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Let's talk about romantic subplots...

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Sun Jan 24, 2016 12:09 pm
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TriSARAHtops says...

In YA* in particular, you're lucky if you find a novel that doesn't have some kind of romantic subplot. Or major plot point. You'll be hard pressed to find a story sans romance, no matter the genre.

Now, I love a good romance as much as the next gal, but I've also read novels where the romance has felt forced, mediocre or just plain unnecessary. There is sometimes the feeling that the blossoming relationship between the protagonist and their love interest is only included to tick the obligatory romantic subplot box, whether or not it actually contributes anything to, or even works with, the plot.

So what do you think? How important are romantic subplots (in works that don't somehow fall into the romance genre)? Do you think that authors feel a pressure to include a love interest in their story? Are there any novels you've read that don't have a romantic subplot, and don't need one? What are some of your favourite romances that are subplots to a larger narrative?

I love a good discussion, so also feel free to talk about any romantic subplot tropes that you've encountered lately and love/hate. Or do you have any tips regarding including and/or avoiding including a romantic subplot in your own writing? Your thoughts are welcome (and wanted!).

*I'm most familiar with YA, over adult fiction, but this by no means has to be exclusively a discussion about YA. I'm just talking about what I know. :)
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Sun Jan 24, 2016 1:55 pm
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Sujana says...

As an aromantic, I can happily say oversaturation is an understatement. However, I don't think we should forego romance altogether--I mean, it leads to some intriguing concepts and metaphors that I wouldn't want to live without.

1) How important are romantic subplots (in works that don't somehow fall into the romance genre)?

NOT AT ALL. But for some reason it seems like a check list obligation. Like, they always include on chick just so the guy protagonist can get laid, or if it's a female main character its almost inevitable she'll get a catch of her own. I always say this; if I ever find a book solely based off of the main characters struggle with something that doesn't include a romance I'll buy it solely off of that appeal. It would be so...refreshing.

2) Do you think that authors feel a pressure to include a love interest in their story?

Yes. All the time. I once had an old colleague point out my lack of romance in my work. I did not care, but still it makes an evident point that romance is ubiquitous even to older readers, never mind contemporary ones.

3) Are there any novels you've read that don't have a romantic subplot, and don't need one?

I'm pretty sure My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George was clear of it, but mostly because its main character was a little boy. I don't know, did Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have a busty female love interest? No? Oh yeah, that was one of the reasons I liked it, right? Most of Sherlock Holmes? Mister God this is Anna?

4) What are some of your favourite romances that are subplots to a larger narrative?

Canon? None. I ship some of them, but they never catch on because apparently they're too dangerous and won't last. But isn't that the point of having a romantic novel? You have to have a conflict of some sort.
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Mon Feb 01, 2016 11:44 pm
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WritingWolf says...

I mostly read YA fantasy and sci-fi. Within those genres I actually really understand why someone always falls in love. I mean, the characters go through a lot together. Can you imagine how unlikely it would be to survive the hunger games with someone and not feel at least slightly closer then just friends? So I do understand why it is common.

I do however not believe it is necessary. I enjoy romantic subplots, but if it's forced it's not worth it. It actually really bothers me that some writers put one in just because it should be there.

One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to romance is love triangles that are obvious from the beginning, or stretched out. I always feel like they're only there to fill up space.

I haven't put a whole lot of thought into the subject but now that you've brought it up I am really curious to see what everyone else thinks.
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Mon Feb 01, 2016 11:54 pm
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SkyeWalker says...

Just going to make a superquick comment. For my novel/series that I'm working, I actually don't have any romance planned out. There might be a quick thing, because there's six mains (It's extremely hard to write. I'm focusing more on a three main mains and three sub mains. It's a bit easier that way...) Three girls, three boys. I think that maybe a couple of them might not be able to feel something after all they've been through together, but it probably won't last because one of the main mains sort of dies and does a body switch somewhere in the fourth book... But that's pretty much it. Romance is an eeeh for me, mainly because I probably don't have too much romance to look forward to in my life XD

That was not as quick as I expected. Oh well. >_>
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Sat Nov 19, 2016 4:29 am
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TriSARAHtops says...

