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?

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4 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.

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