Sunday, February 5, 2012

Good Romance is Love Made Dangerous

A few weeks ago, fellow FTLOW author Helena Cross posted a blog on Character Sacrifice. In it she mentioned an essential part of good novel writing, “Raising the Stakes.” In reply to that post, a reader asked, “Is it necessary to raise the stakes in a romance?” 

As you guys know, I love doing requests or taking on topics people bring up. And it so happened that I was in the process of reading a ton of stuff on writing romance, some of it on this very topic. Since the answers were fresh in my mind, I jumped on the chance to offer my newly discovered insight.

So, the question. Is it necessary to raise the stakes in romance?

The simple answer is yes. But lets be clear here. When it comes to romance, the stakes are not necessarily the same kind that you would find in other genres, although they can be at times. And how high they are, as well as what kind you employ, also depends largely on the type of romance you’re writing.  

Lets start with what a romance is. A romance must have, and is, by its nature, two people falling in love. If done right, the stakes are already high. Stakes are merely what the character has to lose by obtaining or not obtaining the novel goal. What is already at stake here? A person’s heart. Really, anything they might give up in falling in love. Or lose by not obtaining the other’s love. Love, for most of us, poses a huge risk. We have plenty to put on the line. A good romance also has something else, what is known as “The Force.” 

Huh? What the hell does Star Wars have to do with this? No, not that kind of force. In romance, the Force is just another word for Conflict. It’s what stands in the way of the couple getting together, what keeps them apart.

Conflict is anything that prevents the protagonist from obtaining what they want. It’s a challenge, something standing in the way of the character reaching their goals. In any good novel, there is conflict. If you have no conflict, there is no story. In a romance, no Force, no story.

In a romance, put simply, keeping the reader interested is a matter of creating two characters we want to see fall in love, then drawing the couple closer together, then employing different techniques to keep them apart. This creates a longing in the reader to see them come together, and a worry that they will remain apart forever. And in any novel, you need something at stake. Meaning there must be something the characters stand to lose, and that loss must be something all important to them, something they can't live without.  

Another way to put that is, Romance in stories is love made dangerous. There is a great risk in the couple falling in love. Sometimes the danger is life and death. Sometimes the danger is losing one’s heart or being hurt. Whatever it is, it must be something the character can’t afford to lose without causing themselves heartache, or worse. 

It isn't enough to bring the couple closer and then pull them apart by the same sort of interference again and again. The risk must increase throughout the story in order to keep the reader interested. In short, you must raise the stakes. 

Lets use a beloved fairytale, Beauty and the Beast, for an example. I’ll use the movie, since it delves much deeper and has much higher stakes than the original concept.

The Beast must fall in love with Belle, and must earn her love in return. The issues that prevent her from loving him (his monstrous temper), or him from gaining her love (his mistaken belief that no one could love a beast, thus causing him to sabotage his chances, often with said temper) is the conflict. In Beauty and the Beast, romantically speaking, the Beast’s temper and his lack of faith in himself, his belief that as a beast, he is unworthy of love, is the Force.

With me so far? Good. Back to the stakes. Lets borrow from Beauty and the Beast again, shall we?  The Beast’s goal is to earn Belle’s love. In this story, the stakes are huge from the outset. If the Beast fails to earn her love, he will remain a beast forever. He will lose his humanity. So his humanity is what’s at stake. In the movie, Disney did an excellent job of raising the tension by using a classic manoeuvre, employing the ticking time bomb, or what’s called a time limit. The Beast not only has to fall in love with Belle and earn her love. He has to do it by his 21’rst year. And Belle arrives at the castle close enough to the deadline that it lowers his chances and makes it more difficult for him. It’s like tightening the noose. But the threat of his remaining a beast for all time would not have been enough to sustain a movie on its own, not while keeping us on the edge of our seats. So how were the stakes raised?

Well, from the outset, Disney found a way to make the situation matter more by having the curse effect, not just the Beast, but also everyone in the castle. If the Beast fails, not only will he remain a beast, but every other person in the castle will remain in an inhuman form (as inanimate objects) forever. Disney turned it from a personal conflict to a “world conflict.” The world, in this case being, not the literal world, but the world of the castle. Everyone else in the castle needs them to fall in love too.

No pressure, Beast.

So if you have a romance with plenty at stake, like this, how can you raise the stakes even more? How about how Disney did it?

