The trouble with modern romance novels is that our culture sees no reason for two people who are in love not to be together. This significantly cuts down on the potential for conflict in the novel. In comparison, Jane Austen had it easy.
I’m going to use Jane Austen as an example for a second, since pretty much everybody knows she wrote romance novels in the 1800s, and I can hardly be blamed for “spoiling the ending” of any of her novels (if a book’s been around for two hundred years, its ending is fair game for discussion – proven by the fact most classic novels are prefaced by an essay by some English professor or another, in which every single plot point of the novel is discussed. Seriously, if you don’t want the novel spoiled, skip those essays. You might want to skip the next two paragraphs of this post too).
Anyway, let’s start with Jane Austen’s most famous – Pride and Prejudice. Central conflict at the end: Lydia runs off with the dastardly Wickham, and Elizabeth thinks Darcy will never want to be seen with her family again because of the shame. Nowadays most guys couldn’t care less who your sister runs off with, so not a major conflict. Also, a major obstacle between Darcy and Elizabeth is that they’re in different classes. In real life, of course, class still effects relationships, but most of us would prefer to pretend we live in a world that doesn’t emphasize social standing anymore – making class struggle a touchy thing to handle in the dream-world of romance novels.
Then take Sense and Sensibility. Central conflict: the man Elinor is in love with is secretly engaged to someone else. Goodness, think of a reason that would cause someone nowadays to keep an engagement secret for four years (far longer than the guy was in love with the girl, too). I used to wonder why there were no modern versions of Sense and Sensibility, like there are of Pride and Prejudice, until I realized how hard the plot would be to update. And then take Northanger Abbey – the hero’s father forbids the match and throws the heroine out of his house. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is considered too lowly for Anne Elliot, and she’s persuaded to drop him by her father and her friend. Parents nowadays only wish they had that much influence over their children!!!
Jane Austen got her pick between secret engagements, class struggles, lack of fortune, parental disapproval… all valid reasons in Jane Austen’s day, but harder to make plausible now. A couple in a book or movie can meet cute, hang out, start kissing, and spent the night together before the end of a scene… and where does the story go from that? An “unexplained past” is the cliché solution, though the secret is never shocking enough to deserve being kept secret (because, of course, if the secret past is truly horrible, how will the main character ever be sympathetic? Seriously, the hero’s secret in the last novel I read was that once he’d illustrated romance novels in his spare time.) The other solution is jealousy of past girlfriends/boyfriends, co-workers, etc., which is tiresome and either makes one character look insecure, or makes the other look like a cad.
Which possibly is the reason for the multitudes of anemic chick flicks or novels where the whole plot could be solved in five minutes if the guy and the girl just talked to each other! No other option for conflict, so let’s just make them not talk. Which makes absolutely no sense – if the basis of a good relationship is good communication, how is the reader supposed to believe this couple’s going to last five minutes after “The End,” when they spent the whole time not communicating?
So in modern romance, where’s the conflict? No one’s stopping the couple from getting drunk and running to Vegas, except the couple themselves.
Maybe that’s the key – the couple themselves. My guess is that romance novels have shifted from external conflict imposed by society, parents, lack of finances and so on, to internal conflict created by the people in the relationship. Certain aspects of character WILL create conflict, and make a good novel. Certain values of hero/heroine may delay progress of relationship, or past experiences may affect it. But a novel needs incredibly strong characterization to pull this off.
No wonder so many romance novels fail then – characterization is a tough thing to pull off. I’m not sure I succeed at it either. But it’s something to aim for.
What do you think – have changes in society made it harder to write romances, or easier?