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In my last post, I talked about Story Grid’s Five Commandments, which should be present in all Acts and scenes of your story, no matter the genre. This week, I’m going to talk about the Conventions of the Love Genre. Conventions are specific requirements in terms of the story’s cast (you have to have a monster in a horror story) or methods of moving the plot forward (mystery/crime novels always include red herrings). These minor revelatory turning points are essential to avoiding confusing, unsettling, or boring audiences, but they can be weaved into the story at the writer’s discretion.
If you’ve ever read a story that has a good plot and interesting characters, but for some reason you still just don’t like it, odds are the story is missing one or more genre-specific conventions. This has been the case for me many times, especially when reading an author I know and love, but I suddenly can’t get through one of her books. It is because she has suddenly—and inexplicably—broken from genre conventions to create an unsatisfying story. To avoid making this mistake in your writing, and to better understand why you sometimes just don’t like a book, you need to be aware of each convention in all its nuances.
When trying to get a good grasp on the Love conventions, it can be helpful to break down how they are present in a favorite book. Once you know what they are, it is pretty quick and easy to see how they are present in your favorite romance novels and chick flicks, as well as to see what is missing in books that bug you.
Conventions to Create Obstacles
Because there are so many conventions and I want to be able to spend adequate time explaining each one, I’ve broken them into two groups—Conventions that create obstacles, and Conventions that create interest. This post will focus only on those conventions of the Love Genre that create obstacles for the lovers: Triangle, Helpers and Harmers, Opposing Forces, and Moral Weight. External Need, Rituals, Gender Divide, and Secrets will all be discussed in my next post.
We’re all familiar with the love triangle, but surely not every love story has to have one! A lot of people hate love triangles and specifically refuse to read any romance novels where they are present. In fact, the entire #whychoose reverse harem sub-genre was created specifically to combat the notion that the female main character might be in love with two guys but ultimately have to give one up. How can this be a convention? Well, notice I didn’t say “love triangle”, I only said “triangle”. Of course, many times this is the cliched “love triangle”, but not always.
When Story Grid editors say ‘triangle’, we mean that the story contains a protagonist, love interest(s) and a Rival. A key factor to note is that while this Rival might be another person who is involved with either the protagonist or love interest(s), the Rival might also be personal ethic. Done correctly, the characters will ultimately have to make what Story Grid calls a ‘best bad’ or ‘best good’ choice. In other words, the characters cannot have their cake and eat it too—at least not in the decision making moment. Let’s look at an example of an author who executed this flawlessly.
In Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight Saga, Jacob emerged as a romantic Rival to Edward, and when it became obvious that Bella could not keep Jacob as a friend while pursuing a relationship with Edward, she was forced to choose between the two. Some may argue that Bella ultimately got to keep Jacob as a friend; after all, when the pack decided to kill her, Jacob broke away to protect Bella, and once he imprinted on Renesmee, he and Bella’s fates were tied together forever in a way that did not threaten her relationship with Edward. This is completely true, and frankly was an effective way to provide a true happily ever after for all of the characters that readers came to love with no regrets. So did Bella have to choose? Yes! In the end, everyone got their HEA, but before that, Bella faced a ‘best good’ choice. Jacob made it clear that she would be dead to him if she became a vampire. Having no way of knowing the future, Bella had to make her decision assuming that marrying Edward and becoming immortal meant losing Jacob completely and forever. Jacob even suggested that he would hunt down Bella and the rest of the Cullens as treaty breakers. As the only way to stay with Edward forever was to become a vampire, there was no ‘have your cake’ option at the time Bella had to make her decision.
The Triangle here seems pretty cut and dry, but Bella also faces a Rival in her relationship with Edward; Edward recognizes that his world is too dangerous for Bella’s fragile human state, but also sincerely believes that to change her into a vampire would mean sacrificing her soul and condemning her to damnation. Edward is forced to choose between being with Bella and his own moral compass which tells him that being with her comes at too high a cost—either her life or her soul. In order for them to get their happily ever after, Edward must either compromise his values, or change his personal beliefs. Again, Stephenie Meyer was nice enough to give him an out, but only after he made his decision. Convinced that risking Bella’s life or soul was wrong, Edward left her, only to come to realize that she was in danger with or without him, so they might as well be together. In both Edward and Bella’s cases, they had to ‘give up their cake’ before they were allowed to eat it, thus opening the way for numerous progressive complications and complex character development.
Forcing both the protagonist and the love interest to face Rivals, as in the Twilight Saga, adds depth and complexity to the plot, and gives the author more opportunities to create progressive complications without having to recycle plot points or make the story too predictable. If a book you’re reading is boring because things feel “too easy” for the characters, it may be because the author did not include a triangle.
Helpers and Harmers
Another convention of the Love Genre is that the story include people who are strongly for and against the relationship. Unlike opposing forces and triangles, the helpers and harmers must be actual characters. There can be overlap between characters; for example the third wheel in a love triangle is likely to be a harmer, but depth is added to the story if you can fulfill this convention independently. The “helpers” will be willing to do whatever the lovers need to get and keep them together, and the harmers will stop at nothing to prevent or break up the match. In some cases, a character can move back and forth between helper and harmer. This typically happens when the character is either being deceptive (helper to harmer) or has a change of heart (harmer to helper).
