Maggie Stiefvater, who once made waves online with her “I just don’t get romance” post and then a year later sold a big fat werewolf romance to Scholastic (releasing this fall!) has put up a very thought-provoking post furthering her thoughts on love and romance. I think it’s safe to say that Maggie’s opinions on the matter have shifted somewhat in the past year and a half. However, I don’t agree with her current thesis that large gestures don’t work, and only by writing around romance do you get romance. (Updated to add: Maggie has amended herself to “earned” big gestures, which I agree with absolutely — see below.)
For instance, the scene in The Village that she points out as an example of a “small gesture” of love is, in reality, anything but. Here we’ve got Joaquin Phoenix’s character, as stoic and silent as ever a character was, finally breaking through after half a movie’s worth of teasing and being told he’s in love for the “things he refuses to do” and revealing a concrete example of his love — GRABBING her hand, not “refusing to catch her” which she claims he’s done for years. Then he admits in a moving, impassioned, grand speech a few scenes later:
“Why can you not stop saying what is in yours? Why must you lead, when I want to lead? If I want to dance, I
will ask you to dance. If I want to speak, I will open my mouth and speak. Everyone is forever plaguing me to speak
further. Why? What… good is it to tell you you are in my every thought from the time I wake? What good can come
from my saying I– I sometimes cannot think clearly, or- or do my work properly? What gain can rise from my telling
you… the only time I feel fear as others do, is when I think of you in harm? That is why I am on this porch, Ivy
Walker. I fear for your safety above all others. And yes… I will dance with you on our wedding night.”
These things work in tandem with each other. We believe the impassioned speech and we thrill at the big hand grab because of the small gestures that lay the groundwork. And those small gestures all build up to what romance fans like to call “the gut punch moment”: the declaration, the realization, the proposal or the reconciliation, or the love scene, the kiss on the dock in the rain or the “you pierce my soul” letter or “I know” before being lowered into carbonite or any of the thousands of grand gestures that leave the audience breathless and elevated in every romance ever told. You need ‘em both. You need ‘em all.
Shanna Swendson actually has an excellent series of posts on this, in which I think she gets to the heart of why “you complete me” doesn’t really work (for Maggie and me, at least). It’s not that it’s the “big gesture” — it’s that it’s the big gesture without the small one. Tom is a shit to Renee, who loves him because, I don’t know, he’s got some kind of idealistic outlook on life that attracts her? His last-minute realization that she actually is worthy of his affection, and not just her kid, is false and hollow, because no “small gestures” accompany it. In fact, the “you complete me” shot is even cropped so that you can’t see Tom is doing the sign language for it as well, which would be a sign that he at least PAID ATTENTION to something Renee showed him once upon a time. Shanna’s point is all about romantic comedy filmmakers focusing on these big gestures without the small ones, or thinking that if you line up the right order of events and a big misunderstanding, you’ll wind up with a romance.
Maggie’s other point is an interesting one, about how the reader is dying for two characters to make a romance happen, and that is, I think, why filmmakers can get away with crap like 27 Dresses and, to an even greater extent, Prince Caspian. Hey, look, we have two attractive people who are not related to one another in this film. Let’s put ‘em together! People will buy it. We don’t have to work on that.
I am always surprised by the attempts made to ‘ship my characters. After Secret Society Girl, people were all after a romance between Malcolm and Poe. Lately, I’ve been hearing rumblings about one between George and Jenny, which, I’m sorry, is about as likely to happen as Malcolm and Poe. But the point is that people like it when characters fall in love. But that doesn’t mean that storytellers should just go ahead and toss any old random people together, Because then you end up with, well:
Now, this can get a little sticky, because I’m also a huge believer in following chemistry, which is, of course, indefinable. Some people may see massive chemistry between two characters where others don’t. I don’t know how much chemistry the actors in Prince Caspian might have had to whoever made that stupid, stupid decision, but there certainly wasn’t enough to overcome the canon of “eww” that accompanied their romance. I never found there to be any chemistry between the leads in the short-lived TV series Moonlight, which probably accounts a lot for why I found the show lacking. But other people completely loved that romance. On the other hand, I applaud show runners like Rob Thomas for following the chemistry of Logan and Veronica to its natural and delicious conclusion on Veronica Mars. I really don’t think they imagined a romance between those two, but when it became clear that she and Duncan were flat as pancakes on screen, while she and Logan crackled like summer lightning — well, where do you go?
