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What makes quality romantic prose?

My WIP pretty heavy on the romance, and by romance I mean intimacy, attraction, passion, the beginnings of relationships, mainly before it is taken further. And I'm trying to write it well -- i.e not Mills and Boon and really not too throwaway commercial either. Yet I find myself with so many beats that go something like this: His heavy gazed fixed on mine, his eyes intense. etc etc Actually I have a lot of eye stuff in there, too much. On examination of other better quality romances I find that there are surprisingly few mentions of the eyes, and actually very few action beats in dialogue. 

Anyway my big question is.. In terms of prose (rather than, say, relationship development) what makes good romance for you?

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  • In terms of prose what works for me when I write intimacy/sex is to load the prose with subtext, because what I've noticed is that sex scenes are rarely about sex there are about power dynamics, revealing how characters really feel about themselves, or each other. Eye contact and heavy breathing is surface things so you want to be digging deeper than that. It's also not about using awkward simile or words to describe the act or parts involved. However I don't call it romance.

    I hope this helps.

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    • Great point about sex scenes not necessarily being about sex, L. This is exactly why I bristle at the thought that someone might tell me to edit out the few sex scenes that appear in my manuscripts. My response would be something along the lines of, "what sex scene? Oh, you mean the one where that character happens to end up having sex with a person they doesn't give the slightest damn about as a way of proving to themselves that they aren't a passive victim of fate and can at least control *something* in their life? That scene? Sex just happened to be the *activity*--the text, if you will. What really matters, as always, is the subtext. Sex scenes are much like dialogue in that way. No matter how well-written, if the text exactly matches the subtext, things are going to get really boring. 


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      • That's really it. Nothing can happen in a story without it having a purpose in the overall story form, even sex. Thanks.

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      • What makes quality romantic prose? 

        For me it's complex characters in a simple plot line with plenty of subtext about smouldering emotions. In your example above with the eyes: His heavy gaze fixed on mine, his eyes intense.

        I'd rather have: Our eyes met across the crowded room and in that moment I realized that, without a word, I had said more than I had intended. 

        If you go through your scenes one by one and inject some interiority instead of physicality, you'll achieve subtlety and subtext. Nobody is interested in intense gazes but readers want to know what the characters think and feel.

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        • That's interesting. I find, myself, I like complex characters and complex, or at least not weak, plots. What about you?

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          • I don't like weak plots either but a simple plot doesn't need to be a weak plot. As long as the plot is believable and is moved along by causality, it doesn't need complexity for the sake of it, but of course that depends on the genre.

            I'm thinking of some great novels with very simple plots, such as The Remains of the Day, and The Little Stranger. Both have very simple plots, and very, very complex characters... But that's literary fiction. In commercial fiction I'm thinking of Me Before You, a very simple plot with complex characters. There's nothing weak about these plots.

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            • That's interesting, I get what you mean now. Thanks :)

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            • Thanks L, that does really help -- thinking in terms of subtext. It has really brought to light why some of my scenes work very well, the subtext is already there, built into the story and that's what I need to build on.

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              • Have a look at Flat Share by Beth O’Leary. A simple plot but with extra and, hugely topical, complications.

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                • Thanks very much. I will.

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