Author Guest Post by Anne Goodwin
If it seems like every novel you’ve recently read contains a romantic subplot or sex scene, there’ a reason why. Author and psychologist Anne Goodwin explains the motivation to add love stories to books of every genre, and how to avoid getting sucked into the romantic writing trap.
If love makes the world go round, it’s hardly surprising that romance crops up as a subplot across most genres of fiction. But, as writers, we need to beware of letting the love interest get out of hand and obscure the more complex themes of our novel. As readers, we need to be alert to publishers dressing up a grueling narrative as a modern Pride and Prejudice because, let’s face it, sex sells.
A thread of romance can lighten the tone of a serious novel, making it accessible to a wider range of readers. Peter Hobbs’ In the Orchard, the Swallows and Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son feature scenes of harrowing torture, rendered bearable in both cases by the hero’s enduring love for a woman. There’s a similar dynamic in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker prize winning novel about prisoners of war on the Burma-Thailand death railway. Yet, while the author himself insists this is a love story, readers picking up the latest edition with the cover image of a woman on the beach might be in for a shock if they’re anticipating a light summer read.
The more cynical of us might be alert to the sales gimmick, but what about the unromantic writer who deludes herself? Such was the case for me when it came to pitching my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, to publishers and eventually to readers. Struggling to articulate the essence of a complex novel in a few snappy sentences, I found myself falling back on the familiar frame of romance. My novel follows one woman’s poignant journey from a misfit childhood, through tortured adolescence to a triumphant midlife coming-of-age as she faces up to the secret she’s guarded for thirty years. I’d solved an earlier structural problem by stretching what was originally a disastrous one-night-stand into a tentative romance that provided the skeleton of the contemporary strand of the novel. But that didn’t mean I’d transformed a story about the challenge of self-acceptance into a romance. Yet, until sense prevailed on the brink of publication, I slipped into describing my novel as if I had.
What makes fictional romance so alluring? Psychoanalytic theory asserts that our blueprint for relationships comes from our interactions with our mothers, or other primary carer, in our earliest weeks and months of life. As adults, we unconsciously seek to recreate the conditions of love and acceptance we experienced right at the start or, if our early years were emotionally disadvantaged, we yearn for that perfect love we never had. It’s as if we’re hardwired for romance. Suspense, mystery and adventure might be optional, but the desire for intimacy is almost ubiquitous. Even when we reject relationships we’re still embroiled in the dynamic, turning our backs on disappointment that’s too hard to bear.
So whatever story you’re writing, whether it be about a North Korean fisherman or emaciated Australian prisoners of war, do try to weave in a thread of romance. But beware of making the mistake that I did and forgetting that that’s only one aspect of what your novel’s about.
Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin
About Anne Goodwin
Anne Goodwin loves fiction for the freedom to contradict herself and has been scribbling stories ever since she could hold a pencil. During her career as a clinical psychologist in England’s National Health Service, her focus was on helping other people tell their neglected stories to themselves. Now that her short fiction publication count has overtaken her age, her ambition is to write and publish enough novels to match her shoe size. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill.