It’s spring, and love is in the air, at least professionally. This week I go to Columbus to the Romantic Times Booklovers convention, one of the greatest conferences for me, despite what I write. The week after I’m teaching a full day workshop again in Jacksonville, Florida (which I will never again be able to think of as anything but Flo Rida) for the First Coast Romance Writers (open to the public).
Because RWA (the Romance Writers of America) is so very, very, VERY good about offering craft and professional sessions to its members, both online and in person at their chapter meetings and specially organized events, I end up teaching my Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshops for romance writers more than anyone. So I’ve started to feel a little guilty about the examples I use in my workshops, which are, well, intense would be the nice word, but homicidal would often fit.
Now, the whole reason I use movie examples to begin with is that most of us have actually SEEN the movies I talk about – it’s an instant frame of reference. While books are much more hit and miss. Also, movies are such a compressed form of storytelling that you can look at the structure of a movie much more easily and diagram it (yes, like diagramming a sentence, just don’t ask me to do that).
So even though I’m using Silence of the Lambs and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws and Presumed Innocent for the romance writers, they all know exactly what I’m talking about.
But sometimes I feel like a fraud at these things because I read so very, very little romance.
I had several interesting conversations with a debut author during my last workshop, a wonderful, fantasy weekend in Santa Rosa with the Black Diamond RWA chapter. She asked me if mystery and thriller writers look down on the romance genre and I said, “Well, yeah, I think they (we) do.” And I don’t think it’s because of the subject matter, actually, although there are those men who say loftily that if there’s a sex scene in a book they just skip right over that. (Personally I’ve got to wonder about those men – if they’re any good at all in – well, not just bed, but ANYWHERE.)
I ended up saying that it’s because a lot of romance is badly written. I know, that’s a huge generalization, but wait, I didn’t leave it at that. I think there are two pretty good reasons for why there’s so much bad romance out there. In books, that is –the other is a much longer post.)
One reason for badly written romance books is a lot of people aren’t reading them for the writing. In the same way that men aren’t “reading” Playboy for the articles. Those of you who don’t ever read romance don’t necessarily realize that quite a lot of it is soft porn. Sometimes porn porn. Sometimes way-out-there fetish porn, too, you really have no idea until you get out there exploring a little. I mean, I grew up in the Bay Area and am no stranger to strange, but even I have been shocked at the – imaginative – content of books I see at RT, for example.
The second reason is the business model of a lot of romance publishing. Which is a hard sell of titles for one dedicated month, and then on to the next month of titles. It’s a kind of disposable attitude.
And as part of that business model, romance authors are expected to write three, six, even nine books a year. I’m not saying quality can’t happen under those circumstances, some people are just fast. Allison, for example, !@# her.
But in most cases I think it’s a little less likely to get a great book out of that kind of speed.
And maybe, just maybe, love is a hard thing to write about because it forces us to confront our deepest desires and fears, things we aren’t even conscious of half the time.
But from my point of view that’s exactly what you’re going to have to do to write a romance book that’s going to endure past the one-month business model hard sell.
And if you’re writing a love story into ANY book, you have to do the same thing. Yes, I am talking about theme again. Every time we deal with the subject we’re saying something about it, whether we intend to or not. If there’s no compelling reason for your characters to be together, if there’s no love theme they’re grappling with, grasping for (and overcoming or not), well, you’re diminishing the meaning of love. Or saying greatness isn’t necessary in that kind of relationship, maybe. Not very inspiring, is it? I don’t think so, anyway.
Well, so how can we bring more meaning to the love relationships in our books, whether we’re writing romance or not?
You know my prescription for everything by now. Make a list. What are ten love stories or love plots that are meaningful to you? Or that have been done particularly well, in your opinion?
Four Weddings and a Funeral
Next Stop Wonderland
Bridget Jones’ Diary
When Harry Met Sally
Bringing Up Baby
Much Ado About Nothing
Sleepless in Seattle
(I cheated a little with my list because I’m looking for particular examples for my workshops – my personal list would look somewhat different.)
Now that’s a list of both romantic comedy, which is more along the lines of typical romance, which demands a happily ever after ending, and classic romance, Casablanca and Rebecca, and subplot romance, like Notorious.
Four Weddings and a Funeral and Philadelphia Story are probably my favorites of that list.
Four Weddings appeals to me on a very personal level because writer Richard Curtis, as is his wont, is not just exploring love relationships between two people, or several sets of two people, but the group love dynamic of a posse of friends. In fact, in that movie, the group dynamic is one of the factors keeping the hero, Charlie (Hugh Grant) from settling down to marry – and has kept every single one of the others single, except the one truly married couple in the group, the gay couple who can’t legally marry. (Wonderful, scathing truth, there).
That group dynamic has always resonated deeply with me, and I imagine it struck a chord for a lot of people. Also in terms of high concept the film is great, because most of us have experienced that totally exhausting year that every single person you know gets married and your entire social calendar revolves around weddings. I certainly could relate at Hugh Grant groaning as yet another embossed linen envelope arrived in the mail.
But the real beauty of Four Weddings is the underlying theme that there is something magical about a wedding that opens the door to love – not just for the couple involved, but potentially for everyone who attends. The structure of the film is a round-robin, where at each wedding at least two people find the loves of their loves, and we see that wedding next, or the preparation for a wedding, or at least the deepening of the relationship with a promise of marriage. This is something I think most of us would like to believe about weddings – that there is an encompassing magic there, a kairos that invites something life-changing.
When Harry Met Sally is an enduring romantic comedy not just because of the great chemistry between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan and the charming documentary clips of elderly couples talking about how they met and fell in love – but because it explores a strong theme: Can a man and woman really ever be friends? And we experience the great treat of watching Billy and Meg both become friends and fall in love.
Next Stop Wonderland and Sleepless in Seattle are examples of the theme of the soulmate – that there is someone out there who is destined for you, and that the Universe will guide you to that person. Next Stop Wonderland shows two people whose paths cross over and over again, with all kinds of attendant signs that these two people are supposed to be together, but they don’t meet until the last few seconds of the movie. Sleepless in Seattle explores the same kind of fatedness, and similarly keeps the hero and heroine apart until the end of the movie. I admit, this kind of thing just turns me inside out – I would love to believe that there is one person who is all that, and that all of life is conspiring to help you find that person.
Notting Hill is an interesting story because there’s no one person who’s the antagonist (even though Alec Baldwin does a charming turn as the movie star boyfriend) – the obstacle to Hugh Grant’s and Julia Roberts’ relationship is her fame, and each sequence explores a different aspect of that celebrity and how it keeps the couple apart.
I love Philadelphia Story, too – it’s an interesting, sophisticated underlying premise, that Cary Grant knows that Katharine Hepburn will never be able to love him fully until she steps off her pedestal and has a roll in the mud. It’s only after she abandons herself and sleeps with Jimmy Stewart (oh, come on, you know they did), that she is fully human to love Cary.
So how about it, ‘Rati? What are some love stories or love plots that really do it for you? What themes have you explored or would like to explore about the meaning or nature of love? Either in books, or in life…