Romantic Subplots, by May Burnett

One good thing about being a writer of romance is that it helps with most other genres, which are usually enhanced by a romantic subplot, no matter what the genre.

Of course in a hard-boiled noir thriller the love interest may be killed off (a big no-no in actual romance) or turn out to be a bad guy or both; in science fiction or mysteries the romance, if it is there at all, may be very subtle and drawn out over several volumes. But no matter how much or little romance you add to the mix, how explicit or low-key the love or sex scenes, the experience of having written romance stories or novels can only help.

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Successful romance or romantic subplots are not nearly as easy to write, as non-writers often seem to believe. “Nothing to it!” they think. “Boy meets girl, boy kisses girl, girl and boy have a serious conflict and nearly break apart, or must overcome great outward obstacles, finally, they make up and triumph, and live happily ever after.” Or at least, something along those lines.

But as we know, there is rather more to it than that. First of all, the characters who engage in a love story must be minimally compatible. There was one case  where my co-writer and I planned to have a romance blossom between two side characters in our Urban Fantasy series, while these two accompany the first person narrator on a dangerous mission. They bantered and teased each other as planned, but no chemistry developed, the characters simply would not co-operate. He had too much baggage, and she was too young and flippant for him (not to mention she was human and he a mage/shifter hybrid, but that sort of thing does not really matter these permissive days.)

Looking back on that experience, I suspect the first-person narration by someone other than the potential couple was a major reason why it did not work out. If at all possible, in a romance or romantic subplots we should get the point of view of at least one of the couple in question (usually the woman, but it can be the man) – ideally both, alternating, so we can gauge where each of them is in the continuum between cautious interest and full commitment. Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz, for instance, often has fun showing the woman still reluctant and suspicious of the guy’s intentions, given he’s such a supremely desirable and powerful male, while he’s already planning the wedding.

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How much space and attention should the writer devote to the romance subplot, the couple’s desires and feelings? It depends not only on the kind of book but also the expectations of the readership. In the Urban Fantasy series there is a romance arc that starts slowly in the first volume, then adds a bit of kissing and petting in volumes two and three, as mutual feelings deepen, and the relationship culminates in sex and a betrothal at the end of volume four. By then, quite a few female readers were clamoring for the lovers to get a move on, while male readers seemed pretty happy with the low-key romance arc, and may not like the progress to regular sex from volume five onwards.  You cannot please everyone. Given that most readers of the genre are female, though by no means all, giving them the scenes they like seems more important, as long as it fits with the overall plot and character arc.

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For a long series, a regular, committed relationship could become monotonous, but experienced writers carry it off. One good example would the In Death series by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts), where the first few books mapped the typical romance plot – first meeting, suspicion, a quarrel, moving in together, and eventually marriage, with regular sex. Since then there has not been any great conflict, but the characters and their adventures are so awesome that readers don’t get bored with the happy marriage. Some writers try to spice matters up with a triangle, or at least a constant attraction to someone else (the pseudo-triangle.) Examples would be the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, or the very entertaining Shelby Nichols series by Colleen Helme (Mystery/thriller/comedy with a tiny dash of paranormal, in that the protagonist can read thoughts.)  Shelby is happily married and a mother of two, but lusts after a handsome mafia hitman who keeps saving her life.

To have a romantic interest merely in order to kill them off and provide the main character a good reason to seek revenge, works better for men than for female readers, I suspect. I just came across such a case in a military SF trilogy (Decker’s War, by Eric Thomson.) The woman Decker marries at the end of volume one is killed right at the start of the second volume, which does not prevent him from seeking lots of sex from several other women all through that book. I did not like this plotline at all, and would not classify his relationships as a “romantic subplot” in the accepted sense. But Thomson writes for a very different market segment, and even so, may have received negative feedback; he switched to a female protagonist in his next series.

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In conclusion, if the romance is only one plot element in a different genre, like mystery or a thriller, it still deserves to be handled with the same care, and should follow similar rules, as straight romance; just in a more attenuated and perhaps low-key manner, as dictated by the genre conventions and personal preferences of the author. In a way adding a subplot is easier than making romance the main plot element, since the danger, problems etc. provide a good occasion for the protagonists to get close to each other until the mutual attraction ignites. On the other hand, when a lot else is going on, it takes a deft touch to make a love story between busy characters credible.  The balance between the romance and the rest of the book must be carefully calibrated – some readers bitterly complain in the romance takes the book over too much. As with everything else about writing, it’s all in the execution.

Do you have any examples of well-executed, or badly done, romance subplots among books you have recently read?

About the author

May Burnett is the author of (mainly) the Amberley Chronicles, a series of historical romances, often with mystery sub-plots, as well as several other works. The co-written series mentioned in the article is published under the name of her writing partner Jasmine Walt, and highly popular. The first one is Burned by Magic.

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