Friday, October 28, 2011

Let's Talk about Love - A Romantic Plot Diagram

In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit it: I read romance novels.  I could claim that I read them with a technical eye, for research purposes, but the truth is, I'm a sucker for a good love story.  I believe that the reason I started reading fanfiction in the first place was because I wanted a plain and simple love story.  The arch literary romances were vicious in their dismal outlook and full of critical irony about feelings.  SF was sex, sex, sex.  If I wanted something that wasn't heterosexual in its leanings it required a secret struggle with interlibrary loan, or suffering through a tale of brutal depression and death.  Where were the happy endings?  

Venturing into the murky waters of the internet was better than even looking at the (vaguely nauseating) bare chested barbarians of the romance section.  Best of all, I wouldn't get caught with an incriminating pink novel.

In college I discovered Karen Kallmaker (and Pat Califia), and I read them with an eager secretiveness, bingeing and then feeling ill after an overindulgence.  I loved me a good romcom, but I had no patience for anything that didn't catch me and keep me still.  But I didn't know why I liked some stories, and not others.  Then I read this blog post.  In it, Shannon Donnelly describes soulmates as “Those people who push all your buttons—they make you grow.”  Someone who knew that and could say it so clearly, well, I had to try her books, and they were wonderful (complete candy, so pleasurable, and short enough to forbid overindulgence).  What she really said in that post was that the plot needs to be driven by the characters, their desires and the conflict between the two romantic leads' desires.

Reading Veronica Roth's post on Insta!Love in YA, I began thinking about the Donnelly post.  What if the romance isn't the main plot?  What if it's a side story?  How do you make it believable?

I don't have any real answers, but I think that it's important to treat a love story as any other part of the plot.  It needs an arc.  In my favorite romances it's the changing interplay between the characters that brings the romance to life.  I know that there are probably a hundred different romantic arcs, and I've read more than a few, but one particular pattern is particularly clear in my mind (and in those of many romcom writers), so, for my own benefit, and anyone who's interested, I'm going to break that one down into A Love Story - the 5 Stages.

(This diagram is based mainly on a story I wrote, which was a re-cast and turn-on-its-head version of the "the bet" trope, as seen in Cruel Intentions, She's All That, etc, and on Shannon Donnelly's hilarious romance A Proper Mistress.  NB.  I'm using female pronouns for both romantic leads, it's probably some sort of statement about the unmarked gender category, but don't worry about it too much, it's just better than male ones.)

Stage 1) "I want something from you."
This one statement can kick off the big game and set the ball in motion all a single swoop.  Our aggressor wants something, and only the pursued can provide it.  Immediately our romantic interests are thrown together and both interaction and conflict emerge.  Of course, the pursued can't just happily give up the object/favor/person desired, and she should probably have a damn good reason not to.

Stage 2) "I cannot believe you just did that."
In pursuit of her goal, our aggressor will inevitably cross the line and act in a way the pursued finds unforgivable.  But this very act is revealing, and the pursued, still offended, learns about the aggressor's character.  Very likely, the aggressor, rebuffed again, learns more about the pursued's character, and may in fact find this stubbornness/resistance/honorability attractive.

Stage 3) "My enemy, my love."  (A quotation from my favorite piece of Klingon love poetry, by Odon)
A battle reveals more secrets than any intimate discussion, and unplanned disclosures lead to unexpected (and perhaps unwanted) understanding.  External events may require the aggressor and the pursued to put away their difference and work together for survival.  (This is starting to sound like a horoscope.)  Bonding moments!  Secrets revealed and confidences maintained!

Stage 4) "Turnabout is fair play."
Here an external force intervenes.  Perhaps the real motivation for the aggressor's initial desire reveals itself.  The aggressor becomes a victim.  The pursued must make a decision to help her or not.  (If she does help, this, of course, only causes more problems.  The aggressor is not usually pleased about being helped.  Power relations are important.)  

Stage 5) "The confession and the gift"
In the end, a choice must be made.  The aggressor must give instead of take.  The pursued must become the pursuer.  The initial desire must be abandoned or fulfilled.  The pursued will offer a gift, and the aggressor must be able to accept it as a token of love and not condescension from someone more powerful.

There you have it!  One possible romantic arc, ready to be filled in with complex characters and excessive drama!  I kind of believe that a love story is no different from a friendship story.  The outline seems equally applicable to both (though dialing down the drama might be good, just so you don't have very upset people wondering why there wasn't any making out).  I'm not terribly interested in love stories that don't spawn from character conflict.  Conflict is all about making a connection.  Without a connection, how can I believe in love?

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