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Author Topic: What makes a good romantic scene?
MattLeo
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Roughly I think that romantic scenes fall into two categories. Scenes which build romantic tension are those where characters' feelings for each other are working at cross-purposes with their agenda. Those scenes are relatively easy and I know how to handle them. You just hone the characters' desires against whatever it is that is keeping them apart.

The trouble I'm having right now is with the second kind of romantic scene; the cathartic scene where the characters overcome the things keeping them apart. Sometimes it's choosing love over something else, or revealing feelings kept hidden. But however it's done there's something that happens in that scene which removes the obstacles between the characters. Now I've written a few of these scenes which I think are pretty good, and some which I'm not so sure about. What I'd like to know is why? Why do some romantic payoff scenes work and others not?

So, what does it take to sell the big, cathartic scene to a reader? Is it description? Dialog? Inner monologue? Scenery and sense? Have you ever written such scenes, and if you did what seemed to work?

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited August 08, 2011).]


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Natej11
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I think a major issue in this case is the fact that romantic tension is way, way overused these days. Wherever a man and woman are interacting it seems almost expected that there'll be some sort of mutual attraction. And equally common is that the two will for some reason be openly mocking each other to near the point of coming to physical blows, with the heavy implication that they're just moments away from tearing each other's clothes off.

I actually think it's a bit tiresome. Men and women interact every day without any sort of sexual tension, so the fact that writers constantly go down that path can be annoying.

Of course I'm not one to talk, since I've fallen into that same trap myself .


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MattLeo
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Sexual tension is not the same as romantic tension.
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Osiris
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I generally agree with you Nate. An example is a zombie story I wrote, in which I merely had a sentence or two in which a male zombie was attracted to a female zombie.

One of the readers insisted that I should develop that relationship more, though I didn't want to because the idea it was tangential to the arc. So I ended up cutting that aspect completely. It was expected that if a character notices a physical attribute, that a torrid romance follow. Even if they were zombies. I had no interest in showing them tear the clothes (and some bits of flesh) off each other, but the reader expectation was there.

Perhaps that is why it is overused, because it is expected by many readers.


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Meredith
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Well, gentlemen, it all depends on whether you want to attract female readers or not. If you do, a bit of romance is only going to help you. If not, if you're writing a thriller or something that's overwhelmingly for a male audience, ignore it.

I suggest you listen to this interview for a few hints on how to do it right.


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rstegman
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I have read a couple dozen romances in my life. I found they came in two versions.

One, something outside them, such as family or a situation, are keeping them apart.

The other is that a misunderstanding and pride are keeping them apart.

In the latter, all they need to do is sit and talk out the subject and they would be on top of each other in a moment.

In the latter, they might have to convince family members to let them get together I joke that an extreme example is that the daughter of the grand dragon of the KKK and the son of the head of the black panthers have to get their parent's permission to marry. Most real examples are real subtle in comparison, but still the same idea.

A third one I had not run across in my limited writing is were there is the situation that keeps them apart. For some reason, they cannot get any privacy. They might work different shifts or different departments. if they could simply get together, they would be all over each other.

Of course, with all the romances I have read, while their getting past their problem is the key part of the story, there is a second plot, which is the situation they find themselves in, a second whole story.

For your question, the key is to have something keep them apart to build the tension between them. Show the signs of how they cannot wait to get to each other, but show the reason why they don't as something that must be conquered.

"Giving your two cents, penny for your thoughts, what happened to the other penny?"


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MattLeo
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Well, let's start right off by drawing a distinction between romance as a genre and romance as a plot element.

Romance as a genre is read almost entirely by women; I don't know why this should be so, but it is. It is also governed by conventions, and in some category romances by specifications that are extremely narrow. These things are neither here nor there. Genres always have conventions that are more specific than the restrictions of craft, and if the conventions work for you, great. If not, then the genre isn't for you.

Romance as a plot element can be part of any kind of story. Men and women can respond to that plot element with equal satisfaction. However I think many authors are ham-handed in handling romance. It is, after all, just another form of conflict.


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genevive42
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Most of the best romantic scenes I've read have some element of humor in them. The best one lately came from Joe Abercrombie in the second book of his First Law series. When he got the two toughest characters together, and then it didn't quite all go right, but there's always another try, right? I was laughing my ass off. But it also made me really want it to work out for those two characters.

I say let there be awkwardness and laughs. It'll make the characters much more human and the romance will be less heavy-handed. I think it the humor will also make it more palatable to both genders.


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MattLeo
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I think humor works because the catharsis of humor is so like the relief of romantic resolution, in which the terror of making yourself vulnerable is proven illusory.

