Romance vs. romantic elements in a story

At LTUE last week, I was on a panel that gave me some food for thought, which I’d like to get some discussion on. The whole panel was set up around the difference between a romance (maybe Romance, capital R) and a story with romantic elements. Panelists included adult SFF author John Brown, YA fantasy author Mette Ivie Harrison (here’s her take on the same panel), and romance author Lynn Kurland. I believe (and I hope she corrects me if I’m wrong) the other panelist Amy Chopine writes YA fantasy as well.

So add me into the mix and you’ve got a panel skewed toward books for young readers (we focused on YA), which I think does affect how we view romance, because we’re not talking happily-ever-after most of the time, even with happy endings—you know in a year or two, even though you want the couple to stay together, they’re young enough that they’ll probably break up off-screen, because life happens (though happily-ever-afters do also abound in YA; there’s just not always that kind of pressure, you know?). John had some really interesting questions he asked the panel, though I didn’t take notes and can’t remember a one of them. The thing that stuck out to me, really, was the idea that Lynn and several other romance writers in the audience insisted upon that the best (maybe only) kind of successful romance story is one in which the main love interests hate each other at first, ala Taming of the Shrew or perhaps Lizzie and Darcy.

I love me a good vehement discussion (some would call it argument, yes), and I took issue with this position. I think that there can be successful romance stories in which the main characters like each other at first, but some other plot element is the driving conflict. But perhaps this is the difference between a romance vs. another genre with romantic elements (in YA, Twilight might be considered a romance, for example, rather than a fantasy with romantic elements—the romance drives the plot, not the other way around).

Lynn also described a really interesting way she decides whether a story is a romance or just a story with romance in it: if the plot points that resolve first are the romance, then the saving-the-world or whatever other plot line you have wraps up, it’s not a romance. Vice versa, and it is.

That is, the emphasis the plot places on romance vs. other conflict is what defines the genre. I can totally go with that.


What of this “only stories where the protagonist/love interest hate each other at first but then fall in love are good romances” stuff?

Does something have to keep the protagonist/love interest apart the whole time for a romance story—whether Romance capital R or romantic element—to be successful? And does the thing that keeps them apart have to be that they don’t like each other? Is this just a big difference between YA and adult category romance?

Somehow the conversation then turned to love triangles, which I’m not fond of but my dislike of them pales in comparison to Mette’s, which includes thinking up ways to kill off the girl caught between two boys, and matching up the boy she likes with one of her own more sensible characters.

I like Mette’s description in the first post I linked above, of the couple against the world, working together against the main conflict of the book. That’s the kind of story I’m drawn to. I’m having trouble coming up with good examples of couple-against-main-conflict, though. Except I suppose Tankborn (which I can’t link to because we are not quite to catalog-and-covers-to-share stage, but soon you will be able to see why I love it so!) which involves the two main characters eventually finding themselves in such a situation (which I can’t tell you about yet because I don’t want to spoil it!). The love triangle in The Hunger Games and Katniss’s PTSD do get in the way of any romance going very far, but that story also has a lot of Katniss & friends (including two love interests) against the world. That might be why Mockingjay made me so angry, because Katniss’s team, especially Gale, was broken so severely.

What do you think? Do you prefer obstacles to be contrived for the couple not to get together (see how I loaded that question?)? Do you like couple-against-the-conflict-together plots? Are there other kinds of romance and/or romantic element-al stories that work better for you? What makes a story a Romance vs. a story with romantic elements?

10 thoughts on “Romance vs. romantic elements in a story

  1. Stacy, I agree with you 100%. I listened to that panel, shaking my head at the insistence that the two love interests must detest each other for it to be a decent romance. I feel like it’s lazy writing to a point, especially if it’s carried on for a substantial portion of the novel. The writers use that drama, which has been done to death, to create conflict instead of thinking up an intersting plot to carry the book forward. If the couple’s problems are so large they can’t get along while saving the world, what are they going to do to each other when normal life sets in and they’re faced with actually having to sit down to a quiet dinner together?
    Personally, I prefer romance stories where the couple comes to understand each other through character growth and cooperation to defeat a common foe. They don’t have to love each other at first sight. But hating each other is cliche and usually leads to me putting down the book.
    As for what makes a romance, I did agree with the definition given by Lynn on the panel. If they’ve saved the world and you’re still hanging onto the book with white knuckles to see if they really do get together, it’s probably a romance.

