We all love to watch a bad romance unfold across the screen. We love to gossip about them in reality. It's the hatred of these "bad romances" that keeps us enthralled, just like Lady Gaga's song implies. But what happens when you write a romance that you intended to be the next Jack and Rose from Titanic, but wind up with the awkward Bella and Edward pairing from Twilight? I think we can all agree that romance is either a hit-or-miss and that there's no such thing as in-between. So how can you tell whether your character's romance really works? Here are 5 signs that you may be writing a bad romance.
Adding a romance plot or subplot to your story can amp up the action and elevate it to the next level. It can add:
Tension between characters
It raises the overall stakes for the main character
It invites readers to invest more emotionally
It creates an interesting emotional journey
Gives readers more reason to root for main character
It makes the overall story more relatable
When done correctly, a romantic narrative arc can bring value to your story overall, but there are certain things you should avoid doing while crafting one. If you're using any of these 5 relationship strategies, then you're probably writing a bad romance:
1. Instant romances:
If you're unfamiliar with this term, it refers to two people meeting and within a short or "instant" amount of time getting into a committed relationship, or making spontaneous declarations of undying love to one another. Think about it logically and it's easy to see why this doesn't work. A few examples of this would be Snow White and Prince Charming, Jacob and Renesmee from Twilight, Anna and Hans from Frozen, and Andie and Ben from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
Think about relationships in real life. Yours, your parents', or the ones you've seen your friends go through. How many of those started because two people locked eyes across the room and fell madly and spontaneously in love? Not many, right? That's because love only works that way in the movies. In real life things are slower, messier, and they never fit the same mold twice.
The key to undoing this mistake is by ensuring that your character's relationship evolves slowly over time. By throwing in tidbits here and there, you're building up the suspense and giving the character (and by extension the reader) something to look forward to. If you want a side-by-side comparison, look at Anna and Kristoff's relationship in comparison to Anna and Han's in Frozen.
2. The dynamic isn't equal
Relationships are a constantly evolving balance of power. Neither person is entirely submissive or dominant (unless it's an abusive, controlling one), rather it ebbs and flows via the situation they find themselves in.
For this reason creating a relationship where one of the people involved is passive and uninvolved in any of the decision making is a no-go. When only one character is dynamic there is nothing in the relationship worth reading about because there is no conflict being created. When their is nothing to gain, the pair become stagnant because there is no struggle, nothing standing in their way, and no differences in approaches or opinions. This gives the reader nothing to root for, and ultimately why the reader will stop reading in general.
The best thing you can do for your narrative is give your main character problems to solve. The more you put them in uncomfortable or difficult relationship situations, the better the overall drama that ensues. This means that by the time your protagonist and their love interest do get together or overcome these shared obstacles that the reader will feel like they've "won" something just like your characters will.
3. Glamorizing abuse
This one sounds obvious, but in more modern times seems to be an underlying theme in both film and literature. More and more we're seeing relationships with unequal expressions of power, tumultuous, unstable emotional dependencies, and controlling behaviors such as the isolating of a partner from friends and family, jealousy, and verbal abuse. The most notable examples in recent times are Bella and Edward's relationship in Twilight, Anastasia and Christian from Fifty Shades of Gray, and Tom and Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby.
Suddenly these damaging relationships are being coated over with rose-colored lenses and the glittering appeal of monetary luxury. In Twilight, Edward is controlling, jealous, isolates Bella, and punishes her emotionally whenever she makes decisions for herself (like when she chooses to see Jacob) but it's all coated in excuses like "him being protective", and how "he can't live without her" wrapped in glamour of him being a supernatural, wealthy, and older man. In Fifty Shades of Gray, we see the young, naive, and sexually inexperienced Anastasia lured in by Christian's wealth, manipulated by him on numerous occasions, and then physically beaten by him for the purpose of his own sexual enjoyment. In The Great Gatsby, Daisy is emotionally tormented by her controlling husband Tom, who cheats on her constantly and has no regard for her feelings. Even when she's prepared to leave him, he brings her back under his control with the promise of his money and by telling her how she should feel.
Rather than romanticizing abuse, keep in mind who will be reading your work in the future. This counts especially for writers of YA fiction, whose genre caters directly to young, impressionable minds. Ask yourself whether the type of relationship your protagonist is experiencing is a healthy one or not. If it isn't, it's okay to write it, but don't sugar coat it and present it as the "ideal".
4. Relationships without commonalities
The root of all relationships is what two people share in common. It's not necessarily about having common hobbies, interests, or experiences. It's the shared core beliefs and values that keep them together. In The Hunger Games, Peeta and Katniss's belief in the evils of the system and their mutual determination to not let the games change them is what binds these otherwise very different characters together.
When you take two characters without any mutual passions or interests and try to make them work despite also not having shared spiritual, financial, or life views what you get is grounds for divorce. You see these types of characters fighting, bickering, and picking at one another constantly. They're not pleasant to be around, and they certainly aren't pleasant to read about. The result can be emotionally draining and stressful, which doesn't exactly scream "easy reading".
It's okay to make your characters opposites. Just make sure that they have a binding thread between them. There must be something that they can both agree on or have complimentary traits that mesh well together, otherwise it just won't work. You can see how Katniss and Peeta are two pieces of the same puzzle. Katniss is stoic, Peeta is warm. Katniss is anti-social, Peeta is charismatic. They balance each other out and you see them rely on each other strengths to help them through their trials.
5. Keeping things at a surface level
Last but not least, there has be emotional connection involved! If you're writing a romance plot without the vulnerability required, then you are NOT writing a romance. In order to two people to fall in love, there has to be a baring of souls. They both need to share their innermost thoughts and feelings in order to build trust within the relationship. An example of this would be Triss and Four from Divergent. If they didn't learn each other's secrets (like why Four is called Four, or that he's afraid of heights, or how Triss is determined to win no matter what) then they wouldn't have anything to fall back on besides the physical attraction they share for one another. It would become a boring thing to watch if all they did was stare at each other all day, wouldn't it?
Without this, your romance will only get so far. You can pull off a one-night stand, blind date, or childhood crush scenario, but those are all surface-level relationships. They don't require much depth or last for a long time. If you want your character's relationship to sustain the reader throughout a book or series, there needs to be more. There needs to be both physical and emotional intimacy between the characters.
Your readers need to believe that this type of relationship has true depth in order for it to be maintained over time. Think of it this way, if there's nothing being gained, then there's nothing to lose, and if there's nothing your character is scared to lose, then there's no reason for the reader to be afraid or invested either.
If you've currently committed any of the 5 atrocities above, don't worry! Just go back and reevaluate what you've already written. Edit where necessary and use the examples linked below as further examples of what not to do.