Throbbing Loins

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Got your attention there, didn’t I?

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been reading a lot of romance lately.  Most of the novels I pick up don’t pass the twenty-five page test.  Failures fall into a number of categories — plots so predictable that I can’t bear to read them out, grammar so poor that my eyes cross, factual mistakes that hurtle me from the storytelling.

And then there’s the other major reason that books get tossed:  poor handling of the Fated Meeting between the hero and the heroine.

You know what I mean:  the hero and the heroine see each other for the first time, and they are swept off their respective feet.  Awareness jolts through them; they feel instant kinship in every inch of their anatomy (with varying specificity of said anatomy, depending on whether the romance is sweet or spicy.)  Their bodies *know* that they are meant to be together, even if their brains haven’t yet fully engaged.

OK.  Someone, somewhere in all the history of humanity may have met his/her spouse and known from a single glance that they were meant to be bound in perfect love forever.  But for the rest of us?  Instant transformation into a smitten kitten is an alien concept.

An alien concept.  And that makes me think of speculative fiction.  In fantasy and science fiction, we are often writing about strange, unexpected bonds with the Other.  Whether it’s the pull of the ring on Frodo or the insinuation of Jane in Ender’s ear, whether it’s the power of spice dreams on Dune, or the dark shadow that eats at Ged’s soul — we understand compulsion.  We comprehend the binding of souls.

What makes compulsion work in speculative fiction?  What tricks do authors use, to convey successfully instantaneous attraction?  (And yes, sometimes that attraction is romantic/sexual.  A little Miller/Lee space opera anyone?  How about some Anne Bishop?)  Which works have you read where you believe the draw between characters, even before the characters believe it themselves?

While I look forward to reading your comments, my ability to respond in a timely manner will be hampered by my being out of the office today.  Don’t let that keep you from posting, though — early and often!

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14 comments to Throbbing Loins

  • deborahblake

    Well, you got my attention 🙂
    Although it is probably a bad sign that I thought, “Gee, did she overdo it at exercise class?” Sigh.

    I’m with you on tossing most romance for at least one of those reasons. The uber-contrived “meet-cute” throws me out of the story every time. On the other hand, when it works, it really works. Jennifer Crusie’s books are a prime example of this. (And I want to sleep with all the heroes, which is a good sign.)

  • I’ve read quite a bit of romance over the last few years, mostly because I think I’d like to write it, but I keep stalling over … “issues” like plots that I can’t bear, or terrible meet cutes. But I work my way through the stories because I hate tossing a book before learning the ending … and there has to be some technique to all of this that, while I don’t want to emulate it exactly, I want to be able to adapt it to tell a decent story. So I try to analyze why something worked or didn’t work for me.

    I tend to shy away from instant attraction in the fantasy I write. I would rather let the characters get to know each other and explore their feelings while the actual plot takes place. It seems a bit more realistic.

    When I met my husband in person for the first time, it was after we’d gotten to know each other online. We each brought friends to that first meeting. Afterwards, on the train ride home, I told my friends “no way”. Clearly I changed my mind. We’ve been married for three years, now. It takes time to know another person!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Gah! Now you’ve made me realize that I have a MEET scene in my WIP (non-romantic) and it may be completely overblown. Or not. I’m not sure. Something to chew on, but may just have to wait for eventual feedback from beta readers. Blah! Must try to remove all clubs from story!

  • I tend to enjoy reading relationships that evolve over time, be it from seduction to romance of some sort or another (C.E. Murphy’s THE QUEEN’S BASTARD) or hostility to romance, which is probably more common. The most original and intriguing such evolution I’ve ever read is probably in Lynn Flewelling’s Tamir trilogy.

    I find books with instant attractions less compelling in that regard, although they can be perfectly wonderful in other ways.

    One thing that I think much fiction tends to ignore is the existing romantic relationship that has moved beyond the obsessive, sex-filled beginning to something more stable, more based on friendship and companionship and less on raw passion. I think these interactions are more difficult to write, but more satisfying when they’re done well. And this kind of romance is what I’m focused on in my new series.

  • I recently bought a story for IGMS that had the kind of MOMENT you describe. I asked the author to delete the scene entirely; he did; and you know what? The story didn’t miss that scene one bit. Not at all. The action leading up to the MOMENT implied what was to come, and the after-effects nine months later confirmed it. The only thing the story lost was one incredibly unbelievable scene that ripped me right out of the reading experience.

  • Deb – You know me (or at least my loins – wait, that sounds wrong) too well… Meet cute *can* work, of course. It’s just that so often, it’s done so unbelievably…

    Moira – When I’m Reading for Cause (e.g., reading every title in an imprint’s monthly release, to decide whether they’re a good candidate for one of my mss), I finish books, even ones (*especially* ones) that seem broken. I figure, if they made it to publication, there’s a lot I should learn from them. When I’m reading for me, I don’t finish a lot of what I start. Life is too short, I read too slowly, and the TBR shelf is too overwhelming.

