Timeline of Romance

Something that crossed my mind last week is the timeline of romance–reality vs. fiction.

Now my family is a sterling example of the fact that length of acquaintance does not ensure felicity in marriage. My parents dated for almost four years before they married, then divorced after 30 years of marriage. My in-laws met and married in a MONTH and have been happily married for 34 years. My husband and I knew that “this is it!” after about 3 weeks, though circumstances dictated we didn’t get married for almost 4 years (that whole me being 19 and he 20 when we met and me wanting to finish college first thing…). My friends I’m visiting here in Kansas City were engaged in 3 days. So it’s clear that there’s no real rule about how long is “long enough” to really “know” or for a relationship to be real and meaningful in real life.

In romantic fiction, particularly the romantic suspense I tend toward reading and writing, the timeline for the story itself tends to be considerably shorter. This often has to do with the fact that we’re dealing with a crime of some kind and investigations tend to only take a matter of weeks or months (sometimes days). When you’re setting a romance against such a backdrop, that imposes a necessary restriction on the timeline of your story. Since the goal is, ideally, to convince the reader that the hero and heroine are meant to be and will live happily ever after, if not married, then at least exclusive.  Personally I prefer the HEA “hey we’re getting married!” ending, but I’m an admitted sap.

Mostly when I read I’m able to sort of constitute poetic faith so that relationships that often start out as based on nothing more than lust wind up as feeling as if they’re meant to be. But I need SOME effort put into making me believe that the hero and heroine are emotionally engaged, otherwise I get bored. I picked up a book recently that was a sort of classic set up where the hero broke the heroine’s heart in the past (during the prologue), then in Chapter One he’s back in her life, it’s ten years later, and they are, of course at odds, but thrown into close quarters. By mid-book it still felt mostly like sex and hadn’t emotionally engaged me as a reader. I didn’t feel like the author spent enough time making me CARE about the characters so that I’d root for them that they get what they want (each other–not that they’d admit it). I couldn’t finish the book. I think it takes a skillful story teller to be able to get past my natural cynicism (thought I met my soulmate once and didn’t wind up staying with him) and practicality and make me believe that these folks really are honestly in love (because I don’t read romance novels for lust–I read them to re-experience that sensation of falling in love).

One of the things that I try to do when writing a romantic suspense (and the emphasis here is on the try because I’m not always great at this) is to try to make it such that the suspense helps to drive the romance. Suspense allows you to heighten emotions and put the characters in situations where they can interact on a more personal level that they might not do under less stressful situations. Suspense often helps you bypass a lot of the social mores and conventions of traditional dating–which is one helpful way to speed things up a bit. And then there’s that whole threat to life and limb that often brings the things that are important in life into stark relief. I like romantic suspense because it does bypass a lot of the less interesting stuff–it may be implied that it’s happening, but the slow stuff is not so interesting to read.

One point that Pot made when she and I were talking about it was that there’s a heavy reliance on the idea of a One True Pairing or the whole soulmates thing. The sort of assumption that people just click and when you know you know. I suppose one benefit of fast relationships in fiction is that it provides plenty of fodder for conflict–and conflict is, of course, your bread and butter in fiction. Without conflict you have…boredom.

Anyway, I’m not being totally coherent, but I think my question for the writing masses is this: do you deal differently with characters when you have to make them fall in love in a short span of time, as in romantic suspense vs. when you’re writing something that isn’t romantic suspense and doesn’t necessarily have the constraints therein?

One thought on “Timeline of Romance

  1. It seems that my thoughts on the subject were a little clearer when we discussed it pre-flu. So I’m trying to think of fiction I know that builds slower and what I come up with is the soaps. (Hello, my name is Pot and I’m a soap addict. It’s been six years? since my last soap opera.) What I loved about soaps, and continue to love fiction in general, is the writers’ ability to manipulate me. In something with a longer time-line, they have the ability to make me hate a character and then, over time, show me where that character was coming from, how he’s changed and grown, and make me root for him. In soap, they don’t have to rely on the concept of OTP (although it does come up) and in a lot of circumstances they just can’t [suggest OTP] because of the constant partner changes. Instead, they are able to show us some relationships that grow more gradually than those in a lot of romantic suspense novels and action movies.

    I’m not sure there’s that much of a difference though. In any case, the fictioneer has to make the fictionee buy the love story. They still need to make sure they show the reader enough romantic elements through the situations in which the characters find themselves to make it believable, and to show the characters’ reactions to them, show them feeling and falling. And they still need to make the reader fall too.

    I don’t know if this comment acutally says anything that makes any sense. Taking my fuzzy head back to my Buffy marathon now.

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