Some people might do well to read C.S. Lewis's "The Four Loves" to get a primer on the nature of erotic love, which turns out to be quite distinct from (although obviously closely connected to) sex drive. One can be sexually attracted to someone without wanting to spend all one's time with that person, to know everything about that person; or to possess that person exclusively. Those are the components of erotic attachment (as opposed to erotic attraction) which differentiate romance.

Anyhow, I'm looking for opinions on style here.


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LDWriter2
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Hmmm, I do understand what you mean by romantic and my first thought was all of the above. Setting, dialogue, etc.

Are they on the run? Is everything solved and the book is about to end? As suggested some humor would be good especially if both are unsure of expressing their feelings. Is one usually confident but not in this case?

[This message has been edited by LDWriter2 (edited August 09, 2011).]


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MAP
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I've written a few of these and have read lots of books with this in them, so I'll give you my two cents.


quote:
So, what does it take to sell the big, cathartic scene to a reader? Is it description? Dialog? Inner monologue? Scenery and sense? Have you ever written such scenes, and if you did what seemed to work?

These scenes are really focused IMO. Think about times when you've had a big fight (argument not physical) with anyone doesn't have to be your significant other. What are the things you noticed? What were your thoughts like? Stuff like that.

For me, I am very focused on the other person and how I feel. So to me these big emotional scenes (of any type really, but I think it fits your cathartic scene) are really, really, focused.

So little description of the scene unless it comes to play in the action of the characters. Lots of description of body language especially of the non-POV character. Getting the dialogue right is essential, what is said and what is unsaid (conveying subtext is huge). I tend to go really big on internal dialogue as well just to try to get the emotion right.

I tend to rewrite these scenes many times because it is so hard to get that emotion down on paper.

Anyway, hope this helps.

[This message has been edited by MAP (edited August 09, 2011).]


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Robert Nowall
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I never could stand the utter unrealism of scenes where couples argue with each other and then fall into the sack at the climax of it...I've argued passionately with people and never once has it led to that. The scenes might be funny, but they aren't real...
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MattLeo
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Well, Robert, my goal is *credibility*, not *realism*, but I know what you mean. It's a kind of cliché that writers turn to because they want the result but aren't that interested in how the characters get there.

I want to reiterate again that romance isn't about sexual intercourse. Often the *most* romantic endings are the ones where the lovers cannot be together, like in Anthony Hope's Zenda novels. That distinguishes romantic stories from genre romance. I have to tiptoe around this topic with some of my romance writer friends, but the problem I have with "erotica" is that I view sex scenes like fight scenes or battle scenes; they should serve the story by moving the plot forward.

What the lovers in the climax of a romantic story end up showing each other isn't their wedding tackle; it's their feelings. But even though this is not about sex, I think Robert is touching on the very point I'm interested in. Building romantic tension should be a piece of cake if you know how to build any kind of tension; it's just another kind of character conflict. What is tricky is selling the payoff, which can't fall flat.

I should specific about why I'm interested in this question. I'm working on a satirical sci-fi story reworking of the old Hollywood "comedy of remarriage" plot (e.g., The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, etc. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comedy_of_remarriage ). In my story, a gruff space captain gets mixed up again with her charming but irresponsible ex-husband, and by the end of the story of course they're back together. I know how to handle the payoff scene, which is light, light, light. The real payoff isn't that they're hopping into the sack; it's that they've finally learned how to live together.

Now I've looked into how those old romantic comedy scripts work, and there's often a false climax that comes right in the middle of act 2 that appears to resolve the romantic conflict, but is defective and ends up driving the couple further apart by the end of act 2. Typically: she thinks he's finally resolved to straighten up and fly right, but he's really up to his old tricks. So I've devised just one of those scenes. The captain and her ex are shipwrecked on a planet with no survival gear or food, other than a bottle of champagne. A rescue is only a few hours away, but they don't know this and believe they're going to die a slow and horrible death. As they polish off the bottle, the ex makes a number of personal revelations that temporarily change her opinion of him. It's a false resolution because (a) it's alcohol fueled; (b) neither is ready to stand up in public and declare their relationship; and (c) he's still holding things back from her.

Now in this one particular case it happens to be important that they end up in the sack together, because the realization that nothing is resolved by that is what drives her to rock bottom at the end of Act 2. Metaphorically she's laid her emotional cards on the table and lost big. So you see, I have the problem of selling this not-really-romantic outcome as seeming romantically plausible in the scene, which is precisely what people are saying often doesn't work for them.

I've got the scene worked up to just the point she decides to sleep with him, and I think so far it works well. It's what she does next that has me stumped.

So what *has* worked for you? Can you think of any good examples?

MAP's on the right track. Dialog, body language, inner monologue are all important. I think some exterior description is warranted too. The kind of scene you can set in a softly lit stateroom differs from what you'd write for a harshly lit industrial facility.

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited August 09, 2011).]