    Hepseba – It’s a good practice to club-review everything about our mss before we finalize them. But looking at the scene and weighing what it brings to the story ultimately is a great way to determine what stays in and what stays out…

    David – I think that “relationship evolution” is one of the things that we traditional fantasy readers crave. It’s one of the reasons that trilogies became the standard in our genre – we want to watch our beloved characters grow over time. (I agree completely with you about Lynn’s Tamir books.) As for the existing romantic relationship – Harlequin tried a new imprint, a few years back, “NEXT”, which focused on romance in long-term relationships. They ultimately folded the line, in part because the VAST majority of the stories they got were versions of “the kids have gone off to college, now the husband and wife need to relearn the fact that they love each other.” I think it’s a shame that the line folded; there was a lot of storytelling potential there!

    Ed – Interesting… I’d love to see the before-and-after versions of that story used for a writing seminar one day… (Do you often provide that sort of editorial guidance to your writers? Or do you tend to make “up” or “down” decisions?)

  • Sarah

    Georgette Heyer’s romances are good at establishing immediate chemistry. A big part of what makes them good is that she wrote in an earlier era and her work would now probably be considered YA. So instead of instant throbbing loins you have subtle hints of attraction, heavily sublimated by rules of polite society. What also works in her books is that the attraction is often based on the protagonist and the love interest representing an emotional and intellectual challenge to one another, but not an abusive relationship. In A Convenient Marriage, Honoria (the MC) is an exuberant, un-submissive wife who makes some rather silly mistakes, but mistakes that can be understood coming from a teenager. She constantly both frustrates and fascinates her older, very proper husband. And since their marriage was overtly one of convenience in which they agreed, in Honoria’s words, “not to interfere” with each other they both find it hard to express or pursue their growing friendship and attraction for fear of rejection. And it’s all written with a sly sense of the absurd, which makes it so much better.

    My favorite is Sebastian, in which a young novelist casts a major society figure as the evil villain in her own novel. She only did it because she thinks he looks sexily satanic, but the novel becomes a best seller because elite society thinks she knows a dirty secret about him and is disguising it as fiction. He, understandably, takes it personally. The book is a high farce with some romance woven in.

    Heyer’s work got rather formulaic by the end, but I loved it none the less.

  • I actually did know, from the instant I first saw him, that I was going to marry my husband. He, however, did not fall for me at first sight. In his defense, he was a little busy plotting evil with his gaming buddies, and I was just some new girl in the group. I’m not entirely sure he even remembers the moment we first met. 😀 We spent a year being friends (he was dating a friend of mine) before he even thought about me romantically.

    Mindy said, Which works have you read where you believe the draw between characters, even before the characters believe it themselves?

    Claire and Jamie Fraser, in the Outlander series.

  • Sarah – I need to read more Heyer – so many genre fans rave about her. The only one I’ve read is THESE OLD SHADES, which creeped me out a bit, with the age difference between the hero and the heroine. (Also, I had trouble being attracted to the hero, whose wardrobe and linguistic traits read “effeminate” to my eye…)

    Misty – see?!? You and your husband are the exception that proves the rule in my book 🙂 (Actually, my husband and I corresponded online for about six weeks before we met in person, and we were inseparable after that first meeting, so I guess I can claim my own “struck” moment. And yes, oh yes, about Claire and Jamie!

  • Young_Writer

    I am, of course, not married. But I’ve known my boyfriend for- jeez I don’t even know. I think since first grade, since I was good friends with his triplet sisters (still am).
    Realtionships have to evolve. Unless your name is Misty Massey 🙂 I read a lot of trilogies for that very reason, I love watching characters grow. Same with series. Thanks for this article, now I have a reliable source that tells me not to use this.

  • I know I’m getting to this a little late today, but I just had to post anyway.

    For me, the make-or-break rule with romance is how blatant it is. For example, I love a story where there’s instant attraction, but the characters don’t really understand it or are too shy to bring it up. There’s a tension in the air, a longing maybe, but not an instant “you are the love of my life, come with me,” scenario. The romance, like the story, needs an arc that will build over time, from first attraction through lust to a breaking point when they finally realize their true passion for each is not just physical.

    However, if the romance is immediately physical, without any hesitation, I just can’t believe it. You can have love at first sight or an instant attraction, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to move in with the guy the next day. Then again, I don’t know, maybe that does happen. I just find the underlying “instant perfect mate” concept hard to believe.

  • Oh, I absolutely agree that relationships must evolve – it took me a year to evolve my man out of the friend zone. 😀

  • Alan Kellogg

    You might like Derian Carter and Blysse Norwood, who meet in volume one of a six volume series (Through Wolf’s Eyes), and don’t (Spoiler Warning!) realize they were made for each other until volume six (Wolf’s Blood). Series by Jane Linskold.

  • Alan Kellogg

    I once got curious about those wooden balls you find at the end of banisters. After some research I learned they’re called throins and there’s a game where you toss them at a target. This game is called lobbing throins.