Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Is a romantic subplot always necessary?

Patel and James in Yesterday 
Recently I had a burst of inspiration regarding my novel. Those of you who have been following WSW for a long time know this book has frustrated and challenged me in almost equal measure, but I had believed in the vision for my story, a baseball tale with a romantic subplot. One day, after reading a post about the need to declutter one’s manuscript, I asked myself: do I need the romance? I like it, I think it’s compelling, and it ties directly into the baseball stuff, but the more I’ve developed it, the more I’ve had the feeling it competed for attention with the baseball plot—and because it doesn’t have a happy ending, I can’t really call it a traditional romance (the romance book market has very strict guidelines for this sort of thing).

And here’s the kicker: when I first plotted this novel, I never thought twice about including a love story. My attitude came down to nothing more than “why not?” I think I even believed it was the sort of thing an audience expected. But is it really? And if so, why?

In my post about the film Yesterday, I had said I didn’t believe the romantic subplot between Himesh Patel and Lily James was necessary, since the rest of the film operated on such a fascinating premise: what would happen if the world forgot about the Beatles, except for one guy.

The marketing for the film has included screenwriter Richard Curtis as a selling point, a guy who wrote some hit romance films, like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually. (Curtis has recently confessed that director Danny Boyle made some substantial changes to his Yesterday screenplay.)

Richard Curtis also wrote and directed
the SF romance About Time.
He also wrote and directed a SF romance called About Time (really creative title there, mate), involving time travel instead of alternate realities, so at the very least, this is a guy with experience in crossing genres. While it did well worldwide ($87 million), it only grossed $15 million domestic on a $12 million budget and scored a middling 55 on Metacritic, getting lukewarm reviews from The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Salon and The Hollywood Reporter.

But Yesterday is far from the first Hollywood genre movie that shoehorned a little romance into the story. Think about all those old monster or alien flicks that always included two young lovers making goo-goo eyes at each other when the monster wasn’t around. Didn’t you find that needlessly distracting? Didn’t you just want to see more of the monster instead? If that didn’t bother you, I guess your tolerance for sappy romance is stronger than mine, but I’ll bet it’s not the first thing you think about when you think of those movies.

I’m not saying romance is completely incompatible with SF/fantasy; just that it’s hard to combine well, not to mention seamlessly. Most of the time it inevitably takes a backseat to the genre elements. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a notable exception, a film where the romance was the whole point of the movie. The SF elements were important, but once you accepted the premise—technology that erases specific memories from your brain—it’s easy to buy into the rest. Her is another good example of a film where they get the balance right; also Never Let Me Go. And, of course, The Shape of Water.

Eternal Sunshine is an example of a perfect
balance between romance and SF.
I suspect a lot of the time, writers automatically think a romantic subplot will give a genre movie a boost when it may not even be necessary. My novel was a hybrid, not enough of one genre, sports, nor the other, romance, and that would make it a tough sell to a publisher unless the writing was spectacular... so I’ve decided to push the romance to the background and bring the baseball plot forward. The romance is still there, but it’s no longer fighting for attention, and this new rewrite will feel much more like a baseball story, which is what I wanted all along. I hope this works.

The love story in Yesterday wasn’t bad, but I would’ve preferred a deeper exploration of this alternate reality and the moral implications of Jack’s decision to pass the Beatles’ work as his own. Now, what if, let’s say, it was Ellie who was a famous rock star and she was retconned out of existence and Jack pretended her music was his? And what if he met a new girl and was conflicted because he still felt beholden to Ellie’s memory? Would that feel more romantic?

I dunno. I’m just throwing it out there. Like I said, seamlessly integrating romance into any kind of genre story, suspense, western, horror, whatever, is hard. If you’re gonna do it, you should make sure you know exactly what you’re doing.

Agree? Disagree?


  1. Someone, somewhere, in ancient times decreed that women demand romance in their movies, etc. I don't believe that to be the case. Seamless may be difficult to achieve, but worth it if that is the routetaken.

  2. The eternal debate: do men and women want the same things from their movies—or indeed, from their pop culture in general? A post for another time, I think

    1. There is a clip of John Turturro that they run on TCM where folks are speaking of On the Waterfront, specifically Brando's performance. Turturro says "and they even have the love story for the girls." Garry shouted at the TV "You get laid with that attitude, fella?" Garry has too many women in his life!

  3. That’s funny, but that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about.


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