And different types of romance are necessary for different characters. For instance, Maggie derides “common interest” as a reason for romance, and yet, in some cases, it’s why we are rooting for two characters, particularly in stories where you meet each character on their own long, long before they ever encounter the other. I still remember my first reading of Lord of the Rings. When I got to the part where Eowyn (bless her shield-maiden soul) kicks the Witch King’s enrobed hiney and falls into a magical coma, I remember exclaiming, “No! She can’t die. She must live and marry Faramir!” Sailor Boy, reading in the next sleeping bag over (we were in a tent in Australia at the time) was all, “Wait, she doesn’t even know Faramir and is in love with Aragorn.” But you can’t fool this romance reader. Eowyn is awesome and all, but Aragorn is a demigod. It was never going to work out. Meanwhile, Faramir is equally awesome, equally noble, equally mortal, and equally in need of someone to try a little tenderness. They needed to live happily ever after and root the orcs out of Ithilien. You knew that they would be perfect for one another when they finally met and a big part of that was their common interest. they were twin souls, serving twin purposes in their respective cities (the young, intelligent, brave noblemen who pushed the leaders of their city to betterness). They belonged together.
So before I wrote SSG, I wrote four romance novels, none of which were published, and one of which received a rejection letter praising my characterization and writing, but regretting the lack of , well, romance. Ah well, I was still learning the ropes. And perhaps the editor in question didn’t find my romantic gestures (grand or otherwise) as romantic as I do. For instance, I find it profoundly romantic that Poe saved the mouse because Amy said she liked it. I like even more that she doesn’t find out about that for months and months. Now, not a lot of people think of mice as romantic, so…
Right. My point was…something. It was that I wasn’t such a huge success at writing romance novels, but I wrote novels that were not shelved as romance novels and received heaps of reviews praising what RWA likes to call the “romantic elements” of my books.
The last three books I’ve written have been more blatantly romantic than the first two. In Rites of Spring (Break), Amy’s love life goes front and center in the plot line, and I remember half-joking with my romance writer friends that the structure of the story maps to a romantic suspense. Rampant, killer unicorns aside, is a love story. And those of you who have read the first chapter of Tap & Gown in the back of ROSB know that the question of Amy’s spring break romance looms large. But those were vastly different projects, in both conception and execution. In SSG, I had a very different denouement to the love story in mind, but those two crazy kids were like magnets. So I just went with what felt natural — though actually, ridiculous chemistry aside, it took a whole book to make it work in any rational manner (and their trials aren’t over, because these two have a HUGELY rough row to hoe if they really want to date). In Rampant, I had always intended on a love story to get in the way of Astrid’s duty, but I had to “cast” her love interest several times before I had the right kind of chemistry. The first time, he wasn’t interested in her. The second time, she wasn’t interested in him. But then I landed upon Giovanni, and they clicked, and it was gorgeous. It was also really interesting to write, because Giovanni is a markedly different kind of hero than any I’ve written before, and way, way different than Jamie. Oh, Giovanni. I’m a little bit in love with him.
Yes, I just finished writing a big scene between Astrid and Giovanni for KU2. Why do you ask?
