Tag Archives: failed romance

How To Do Romantic Sub-Plots Right (And Why Some Fail)

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This will probably surprise no one who regularly visits this site, but I love romantic sub-plots. In many cases, they’re my favorite part of a movie, TV show, or comic book. I’ve made my love for romance in general fairly well-known, but romantic sub-plots offer a special kind of appeal.

Now, when I say romantic sub-plots, I’m not referring to the stories built solely around romance, like many of my novels. I’m referring to stories that are primarily presented as another genre, be it sci-fi, fantasy, or a blatant “Die Hard” rip-off, but include a secondary romantic story that runs parallel to the main story.

Sometimes, that story is subtle. Sometimes, it becomes a major catalyst for other parts of the main story. Sometimes, it just adds a little melodrama in between all the bigger, flashier conflicts. Watch pretty much any prime time show on the CW these days and you’ll see examples of every kind to some extent.

As much as I love these sub-plots, though, they can also be frustrating. For every romantic sub-plot I felt was handled well, I can think of five others that were horribly botched. On one end, you have the rich, balanced love story of Han Solo and Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. On the other, you’ve got the inherently toxic love story between Penny and Leonard in “The Big Bang Theory.”

There’s so much variety and diversity to romantic sub-plots that I could spend an entire weekend going through all of them. However, for the sake of making a more concise point, I want to focus on what makes a romantic sub-plot truly compelling. Regardless of genre, medium, or scope, a good romantic sub-plot can really enhance the overall plot.

Like every other sub-plot or storytelling tactic, though, romantic sub-plots are prone to all sorts of tropes, cliches, and traditions. Some are more useful than others. However, some can create obstacles and pitfalls that derail an otherwise promising romantic sub-plot.

While I don’t consider myself an expert on all the mechanisms that go into a good romantic sub-plot, I do know plenty of others out there who are far smarter than me and far more capable of explaining the subject in a more comprehensive way. They may not be experts either, but they know how to get the point across.

That’s where wonderful YouTube channels like Overly Sarcastic Productions come in. I’ve referenced it before in previous discussions about strong female characters, but it also provides other extensive breakdowns of various tropes and does it in a colorful, entertaining way, sometimes literally.

One such video in their Trope Talk series covers romantic sub-plots and the breakdown here is the best I’ve seen to date on what makes a good and not-so-good sub-plot. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you watch it. If nothing else, it should put some of your favorite and least favorite romantic sub-plots into a larger context.

There’s a lot of fast-talking, broad-based breakdowns of this trope, which the narrator freely admits she doesn’t fully understand. However, she demonstrates that she understands enough to point out what not to do when pursuing a romantic sub-plot on a fairly basic level. I want to go beyond basics.

The video singles out a few TV shows and cartoons where the romantic sub-plot falls flat, such as “The Legend of Korra” and “Castle.” In both cases, the sub-plot is very shallow in that it’s built entirely on the fact that a straight male and a straight female character work closely together. As such, they become romantically entangled.

Therein likes the most glaring problem, though. Just being two characters who work together is seen as sufficient to justify the sub-plot. As a result, there’s no effort to build meaningful chemistry between the characters. In some cases, there isn’t even an effort to establish whether they’re romantically compatible with one another.

This is probably the most common, not to mention the most annoying, problem that arises when romantic sub-plots enter a story. The sub-plot is given the bare minimum in terms of depth, relying on the audience to fill in the blanks as to why these two should be together.

This happens a lot in the superhero genre. Romantic sub-plots and soap operas are the cornerstone of some of the most iconic superhero comics, TV shows, and movies. One of the most epic examples, the Dark Phoenix Saga, is set to become a movie next year. However, I would argue that the superhero genre is most guilty of this common shortcoming.

Take, for instance, the first “Iron Man” movie and the romantic sub-plot between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. Never mind the fact that these two characters don’t have much of a romance in the comics. The first movie and the two successful sequels that follow do plenty to establish Tony and Pepper as the primary romance of the story. However, it does little to show why these two belong together.

The same thing happens with Thor and Jane Foster in the first two “Thor” movies. Unlike Iron Man, the comics establish a more robust romantic history between these two. The movies, however, do little to drawn from this history. They rely solely on the fact that Thor spends a little time around Jane, she’s attracted to him, and that’s all that’s necessary for the romance to unfold.

Again, it’s shallow in that it relies too heavily on the audience to fill in the gaps of chemistry and compatibility. For any functional romance, those gaps are pretty big. Just getting together is only a small part of that process and the story around it. Movies like “Thor” and “Iron Man” give the impression that just being around each other long enough is sufficient. These characters don’t have to actually work on their romance.

Compare that to the much more developed romances in the superhero genre, such as Barry and Iris in “The Flash” TV show. In that romance, just getting together isn’t the end of the story. It’s just part of it. Barry and Iris actually work, struggle, sacrifice, and even argue at times, but that’s exactly what makes their relationship so meaningful.

