The Evolving Structure of MM Romance

March 18, 2017

 

I know I'll probably get a lot of flak for this, but I'm kind of obsessed with story structure. I've seen a trend in MM romance that is troubling to me. It's a rejection of the standard romance structure for something, well, much worse.

 

I can think of a few reasons why this has happened. The first is that there's a lot of conflict and struggle and stress in the world already. So the natural reaction is to create romances that avoid all of this. It's an escape from reality.

 

Traditionally, gay characters bring a lot of drama and angst. Many people might avoid story structure that creates drama and angst for fear of seeming stereotypical. This comes from a good place, but I think it's important to separate the stereotype from a story structure involving conflict.

 

The other reason is that many mm writers just don't put a lot of thought into this. It's something they got into almost by accident, writing fan-fiction or whatnot. I know it's not very PC to say it, but many mm writers got success without studying the craft of writing much. No matter the case, the current trend of happy-all-the-way romances is bad for the genre. A story without any conflict is no story at all. And here's the post to explain why.

 

The Romance as a genre has a fairly standard form. Obviously, innovation and reversing expectation and originality and creativity are all greatly welcomed. But as they say, if you don't know what is normal, how can you innovate on it? If you don't understand the "why" of each piece of the structure, how do you know the way you circumvent these standards is good?

 

Every great romance of the past three decades (and longer) follows the same basic structure. If you've ever cried while watching a romantic movie, the crying happened because of this structure. Each piece exists for a reason, and no piece can be skipped if you wish to get the proper emotional reaction out of the watcher/reader. Think to you're favorite romance. I guarantee you'll find this structure.

 

The quintessential example is Pride and Prejudice. But the formula has been streamlined a bit since then, and the extraneous society bits have been removed. Upon first meeting, the two love interests hate each other (or at the very least have some source of conflict like boss/employee ethical dilemma). The whole beginning sets up the chemistry and the conflict. But in addition, something extremely important to the main character must be revealed tangentially as well as a vice of the love interest.

 

The middle builds the relationship. One or both of the characters falls in love with the other. It's the courting phase. At the climax of this a major crises must occur. The two main characters encounter what seems to be an insurmountable problem. It seems impossible for them to be together anymore. Usually, the main character will reject the love interest due to some indiscretion.

 

In 10 Things I Hate About You it was a lie about why the relationship started. In You've Got Mail, it's because Meg Ryan finds out the online person is the giant corporate person trying to put her out of business. This is a desperate "all is lost" moment in the story.

 

Ah. But remember that extremely important thing to the main character mentioned in the beginning that most people have forgotten about at this point? Well, the love interest remembers this thing, and performs a true sacrifice of their vice to uphold this thing. This is often called the "proof of love" moment. This is where everyone cries.

 

And none of this works without all of the pieces in place. This structure is flexible but not super flexible. If you haven't set up that thing important to the main character or the vice of the love interest, the love interest can't redeem themselves with it. If you haven't created a crisis in the relationship, the love interest can't prove their love through some personal sacrifice.

 

I know. A lot of you might be thinking, yeah, but I don't need my character to prove their love. The whole story will just be about their love. It will be obvious. No need for the theatrics and drama and conflict. Sure. I get that.

 

Your story might be cute. It might have humor. You can make people swoon at the lovey-dovey stuff. But you'll never get that profound and lasting impression from every single romance you remember without this basic structure. 

 

To be blunt, this evolved structure that avoids conflict is nothing but forgettable. These elements of story aren't "drama" as some critics would suggest. They are the building blocks of story structure. They set up a premise and deliver a payoff. The true nature of your characters is only revealed through action, and if you don't give them a reason to act, you'll reveal nothing.

 

For this reason, I think mm romance has gone in a troubling direction. Readers and writers alike have decided this type of conflict is unwanted "drama." Half the stuff I read these days consists of two guys getting along perfectly until the book ends, and I'm left wondering what the point was.

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