A Dash of Sweet for Your Savory
by Amy Maida Wadsworth
A just-for-fun look at an example of “just enough” romance in a non-romance.
You don’t have to watch the whole thing—you’ll get the idea.
I wouldn’t exactly call myself an avid romance reader. In fact, I’m more of a thrill-seeking, tech-loving, space-faring kind of girl. (Shout-out to all the sci-fi fans attending the Life, the Universe, and Everything sci-fi/fantasy symposium [LTUE] today!) In bookstores and libraries, I beeline for the sci-fi and fantasy shelves. When there’s a chick flick and a dystopian film playing in adjacent theaters, I’m more likely to pony up a ticket for dystopian and save the chick flick for a Redbox rental.
That being said, nothing completes a good sci-fi/fantasy/action story like a little romance. Emotional connection between characters heightens the tension of the story—and I’m not just talking about the sexual variety. When a main character has a love interest, she has ever so much more to lose. We want her to win not only because the bad guy is sadistic, selfish, and maniacal, but because that’s the only way she’ll get her man.
What would the Hunger Games trilogy be without the romantic connections between Katniss and Peeta (or Katniss and Gale)? Tris and Four from Divergent? Harry and Ginny? Aragorn and Arwen? Princess Leia and Han Solo? Clark Kent and Lois Lane?
The trick to adding that dash of sweet romance to your savory story is balance. You want to add just enough to clarify the connection, raise the tension, and show that your hero has a lot to lose. If you add too much sweet, the romance overcomes the true genre of your story, and your audience may want to end their relationship with your book because they expected more excitement and danger. Be kind; don’t lead your audience on.
Here are three ways to add just a dash of sweet.
- Show your hero not thinking about his love interest. In a romance, the author can allow many thoughtful moments and even some pining for the girl of his dreams—but in a non-romance, there just isn’t time for such things. The internal conflict comes not from loving the girl he can’t seem to get; it comes from loving her when he has no room for love in his life. In a story with strong conflict and plot, love is a complication, a distraction, a weakness—and the love interest is someone who adds internal conflict to a situation already wrought with external conflict. Your hero doesn’t have time to think about the woman he loves, but she is on the fringes of his thoughts anyway, and he finds this frustrating. This happens for multiple reasons in Dan Wells’s I Am Not a Serial Killer. John relies on adherence to his personal rules to curb his pathological tendencies, and one of those rules is to not think about the pretty girl living down the street.
- Strengthen your characters as individuals, even if it means disagreement. A great example of this is in the Divergent series. Tris and Four obviously care about each other, but they have different ideas about how to solve the problems in their society. Tris often does things that infuriate Four. Of course, Four also has an agenda of his own.
- Keep it real. There’s a place for bodice-rippers and dreamlike-but-unrealistic romantic leads (the kind that want to talk all night while just cuddling and have no personal interests other than the girl), but that place isn’t in a non-romance. Orson Scott Card, guest of honor at LTUE, is definitely not a romance author. But he understands love and relationships for which you would sacrifice everything. In his Ender series, we long for Ender to fall in love because of Ender’s isolation. We also want Bean and Petra to have the opportunity to marry and raise children together in Shadow Puppets. In his new Pathfinder series, the young romance between Param and Umbo makes us hope for Umbo’s success even though it may put the whole group at risk. Relationships are as real as the characters in Card’s work, and in that understated reality, there is just enough sweet to keep savory from overwhelming the mind—and to keep us connected to the characters.
Do This Now
Here are a few ways you can implement the above into your work.
- Increase external conflict so that your character has to control his thoughts. If your character is busy fighting off evil, he will have to avoid thinking about his love interest.
- Strengthen your individual characters by giving them a past and by connecting them in unusual ways to minor characters in your story. Our past and our connections are often what get us into trouble and what make us choose things with which our loved ones may disagree. Throw a few twists and turns in your character’s path, and straighten out the love later, if at all.
- Keep it real by cutting back on physical forms of affection. Romance is mushy, but real love is often restrained. This may be because of fear, social expectations, taboos, or even something as simple as shyness. Sometimes, choosing not to touch is more interesting and important than giving in.
Tell Us What You Think! Itching to call out books that delivered too much sweet when they should have focused on the savory?
Muchísimas gracias– I have a vague memory of actually requesting this blog entry in a previous comment. Romantic/sexual tension has something special about it that makes it more stomach-churning and heart-rending than other varieties of dramatic tension– that’s why I want so badly to get it right. As I was reading, another classic example that came to mind was the relationship between Winston Smith and Julia (she of the red belt) in Orwell’s 1984. He’s so into her, and so conflicted about it, that it’s that much more difficult for the reader when she betrays him. I guess that may be another tidbit to chew on– if, in the end the hero(ine) doesn’t unite with that love interest, it may be another part of the sacrifice that (s)he has to make to get resolution in the story. After all, it isn’t romance, and a happy ending (to the romance, anyway) isn’t necessarily part of the contract with the reader. I hadn’t thought about it in this was before. Thanks for the pointers, the food for thought, and most especially the luscious footage of Captain Kirk.
Thanks! It can be a tough balance sometimes. I think having a second or third opinion is important too. What seems like a reasonable balance to you may seem sappy to someone else. I remember the sexiest scene (according to readers) that I ever wrote had nothing to do with sex and I didn’t realize it until I read it aloud to a group. Crazy.
That is a great point–the happy ending (if there is one) isn’t tied to the romance. Even when there’s a love triangle as a major part of the plot (think Hunger Games), it’s an unhappy ending for someone. (Which, if you’re comparing love triangles, in the Twilight series’ last book–Breaking Dawn–it is a happy romantic ending for everyone in the triangle–hence the book being primarily a romance with a touch of other things.) Thinking of the romance as a simple subplot that actually strengthens the tension of the main plot (in any number of ways) is a simple tip to keep in mind for balancing romance/relationships in a non-romance.