Unfortunately, I can’t really talk about their “small gestures” vs. “big gestures” or “common interests” though their romance is the one on my writerly mind, because no one has read that book yet and I am spoiler-averse and it’ll be months and months (and months and months and argggggggh… don’t mind the crazy author in the corner). But I can talk about Rites of Spring (Break) — look away if you have not read the book yet. Look perhaps, to this page, and order yourself a copy (my shameless plug of the day) — and mouse over white text to read ROSB spoilers:
In ROSB, we’ve got this slow-burn romance going on for the first half of the book, but I keep it on the DL, even from the narrator. She has no idea what I’m doing to her. In fact, she’s under the mistaken impression that I’m getting her together with some other guy. Poor girl. Meanwhile, Poe keeps popping up, starting in the first chapter, and showing that the events of Under the Rose have permanently changed their relationship, and that a lot of their antagonism is more based on the fact that they are used to it, rather than actual negative feelings or even disagreements. In fact, they are pretty much on the same page — they have the same sense of duty about the society, the same concerns and insecurities about their future, etc. Who knew? (Ahem. me.) The events are a prelude, meant to disarm and discomfit her around him. Long looks, tete-a-tetes, and odd moments of tenderness — none of which add up to anything taken on their own, but set the stage for Amy’s upcoming “duh” moment, which happens when Poe, after saving her life, drops her off at the cabin. “Big gesture” alert: Amy looks out the window and what should she see? Poe pacing in front of her cabin, undecided between coming back and saying — something, but what? — to her, and leaving, letting things stay as they are.
Unbeknownst to Poe, his indecision is moot. Amy instantly grasps what he would be saying were he to come back, and knowing that is enough to change things. Poe likes her.
And really, knowing is half the battle. Because Amy? Not so much with the pretending. She can’t go back to her former antagonist relationship with him. Not given what she knows. So she needs to confront Poe either way: tell him no way is that shit going down, or okay, you’re cute, let’s make out in the sand. (Which they do — “big gesture again”.)
The interesting thing about how their relationship played out, though, to me, is that the power dynamic was not what I expected. Adolescent understanding of a power dynamic is that the person who knows how the other person feels is the one with the power. (This is why you kept your crushes a secret in high school.) Amy knows Poe likes her, therefore, she should be the one in control. And she is for about one chapter. It’s in her hands if things go any farther — if they have a date, if they kiss. After that, the power shifts rather dramatically, and I wasn’t expecting it, though I felt that, in the end, it made for a much more mature romantic storyline. Poe wasn’t going to be embarrassed to be “discovered,” as Malcolm was sure he would. He was going to own it.
I remember seeing an interview with Kristen Stewart, where she was talking about her vision of Bella in the Twilight movie, and how she had the power in that relationship because there was no question of what she wanted; Edward might be torn, but she knew. She wanted to be a vampire and to be with Edward. Well, Poe wanted to be with Amy, and once he thought there was a chance of that happening (which he didn’t back at the cabin, but with the date and the making out, well, he went for it), he had all the power. The power of conviction and of clarity. Yes, he could still be rejected, he could still be hurt by her, but there is a core of strength to honesty that can’t be touched by those things, and it’s a core that Poe hadn’t often had a chance to display in the series. He’s sneaky and manipulative, but not, apparently, when it comes to love. And it trumps any card that Amy attempts to play. I really, really liked that. He could be a deeply flawed person and he could even be wrong about their relationship, but he was absolutely forthright about his own feelings, and that’s incredibly powerful, especially compared to Amy’s wishy-washiness. Honestly? She didn’t stand a chance. He had to be rewarded for such a big step for his character, though also in keeping with his character, who despite his manipulative nature, is very blunt honest and dedicated. And those were all small gestures, but together, they were a tidal wave.
But because of that, in the end, Poe didn’t have to do a lot of “winning” of Amy, and it was Amy who had to go to Poe’s house for the big romantic gesture and reconciliation. And, if I’ve accomplished my goal, you believe her (and Poe believes her, which is a more difficult prospect) because of all her small turning points coming up to that — how she looks for Poe, and thinks of Poe, and is deeply, deeply, fundamentally hurt when she thinks Poe doesn’t trust her — which hurts even more because of how nakedly honest he’s been to her– so hurt she makes herself vulnerable to Darren. That what is going on here is something more than gratitude, and might need to be explored.
Which brings us up to Tap & Gown, where the story is far from over.
I feel that I’ve perhaps wandered far from the original purpose of this post, but what can I say? I’m a hopeless romantic. I love it all, the character perfection and the gut punch moments and the big romantic gesture and the tiny, infinitesimal moments that add up to a love story.