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Five Overused Romantic Sub-Plots (And How To Fix Them)

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Being a self-professed romance fan, I know more about the intricacies of romantic sub-plots than most men would ever dare admit. I’ve consumed an absurd amount of romantic media over the years and I’ve noticed more than a few common themes, some more endearing than others.

However, by consuming so much romantic content, I’ve also seen certain themes get overused and badly mishandled. I could list countless instances promising romantic sub-plots collapsing because it fell into a narrative trap. Sometimes, it’s because of poor writing. Sometimes, it’s because the story has too many constraints. I’ve even cited a few famous cases that exhibit both.

Whatever the case, it’s not hard to screw up a romantic sub-plot. I’ve done that more than a few times with the stories I’ve written. Lately, though, there are certain types of sub-plots that have lost their luster. They’ve either been done too many times or haven’t innovated in way too long.

Overused or not, I believe there are elements of these sub-plots that are worth saving. They just need some refinement and polish. What follows is a list of five overdone romantic sub-plots, why they’ve become so bland, and how to fix them. I’ve covered some of these elements before. This is just the romance lover in me offering some tips for future romance stories.


Romantic Sub-Plot #1: Best Friends Turned Lovers

Why It’s Overdone

I think you can thank sitcoms like “Friends” and movies like “Clueless” for this sub-plot to fall out of favor. Personally, I blame Ross and Rachel for giving this theme a bad name. They took the whole friends-falling-in-love plot way too far. Towards the end, it was more annoying than compelling.

These days, this sub-plot isn’t as common as it used to be. I think a lot of romance fans were burned out on it in the 1990s and early 2000s. There’s only so many times a character can say in so many words “I didn’t realize that what I was looking for was right here in front of me” and sound genuine.

How To Fix It

Simply put, this sub-plot needs to shake up the setting. Too many times, a story about friends becoming lovers is built around one friend having had feelings for the other over many years. That can be sweet when done right, but it’s way too easy to be done wrong. These days, it almost comes off as a long con or stalking.

To fix it, the emphasis needs to shift towards two characters undergoing major upheavals. Perhaps they go through a tragedy or trauma that changes the way they feel about other people. It can’t just be restricted to their friend/lover, either. This upheaval should affect their entire world and from there, they come together in a new way.

It has the potential to show two characters go through major growth as individuals, which eventually turns into growth as a couple. That kind of growth can work wonders for any romance and could offer something more meaningful than old friends hiding their feelings.


Romantic Sub-Plot #2: Love Triangles

Why It’s Overdone

I’ve already made my hatred of love triangles very clear. I’ve gone so far as to cite one from the X-men as the worst of all time. Beyond the comics, though, it’s not hard to see cases of this sub-plot done horribly wrong. Even contemporary romance like “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” have made this troubled trope more insufferable.

Simply put, love triangles reduce everyone involved to prizes or plot devices. It’s next to impossible to make every character in a love triangle feel like a real character. It turns romantic development into a competition and in the long run, nobody wins and certain characters lose badly.

How To Fix It

I’m tempted to say that love triangles should be abandoned and killed with a 12-gauge shotgun, but I’m not a fan of throwing away romantic themes, no matter how much I despise them. For this particular theme, I think it needs more than just a fix. It needs a complete overhaul.

By that, it can’t just involve two people competing for someone else’s affection. That gets old fast. If there is going to be a love triangle, then it should actually take the time to show why someone is torn in the first place. It needs to be clear that someone genuinely loves more than one person and there’s a reason for that love.

This is also a sub-plot that may benefit from shifting taboos. Non-monogamy is becoming more mainstream and there aren’t many real romance stories about that idea that aren’t bad pornos. A love triangle has to stop being an either/or plot and become a why/how plot. There needs to be a concerted effort to ensure everyone involved gets some sort of emotional resolution that doesn’t involve someone getting screwed over.


Romantic Sub-Plot #3: Destined Lovers

Why It’s Overdone

If you’ve gone through any high school English class or are just familiar with certain literary traditions, you’ve probably seen this in all kinds of media. “Romeo and Juliet” is probably the most famous, but it still shows up frequently throughout romantic media. It’s prevalent in movies like “Titanic” and comics like “Superman.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have a soft spot for star-crossed lovers who are destined to fall in love, but it’s a very bland sub-plot. There’s no real sense of conflict. You know two characters are going to end up together and where’s the intrigue there?

How To Fix It

For this sub-plot, I think a simple shift in context would help. Most romance featuring destined lovers emphasis how they come together, despite the obstacles in front of them. I think it might be more compelling to explore why these characters are star-crossed to begin with. Is it just destiny or are there other forces at work?

There are a lot of factors that go into romance, even those of the non-destined variety. Why not explore the concept of destiny, as it relates to love? Why not dig a little deeper into the intricacies of how it unites people so completely? That wouldn’t just offer a meta-perspective of love, as a plot device. It would give us all an opportunity to reconsider what it means to be in love.


Romantic Sub-Plot #4: Love At First Sight

Why It’s Overdone

This sub-plot is very similar to the destined lovers trope. It’s often a pre-cursor to two people finding out they’re destined to be together. For many of the same reasons, it’s pretty bland and basic. One character sees another, some sappy music starts playing, and the love story is effectively laid out.

We see it happen very overtly in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Titanic.” We see it manifest in some form in most romantic comedies. A character just sees someone they find attractive and that becomes the catalyst for their love. It’s sweet, but not very deep and it has just become too predictable at this point. When two people fall in love at first sight, what other story is there to tell?

How To Fix It

This one can’t be fixed with the same methods as the destined lovers sub-plot. This is one of those plots that doesn’t have to be radically altered, but definitely needs fresh nuance. Finding that nuance means injecting more than just love into the mix when two characters first meet.

The first encounter between two characters is always pivotal. It helps set the tone for their relationship, romantic and otherwise. To make this sub-plot work in new ways, characters need to intrigue each other in new ways. It can’t be enough that they’re attractive. There has to be something else about them.

Maybe the character has a skill that someone has never seen before. Maybe the character causes someone to re-think a past assumption. Maybe it sends them on a new journey that their love interest can join. There are many opportunities here. There doesn’t have to just be one.


Romantic Sub-Plot #5: Sex Complicating Love

Why It’s Overdone

This one is probably the most overtly sexual romantic sub-plot that also happens to be the most predictable. Ironically, it’s “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” that summed it up best. Things go from “Don’t worry, it won’t get weird” to “It got weird, didn’t it?” That’s every sex-complicating-love story in a nutshell.

This one also has the burden of being weighed down by long-standing sexual taboos. While it may seem like those taboos have faded in the 21st century, it’s still the slutty women and stud men who die first in slasher movies. Sex, even in a romance story, still comes off as something dirty that somehow undermines a romance.

Even though sexual attitudes have evolved a great deal, the idea that sex complicates/ruins a relationship hasn’t moved very far. It’s why sex tends to be an afterthought in modern romances. Sometimes, it’s ignored or assumed and that’s just a waste of quality sexual chemistry.

How To Fix It

As an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I’ve been working on that for years. While I can’t claim to have a definitive answer, I have surmised a few ideas turn sex from a complication to a catalyst. It doesn’t have to be overly titillating or pornographic, although that can work. It just has to supplement the romance rather than subvert it.

Sex in romance is often treated like an endgame. It’s marks the culmination rather than the progression of a relationship. I believe that’s a missed opportunity. In any romance, sex should function as a progression, of sorts. It takes the relationship to a new stage, one where new opportunities for emotional and personal growth emerge.

When two characters have sex, it can be more than just a chance to depict genitals and female breasts. It can be an exercise of intimacy where two characters strengthen their bond, rather than sully it. That gives greater meaning to the sexiness and nothing makes romance hotter than genuinely meaningful sex.

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Filed under Marriage and Relationships, media issues, polyamory, romance, sex in media, sexuality

Masculinity, Mourning, And My Recent Loss

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How is a man supposed to mourn when he’s lost someone he really cares about? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m asking because it’s a question I wish I could answer. It’s also a question that I’ve been struggling with over the past week or so.

Recently, I got the sad news from my father that my grandmother had passed away. I’ve been debating on whether or not I should talk about it on this site. I know people don’t come here to hear about my personal crap. They would much rather talk about upcoming superhero movies, sex robots, and double standards.

However, I’ve since concluded that this is something I need to share, if only to help me cope. Without getting too much into the personal details, this loss really hurt. I was very close to my grandmother. She was a big part of my life for as long as I can remember and just referring to her in the past tense is a strange and distressing feeling, but one I knew I would have to face eventually.

I even knew it was coming sooner rather than later. My grandmother’s death did not catch anyone by surprise. She was in her late 90s and had been dealing with a lot of health problems over the past four years. The past several months have been especially bad, but I still visited her regularly, hoping to boost her spirits.

Now, the idea that I can’t visit her ever again is really hard to process. My grandmother was one of those special individuals whose presence just made everything inherently better. Even with her declining health, she never lost that amazing spirit. She lit up the room and she enriched my life in ways I can never put into words.

Mourning her has proven to be one of the biggest challenges of my adult life. I understand that this is the natural order of things. I know that loved ones eventually die, especially those who lived long, fruitful lives like my grandmother. That doesn’t make it any less painful.

In dealing with it, though, I find myself contemplating things about mourning that I didn’t expect. Some of it involves my own personal issues. Others involve a bigger issue that I feel is worth exploring, even as my current emotional state is so raw.

There are a lot of things I didn’t learn from school, parents, siblings, or peers that I wish I had while growing up. Chief among those things is coping with loss. It’s not that nobody tried to teach me those skills. It’s not like there was a course in it, either. I just never made much effort to learn them. In fact, I feel as though I avoided them outright.

Some of that might just be a result of me being more reserved. Most people who know me can attest that I tend to swallow certain feelings more than others, especially when those feelings come from real emotional anguish. I’ll sob, I’ll shed tears, and I’ll let my voice crack under the strain. I’ll try not to let it go beyond that, though.

It’s not something my family and friends pressure me to do. However, there are times I feel as though that’s what a man is supposed to do. While I don’t like attributing things to gender stereotypes, especially when double standards are involved, this is one instance where I fall right into a specific masculine archetype.

I freely admit that I don’t always express my emotions very well. I’m more inclined to hide them and hold them in. I even try to avoid them, hoping they just go away with time. That may work for some minor emotional upheavals. It doesn’t work quite as well when you’re dealing with a heavy personal loss.

That limited ability to express emotions very well has been really glaring since I got the news. I remember not reacting too strongly, but wishing I could. I remember being at a total loss, but wishing I weren’t. There were so many things I wanted to express and articulate, but couldn’t. I can honestly say that I’ve never been at such a loss before.

At that moment, being a man felt like being shackled to something. It was like trying to cross a river with heavy weights on my ankles. Even when sitting alone in my room with no one to judge me for how much emotion I showed, I still found myself at a loss. I knew I was feeling something hard, but I just didn’t know how to express it.

I’m not saying that inability is entirely attributed to me being a man. I can’t speak for all men, but I can attest on a personal level that I do feel pressure to put on a tough face when confronted with painful emotions. To do otherwise just seems contrary to what it means to be a man and maintain a masculine demeanor.

I know that sounds like I’m blaming my gender for my shortcomings, and maybe I am to some degree, but I find myself wishing that the processing of painful emotions didn’t carry these gender-based standards. Yes, there are some men who are every bit as emotionally expressive as most women, but those kinds of tendencies aren’t encouraged or celebrated. In some cases, they’re scorned.

I don’t blame women or women for that stigma. I get the sense we’re all responsible for propagating those standards, albeit indirectly. The idea that showing certain emotions isn’t manly while not showing enough isn’t womanly feels like an unnecessary burden that we place on ourselves, one I just learned is heavier than most.

While I don’t feel like men are mocked as much for showing their emotions as they were in the past, I still find myself struggling. It’s as though I had the opportunity learn how to deal with these painful feelings when I was growing up, but was pressured to not take advantage of them because doing so would reveal a personal weakness.

As misguided as that sentiment might have been, I’m still responsible for making those choices. I don’t deny that when it comes to knowing how to deal with losses on this level, I’m behind the curve. I’m very lucky that I have so many wonderful family, friends, and relatives who have been there for me every step of the way during this process. I don’t think I could’ve handled this as well as I have without them.

I just wish being a man didn’t make it inherently more difficult. Again, this is just my own experience and I can’t speak for all men. Maybe mine is an anomaly and my limited coping skills have more to do with my own personal issues than my gender. Whatever the case, this loss has revealed a lot about being a man and dealing with emotions.

I’m really going to miss my grandmother. I loved her a great deal and the idea of living life without her in it is still hard to wrap my head around. I intend to push forward, though. I know that’s what she would want. That’s what all our loved ones ultimately want once they’re gone.

Even if they can’t be in our lives anymore, we can still move forward with the strength their love gave us. To all those out there who have suffered a loss, I encourage you to take comfort in that strength. To my grandmother, who I’ll miss dearly, I thank you for showing me just how much strength there is in love.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, Jack Fisher's Insights, psychology