The Three Pitfalls of Romance Subplots (+ Mini Book Review)

Alright, guys. After bashing romances for so long, it’s time to officially explain what about them makes me roll my eyes in disgust.

First off, Romance as a genre is one I heartily stay away from. It seems to be a very limited genre, because I can only imagine so many ways to write a relationship being played out. Also, the covers on Romance novels tend to involve muscled men and alluring women. Nothing wrong with people like that, of course, but it just screams unrealistic. And I’m an avid supporter of realistic novels.

When I say romances annoy me, I’m generally talking about ones incorporated into other genres, dystopian and fantasy being the ones I’m most familiar with.

Problem #1: Authors include romance because it is expected of them, not because their story needs it.

I think this is most obvious when you go into the book store and pick up books at random, finding descriptions that can be boiled down to “Female character is determined to rid the world of tyranny, but finds herself way out of her league until she meets the handsome but mysterious Male character. But he is the enemy, and she must either choose to trust him, or risk failing her mission.” Or something similar.

This annoys me so, so much because authors have found that this sort of “formula” works for their audience. It has worked for other authors and so should work for the new novels being pushed out. The problem is, formulas don’t work for novels. If all novels are A + B + C = D, then readers will start to expect to see A + B + C = D, and readers hate to know what’s coming. (At least, I know I hate predicting correctly.)

Perhaps it would not seem so out of place if it was actually slipped into the story naturally. The A’s and B’s and C’s would blur because even though there is a sort of formula at work, you’ve got fully fleshed characters meeting each other in a way that incites an organic sort of relationship that feels nothing at all like a formula. Instead, though, we get characters who fall in love because they’re near each other, and of course a lot of drama comes as a result of this relationship, and so on and so forth.

Problem #2: Authors give readers an unrealistic sort of romance, both in terms of the relationship itself and the participants of that relationship.

What seems to happen in the novels I’ve read is that authors see the whole “characters need to have flaws” thing, and so give their characters one major flaw to work with, and call it a day. Maybe the men are overly protective, or the women are vapid. Either way, I don’t know any real person who has only one character flaw. Instead, most people I know have several smaller ones.

In novels, obviously, this tends not to be the case because we get characters who are flawed in one way but are perfect in many others. In fact, this is a problem that I have with Sarah J. Maas’s characters in her novels: perfection in most ways except one or two that cause conflict or drama. It’s impressive, I’ll admit, how three-dimensional her characters seem despite that, but the point remains.

Then, bouncing off the “perfect characters,” we’ve also got a certain brand of perfection in the romance. It is 2017, and we’re still writing and reading about characters who find their true love with relative ease. Characters find their “one true love” (who happens to be match the character’s ideal of “sexy” as well as their ideal of a simple good match), and even if they don’t know it’s their true love, it’s pretty clear they’re going to be together by the end. And it always ends gracefully and with everyone on good terms.

Last time I checked, relationships were very rarely that neat and tidy. It makes it seem unrelatable, but it is also the dream to which we aspire to and the dream that is shattered by the reality of how life actually works.

Problem #3: Romance functions as a subplot, but tends to be kept separate from the main plot, making the romance seem disjointed from the rest.

It’s not just a matter of adding it in because authors think that’s what their readers want, or adding some subplots to give the characters something to do when the main plot is on hold. Rather, we find ourselves presented with a part of the novel that interacts with the main plot but isn’t necessarily interwoven. So the romance tends to advance when the main plot is in stasis, and tends not to advance when the main plot is moving forward.

Except romance is a part of life, and how characters live life during normal times is much different than how characters live life when the world is changing. So it is only natural and right that romance should be woven into the main plot.

It’s part of the reason why I love all of Kristin Cashore’s books. Each one involves a romance, but they’re simply a part of the narrative, rather than labeled as a “subplot.” Each of the main characters have some hesitation when it comes to the romance, and it can certainly be considered its own part of the novel since the romance itself plays little to no role in the climax. Regardless, because it is incorporated seamlessly into the rest of the narrative, it seems far more natural than what I’ve seen in other novels.

Book Review



Author: Marissa Meyer

Genre: Fantasy (Wonderland retelling)

Rating: 4 stars

Heartless was not faultless by far, but it certainly had parts that I really enjoyed. It’s set in Wonderland, the origin story of the Queen of Hearts. The first three quarters, especially, was well-written and paced quite well. I liked Catherine, and her goal of becoming a baker. I loved Jest and wanted more about his character than I was given. Heartless was the novel that kind of sparked today’s topic, so staying in tune with that theme, I think that the romance worked well enough, except for the cliched a-man-of-power-wants-to-marry-me-but-I-don’t-want-to-marry-him. The whole romance plotline was important to the end, but personally felt a bit unnecessary. Not intolerable, though, which is why I’m still giving this four stars rather than three. What really didn’t work for me was the ending. It felt rushed and moments of high tension were confusing and not well-explained. The sudden turn of character felt really drastic and unnecessary, as if it only really happened because that was what needed to happen. Overall, a decent book, but with a few important problems that warranted the loss of a star.

Writing Prompt


“It was just a job. Three years watching her through that machine. And maybe a little part of me fell in love with her, because I wished she knew who I was. Until she did.”

attribution to:


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