Monday, February 20, 2012

Love Worth Swooning Over

Martha Mihalick is an editor at Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Back in December of 2011, I came across this blog post that resonated so strongly with me, I have not been able to banish it from my mind since. And I don't want to. To any writer whose story contains a romance of any type, you should read this blog post.

So, I am quoting the post below, hoping to spread the vast knowledge and brilliance of Ms. Mihalick to others. Happy Reading. :)

A Fine Romance

I’m a sucker for a good romantic storyline. In books, movies, tv shows, songs . . . whatever. But what makes a romance plot thread a good one? I mean, I know it when I see it, but I’ve been letting this question percolate for a while to try to articulate the answer a little. And two things that have crossed my path in the last few weeks have helped to clarify it for me a little.

The first: Entanglement Theory. If you wikipedia that, you’ll come across a pretty dry definition. But I was clued into it by the To the Best of Our Knowledge podcast from January 23, “The Wonder of Physics.” At the end of the episode a writer explained it as the quantum physics theory that when two subatomic particles are spend a significant amount of time in each other’s orbits, they shadow each other . . . even after they are separated. If one spins a certain way, the other will, even if it’s moved far, far away. It gives me little goosebumps when I think about applying it to us, too, and the people we let enter our orbits–whether romantic, platonic, or family.

The second: the poem that Molly posted yesterday, “Those Who Love” by Sara Teasdale.

Those who love the most,
Do not talk of their love,
Francesca, Guinevere,
Deirdre, Iseult, Heloise,
In the fragrant gardens of heaven
Are silent, or speak if at all
Of fragile inconsequent things.
And a woman I used to know
Who loved one man from her youth,
Against the strength of the fates
Fighting in somber pride
Never spoke of this thing,
But hearing his name by chance,
A light would pass over her face.

But without further ado, here’s what I’ve come up with as some keys to a good romance. I’m sure there are things I’ve missed, or exceptions to the rule. Feel free to point those out in the comments!

1. The main story–the orbit–has to be about something other than the romance itself. Love stories are best when they’re subplots. The characters need an orbit to be in with each other, after all.

2. The two characters have some sort of immediate connection. Not necessarily a good one, but something that fascinates, intrigues, or challenges.

3. Their interaction is neither neat nor easy. There are complications, heartbreaks, arguments. The two of them don’t necessarily even know that they are in love, or that it’s going to work out. (Are you thinking Darcy & Elizabeth Bennet with these last two? I sure am. And West Wing‘s Josh & Donna, and MWT’s Eugenides & Attolia, and Graceling‘s Katsa & Po, and DWJ’s Howl & Sophie, and Sarah Dessen’s Wes & Macy, and . . .  see, I told you I’m a sucker for romance.)

4. Most of the romance is not directly talked about. It’s there in gestures, actions, reactions, and feelings, but rather than telling the reader how the characters feel, the writing makes us feel it along with them. As the poem points out, do the strongest loves need words? Are there even any words that could contain it right, anyway? Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t any direct declarations. There have to be one or two scenes when one of the characters holds a stereo over his head, or tells the other “how ardently he admires and loves her.” It’s payoff for all the signals and longing–and we do need to know that the characters realize what they feel for each other.

5. Along the same lines, a lot of the romance occurs in small, subtle details. It’s the build up of those everyday moments that make the grand gestures mean something. (I know I for one always think about the moment at the end of Lioness Rampant when George is there to catch Alanna before she even knows her knees are going to give out.)

6. There’s build up, yearning, tension as the characters circle each other, sometimes coming closer, sometimes further apart.

7. The ending isn’t a “happily ever after” that’s all sunshine and marshmallow fluff. Rather, it’s a hopeful choice that both characters are making together. They are a team by the end, a team that will take on whatever comes next, which is bound to be imperfect, but good because they can count on one another.

So, what do you think? Is this list a good start?


  1. Thanks for posting this. I loved it! This had to be my favorite part: "The ending isn’t a “happily ever after” that’s all sunshine and marshmallow fluff. Rather, it’s a hopeful choice that both characters are making together."

    So true! Happy...but not fluffy. Those are my favorite endings.

    1. Thanks, Sharon! I'm glad you liked it. I do love the ending part, but my favorite is in the beginning where she mentions the atoms and how even when one splits into two, they still circle each other. Who knew Science could be so romantic? o.O

  2. Thanks for sharing Amy! I used Entanglement Theory in one of my manuscripts, so it has a special place in my heart :-) This is a really good checklist to go back and analyze the romance subplot one last time before I query.

    1. Did you really Jessica?! I'd love to chat with you about it some day, discover your take on the theory. I'm applying it to my current manuscript and am thrilled with the direction it has taken me.