In J Bree’s Hannaford Prep series, Avery is a helper who unconditionally supports the relationship between Lips and her guys. She runs interference with other girls who want the attention of Ash, Harley and Blaise, and acts as a go-between in the early stages of the relationship to help ensure its success. When the guys are fighting with each other over Lips, Avery is the one to suggest they share, thereby becoming the key instrument in everyone getting their happily ever after.
The Jackal, on the other hand, is a harmer who is openly committed to killing anyone who Lips tries to become involved with. As a powerful and connected crime boss who has staked his claim on Lips, he uses his immense reach to terrorize her and threaten her guys to the bitter end. Although there are no lines he won’t cross to make sure the relationship does not last, he is not a Rival, because Lips is not interested in any sort of relationship with him, romantic or otherwise; he is an unwanted stalker she is seeking to escape, not a current or past love interest that she can’t quite let go of.
Ash, one of Lips’ guys, starts out as a harmer who is opposed to anyone having any kind of relationship with Lips. He tries everything he can think of to discourage Avery from being friends with Lips, and constantly works to interfere in Harley and Blaise’s attempts to pursue her because he is convinced she has malicious intentions. Eventually, he comes to trust her and sees how perfectly she fits in with them all, and ends up falling in love with her, joining the fight to become the one she chooses. When they decide to share her, he becomes one of her strongest supporters and a helper in her relationship with the other two guys.
Love stories have what we call Moral Weight, or the notion that those who can’t or won’t love others are morally deficient. Characters must overcome their moral failing or lose out on happiness. In dark and paranormal romances, this convention most often manifests in the form of a reaction to trauma, abuse, or past heartbreak. A character who had an abusive childhood may struggle to trust others enough to be vulnerable to love. Someone who suffered a trauma may feel unworthy of receiving the love of others. This issue must be overcome in order for the character to love others and accept their love in return. In cozier romance genres, Moral Weight is often shown through selfishness or an excessive focus on career or image.
Moral Weight is important because it lets the characters fight their attraction in a way that feels sympathetic to readers instead of leaving them annoyed at the protagonist’s or love interest’s refusal to fall immediately in love and get on to the happily ever after. Either the main character, love interest, or both may have a moral failing that they must overcome before they can fully give themselves to a relationship with another person.
In J.R. Ward’s Lover Awakened, Zsadist was sold into slavery as a very young child, and as a result grew up thinking of himself as being less-than. Once he hit maturity, he became a blood slave and was physically and sexually abused for a century before finally being rescued. When he meets Bella and realizes that she is interested in him, he has to deal both with his feelings of self-loathing and unworthiness that resulted from his sexual abuse as well as his deep distrust of women thanks to his mistress abusing and imprisoning him. In order to finally be happy, Zsadist must learn to see himself the way that Bella sees him—as sexy, strong, and worthy—and he must also let go of the pain and mistrust his past suffering taught him and realize that Bella—and most women—are nothing like the evil woman who kept him locked up. Overcoming his mistrust and self-loathing will mean living happily ever after with a woman who adores him, but clinging to them will mean continuing on in his lonely life of bitterness, anger, and hatred.
With a character who is overly concerned with career, image, or other selfish ambition, the moral deficit is often seen in the form of a workaholic who won’t take the time for love. This is the ubiquitous Moral Weight of the Hallmark Christmas movie; all of them feature a main character or love interest who is so busy being successful that they have neglected relationships and must learn to realign their priorities. This is also very common in age-gap novels, where the older character is concerned that the younger love interest’s age, personality, or level of achievement means they are not the type of person who would be accepted by the older character’s friends, colleagues, or family. Less often, the younger character is concerned about being seen as a gold-digger, or objectified as a trophy spouse by people who can’t believe that the two would ever have an authentic relationship. In this case, the characters must realize that their own knowledge of their truth is more important than the judgements and criticisms of others.
Opposing forces are all of those things that make it difficult for the lovers to be together. These will certainly include the Rival (be it person or principle), the harmers, and self-sabotaging behaviors that give the story moral weight, but can also include more nuanced things that are harder for the reader to root against or for the characters to overcome, such as societal and familial obligations or forces of nature.
In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, President Snow was a harmer who continually worked to keep Katniss and Peeta apart, but ending up in the Games together was an opposing force. Peeta’s shyness about approaching Katniss, another opposing force, meant that he did not even tell her how he felt until after they found out that they would be sent into the arena with twenty-two other children, and, at best, only one of them would survive. Katniss only ended up as a tribute because she volunteered to replace her younger sister. The love Katniss had for Prim was yet another Opposing Force in their relationship; after all, even if Katniss had known how Peeta felt, even if they were already a couple, surely she still would have taken her sister’s place in the Games. All of the many pieces that lead to Katniss and Peeta being dubbed “star-crossed lovers” fall under the heading of Opposing Forces.
Memory loss and terminal illness can also create Opposing Forces that stand in the way of a couple being together. Less dramatic options, such as military deployment or disparate work status (ie a junior employee and boss falling in love in direct contradiction with company policy) are common in cozier romance genres.
With so many moving parts needed to make a story as compelling as possible, it can be difficult for authors to know whether or not they have hit the mark. This is where consulting a developmental editor, or gathering a group of beta readers comes in handy. Having a trained professional or a group of readers with knowledge of your genre give feedback on your manuscript can bring to light a variety of issues you were too close to see and grant you fresh perspective and solutions to the problems you’ve identified but haven’t been able to solve.