Writing: Why Do We Only Ever See One Part of Romance?

Between playing through Dragon Age: Inquisition and binge watching Once Upon a Time, the subject of romance in fiction has been on my mind a fair bit lately.

Liv Tyler and Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn and Arwen in the LordAs I’ve said in the past, I’m not overly fond of fictitious romance. It can be done well — Greatshadow by James Maxey comes to mind — but often it’s nothing but bland, predictable, formulaic, and downright cheesy.

Recently, I think I’ve nailed down one of the main reasons romance in fiction is so rarely satisfying: We only ever see one part of the story. Specifically, the beginning.

In the vast majority of cases, a romantic arc consists entirely of the two lovers trying to come together, and once they’re actually a couple, the plot is essentially over, and often the book/movie/game/whatever will end shortly thereafter, the initiation of the relationship almost always coinciding with the conclusion of the greater story.

Does this seem weird to anyone else? We’re seeing such a small part of the concept of romance. In the real world, getting together with someone isn’t the end; it’s the beginning. Why does fiction have that backwards?

I mean, generally speaking, one’s goal in a romantic relationship isn’t to just hook up with someone and then forget about them. When you care about someone, you generally want to stick with them — often the desire is to spend the rest of your life with them.

My inquisitor and Sera in Dragon Age: InquisitionI do understand the desire to focus on the beginning of a relationship — infatuation and the “honeymoon” phase — is the sexiest part of romance, both in the literal and metaphorical sense. But it’s still just one small part, and I think there are a lot of compelling reasons why storytellers should lose their tunnel vision on it.

The point of romantic fiction — or most any other kind of story, really — is for the reader/viewer/player to live vicariously through the characters. The fact that romance plots pretty much end with the beginning of a relationship seems to me to be robbing the consumer of much of the emotional payoff. One’s goal in love is to not to get together, but to be together.

In fiction, I want to see the characters be together, not simply get together. That’s the reward for all the struggles up until then, far more than simply professing true love and riding off into the sunset.

Focusing on the beginning and ignoring all else seems to me to rob romance stories of much their potential drama, as well. I’m pretty young, and I don’t understand much, but even I know that a relationship isn’t something that just stays magically perfect forever after. They take work. There will be conflict. There will be issues. There will be the need for compromise.

The work of building and maintaining a relationship over the long haul seems to me to be infinitely more interesting than simply having characters get together and then poof that’s it. That’s where the real work, the real challenge, lies, and there’s so much more potential for interesting stories and compelling insights into the true natures of the characters in that journey.

A fantasy romance-themed wallpaperI can also see how a lot of my other issues with romance in fiction spring from this, at least partially.

For example, one troublesome thing about romance in fiction is how binary it is. Either they get together, or they don’t, and in the vast majority of cases, they do, so there’s very little drama, and it all feels terribly predictable.

And there’s just not that much variation in how many different ways couples can get together. They meet, they get to know each other, they worry the other might share their feelings, they profess their love, sexy times ensue. You can shake that up a little bit, but it’s not an easy task, and most writers don’t seem interested in trying.

It seems to me like there’s more potential for variety in what comes after the relationship begins. Maybe I’m wrong, but at the very least, it’d be a welcome change of pace from the spectacularly tired formula that dominates most fictional romance.

So is it just me? Am I the only one wishing we could see the entirety of fictional relationships instead of just one part, or is there a huge well of untapped potential here?

5 thoughts on “Writing: Why Do We Only Ever See One Part of Romance?

  1. It’s for the same reason why war stories end after soon the fight is won, murder mysteries end after the murder is solved etc. The most interesting and dramatic part is over, and whatever propelled the story into motion has been resolved.

    There are works that look at other things but they tend to be classed as “literary” or “drama” rather than “genre” (like romance, mystery, fantasy etc). People who like to read war stories mostly aren’t interested in the post-war politics, people who read romantic fiction mostly aren’t interested in the ups and downs and realities of marriage.

    The example that springs to mind in books is Anna Karenina. There are three major couples in there, one is married at the start and we see them go through stuff, we see another relationship from beginning to end, and we follow the third from beginning to marriage to how the marriage changes over the longer term.

    But people who like romance fiction generally don’t read stuff like that. It’s a different kind of thing that scratches a different itch, and it can be pretty hard going because there isn’t the same kind of strong plotline driving it. I doubt anyone ever called it a page-turner, and many a lit student has struggled to make it through!

    Btw in terms of shows, The Good Wife is one you might like.

    • I don’t see this as analogous to, say, a war story. The point of a war is to win. As I say in this post, the point of a relationship is not to get together, but to stay together. Getting together isn’t the end — it’s the beginning.

      I guess I just fundamentally disagree on what the most interesting and dramatic part is.