Outside the superhero genre, there are other ways the romantic sub-plot gets derailed in a way that’s more annoying than entertaining. I think “Friends” was one of the worst offenders with Ross and Rachel because almost the entirety of the sub-plot was built around them struggling to get together. Sure, the process of two people coming together can be compelling, but that can’t be the whole story.

Movies tend to struggle with it even more, but mostly due to logistical reasons. There’s only so much romantic development you can squeeze into a two or three hour movie. However, it can be done. Despite being brief and tragic, the sub-plot of Sarah Conners and Kyle Reese in the original “Terminator” movie showed that it is possible for a romantic sub-plot to be meaningful within those limitations.

Far more often, though, movies try to rush a sub-plot or outright force it. That’s part of what makes any romance hard to take seriously. In a movie like “Jurassic World,” where you have two very different characters in Claire and Owen, it really has to be forced because outside the plot of the movie, it’s hard to imagine these two having a meaningful relationship.

In some respects, that’s a good litmus test for any romantic sub-plot. If you can’t see the characters involved functioning outside the plot of the movie, then chances are the romantic sub-plot is fundamentally flawed. It’s easy to imagine iconic couples like Superman and Lois Lane, Cyclops and Jean Grey, or even Allie and Noah in “The Notebook” enjoying a functional relationship past the final credits.

Even for couples where it’s harder to picture them outside a conflict, it helps when a romantic sub-plot still puts in extra effort to make the romance believable. While this is a challenge in movies, TV, and comics, I’ve actually seen this handled a lot better in modern video games.

Romantic sub-plots are important elements of popular games like the “Uncharted” series. What makes that sub-plot effective, though, is how much time and energy is put into establishing why a man like Nathan Drake would be with a woman like Elena Fisher. It even goes out of its way to show how these two characters create a genuinely functional relationship towards the end.

While it might be a bit of a stretch, I would also cite the “Mass Effect” series that I’ve praised before in how well it handles romantic sub-plots. Now, it’s a stretch because the game is structured in a way where the player can choose a particular romantic sub-plot or choose to not have one at all. That makes the story a lot more fluid than a movie or TV show, but it still manages to create depth for a sub-plot.

That depth shows, regardless of which romantic sub-plot the player chooses. Whether it’s Shepard and Liara, Shepard and Ashley, or Shepard and Garrus, the game provides opportunities for depth and development. If you follow the sub-plot through to the end, the romance has genuine dramatic weight.

In the end, that’s the most important impact of any romantic sub-plot. When done right, it adds greater weight to the overall narrative. It creates an emotional dimension that goes beyond just achieving a goal or surviving a conflict. It fleshes out the emotions, passions, and desires of the characters involved.

Conversely, it can really disrupt the plot when done wrong. I’ve already covered how the worst love triangle in history derailed the X-men movies. Talk to any “Star Wars” fan and they’ll probably say the poor romance between Anakin Skywalker and Padme was the most disappointing part of the prequels not named Jar Jar Binks.

To some extent, a romantic sub-plot is a gamble. It stretches the odds, but it also increases the payout. When it fails, it can fail pretty spectacularly. When it works, though, it can make for some of the most dramatic, passionate moments in a story. As an unapologetic romance lover, I say it’s a gamble worth taking.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, gender issues, human nature, Love Or Obsession, Marriage and Relationships, movies, romance, sex in media

Why Men And Women Cheat (And Lessons To Learn From It)

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As an unapologetic romance fan, I concede that I often talk about love the same way dog lovers talk about puppies. I go on and on about how wonderful it is, but often gloss over the nasty parts. In the same way those dog lovers don’t dwell on all the times their beloved companion shits on the rug, I don’t dwell on the more painful aspect of romance.

Well, in the same way ignoring the pile of dog poop doesn’t make the stench go away, ignoring those painful elements of romance doesn’t make them any less relevant. Even those who aren’t romance fans understand that romance often involves tragedy. It’s no coincidence that some of the most famous love stories, from “Romeo and Juliet” to “Titanic,” involve a hefty bit of heartache.

I would argue that’s exactly what makes love and stories about romance so powerful. There’s a significant risk of heartache, rejection, and loss. There’s real pain that comes with pursuing romance, but the we gladly risk that pain because the rewards can be as fulfilling as they are sexy. I’ve done more to highlight the breadth of those rewards in my novels, especially with stories like “Passion Relapse.”

However, the pain that comes from the other side of that coin can be just as dramatic, if not more so. Anyone who has ever seen old episodes of “Jerry Springer” understands this to some extent. It’s not usually the kind of drama that ends with two lovers dying in each other’s arms or Rose not making room for Jack on that floating plank. More often than not, it’s a more frustrating kind of drama.