...aaaaand I'm going to answer my own questions:

How important are romantic subplots (in works that don't somehow fall into the romance genre)?
I probably should have phrased this to ask how necessary romantic subplots are, because I think that they often work as an important part of a story's overall plot. Even though often, more so in speculative fiction than realistic, the story would survive just fine, and with only minimal changes were the romance not to exist, the romance does serve an important purpose - in showing character development, potentially societal mores and also (despite the fact that this is often perceived as a more negative reason for the inclusion of romance) upping the tension. Does every story need to include a romance in order to be realistic/enjoyable? No. But I do think that romantic subplots, if done well, can serve an important purpose.

Do you think that authors feel a pressure to include a love interest in their story?
Considering the astounding lack of sans romantic subplot of some variety stories, especially in YA, I'd say the answer to that is pretty overwhelmingly yes. Not every author does, sure, but I think that there certainly is an expectation that a story will feature romance, and when a story doesn't, it's going against the norm.

Are there any novels you've read that don't have a romantic subplot, and don't need one?
My favourite book is one of these! Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, aside from being a fantastic book, does not have a romantic subplot. The major relationship in the story is the friendship between the two main characters.

I'm of the belief that character relationships are one of the most important aspects of a narrative, if not the most important. #contentious. And having relationships between the characters is vital. But do those relationships have to be romantic? No.

Also the fact that the most important relationships appearing in stories are often romantic kind of gives off the vibe that suggests that romantic relationships are the most important thing ever and if you don't have that you're missing out on something major. Like a character can have no friends, but as long as the story ends with a kiss, all g right? It all adds up to that massive societal message that if you're not in a romantic relationship you're somehow not complete, which is sucky.

Okay, so I think what we draw from the above mess is that romance in a story can be important, but not vital, but having character relationships in general is totally necessary.
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Sat Nov 19, 2016 7:34 pm
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Megrim says...

I love romance. I notice I get extra invested in characters when I'm rooting for them to get together.

I think a big issue with romance in general is that it's usually thrown in "just cuz." I think there are a lot of authors who don't know how to make the romance compelling, or how to get the readers on board with it even if the *author* is excited about it.

A huge issue is characters being roles instead of characters, eg "the love interest." They need to be a character first, with a life and goals and desires. But so often it's some sort of automatic, "oh, he's the guy, she's the girl, guess they're going to end up together." And they do, for no real reason other than that they're supposed to. Romance works soooo much better if *we* love the characters, and we see *why* they would love each other, and basically fall in love along with them. That is to say, the romance comes out of the chemistry they have together, as opposed to some sort of obligation.

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Sat Nov 19, 2016 10:48 pm
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StellaThomas says...

Omg romantic subploooooooots.

I'm a sucker for the romantic subplot. Dear lord, I fall for it every time.

I used to convince myself I didn't like romantic *main* plots either but then I finished a first draft of a full-on straight-up romance. I mean it does involve a giant spider but it's still a romance.

Still. My favourite books are fantasy novels (and sci-fi, but particularly fantasy) with a romantic subplot. And I full on admit that.

Of course every book doesn't need one. But the sad thing is that now I'm so accustomed to it, I find it hard to read books without any hint of romance whatsoever. Like, I bought A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan, and it covered her meeting her husband and getting married in one chapter. And I know the book is meant to be about dragons. But I lost interest when I realised that that was the romantic subplot done and dusted.

I'm also worried that in one of my projects, Unruly, a character literally only exists to be a love interest. By being a love interest he provides a lot of conflict (he's the MC's missing best friend's boyfriend, hence a lot of internal conflict for her), and he's a well-rounded enough character, but still. The most important thing he does plot-wise is get imprisoned and have to be freed by the MC. A bit damsel-in-distress. But if I feel he's okay as a character, does the fact he only exists as a romantic subplot really matter? He still enriches the backdrop - and if I start considering what every single character adds to the plot, I lose colour fairly quickly.