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MartinV
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Don't wish to offend anyone. I think American culture in particular has a predisposition to make the male and female lead characters lovers. American film makers have decided long ago that romance is an essential ingredient of a story and very few people dare to deviate from the conventional, pre-approved approach.

If there is a detective story with two detectives and they are of the opposite gender, they will definitely have a romance somewhere in between. A fine example: X Files.

Take a look at the show Friends. They made all the possible (and impossible) permutations of pairing up the main characters.

Science Fiction is also not immune to this. Stargate, for example, keeps suggesting a romance between two lead characters.

In contrast, I've seen some British detective TV shows where the male and female characters can cowork fluently without problems.


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Robert Nowall
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There was a press report about Friends today, about how somebody went through all the episodes and figured out the main cast paired up with eighty-five different [on-screen] partners in the run of the show. I never cared for Friends...talk about a lack of realism...

*****

No offense, but a scene where the characters think they're going to die a horrible death and then get drunk doesn't appeal to me much, romantically or otherwise. Could they lay their cards on the table, say, in the process of trying to avoid that horrible death?


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MAP
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Guys,

Mattleo didn't ask if he should do this scene, but opinions on how to do it successfully. How are posts expressing your disdain for romance helpful?

This could be a really interesting discusion, and many people have offered good insights, but for the rest of you, can we stay on topic?

I'm really curious about what others have to say on this, but I fear it is turning into a romance bashing thread.

Not everyone likes romance. That is fine. Not every story needs a romance subplot, and if you don't do it right, then please don't do one.

But really this question could apply to any emotionally charged scene between any two characters. They don't have to be in a romantic relationship. It could be between two friends, syblings, a parent and a child. Anyone in some sort of relationship that is important to the two people involved. I think the question is (and Mattleo can correct me if I'm wrong) is how do you get the emotion right in these type of scenes?

[This message has been edited by MAP (edited August 09, 2011).]


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babooher
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Two words: Hidden Camera.



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redux
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I think to get the emotional payoff for a romantic scene you need to have a good foundation. I personally feel that the initial meeting between the romantic leads is crucial. If there is no mutual attraction (be it obvious or through subtle hints) right from the start, I typically don't buy it when they finally get together and express their love.

For instance, in the movie GONE WITH THE WIND the initial meeting is Rhett Butler leering at Scarlett as she makes her way up the staircase. She has this to say about him: "That man looking at us and smiling. The nasty, dark one....He looks as if, as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy." We immediately know that they are attracted to each other even though there will be times they won't be able to stand being in the same room together. The romantic payoff is when Scarlett finally realizes she loves Rhett Butler, runs off to tell him, but he has had enough of her and leaves her. A bit of a downer, but, her initial impression of Rhett was spot on - he is a "nasty dark one." What else did she expect after stringing him along for so long?

Another example that comes to mind is the novel JANE EYRE. Jane is taking a moonlit stroll when Rochester passes her on his horse. The animal slips on a sheet of ice and Jane offers Rochester her assistance. Rochester asks Jane if she knows who owns Thornfield Hall and if she has ever met the owner. Obviously Rochester knows Jane has never met him before, but this type of banter, which is rather witty (at least Rochester would think so), is the type of banter that will be replayed between them many times. Their final reunion scene - the romantic payoff - is much like their first meeting, Jane returns to Mr. Rochester, offering him her assistance. But this time around, it is Jane who has the upper hand. Rochester, blinded in one eye, doesn't immediately recognize Jane. Their conversation takes a few witty turns, punctuated by the emotional intensity of their reunion.

I hope I made sense and didn't ramble incessantly. To summarize, the initial meeting between the romantic leads needs to be mirrored once again during the emotional payoff scene. At least for me it does, otherwise, I just won't feel the love


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History
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I like how you breakdown the two types of scenes, Matt. I never really put that much thought into it.

When I wrote my first (and as yet only) novel, I kept as a secondary or tertiary storyline, the undercurrent of unstated affection and attraction between my protagonist (Rabbi Cane) and the far younger main secondary character (Detective Olafson). What they say, don't say, share, don't share; how they argue or how they attempt to comfort each other within propriety as colleagues; what they sense about each other's and their own feelings but deny or self-deny...helps demonstrate the natural progression of professional to personal interest between people who work closely together in stressful situations. They have a big blow-up prior to the climactic scene of the novel and begin to open up to each other, at first professionally (finally unifying as a team) and later (after the story climax) personally--i.e. the romantic scene as a culmination of elements throughout the novel. This was all essential to the development of my MC, his epiphany, and the resolution of his internal conflict (i.e. the human interest element of the story).

I think it works, because (in my experience) this is what I've observed people do--and what I've experienced myself.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

[This message has been edited by History (edited August 09, 2011).]