In many respects, the unsexiest version of this drama has to do with cheating. To some, that’s the much more dreaded C-word. Cheating is to romance what food poisoning is to Thanksgiving dinner. It is the worst-case scenario for those seeking the joys and appeals associated with romance. It is also one of those unfortunate elements that plays out in real life more often than it does in sexy romance novels.

It’s unromantic, but inescapable. Cheating happens and it happens a lot. While it doesn’t happen as often as “Jerry Springer” might have us believe, it happens often enough that it’s a legitimate concern among lovers. That’s why modern marriage laws, however skewed they might be, often account for infidelity.

In the same way there has never been a drug-free society, there has never been a society where cheating and infidelity has not occurred to some extent. From our caveman ancestors to the increasingly-uptight Millennials, the risk of cheating is there and the rise of social media and online dating sites like Ashley Madison are only making it easier.

I’ve talked a bit about cheating when I’ve discussed jealousy and our approach to marriage in modern society. Within the context of those discussions, cheating is a significant portion of those issues, but it’s still only part of a larger whole. It’s still a significant stain on the pursuit of romance, but it doesn’t completely overshadow it.

To make sense of it, as difficult as that may be, it’s necessary to focus on the reasons why people cheat. To anyone who has ever been the victim of a cheating lover, that may mean poking at old wounds and for that, I apologize. I admit it’s somewhat underhanded to suggest there are reasons why people cheat instead of just excuses, but to make sense of cheating overall, we need to accept that there are reasons behind it.

Listen to any story about cheating, be it a magazine article or a poorly-directed reality show, and you’ll notice a few themes about cheating. For one, there is a gender disparity in the numbers. Statistically speaking, men do cheat more often than women. However, the difference in those numbers isn’t quite as vast as the “Mad Men” stereotypes would have us believe.

As to why the gender disparity exists, there are just as many theories about that as well. I’ve talked somewhat about those disparities in discussions about sexual promiscuity and gender double standards. However, those theories don’t always explain the reasons behind cheating. In fact, the process for gathering data on cheating is exceedingly tricky.

Absent an underlying theory, we’re left with a diverse list of reasons that men and women give for their infidelity. According to WebMD, men and women cheat in different ways. For men, it’s often physical, a method of meeting unmet needs. For whatever reason, they’re no longer satisfied with their spouse and cheating is either a way to meet those needs or escape from that spouse.

For women, the act of cheating often has more emotional connotations. While meeting a physical need is part of it, women are more inclined to seek an emotional connection when they cheat. That’s not to say that some women just want some sexual variety or some men don’t fall in love with those they’re cheating with, but these are the popular narratives and some of it does bear out in the data.

Like I said earlier, though, the disparity in that data is not exceedingly vast and there are a lot of issues associated with gathering that data in the first place. If you accept the rule of the great Dr. House, “The most successful marriages are based on lies,” then it’s almost impossible to ascertain just how much cheating is going on and why it’s happening.

Even if it’s impossible to know, there are lessons we can learn from the reasons and excuses that people give. Chief among the reasons men give for cheating involve seeking new intimate experiences, either out of dissatisfaction or boredom. Given how I’ve explored the impact of boredom before, I think that is likely a bigger factor than most care to admit.

With women, the reasons often involve a lack of satisfaction that goes beyond physical. It’s not just that they feel unsatisfied. The underlying theme often involves their sentiment that their partner is no longer putting in the kind of effort they did when they fell in love. That lack of effort gives the impression that they don’t care anymore, leading women to seek out someone who does care.

In scrutinizing these reasons that vary widely between gender, cultures, and personality types, there does appear to be one common theme that binds both genders when it comes to cheating. Whether it’s physical or emotional, it often comes down to the perception that someone in the relationship isn’t putting in the effort anymore. Either they don’t have the energy or just don’t care enough.

In either case, the context of the cheating seems less about meeting a need and more about finding someone who will match your passionate efforts. Regardless of whatever gender disparity may or may not be at work with cheating, there’s no denying that men and women are passionate creatures. We each seek outlets for our passion and if we’re not getting it from that outlet, we’re going to seek another.

That’s not to say that some who cheat are just looking for an exciting and novel experience. That’s another inclination that is hard-wired into both genders in ways that go beyond sex, romance, or fidelity. When it comes specifically to cheating, though, the primary catalyst often comes back to passion and how it’s being channeled.

Cheating and being cheated on often comes with many hard lessons, some of which leave deeper scars than others. Whether you’re a romantic like me, a jaded heart with cynical views on love, or believe that human beings aren’t meant to just love one person for the rest of their lives, the betrayal and dishonesty associated with cheating still hurts us. If nothing else, it’s a harsh reminder of how deep our passions run.

If there’s a lesson that both genders can and should learn from the pain of cheating, it’s the importance of understanding and channeling those passions. When two people share the kind of passion that keeps their love, sex, and relationship strong, then there’s no reason for either of them to cheat. It’s not easy sharing that kind of passion, but the fact we risk the pain of being cheated on shows it’s a risk worth taking.

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