  2. I agree that there’s a lot of potential to focus more on the long haul of a relationship and all the drama and romance that goes along with that. It’s a deeper romance that can be way more satisfying than the “getting together” stage! So I like your idea a lot. 🙂

    However I can still see why fiction focuses so much on the infatuation stage. Like you said, living vicariously through the characters, we experience that thrill all over again. That can be nice, especially if you’re looking for a relationship or already in a long-term one. Because you want to remember what it was like and also incorporate that spark into your relationship at all stages. I guess that’s how I see it, anyway. There’s a lot more that could be explored and interesting, like you said, but I guess I do get the infatuation with the infatuation part.

  3. Well, I’ve been around a bit longer than you, so I can testify that you’re generally right: the vast majority of romance stories—be they sophisticated “highbrow” literature or trashy “lowbrow” bodice-rippers—do tend to focus entirely on getting the happy couple together rather than on what follows. Also, it is remarkably difficult to be hanging on the edge of your seat with suspense wondering whether the happy couple will be able to overcome all obstacles to their getting together, particularly when the novel is coming from one of the big mainstream publishers like Avon or Harlequin. I mean, do you think they’d ever publish a novel which ends with the protagonist who’s supposed to be a stand-in for the reader not getting her man (and just about everything else she wants, for that matter)?

    Granted, some romance novels do start with the marriage and then develop the romance (see the “mail-order brides” sub-genre in particular), but even there, the point is for the two to get together emotionally as they’ve already done legally and the outcome is never really in doubt. About the only kind of romance that typically doesn’t end with those lovebirds getting together and living happily ever after is the kind using the “star-crossed lovers” formula Shakespeare perfected with his Romeo & Juliet stage play, which has them get together in the middle of the story so that the tragedy can take place at the end; and those are rare and typically come with some kind of warning spoiler at the beginning (such as Shakespeare’s famous play having been labeled a “most lamentable tragedie” at its very first performance). Even then, that middle act is always about their getting together.

    I’d say the main reason such an overwhelming majority of romantic stories tend to focus on the couple’s getting together is because resolving the conflicts in getting together tends to provide the target audience with a lot more wish fulfillment than stories about staying together. The stories I’ve seen about the relationship weathering life’s various storms have either been subplots in stories from other genres (e.g. Miles and Keiko O’Brien’s sometimes turbulent marriage in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), the “comedic” part of romantic comedies (e.g. the cheating/tempted to cheat spouses in Blame It On Rio and I Think I Love My Wife), or part of a generational romance in which a previously established couple gets caught up in the conflicts of a couple trying to get similarly established (e.g. Father of the Bride and the tag end of the Twilight series). If you’ve seen any of these stories, you know their resolutions were generally satisfying, but not exactly in the most romantic way.

    Your idea does have legs, though. My recommendation: try beginning one of your stories with a couple getting married, firmly establish their relationship by having them start having some offspring, and then toss them into some situation that severely throws into doubt whether they’ll be able to stay together and keep their family intact. To keep your readers in suspense, make the situation one in which a separation and/or divorce probably would actually be a rather effective solution to all their problems so that it seems the story could go either way. Then have the spouses resolve to stick together anyway, even if it seems like absolutely the wrong decision from any non-romantic viewpoint.

    A few examples of these potentially marriage-wrecking situations:

    1. The happily married couple are orphans who survived the horrors of the foster care system growing up. Shortly after their second kid is born, the wife receives terrible news in a phone call from the orphanage where she met and fell in love with her husband: “Uh, yeah, about those parents you two never had? We still don’t know who either of your fathers were, but we did manage to figure out who your late mother was… No, I said mother; singular, not plural.”

    2. One of the greatest challenges the aforementioned Miles and Keiko O’Brien’s marriage ever faced was in the episode “Rascals” from Star Trek: The Next Generation in which a space anomaly de-aged her (along with three other prominent characters) into a roughly twelve-year-old girl… and Miles claimed she looked more like she was ten. Thanks to a convenient cop-out from the show’s writers (i.e. a little technobabble reversed the de-aging process), he never had to answer her question as to whether his extreme discomfort at his wife being a little girl now meant their marriage was over… but what if there’d been no way to reverse her de-aging?

    3. I remember some “inspirational” romance novel in which an amnesiac survivor of the 9/11 attacks gets mistaken for a firefighter who died in those same attacks, and gets sent “home” to the other guy’s wife and children (who take him to church, where he learns how to be a Christian; that’s the “inspirational” part). Fortunately for everybody involved (especially since the amnesiac already had a wife and son of his own), the other guy’s wife doesn’t have any, um… marital relations with him while everyone’s waiting for him to recover his memories, though he still finds himself in a rather sticky situation when he finally does recover them. So… what if the other guy’s wife hadn’t waited for her “husband” to recover his memories to start making another baby with him, and what if his original wife (who was on the brink of divorcing him) and son (who he’d likewise alienated by being a neglectful workaholic) didn’t want him back?

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