Wednesday, November 13, 2019

I Hate the Grease Solution--And How It Could Be Fixed

I've written elsewhere about why I dislike the movie Grease so much.

It isn't just the thematic implications (see above link), it's the poor writing.

As I state about the Ring from Lord of the Rings, either the story's problem is a problem or it isn't.

A common problem in a romance is the tension created between the characters' love for each other versus their circumstances--Romeo & Juliet, basically, only the intrusive circumstances are not always warring parents.

Sometimes the intrusive circumstances are different religions. Or different socioeconomic circumstances. Or different goals in life. Or different obligations. An honest writer will honestly present these circumstances. Character A, an actor, can't decide whether to give up his dream of Hollywood to stay in the cozy-hometown of his lover (Character B). The princess (Character A) has no intention of giving up her royal obligations to ride around all day on the moped of her lover (Character B).

In Roman Holiday, the story is more the journey
than the romance.
Each character is imagining a life at odds with what the other character wants. Love cannot automatically overcome this.

The writing problem occurs when the writer realizes, "Oh, I wrote myself into a corner here. I guess at least one or maybe both my characters aren't THAT dedicated to their goals and beliefs. They are willing to give up what they want."

I should clarify that this ending can work--IF the character who gives in/gives up was already heading in that direction in the first place. Dorothy realizes that she truly always loved home. The actor recognizes that he kind of hates Hollywood and would rather do local theater productions. The princess--

That's a harder one.

Dating a prince or princess is a common romance trope, and like the Hollywood trope, it often fails because a prince or princess is not going to abandon national obligations for the sake of a love affair.

Or, rather, the kinds of princes and princesses that we actually respect aren't going to. Edward can swan off to marry Wallis--and everybody heaves a sigh of relief--but Edward doesn't make for good romance fodder, not unless one entirely alters his fundamental personality.

That is, if the prince or princess is going to be the type of person who takes royal duties seriously--which creates the romance tension in the first place--having that prince or princess decide at the end, "Oh, I don't really care THAT much" undermines the entire tale. If it never mattered that much, why was it an issue in the first place?

This is the Grease ending. If all it takes is two people turning themselves into a reflection of the other--well, that was 2 hours that didn't need to happen. Why didn't we just listen to the album and not bother with the plot?

It can be difficult to write oneself out of an impossible set of circumstances. Generally speaking, it might be best to use the "hey, my character was already heading in that direction" solution. So--Danny didn't turn himself into a "letterman" merely to get the girl. He was actually tired of leather and will go on to graduate cum laude from Stanford.

Such a solution wouldn't be too difficult to set-up--just a tweak to the dialog.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Competitive Couples

An interesting hate/love romantic couple is the couple who compete.

Early CSI includes an episode where a husband deliberately alters his wife's mountaineering map, so he could beat her time. And Law & Order: Criminal Intent presents a Hitchcock-like episode where a lawyer husband frames his lawyer wife for supposedly trying to kill him--mostly because she made him look bad at the office.

Romances, of course, need happier endings. So how does the competitive couple resolve their sense of competition? I mention B'Elanna and Tom Paris in an earlier post--they resolve their competitiveness by not competing over the same stuff.

In the Lords of the Underworld novels, Strider--who carries within him the demon of Defeat (he feels challenged by everybody and everything)--resolves his feelings of competition by aligning himself with his lover, Kaia: her ability to excel becomes something he wants her to exercise as much as she (I consider this book and its resolution one of the best of the series).

Many M/M sports novels revolve around the problem of competition. I especially appreciate how the writers--who obviously know their milieu--so rarely resolve the issue by having the male leads sacrifice opportunities and positions for each other. Because, okay, this is sports, and players just don't do that. Wanting to be the best and achieve the best, to make it to the World Series or Stanley Cup Championship or Superbowl or Olympics is the point. Take that away and come on, it's lazy kids sitting on a couch (says this writer who loves to sit lazily on her couch).

The intense level of competition makes the romance harder to solve. The best authors take the same approach as Goalie Interference by Avon Gale and Piper Vaughn--the players recognize that their competitiveness makes them better: their games have improved.

The goal--ha ha--is construction rather than destruction: the couple who can build on their competitiveness and create a unique relationship are the mature couple with a potential future.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Stable Primary Couple

Otomen is another where the main characters'
practicality and stability allow for all
the other characters' eccentricities.
In a previous post, I discuss when the secondary couple of a series is more stable than the primary couple. This is mostly true of television shows.

Many romance books and manga series, on the other hand, start with one couple, then expand beyond that couple to include others.