    1. I like was Julie says here. Many of my favorite “romances” might start with a little annoyance on one side or the other, Castle and Mistborn come to mind, but the conflict is one that any normal relationship faces: miscommunication, struggles with self and understanding one’s own feelings, and struggles with the past events and relationships and how they affect one’s perception of the current one.

  2. I think it’s more than just lazy storytelling, it leads to unrealistic expectations of the world–ones that could lead teenage girls into heartbreak at best, and abusive situations at worst. Oh, there’s this boy I hate so much–he’s a jerk and we fight all the time. He must be my true love, and if I just prove my love to him he’ll suddenly have a change of heart and become just like Mr. Darcy! That’s not how real people work. If you argue all the time now, you’ll argue all the time later too.

    I find it much more romantic to have them kept apart by circumstances (can’t talk now, I’m busy saving the world), or better yet, start off with a common purpose and come to deeply appreciate the good qualities of how the other person shines in adversity (they were much thrown together). I watched Howl’s Moving Castle the other night, and neither Howl nor Sophie was looking for romance, nor did they really hate each other at first, but they did fall in love anyway.

  3. Okay, now you’ve entered into my area of expertise. Before I was half-way through reading your post, I was jumping up and down, waving my arm to be called on.

    My bonafides–I have written and published 17 romance novels. Three of those included speculative elements (one SF and two paranormal). The resolution of the romantic conflicts closed out the book (as opposed to the external us-against-the-world conflict). I’m also the author of Tankborn, the book that Stacy so graciously mentioned.

    I do agree that it’s a Romance if the romantic conflict is the last to be resolved. As to the other statement–that in the best romances the hero & heroine start out hating each other–nearly sent me running and screaming from the room. I wish I’d been in Utah to state my (apoplectic) objections.

    THE HERO AND HEROINE DO NOT NEED TO HATE EACH OTHER. IMO, they shouldn’t hate each other ever. Also IMO, that’s stupid and lazy writing.

    Instead, there has to be an internal conflict within each character that keeps them apart. Something large enough that can’t be resolved by a simple conversation. Something that’s deep and integral to the to the H or H, something painful or even shameful that they don’t even like talking about.

    In one of my darker books, the hero spent years in foster care, alternated with periods of time when he lived with his alcoholic mother while she was sober. When his mother finally got her act together and it looked like they’d be together forever, she was killed in a house fire that the hero tried and failed to save her from. He blames himself for failing to save her, has had his world torn apart so many times, he can’t bring himself to trust, let alone love. The heroine has her own issues in the story, but bit by bit she chips away at the hero’s defenses.

    This isn’t something that will change in a person overnight. It’s internal conflict, something that only the hero can change within himself (or the heroine within herself when it’s her internal conflict).

    Hero and heroine have to hate each other–absolutely, positively not.

    I will now climb off my soapbox.

  4. Have you read Graceling by Kristin Cashore? I feel like Katsa and Po qualify as a “couple-against-main-conflict.” Hmm . . . that’s all I can think of for now. I definitely agree that it is more appealing to me to have the couple together instead of only finally hooking up in the last five pages of the book.

  5. Oddly enough, I was thinking about this subject just a week or so ago when I saw another agent review my client Lucy Snyder’s book as a Paranormal Romance, which it isn’t. Here’s my quick comparison to show the difference:

    Book With Romantic Elements:
    Evil villain kidnaps hero to try to stop heroine from saving the universe.

    Evil villain kidnaps hero and heroine needs to get him back to tell him she loves him, if only she didn’t have to save the damn universe first.

  6. “I like Mette’s description in the first post I linked above, of the couple against the world, working together against the main conflict of the book. That’s the kind of story I’m drawn to. I’m having trouble coming up with good examples of couple-against-main-conflict, though.”

    Nancy Werlin’s IMPOSSIBLE.

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