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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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My Ideal Romance Movie (And Why It Will Never Get Made)

When it comes to things men avoid with their lovers, going to a cheesy romance movie ranks right up there with cleaning a clogged toilet. Going with your girlfriend to see a generic love movie is almost a rite of passage for a couple, acting as proof that you’re willing to inconvenience yourself just that much in order to see her naked.

Some men actually do like romance movies, but most won’t ever admit it. I did recently when I highlighted my favorite romance movie of all time, “Crazy/Beautiful.” I might be undermining the status of my man card, but I could care less. I get enough weird looks from other men when I say I find Hugh Jackman sexy. If they think less of me because of that, then that’s their problem.

In talking about my favorite romance movie, though, it occurred to me that there haven’t been a lot of quality romance movies lately. I’m not saying every one of them have been garbage, but I can’t recall too many that really stood out or weren’t the sub-plot of a superhero movie.

At the moment, romance movies are almost like westerns in that they’re out of style. Unlike westerns, though, some romance-heavy movies are making an impact, namely the “50 Shades of Grey” franchise. Say what you will about those movies, and many have, but it did make money. That’s the only excuse Hollywood needs.

There will always be a market for romance, to some extent, because we’re a romantic species. We all seek love in our lives. Romance, despite what the bitter dispassionate cynics may say, resonates with all of us and it should. That’s part of why I write romantic sexy novels.

So rather than spend too much time trying to find another romance movie that appeals to me like “Crazy/Beautiful,” I’m going to try something else. I’m going to create a list, of sorts, to describe my ideal romance movie. Like I’ve done with other movies, I’m going to keep it simple and concise.

I’m not smart or successful enough to write an entire script for the perfect romance movie. I can only offer tips, concepts, and a general framework for such a movie. For the sake of shameless branding, I’m going to call them my “Passion Rules.” Since I emphasize passion so much in my novels, I might as well embrace that brand.

With that in mind, here are Jack Fisher’s unofficial rules for making the perfect romance movie. If any Hollywood producer wants to strike the right chords and soak the maximum amount of panties, then these simple passion rules will help in that effort.


Passion Rule #1: The Romance Must Be (Unapologetically) Sex-Positive

This is the most important element of any powerful romance movie. That’s not to say that it has to rely entirely on sex, sexy scenes, or sex-centered plots. That’s what porn is for. By sex-positive, I mean that in the tradition of superheroes like Deadpool and Starfire.

Sex and physical intimacy can’t be the center of the relationship, but it can’t be an afterthought either. In the real world, people express their love through sex. Priests, mullahs, rabbis, and monks may hate that, but that’s what’ people do. It’s fun, intimate, and enjoyable on so many levels. A good romance movie should not shy away from that.

The romance doesn’t have to exist because of great sex. The great sex needs to exist because of the romance. It shouldn’t be a complication, an issue, or an obstacle. There are enough nerdy coming-of-age stories about horny teenagers trying to get laid. In a sex-positive romance, the sexy parts complement the passion.

That also means those parts aren’t pornographic, but they aren’t heavily censored like a 50s sitcom either. They should be willing to show breasts, butts, and genitals in all their glory. If you want sexy, romantic love, you can’t and shouldn’t censor it. Granted, that may earn this movie an R-rating, but given the box office returns of the “Deadpool” movie, that doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker.


Passion Rule #2: The Romance Must NOT Rely Or Depend On A Love Triangle

This is only a rule because love triangles are so inherently toxic that they might as well be the romantic equivalent of a spastic colon. I’ve gone on record as saying that love triangles are an affront to romance in both the real world, the fictional world, and any other kind of world. As such, they have no place in an ideal romance movie.

It’s not just because love triangles require that one character get screwed while the other two come off as assholes. The very concept devalues the romance itself, creating the impression that these two characters have to be together just because another romance didn’t work.

That’s part of why I deemed the Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine love triangle in X-men the worst love triangle of all time. It makes every character involved look bad. It also creates the impression that these characters have to be in love, rather than actually wanting to. Short of dead animals and poop jokes, I can’t think of anything less romantic.

For any great romance movie to work, it cannot be the product or catalyst for a love triangle. There can be ex-lovers involved. There can even be a few broken hearts along the way. However, the story cannot revolve around two people loving each other despite or because of other romantic entanglements. It’s both counterproductive and frustrating to everyone involved.


Passion Rule #3: There Must Be Time, Energy, And Depth To The Romance

In many other movie genres, from over-the-top action movies to psychological thrillers, there’s usually some sort of romantic sub-plot. From the “Transformers” franchise to “Erin Brockovich,” there’s usually an effort to squeeze a little romance into a larger plot.

There’s nothing wrong with this and I totally support it. However, if you’re trying to make a real romance movie, you can’t use the same approach that Michael Bay uses in movies with giant robots. In those movies, the romance has to be wedged in between the scene where cities are blowing up and aliens are invading in order to keep the plot concise within a two-hour movie.

