Monday, October 18, 2010

The Romance Rule

Last Wednesday I talked about rules. Most of you in the comments said rules were meant to be broken, as long as you understood the spirit and purpose of the rule. I said I would elaborate on a discussion Roni Loren and I had last week regarding a particular rule I'd tried to sneak around, but which I wasn't able to in the end.

It is the rule that in romantic fiction, or any kind of story where romance is present, typically, the first person the heroine shows interest in is her ultimate love. (Forgive the gender assumptions.) In other words, if Jane is going to end up with Jack, she'd better not be head over heels with Mark first. Or she can be, but Jack had better be mentioned first, and in a way that shows Jane clearly interested in him.

In When Harry Met Sally, we don't see Sally messing about with some other guy first, looking like she loves him. No, we see her with Harry, even though she won't be with Harry until the end of the story.

Getting it Wrong?
There are some stories that get it wrong, or else teeter on the brink of showing us someone else (or actually flat out do). Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Look at Gone With the Wind. Scarlett is super in love with Ashley Wilkes, and he remains a fixture for her for the rest of the book--but he isn't really her true love, as she finds out late in the game. Was the rule broken here? Not sure. Scarlett is crushed when she hears Ashley is marrying her cousin Melanie. She screams at Ashley and rails at him, and then immediately meets Rhett Butler who heard the whole thing. Did it work? I think it does, because Rhett appears as Ashley spurns her--and capitalizes on her upset. But it's iffy, and maybe that's okay since it takes Scarlett freaking forever to figure out Ashley is a big fat loser--which we could all see from the start.

How about Pride and Prejudice, everyone's favorite? Mr. Darcy is the first man who catches Elizabeth's attention, but not in a good way and she certainly isn't immediately interested in him. Ah, but we know he's going to be important because of the reaction he inspires, kind of like Rhett Butler. Thus, Darcy is still first in that respect.

So where did I go wrong?
I had my protagonist dreaming about her neighbor, whom she slavers over at the beginning of the book. But she doesn't end up with him. Roni pointed out the rule and, being the sweetheart she is, caveated it with it being a typical romance genre rule and it might not apply to other genres. But I think it does. I thought hard about it, and most romantic story lines I've read has this rule firmly in place, or else manipulated so it's clear. So, I played around with it, and had my protagonist see her eventual love across the street, and wonder about him, right off the bat. Then she dreams about her neighbor. It's very small, but it foreshadows what is to come, and it got her man in there first.

One of Roni's comments was that by introducing the neighbor first, she had her expectations set on him instead. And therein lies the importance of this rule--we all know romantic formula (whether or not we can execute it!). And we know what we expect when we read it, too.

I apologize for my lame romance story examples here. When I write these posts, I go completely blank when I try to think of examples. I mean like, had-to-consult-Wikipedia-for-GWTW-plot-summary-blank, even though I know that book and story well. A smarter blogger would pack this post chock full of awesome examples. That's where you guys come in, cause you're all super smart.

Can you think of any popular stories where the main love interest is very clearly first? And can you think of any where he or she isn't, yet it works (or maybe it doesn't)?


Roni Loren said...

Thanks for the mention and I thought your examples were great. :)

As for my own examples, hmm...Dirty Dancing. Baby meets a few people before Johnny--Johnny's cousin and Neil (the nerdy guy who's hitting on her), but we don't see a spark of interest from Baby until she sees Johnny and we know--oh yeah, that's the guy.

The exceptions are usually the friends to lovers story, where the hero/heroine is swooning over someone else, but eventually realizes they love the best friend. Sometimes this can trick you though. I remember the first time I saw Pretty in Pink, I thought Molly Ringwald would end up with Duckie (Jon Cryer), lol. (I still kind of wish she had.)

Genie of the Shell said...

Hmmmm, I have been thinking a lot about this in regard to my WIP, because I set my heroine up with very different attractions/connections to several different men, all of whom are linked to each other in some important way. The first man she feels an attraction to is not the guy she ends up with, but her attraction to him is ultimately linked to her final romantic success with another.

I'm easily bored by the love-at-first-sight-forever formula, and yet it is extremely romantic. So I tried to cheat in my story while retaining an element of that principle--the heroine's first taste of love is in some way, if indirectly, fulfilled in the end.

As far as examples in popular stories... There's Twilight, of course. Bella ends up with the first guy who latches onto her (haha) even though another suitor is tossed into the middle. And in Harry Potter, there was a spark between Ron and Hermione early on. Even though both of them dated other kids throughout the series, it was always obvious they'd get together in the end.

JEM said...

I've actually read several romance stories (historical, that's how I ROLL) where the main love interest is introduced AFTER the first love interest. In these settings the first love interest is typically a nice, foppish, sensibly boring guy and Mr. WildWildPantsonFire shows up and blows his nice guy routine to smithereens. OR, the first love interest is a total douche and Mr. LovesYouForWhoYouAre shows up and shows her that hot guys can be nice, too. I think the more important thing is how you paint Mr. FirstLoveInterest; if the reader likes him they'll be disappointed, but if the readers hates him they'll appreciate Mr. HereToSaveYou all the more. Kind of like real life, I think.

