LAST year on Valentine’s Day, I co-led what was supposed to be a workshop on writing romantic subplots for the creative writing club. It turned into more of a group discussion and then Disney sing-along, because it turns out that on Valentine’s Day night, everyone on a college campus is either on a date or avoiding going out so they don’t have to see everyone on a date. Including me and my co-leader, there were five of us in the room, and we had a great time. We talked about the obvious pitfalls of romantic subplots. They need to be paced appropriately. They need to be relevant to the plot. They can’t take up too much or too little of the story, or they will either be seen as extra and unimportant, or they’ll consume the plot. There needs to be some sort of tension between the characters in the relationship. There needs to be character growth because of the relationship. There needs to be some sort of resolution to the relationship—either it continues into happily-ever-after-land, it ends, they decide to take things one step at a time, someone dies, etc. There are endless possibilities. Take your pick. But since we’re talking about romantic subplots and not romance as a genre, it’s important to remember that “subplot” is the key word here. All of this has to happen within the larger plot of the story.
The take-away: romantic subplots need to be relevant, interesting, and timely within the larger framework of the story.
Also, love triangles in young adult books are evil. They are overdone, and rarely done well, because they almost always make the character in the middle either look like a terrible person or just plain stupid. That isn’t to say that all love triangles are necessarily bad, but tread carefully. The only love triangle I actually enjoyed is the love triangle in the first three books of the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, but that has so many extra appendages it might be better described as a star.
Then we started talking about romantic scenes in particular and what made them work or didn’t work. I’ve read a lot of advice about writing romantic scenes, but the discussion we had and the conclusion we came to was entirely new to me, and it’s advice I apply to my writing all the time—and not just with romantic scenes.
We examined several successful examples in books, movies, and television shows, and we came to this conclusion: There is always more than one emotion. It isn’t just love. If it’s just love, it’s actually kind of boring.
And now for the Disney sing-along:
In every Disney love song, there is more than one emotion at play and more than one motivation for the characters. That’s what makes them so great as romantic scenes. For some, it’s very simple. In Aladdin, “A Whole New World” isn’t just about falling in love, though that’s certainly part of it. There’s also Jasmine’s discovery of Aladdin’s true identity and her wonder at seeing the world from a whole new perspective.
We see a similar scenario in Tangled. “I See the Light” is about Rapunzel’s realization of her dream along with her fear of realizing that dream, and, simultaneously, Eugene’s discovery that his dream was not actually worthwhile, and their mutual discovery of a new dream—each other. They are falling in love, but there are so many other emotions packed into the scene that make it great.
Hercules presents a very different and equally interesting case. In “I Won’t Say I’m in Love,” Meg is actually denying that she’s in love with Hercules not only because of her past heartbreak but also because she’s working for Hades to hurt Hercules.
Finally, consider “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” from The Lion King. There’s love, obviously, but at the same time, Simba is hiding that he killed his father (or so he thinks), and Nala knows it. Nala expects Simba to come back and save the pride from Scar, but Simba refuses, because he doesn’t feel that he can lead the tribe after what he did (not to mention the hyenas will kill him). So it’s actually a lot more complicated than just love.
These are just some examples, but beyond being fun, nostalgic, and musical, they really do teach us something. All successful romantic scenes, and indeed romantic subplots, are based on more than just love. It’s true of relationships in the real world too. It has to be, otherwise no one would believe it in fiction. A relationship that isn’t based on some other connection or emotion besides love won’t get far. So, whether that underlying emotion is friendship, discovery, secrecy, suspicion, wonder, fear, or anything else you can think of, that’s what will make your romantic subplot successful. That’s what will give you tension, character growth, and plot relevance. And that’s what will make your reader care.
So happy Valentine’s Day, and may your romantic subplots, fictional or otherwise, bring you happiness.