The first or primary couple become the "parents" of the series. That is, their relationship is not only the least fraught with problems and hand-wringing, their inherent stability creates a home-base for all the other couples. The primary couple know everyone else and about everyone else.

In Eden Finley's Fake Boyfriend series, Maddox and Damon become the main couple. Once they get over their individual hang-ups, they settle into happy coupledom. Because Damon is a sports agent, he then provides a home-base for a number of other characters who are struggling with sports and romance.

Survivor--manga style. Yoshida, Sato, and Hosaku
enjoy themselves.
Manga series often operate on the same principle. Rather than the primary couple providing all the drama, that couple become a center around which all the other characters revolve. They often act as a united front to solve problems within the group.

So in Hana-Kimi, although Mizuki's hidden identity runs the series--and she spends most of her time trying to help Sano--they will often work together to help fellow students (and a dog). Likewise, Yoshida and Sano of His Favorite form a fairly united front around which craziness swirls.

It's the reason Monica and Chandler become the primary couple rather than Rachel and Ross--because the center has to hold.

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Power of the Secondary Couple

Many television shows--Jags, Bones, Friends...too many to count--will placate viewers by giving them a secondary couple whilst the viewers wait for the primary couple to work things out.

Occasionally the secondary couple becomes a bigger deal than the primary couple (Monica and Chandler, for instance). But quite often, they are simple a break on the way to the primary couple's consummation/marriage, etc.

Even when the secondary couples are just a blip on the radar, they are often more stable and consequently, in the long run, more believable than the primary couple. Bud and Harriet from Jag are a good example. Sarah McKenzie and Harm are (supposedly) the primary couple, but I'm not sure that they ever move forward in a believable fashion. Bud and Harriet, on the other hand, are practical, kindly and straightforward; they genuinely like and love each other and have similar life goals.

One impressive exception here to secondary couples being more stable than primary couples is Bones. Although Hodgins and Angela's relationship/marriage takes place before that of Bones and Booth--and Camille and Arastoo don't resolve their relationship until well after--all relationships are honest and well-balanced, even Sweets and Daisy's.

Major Crimes is another impressive exception. Although Brenda and Fritz's growing primary relationship runs The Closer (and is quite well-written), the primary relationship of Major Crimes--Captain Raydor and Flynn--is accompanied by Patrice's marriage to Provenza as well as Rusty and Gus's relationship, which is not abandoned, as I assumed it would be, at the end of Season 5.

And then there is the relationship that seems secondary but is actually primary: Niles & Daphne. Yup, watch the show enough and it becomes clear that that relationship was being set-up almost from day one: but then, these are writers who will establish one small event in minute 1 of an episode, only to pay it off in minute 20.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Romantic Tension: How to Keep Characters Apart

The bodyguard and guardee is one of the
most romantically charged tropes.
In children's fantasy, the writer often has to figure out a way to get rid of the parents. It is so much easier for children to get into wardrobes, takes trips with Greek gods and goddesses and find themselves in the care of witches and warlocks if hovering parents aren't around.

In romance, the writer often has a to figure out a way to keep the romantic leads apart (even when they are working together) in order to build romantic tension. Here are some common approaches:

The Job
The romantic leads are captain and subordinate, boss and assistant, teacher and student. These roles are surprisingly effective since even when no legal or official rules separate the romantic leads, the characters will feel social pressure to stay apart, especially if either character is ambitious.

Class & Age
Class actually has more impact than most romance writers (and modern Westerners) will admit. People still tend to date and marry within their social class. Family and personal expectations about lifestyle still hold sway.

However, this reason is rarely directly addressed in contemporary romance. Social expectations regarding age, on the other hand, still hold sway. The May-December relationship is a classic trope.

Historical Expectations
Historical expectations--courtship should take this form--are the most effective, largely because they belong in the under-the-water part of Freud's superego. That is, they are powerful precisely because they are unstated. Good contemporarily-written historical romances will try to do what Austen and Bronte did unconsciously: not explain themselves.

Past Trauma/Pain
This form of separation--the leads can't get together since they are both so haunted by past misery--brings the violence trope into play. It is inherently problematic. It can be effectively done, but if too extreme, the reader might doubt whether the relationship will last past the couple's meeting followed by separation (due to unresolved personal issues) followed by reconciliation.

Past Bad Relationship
One or both members of the couple has trouble trusting again. This is probably the most common reason presented in romances, and it can be effectively written. As with the past trauma/pain reason (see above), it can leave the reader wondering, "Can the relationship survive so much angst?"