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Meredith
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I've been trying to think about the romantic scenes in stories I've read (not necessarily primarily romances).

I agree that humor is a big help, especially if you already have humor in the story.

I keep coming back to Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson stories. The romance between Mercy and Adam is a major subplot of the novels. Mercy starts out resenting him (although she thinks he's hot) but ends up with him. I think my favorite in the series for this subplot is the third, IRON KISSED. Not because of how that one ends (something that keeps Mercy and Adam apart for two more books), but because of the caring and tenderness the characters show each other, even when they're not a couple. When Adam gets into the shower with her, fully dressed, so he can comb the broken glass out of her hair and then tends all her cuts, you just know he's the one. There's also a touch of humor as he teases her about her tattoo.

It can be handled with a very delicate touch, too. I'm thinking of Lois McMaster Bujold's THE CURSE OF CHALION and THE PALLADIN OF SOULS. The romance element is barely touched on during the main part of the story. You know the characters are attracted to each other, but there's just too much else going on (as well as a few other impediments to their relationships). At the end, there's little more than a kiss to seal those romances, but it's enough.

The romance is a much bigger part of Bujold's SHARDS OF HONOR, but, again, its completion is handled very lightly and with a touch of humor.

It doesn't always have to be a big payoff scene to make it work.

In short, I think there are as many ways to handle it right as their are pairs of characters. It all depends on how the relationship has developed through the rest of the story.


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mythique890
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I think the key to the climactic romantic scene doesn't have as much to do with elements of style as with buildup. The reader has to care deeply, they have to feel conviction that these two characters need to be together.

If I had to choose a style element, though, I want to know how much those characters have suffered being apart, and how emotionally exquisite it is for them to finally be together (internal thoughts). I want a 'wait for it... wait for it... maybe not... YES!' scene (pacing). I want to feel slightly embarrassed, like I'm witnessing something so intimate and tender that maybe I should read the words peeking through my fingers (character action and dialogue). That is romance.

But, like I said at first, you can't achieve that scene without the reader longing for the relationship's success, and that's all in the buildup.

My brain isn't functioning all the way because it's late. I hope this didn't wander too far from what you were asking.


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Crane
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I wonder if the problem isn't along the lines of: I have two really strong characters, and since they're so strong they don't actually need romantic partnership, and in order to have successful partnership they'd have to give up part of their character. If I'm off, just say.

I don't have a solution to offer, but sometimes restating the problem helps.


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enigmaticuser
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I think I would second along the lines of Mythique.

One of my favorite, perhaps my the favorite, romantic storyline is in Enchanted. When I stop to think about why, its because the character deserve each other. There is a destiny about it. Often times I watch or at least half watch a movie with a romantic story and I'm like "this guy is a loser. Why doesn't she see through him?" Or "They're both losers, who cares if they end up together?"

They should each be protagonists in their own right. It's like Batman, the most irritating thing is he sacrifices so much and doesn't have a Lois. Meanwhile Superman, where's the sacrifice? And he gets Lois.

They need to deserve each other...or at least need to deserve (they can have flaws). But then romance is just natural.


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MattLeo
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Well, let me address Crane's scenario:
quote:
I wonder if the problem isn't along the lines of: I have two really strong characters, and since they're so strong they don't actually need romantic partnership, and in order to have successful partnership they'd have to give up part of their character. If I'm off, just say.

I agree this scenario bodes ill from creating a romance sub-plot, but it also presents a challenge for plotting in general.

I my rulebook there are no hard-and-fast rules than can never be broken. But there are useful techniques that sometimes work, and if a technique nearly always works it's a guideline. One guideline is that a plot works better if the outcome of the conflict is vitally important to the hero. Make a hero too strong and self-sufficient, and it's a tough sell.

This is the probably the biggest challenge for mystery series: making each case personally significant to the detective hero. You can give him overweening professional pride (a staple of course). In the case of "Murder She Wrote" the writers supplied their detective with more nieces and nephews than a clam in a clam bed. One of my favorite approaches is where the writer twists his detective psychologically so every case is an ultimately unsatisfying (for the detective) replay of that one case he never solved. The point is that we readers are putting ourselves in the detective's shoes, and if he feels a strong stake in the outcome of every scene, so do we.

Whatever the motivation is, a story works better when the main character has skin in the game, throughout the story ad in every single scene. Same goes for all the supporting characters. The screenwriter Blake Snyder says that the characters in a story don't work for the author, they work for themselves.

So I think a story with not one, but two strong, completely psychologically fulfilled central characters has bigger problems than how to strike romantic sparks between them. But if you can figure out how overcome those problems, or strike those sparks, more power to you.

I posted this topic initially as a question about "how"; given the response, I think I'll post a follow-up topic about "why", which is probably what I should have done first.

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited August 31, 2011).]


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