About 3 quarters way through the movie, he added another apposing force to keep Belle and Beast apart. It helped that he did it when it would carry the greatest impact, right after Beast confessed his love for Belle, and was just about to win her heart. You remember the movie. After the romantic dance and Mrs’ Pots’ rendition of the now classic movie theme song (I think it was named after the movie), the two went out onto the terrace, hand in hand. Beast asks Belle if she’s happy with him. She says yes, but she misses her father. When Belle asks to see her father in the mirror, she discovers he’s lost in the woods and terribly sick. Beast has mastered his temper and brought Belle closer, but now there is a new apposing force. Something to keep them apart right at the moment before his victory. Belle was finally happy with the Beast, a step closer to love, but now she must leave him or her father could die. So her father is at stake, something she could lose if she stays. 

You all remember how it went. The Beast released her, and she was no longer his prisoner. She returned to her father. In doing this, he sacrificed his chance at happiness with Belle, as well as, seemingly, giving up the possibility of restoring his human form. This moment still works for raising the stakes, because it’s always good to raise them, not just for the protagonist, but for the antagonist, in this case, not a person, not a villain, but the force that keeps them apart. This also goes to making things worse for the characters, an essential element of good storytelling, which I mentioned in other posts.

But were the stakes raised even more once Belle left? Yes indeed. While up until now, the danger to Beast and his friends has been the psychological cost of never being human again, this is where it turns to life and death. As you know, Gaston, who, from the start, wanted Belle as his wife, paid the local psychiatrist to use Belle’s father’s claims of a Beast living in a castle as grounds for insanity, and threatened to lock him up if she didn’t marry him. This raised Belle’s personal stakes. It gave her more to lose. But then when a well meaning Belle tries to prove the existence of the Beast through his mirror, it backfires on her, and Gaston rallies the town to go after “the Monster.” Which suddenly upped the stakes for the Beast and Bell. If Belle can’t get to the Beast in time, Gaston and the villagers will kill him, and everyone in his castle. And as we saw in the movie, the rose had already begun to wilt, meaning that the end of Beast’s 21’st year is close at hand, and his chance of returning to human form will disappear forever if Belle doesn’t finally confess her love to him before the last pedal falls. This seems impossible with Belle and her father locked up, and Gaston and the villagers converging on the castle.

In the ensuing battle between the Beast and Gaston, we see just how deadly things are, just how at risk the Beast’s life is, because Gaston tries to kill him in a jealous rage. Gaston wants Belle and the Beast is in love with her. Up until the very end, the Beast’s life literally hung in the balance.

Which meant not only would he lose his life, but Belle would lose him, just when she’s learned to love him. And there is an added implication in the subtext here. If the Beast dies, that leaves Belle in Gaston’s fist. Her freedom is at risk, since it would invariably mean marrying Gaston, which, since he only wants a trophy for a wife, would cost her everything any woman holds dear.  

Now, I’ve seen plenty of romances where the stakes never get anywhere near that high, and even the emotional ones don’t go that deep. Category romances, the shorter ones turned out monthly by companies like Harlequin, don’t require as high stakes, partially because the word count restricts the time in which you can build things to that height. They also often require softer reads. Longer romances, or romances that combine genres like thriller or suspense, often have higher stakes in order to provide the high intensity the genres need. Longer, single title romances that have deeper thematic significance and stronger characterization, like Gone With the Wind, The Cowboy, Sound of Music, or Romeo and Juliet, need higher stakes, giving the characters more to lose because they seek to send a message or provide a lasting impact. A movie like Beauty and the Beast needed huge stakes because the story was intended to send a powerful and important message, to carry strong “thematic significance” for viewers.

So if you are writing a shorter category romance, or one that is intended to provide a quick read without any lasting effect, then the stakes may stay relatively low. But if you want your story to stay with the reader long after it’s over, if you want the type of book that will be talked about and remembered for years to come, then yes, high stakes are a must. And if, like Disney did, you can turn what’s at risk into a “world stakes,” so make it something the community at large cares about, then so much the better.



  1. Great post. I love how you analyzed the movie (one of my favorites by Disney). But one thing...if you mean the ballroom dance scene, where they get closer, the song is "Tale as Old As Time".

    I'm being nitpicky. LOL. But actully a great example. Because, yes, it does raise the stakes (several times, like you mentioned) while remaining a romantic film. And a classic. Lol.

    - HC

  2. Oops. LOL! I can't beleive I got it wrong. "Something There was before that, wasn't it? And I don't think it's called "Tale as old as time" either. That's just the first line of the song. I think it's just "Beauty and the Beast," same as the movie.

    Anyway, thanks for pointing out the goof. lol.

  3. Omg Beauty and the Beast is the perfect example to use for this! (and I'm not just saying that cuz I love the movie lol)That end scene where Gaston and the Beast fight...that really shows the danger. It's all on the line. And you said it well. that it's not only the Beast's life that is at stake, it's Belle's too. He can't leave her to Gaston.



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