Columns > Published on February 12th, 2019

50 Provocative Questions About Romantic Subplots

Header image via Pixabay

This article was born when I sat down to watch a movie with a bad romantic subplot.

It got me asking questions about romantic subplots. Their utility, their effectiveness. Their very right to exist.

I came up with a list of questions. Let's think about this. Apply this to your work. Annoy your friends next time you see a movie together.

Ready to take the romance out of romance? Let’s go.

1. Would the story be any different if the romance were excised?

2. If so, would “different” mean “better”?

3. When one character is sizing another one up, can they do it in a way that both tells me about the person being described and the describer?

4. How much do I worry/care about the romantic future of two super-good-looking, driven, talented young people?

5. Does requiting love effectively end the love story?

Think about The Office. When Jim and Pam got together, did anyone give a shit anymore?

6. In other words, once the love is fulfilled, how will you make us continue to care?

7. Is a love story between equals compelling?

It's probably a good thing to shoot for in real life, but what about in fiction?

8. Should romantic subplots reflect reality, aspirational reality, or unreality?

9. Is a failed romance or a successful romance more read-able?

10. Why do readers eat up the romance of Twilight, 50 Shades, and others of that type?

11. What can you learn from their mass appeal?

12. Do you believe more in the power of a romantic subplot to shape the reality of romance, or do you believe that reality shapes romantic subplots?

13. Does every story need a romantic element?

14. Do most stories need one?

Asking this question would eliminate a lot of needless nonsense. I don't want to see a Transformers romantic subplot unless it's between two robots, damn it!

15. Is sexless romance interesting?

16. Does your romantic subplot justify its space in the story?

In other words, while we’re hearing about the romance, are readers wishing we were getting back to the main thrust?

17. Does your romantic subplot do something for your story that couldn’t be done through the lens of a different, potentially more interesting kind of relationship?

18. Do we always need to see the characters first meeting?

The origin is the most tedious part of most superhero movies, after all. 

19. Is it just me, or do romantic subplots seem a lot simpler and tidier than real romances?

20. Do you actually know someone who has experienced the kind of romance you're depicting?

21. Do I need to love your characters, as a lot of folks would say?

22. Is it possible that I don't need to love them, I just need to understand what they love about each other?

23. How will you manage a character who’s difficult/unpleasant/unlovable in a romantic relationship?

24. Is it possible to capture true intimacy between two characters if they’re always being observed by a reader?

To clarify, is there anything authentic about a relationship on display, created for consumption by others outside of the relationship?

25. Is a relationship that “feels” real the same as a relationship that “is” real?

26. Can adding the fictional elements to a relationship make it feel more real than the “real thing”?

27. Is it your intention that a reader imagines themselves in the romantic role, or do you mean for them to be observers of the romance?

28. Do your characters always tend to express love the same ways?

29. Do the characters involved in the romance reflect each other's love, ping-pong-ing the same mode of expression back and forth, whether it be words, deeds, etc.?

30. Have you read The 5 Love Languages?

Corny as it is, you should really skim that shit.

31. As society becomes more accepting of things like romances between various genders, romances between people of different races, romances between people of different religious backgrounds, romances between numbers of people other than 2, (you know, all the stuff that you don’t mention around that one grandparent), what sort of new narratives might emerge regarding societal norms keeping people apart?

32. Do you think everyone deserves love?

Stop and think about this one. Think about the individuals you hate most in the universe.

33. Do you ever grant fulfilling love to despicable characters?

34. Is your romantic subplot meant to provide something that’s familiar to readers, a way of seeing themselves, or is it meant to be something that shows readers something unfamiliar?

35. Is sex better depicted in a more universally-understandable way, or are you better off finding something universal in the specific?

36. How do you decide whether the romantic subplot is interesting to someone other than you, the writer?

37. Does the romantic subplot make the plot more complicated in a good way or a bad way?

More stuff always makes something more complicated. Double-check that it's a good thing.

38. Is the romantic subplot enhancing the tension of the story without explicitly explaining the sources of that tension?

Your romantic subplot can ratchet things up without giving us a ton of backstory. 

39. Does your romance feel like something that will go on after the story is over?

40. Do you think people generally act the same in romantic situations as they do in other situations?

41. Do you research your romantic relationships online?

If so, you should probably account for online depictions of relationships being a lot less realistic than real ones. Remember, an online depiction of a person, couple, or group of people is curated, filtered, and disseminated with a purpose. 

42. How does technology affect your romance?

43. Do you think, to sound emo for a second, that relationships are mostly situations where people find that their broken pieces match up?

44. Are you letting people make the same sorts of potentially bad decisions in romance subplots that you do in other types of subplots?

45. What are the challenges of depicting a long-distance relationship?

46. Do the reasons people cite for their romantic failures usually line up with reality?

This is a very leading question. No, obviously, they don't. 

47. Do you feel in touch with what people who aren't you might be looking for in a relationship?

48. If you're the lower self-esteem type (my hand is raised), do you fully understand what it is people like about you, romantically?

49. Do you think all life stresses end up expressed in interpersonal relationships?

50. Does it matter one lick what you believe, or is it all about what your character believes?

Does this make you think? Are you sick of questions? Have any of your own?

Get Dr. Chuck Tingle's Complete Guide to Romance at Bookshop or Amazon

Get The 5 Love Languages at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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