Jane Austen! Yup, Darcy and Elizabeth are the most classic example of romantic leads who think that they dislike each other when they really don't. I discuss romance between enemies more here.

Different Species/Beings
Love between humans and vampires or live humans and ghosts or aliens from different planets. Lifestyle and physical conditions complicate not only the romance but the consummation (think Buffy and Angel). 

How writers solve the romantic tension caused by the above situations goes a long way towards determining the romance novel's readers. Readers are attracted to certain types of resolutions and some resolutions are more satisfying than others. I did not include the approach of the romantic triangle. That's because I detest it

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Fake is Back!

Sometimes an entirely pleasant surprise shows up on Amazon.

The pleasant surprise this time: Fake 2 by Sanami Matoh.

The first series of Fake, a set of 7 volumes, came out in North America in 2003-2004. It follows the Law & Order-type adventures/cases of two NYC detectives: Dee and Ryo. The stories tackle mobsters and serial killers and, naturally, each detective's "origins": Dee was brought up in an orphanage that gets bombed (Dee and Ryo investigate); Ryo's parents were killed when he was a teen (Dee and Ryo investigate many years later).

In terms of personality, imagine that Blue Bloods was a manga and tough-talking Danny and contemplative Jamie weren't brothers. And they were bisexual and gay respectively. And in love with each other. But nothing else really changed.

And there you go.

Fake was the first yaoi manga (almost) that I read and collected. Like so many other police procedurals that I've collected/watched and rewatched, I adore it.

The latest Fake stories are sadly only available electronically (not in print). Manga is one genre/form that I absolutely don't think works on Kindle or any digital, non-print medium. Graphic novels need to be handled. As a number of reviewers mention, regarding digital comics in general, the digital versions leave stuff out. Truthfully, as I get older, I can't always make out that tiny tiny print but I like that it is there! Digital manga art is more broadly stylized--less room for clever details/clues.

Interestingly enough, Sanami Matoh's current artistic style does work better when digitized than her original style. I compare the two styles more here in a review of Until the Full Moon.

Fake 2 stories are just as good as those in Fake but much shorter. The characterizations of Dee and Ryo remain stable and delightful. And despite the change in style, Sanami Matoh remains one of the most impressive artists out there when it comes to capturing movement in a static medium.  

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Small Town Romances: Pros and Cons

A number of romance series have come out recently using a small town as the location. I consider this an interesting phenomenon.

Studies have found that people are more trusting in homogeneous environments. Unfortunately, history has also found that homogeneous, stagnating environments tend to be more susceptible to nasty stuff like long-term grudges and witch trials (Shyamalan's Village is massively problematic).

What is interesting about these current small town romance series is that they combine modern and progressive beliefs with all the positive markers of small town homogeneity and neighborly affection.

So, for instance, May Archer's O'Leary series--which I quite like since it takes place in upstate New York--is filled to the brim with gay couples and lesbian couples and non-binary individuals and traditional couples...young, old, with kids, etc. etc. etc. Everybody knows everyone's business. People help out in a pinch. All town citizens attend the multiple festivities.
It's Amishness without all those pesky things like religious leaders and taboos.

I have mixed feelings about these series. On the one hand, I quite like the social contract business. I find many of these novels charming and often, quite funny. I also appreciate that such romances concentrate on the couple/relationship. External challenges take the form of letting people in on the "secret." Otherwise, the couple focuses on "solving" each other.

On the other hand, I sometimes feel--as when I was reading one of the Vale Valley novels--that so much utopia is not exactly realistic.

Yes, yes, I know that romances are part-fantasy. But not entirely. Real life is, in fact, filled with people getting over loss, finding true love, standing up against the odds, locating their bliss. It isn't so much that I want characters to suffer (although the writer part of me would argue that sometimes they need to) but rather that the true romantic in me wants to see romance thrive even in unlikely environments.

Stack all the cards in Romeo and Juliet's favor, it's not just that there is no plot. But--

Okay, bad example. I don't really care about Romeo and Juliet.

Stack all the cards in Jane and Rochester's favor, and Jane might as well be Blanche Ingram. And who cares if Rochester marries Blanche Ingram?

Love in an imperfect world is what makes romance romance. Love in a perfect world is sweet but a little less engaging.

Generally, I switch between perfect small-town romances where people find "home" and utter security (think Anne of Green Gables) and city or urban romances where people have to find their feet among strangers. Both sides of my romance soul get satisfied--and I roll my eyes a bit less.