If the goal of the movie is to craft a compelling romance, it has to replace those invading aliens with the kind of time, energy, and depth that goes into making a romance work. It can’t always work like “Titanic” and unfold in the course of a few days. There has to be a sense of progression and effort for both characters.

It’s not enough to just meet in a bar and find each other attractive. Each character has to have a particular motivation that fully complements the other. That’s how strong romances form in real life. In a movie, those same elements can be pushed even farther by Hollywood magic. If you don’t think that has any appeal, then you haven’t seen “Magic Mike.”


Passion Rule #4: The Obstacles The Romance Faces Must Not Be Forced Or Contrived

This rule is related to the previous one in that it it’s a natural byproduct of romance being wedged in between alien invasions. Again, I’ll reference the “Transformers” movie because they do everything right and wrong with respect to these tropes.

The primary romance in the first two movies, Sam Witwicky and Mikaela Banes, is entirely built on a foundation of running from killer robots. That’s how they come together. That’s how their relationship progresses. That’s really the only obstacle we ever see them facing together.

In a sense, their romance is forced by circumstance, namely an invasion of killer transforming robots. That’s not exactly a catalyst for meaningful romance. A romance built around the adrenaline rush that comes with fleeing from killer robots is not a romance that’s built to last.

Every romance faces obstacles. Not all of those obstacles have to involve running from killer robots. They have to be stressful, meaningful, and even a little dangerous. More than anything else, though, they have to be something that both characters seek out together. By making it a shared journey, the romance becomes that much more epic.


Passion Rule #5: The Lovers Must Not Be (Entirely) Dependent On Each Other

This is one of those subtle rules that you don’t really notice until you scrutinize a romance. In some respects, it’s Disney’s fault for making the concept of the fairy tale romances so damn popular. As a result, we don’t always realize when a romance is less a romance than it is a dependence.

It’s something that plays out in cheesy love songs as well, the idea that someone loves another person so much that they need them. It’s not just that they want to be with them. They need to be with them or they’ll die. That may make for a good song by a generic boy band, but in terms of meaningful romance, it’s downright unhealthy.

I’ve talked about the thin line between love and obsession. Some movies do lousy job of walking that line, creating relationships where the characters can’t stand on their own two feet. It’s even more apparent in shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and “True Blood.”

Too many characters depend on others to be interesting. It makes the romance feel less genuine and the characters more bland. For any romance movie that looks to check the right boxes, it has to establish that this is not that kind of relationship. The characters should be individuals seeking to make each other better and sexier. That’s the core value of any great romance.


Passion Rule #6: The Little Things In The Romance Have To Matter

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The most epic romances in movies, TV, and sexy novels like the ones I write all involve some sort of epic journey where two people come together in a powerful, meaningful, and hopefully sexy sort of way. That’s a big part of what makes romances like Romeo and Juliet, Jack and Rose, or Superman and Lois Lane so iconic.

However, that epic journey is just one side of the coin. The other, which many movies ignore, are the little things that make a romance great. Those are the same little things that help some couples stay together for decades. It’s those subtleties between the characters that make their romantic journey feel meaningful.

Now, I’m not saying my ideal romance movie has to dedicate a full half-hour to two characters listing all the quirks they love about each other. Those quirks should reveal themselves throughout the journey that the story takes them on. They can’t just love each other when they’re at their most passionate. They also have to share that love when they’re at their most dispassionate, as well.

This might be the hardest element to incorporate into a movie. Then again, we have movies about stoners losing their car and snakes on a plane. If Hollywood can make movies about that crap, then they have no excuses when it comes to romance.


I hope that got hearts racing and panties moistening to all those who read it. Even for those who claim to not care for romance movies, I hope this offers some intrigue. We all need love in our lives. A good romance movie is like a free piece of cake. It inherently makes our day better.

Now, here’s why a movie like this will never happen. First and foremost, it has never been cool or manly for men to like romance movies. I’m sincerely trying to change that with my novels, but it probably won’t change much within my lifetime. Since the 18 to 35-year-old male demographic is one the most sought-after demographics in the economy, we can’t expect Hollywood to ignore them.

A romance movie like this, which actually emphasizes romance, would have limited appeal, if only because it wouldn’t translate as well to international markets as giant robots. It also couldn’t be watered down to a PG-13 rating, which every movie seeks these days to appeal to the most people possible.

A movie like this would also struggle to find the necessary actors and actresses. As I’ve pointed out before with the flaws in creating quality erotica/romance, most of the Hollywood elites are reluctant to take their clothes off and get too sexy. There’s still a stigma against getting too sexy, even if movies like “Deadpool” and “50 Shades of Grey” are changing that.

At the moment, there are too many forces working against a movie like this. A lot would have to change, both in terms of the movie industry and the attitudes of movie-goers, for something like this to ever happen. Then again, if a movie like “Crazy/Beautiful” can still work, then maybe I’ll live to see the day when a movie this romantic and sexy happens. I may not be able to inspire it with my novels, but I’m sure as hell going to try.

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