I'm with the previous posters here, that the characters have to be lovable themselves, and the chemistry has to be believable, for us to buy into a subplot.

The other thing I take massive issue with is like, in YA fiction - I'm particularly thinking of Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare but I have a lot of personal difficulties with that author anyway so I'm biased - where the characters are like, promising to be together forever and getting married and getting waaaay too serious way too quickly. Like. You're 17. You've known the guy three days. And I know that teenage romances are intense as heck but ???

@TriSARAHtops - I'm totally with you on how it sometimes feels like romantic relationships are the only important ones in books - which is actually a point I've been trying to make with Unruly - the most important relationship in the novel is between the MC and her best friend (who goes missing and spends the majority of the novel off screen) that she's trying to save. The whole whoops-sorry-stole-your-boyfriend-while-you-were-in-mortal-danger is largely to complicate their own friendship. But it's actually why I originally started this story five years ago - to prove that female friendships, that are overpowering and intense as teenagers just like romances are, are just as good a basis for a story.
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Mea says...

I love romantic subplots when they're done well. I really do. But I generally hate teenage romance, because they're so young and it's all so melodramatic. My favorite is when the couple is already married, but of course that doesn't put an end to the romantic tension. Not that they're going to be constantly on the verge of breaking up - I guess my point is you're always learning and working things out together, especially at the beginning of marriage, and I really enjoy stories that address that.

So, like all the couples I love, like really hardcore ship (I'm generally absolutely fine with the canon parings, and then there's some that I adore with all my heart) are all in their early twenties or older, and half of them are already married in the story. The teenage romances just don't grab me in that way.

And I also just get tired of romance sometimes. It's part of the reason I've been reading middle grade fiction for so long - there's a lot less romance because the protagonists are just too young. And I wish there were more platonic friendships in books in general.

I definitely think there's pressure to include love interests in YA fiction. In fact, it's something I worry about as a writer, because my book is very middle grade in tone and the absence of romance and general lack of teen insecurity and angst - it's a light, happy fairies-and-unicorns world. But the characters act too old to be 12-14.

Books that don't have a romantic subplot and don't need one: Ender's Game, Chronicles of Narnia. I'm sure there are more but I'm failing to think of them.
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Carlito says...

I love me some love! Any shape, any size, gimme the love!

I don't need a romantic plot in a novel, but it's always welcome for me. I typically read YA and contemporary is my go-to genre. If it's not contemporary, I strongly prefer there to be a romantic sub-plot in there because it helps me connect to the characters and the story.

For me, if it's contemporary, a romantic subplot isn't necessary for me to love the story. When I read contemporary, I'm mostly looking for a real, human experience. Sometimes a character's real human experience involves a love story, sometimes it doesn't. A romantic subplot can either dramatically add to the character development or the story, or I think it can distract from the over-arching message of the story. I think romantic subplots can easily become a crutch in YA because they're usually so accessible and many readers enjoy a good love story. (And I say this as someone that has never written a novel without a love story :P).

My favorite love stories (main plot or sub) are ones where the characters are well developed and have interests and things happening outside of the love interest. Plots where one exists to be the love interest and doesn't otherwise advance or change the plot don't work for me as well. I hate love triangles when it's pretty obvious who will be chosen. I want to say I hate the good girl/bad boy trope (or vice versa) but it depends on the bad boy :p. Any love interest that is "damaged" or has a past or a secret is usually for me (depending on how melodramatic and realistic it is). I love drama, but not drama for the sake of drama. It needs to be essential to the plot. I also don't like books where the romantic plot revolves around a teenage girl losing her virginity to someone. Sex in YA is a totally different topic, but I hate when there's virtually no love connection or build up and the girl has sex with someone for some random reason and that's it with the guy. I'm sure the more I think about it, the more I'm going to think of tropes or plot devices that I either love or hate :p

