. If I had to explain it, I'd say it was because I don't want to say what should and should not appear in fiction, just what I like to see.

    While I don't believe that an author should be restricted in what they write based on moral responsibility, I do believe they should be aware of any potential consequences of what they choose to write, and be prepared to defend or explain their choice.

  8. Thank you so much for addressing the qualities of a healthy romantic relationship. I agree there are entirely too many bad relationships that are depicted as good.

    Just found your blog - look forward to your future posts.

  9. So interesting that Ellen brought up Wuthering Heights - the characters were so dysfunctional, narcissitic and self-destructive. I always wondered why it was considered a "great love story." Hello???? I actually really hated that book, and only struggled through it because I thought it was something I "should" read. I'm thinking that one of the most romanticized movies ever is Bridges of Madison County, which of course fits to a "T" the issue you are raising - it's about an affair. I have to admit though. that I like it...I'm actually trying to think of a romance in literature that ISN'T a bit unhealthy - perhaps that doesn't make for interesting enough reading! :->

  10. I think a romance definitely needs challenges and drama to make it interesting to a reader, but maybe we should take some time to acknowledge the difference between a romance and a relationship. Ideally, a good romance should evolve into a strong relationship, so maybe my real issue should be with how entrance to the relationship stage is handled?

  11. I don't mind unhealthy behaviors as long as they are presented as such, but it is very annoying when they are presented as romantic. Especially in women's fiction there seems to be this belief that 'no' means 'try harder'.

    If I say I don't like you, shoving me in a corner and trying to make out with me is not romantic, its creepy and I will from thence forward avoid you like the plague in the belifef that you will rape me if given the chance. This should be the villain's behavior, not the heroe's, and, as you said, especially in YA fiction.