Sunday, April 24, 2011

Romance Development Vs. The External Plot: A Case Study

I recently finished a science fiction romance (recent release) that fell into “They Came To Talk” territory. However, that’s not what I came here to, ah, talk about. The story touched upon a related issue that I’d like to analyze for a bit since it ties into the challenge of balancing the romance plot and the external plot in an SFR.

The story in question—an action-adventure space opera romance—had some of my favorite character types and a setting I enjoy. Despite the uncomplicated plot, I looked forward to visiting a new futuristic playground.

The very basics are this: Hero and heroine, who on the surface are from opposite sides of the cosmic tracks, are charged with the rescue of another character. It’s this other character that I’d like to focus on. More specifically, what sometimes doesn’t happen regarding this character.

When an author sets up an external plot wherein someone needs to be rescued or in other cases, a villain requires vanquishing, I become invested in the fate of the character and/or the villain being defeated. However, in some stories I've read the hero and heroine seem to develop amnesia mid-way through the story about the person who needs to be rescued. I get this feeling even though they are clearly on their way to save the day.

Sometimes it’s because once the characters are traveling (usually together in a claustrophobic space craft, sexual hijinks ensue, natch), they don’t discuss the mission—or this other character—much. Or even think about him/her. They tend to become seriously distracted by their burgeoning romance/mental lusting/sexual tension/hot sex with each other. Which in and of itself is fine—I’m not knocking that particular structure (as long as it isn’t boring, that is!). But when I’m worrying about the fate of this other character more than the hero and heroine seem to be, I start getting frustrated.

The story I referenced above wasn’t tagged as erotic by the publisher, but it was pretty steamy. The falling-in-lust at first sight issue and subsequent sexual tension (all of which were well done, I might add) was so all-consuming during the middle of the story that despite the chemistry, I questioned to what extent the hero and heroine were invested in rescuing this character. It felt like their attitude was “How much sex can we squeeze in before duty calls?” If they’d waited until after the mission was completed to consummate the romance, then the apparent lack of concern wouldn’t have bothered me as much.

Not that they have to dwell on this other character every second, of course, but I found it strange that I wasn’t periodically reminded about this person's dangerous predicament more often. The pacing gave me the impression the h/h had all the time in the world—let the sexxoring begin!. So I did the work of worrying for them.

But...why should I be more concerned than they are?

Other non-erotic science fiction romance stories like the one above have worked for me, and it's either because the story structure is more varied (e.g., the h/h disembark from the ship a time or two) or because less time is devoted to developing the sexual part of the romance. Of course, other readers may feel differently. They might actually find too much conversation about the external plot a distraction.

This experience showed me that I enjoy an SFR of this type more if there's a balance between developing the romance and completing the mission. The couple can talk or lust after each other all they want as long as it's clear they haven't forgotten that someone is in dire need of their help.

What kind of elements do you think help contribute to an effective balance in these kinds of stories?

Joyfully yours,