Jck said...

Hi Sierra! In Hunger Games, *SPOILER ALERT* Katniss, after 3 books and a lot of time of team peeta team gale, ends up with Peeta even thougth it's clear from the begining that Gale was her first interest. And even if you were cheering for the other team, it actually works at the end of the trilogy.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Now you've got me thinking about my WIP (mystery with romance). My heroine meets Mr. Hotstuff first and is very attracted to him but her instincts tell her otherwise. Mr. Right doesn't show up until later but he's a murder suspect. I need the reader to wonder about both of them from the mystery side but hopefully to trust the heroine's instricts even when she doesn't. Do you think I can get around the romance rule this way?

Anne R. Allen said...

I think the formulas are changing. Lots of chick lit has the heroine hung up on a loser/hound dog first (like Bridget Jones.) But I think the very best romances have the tried and true Pride and Prejudice plot: heroine meets hero; heroine hates hero; hero hates her. She gets to like him; he still hates her; she goes back to hating him, etc until we reach that final moment of blissful understanding.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Ah, your comments are so interesting on this!

Roni, Pretty in Pink is a fabulous example of a story that got it wrong I think! EVERYONE thinks she should have ended up with Ducky--because he was portrayed as the good guy worthy of loving! Was there any interest from Molly's character? I can't remember.

Genie - but it needn't be love at first sight-- I think it can be disgust at first sight as in P&P and in my own current WIP. BUT it's the intensity that alerts readers to something being up.

JEM - I'm laughing at the roll part...but again I maintain that those boring first guys are NOT love interests because they are boring. The key is in what you thought when you read them. Hot or not?

Jck - Hi! OK, that's a really good one. I haven't yet read HG (thanks a lot by the way!--is okay, kidding) but that is weird. Did the switch of the love interest work for you? Does it work because it's a series?

Linda, good question. You have to see how it works, but can your heroine see Mr. Right first?

Anne, but we ALL KNOW that the nasty hero is interesting! I think this is fine! This is the way I'm playing it in my WIP. But the guy has to change from nasty to nice, right?

Mia said...

You make a brilliant point, Sierra! My mind, however, like yours, has sort of gone blank. I'm sure I had a good one halfway through the post but then I forget.


Yeah. All of the above are great comments. *sigh* I'm so useless tonight. *HUGS*

Jamie Wesley said...

I think I'm the only person in the world who didn't have a problem with her not ending up with Ducky. She wasn't into him that way.

Have you read Tessa Dare's Goddess of the Hunt? I LOVE the opening scene when the heroine tries to get the hero to give her kissing lessons, so she can entice the guy she thinks she's in love with. It doesn't take a genius to figure out he's the hero even though it takes a while for the heroine to realize it.

Terry Odell said...

I was unaware of that rule when I wrote my first romance. The first man on scene was actually an ex-lover, and turned out to be the bad guy. Got a lot of comments about how I wasn't "allowed" to do that, and that I'd made him unlikeable. Duh. Yeah. Originally, the hero didn't show up until chapter 3 or 4, but I rewrote it so at least he showed up sooner. However, I reveled in reading a Linda Castillo romantic suspense where h/h didn't show up on the same page until about 1/3 of the way through the book.

And Allison Brennan actually killed the guy everyone thought was going to be the hero. Didn't hurt her career!

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

demery bader-saye said...

Hi Sierra,

I've never thought about all of this - but you're right! This is typically how a good love story unfolds. I have enjoyed some romantic stories where someone is getting over a broken heart and it takes awhile to be able to see the future with new eyes. But usually in those cases the first love has died or is such a jerk (or as someone mentioned above - such a 'loser') that we the audience either don't know or don't care for him/her anyway... like in Sleepless in Seattle. Both have love interests first and then find each other.

And you ARE a smart blogger and you DO give great examples :)

Julie Dao said...

Great point!! Although I don't think it's wrong or right to introduce the ultimate love interest after the "fake" one. As long as we meet him (or her) early on in the game, and as long as he is made a significant enough character (someone who's obviously not a forgettable secondary stock guy), it works for me. I love your examples.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Guys, I also got a great comment on Twitter about this...regarding Star Wars. As you may (or not)know, I almost always use Star Wars as a story example when I spout about stories or plot, mainly because Star Wars left a huge impression on me when I was a kid. But anyway, I think Star Wars is an official Romance Rule Fail. Consider: Leia sees Luke first, and flirts with him right off the bat. Oh yes, yes she does. George Lucas might claim that he knew they were siblings the whole time, but that is NOT the impression we get from their first encounter, no matter how easily she switches affections to Han. We only find out later that she switches affections to Han because she "always knew" Luke was her brother.

Whatevers, we all know she had the hots for her brother. !!!

Meghan Ward said...

I hate "rules" in literature. If I'm going to know right off the bat who the heroine is going to end up with, why bother reading the story? I guess that's why I don't read romance!

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