I don't personally feel pressured to add romantic plots into my stories, I do it naturally because I love love stories. I've always been so fascinated by relationships and love and I don't think I'll ever tire of a good love story. I think some writers do feel pressured, especially in YA, which has already been mentioned. I love what some of the others have said about needing more novels with important relationships that aren't romantic in nature. Based on the agents I follow on Twitter, I know there is a push for this in the market right now, and I think that will be a really positive move for YA and fiction in general. I barely dated in high school and I always thought there was something weird or wrong about me for that, so fiction that shows that it's okay to be friends with anyone and not have feelings for them or that not dating in high school is 100% okay, is a positive move. BUT, I think romance will always have a place in YA because for many teenagers, love and relationships ARE a huge part of this time. Falling in love can be super dramatic in high school and I think fiction showing the good and bad in relationships can help young people weather the storm and hopefully have more healthy relationships.

A few YA contemporary books I read this year or last that I don't recall having a romantic plot in them:
Mosquitoland by David Arnold
Leverage by Joshua Cohen
The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt
Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan
The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney
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Lightsong says...

Romantic subplots are okay as long as they are not cheesy. Seriously, there's more to romance then 'I love you forever!' / 'Me too, I'm gonna die for you'.
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BluesClues says...

So. On the one hand, I'm a sucker for a good romantic subplot, and I always include them in novels. Not on purpose or because of pressure - I just can't help it. I ship everyone with everyone.

But then I definitely don't enjoy Romance, where romance is the plot, so...

How important are romantic subplots?

I enjoy them, but I think if you have other subplots sufficient to keep the pacing on track and develop the characters further, a romance is not necessary. Plus I 10,000% agree with @TriSARAHtops that Romance is often treated like the most important relationship you could ever have, which is annoying. Like, yes, it's lovely and important, but you know what else is lovely and important? FRIENDSHIP. A good relationship with your FAMILY.

Like, romantic love is not the only kind of love, nor is it the only important kind of love. But it's often treated like the end-all/be-all, especially for female characters.

Do you think that authors feel a pressure to include a love interest in their story?

Based on what I know of some stories prior to and after publication, probably yes. Like I said, not me personally, but that's because I gravitate naturally toward a romantic subplot and ship all my characters with all my other characters it's a problem guys

Frankly, they get super annoying sometimes. Especially especially when it's a) a love triangle (please God stop with the love triangles), b) it's an unnecessary romance for a girl who is totally awesome and then becomes lame, or c) when a girl is only thrown into the story so the dude can have a romance and she has no personality outside of that.

Are there any novels you've read that don't have a romantic subplot, and don't need one?

Of course. I've never read a story that didn't have a romantic subplot and said to myself, "You know what this needs? A romantic subplot."

Like even with Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, where the TV series has a lovely romance between Dot and Hugh and a subtler almost-not-realized one between Phryne and Jack, the books don't have those romances (at least not the three stories I've read so far) - Hugh doesn't even exist, at least in the three stories I read - and even though I loved them in the show, I didn't miss them at all in the books. I was 100% fine just reading about Phryne kicking butt and solving mysteries and teaching Dot to do the same.

There are so many great other kinds of relationships in those stories anyway.

Life of Pi (Pi is married as he tells the writer his story, but you don't see him meeting his wife or courting her or anything), The Little Prince, so far the Cormoran Strike mysteries (although I foresee a romance between him and what's-her-face who started working for him)'re seeing a pattern though, right? It's a lot easier to find novels about men with no romantic subplots than it is to find novels about women with no romantic subplots.

I mean, you can find them, but it's harder. I think that's where the pressure is: since romance is supposed to be our loftiest goal as women, fiction about women "has" to include romance. Men are allowed to do other things without romance being involved.

What are some of your favourite romances that are subplots to a larger narrative?

I like really subtle romances, so the one in the Fairyland series is really good. Like you're perfectly well aware that September and Saturday like each other and someday are going to get married and have a daughter and everything (it has to do with the temporal nature of marids), but it's not a whole big thing. So September gets to do awesome stuff and she and Saturday have a really strong friendship and she also has other friends, and the romance doesn't distract or detract from her character.

I loooooooooooove the surprise-twist romantic-not-romantic subplot in Artemis Fowl: Time Paradox, which is probably my favorite Artemis Fowl book. That series is largely without romantic subplots, which is fantastic, but then Holly and Artemis go back in time, which does weird things to their ages, and then Artemis almost dies, and Holly is so happy that she kisses him and it was like THE SHIP I NEVER KNEW I WANTED.

...but predictably (perhaps), Artemis being Artemis, he lies to Holly/kind of betrays her, and they make up and become friends again, and she's like, "But your fairy-kissing days are over" and he's like, "I see" and she's like, "That's not a challenge, Artemis" and then it never happens again.

Which on the one hand is totally fine but on the other hand I'm kind of sad about it.

Man, I really need to re-read that.

It is surprisingly hard to think about what books have and don't have romantic subplots that I particularly enjoy without just going through my whole bookshelf. I know there are more where I do quite like the romantic subplots and more where there aren't any romantic subplots, but...

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Panikos says...

Romance is one of those things that really annoys me in fiction, because when it's done well, I will be completely invested in it and barely be able to think of anything else. However, when it's done badly or just has no need to be there (which is mostly the case, in my experience) it just makes me roll my eyes. I feel like it's about the only kind of subplot that even good writers get away with shoving in without purpose.

How important are romantic subplots?

They're no more important than any other kind of subplot, which means they should only be in a story if they actually serve a purpose. It drives me up the wall when a story spends ages focusing on a romantic storyline that literally has no bearing on the main plot. It's not a novel, but I feel like Alex and Piper in Orange in the New Black are now in that territory. Their relationship used to be plot relevant and important, but after three seasons the arc had nothing left to give. The writers never seemed to realise that, however, which is why we still have to endure loads of inane scenes of bickering and flirting that do absolutely nothing for the story.

There are also stories like The Hunger Games, which are sort of halfway. The romantic sub-plot between Peeta and Katniss is pretty crucial to the main story, but the love triangle could just as easily not be there. It doesn't ruin the series or anything, but it's by far the least interesting part of it.

That said, if a romantic subplot is done well and ties into the main plot, they can make an already interesting story so much more touching and heartfelt. They stay with you forever.

Do you think that authors feel a pressure to include a love interest in their story?

A million times yes. So many books and movies shove love interests in just for the sake of it, even though the story could've worked easily without them. I think sometimes it comes from a desire to appeal to the masses. I also think it comes from laziness. So your character needs a motivation to rescue someone? Well, you could spend time building up the complex details of their friendship/alliance and how much they need one another. Or you could just have them stare at each other a bit and declare that they're in love! Simple.

I do include romance in my stories, but it's rarely ever the main focus. I'm not particularly interested in will-they-won't-they kind of plots or anything too sappy. I certainly avoid slushy scenes - I prefer the moments where they're roasting each other and just having a laugh. That's a bigger testament to true love, in my opinion.

Are there any novels you've read that don't have a romantic subplot and don't need one?

Like BlueAfrica, I've never read a story without a romantic subplot and thought it needed one. I actually find that I'm more likely to root for characters to get together if their feelings for each other are left in the subtext. The moment it becomes explicit, I'm often less interested.

Favourite romance subplots

I completely adore Thaniel and Mori's relationship from The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and I think Matsumoto and Grace's relationship (in the same book) is excellently handled too. Because they're subtle, and because the author actually seems to realise that people have to enjoy each other's company to be a good romantic match. You get a sense of what they talk about when they're just hanging out together. They make each other laugh. They're friends as well as lovers. What I particularly like about Thaniel and Mori is that they're completely suited to one another, but neither of them ever needs to say that. It's always a case of actions speaking louder than words.

Well, that got long, but this is a topic that really infuriates interests me. I'd say my biggest problem with romantic subplots is when the two characters are barely even friends with one another. Fair enough if they're in a cold, uncaring sort of relationship, but if they're supposed to be soulmates, they need to have an iron-cast friendship too. You need to get the sense that, between their sappy discussions about love and their heated make-out sessions, they actually have fun together. If they have nothing in common outside of their obsession with each other, the whole relationship will ring false.
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