Questionable: About Romantic Comedy

Cate asked:

1. Are romance short stories a thing? As in, have you read ones you loved? Or does romance work better as at least a novella length? If they do work, do you know of anyone publishing them, outside of anthologies?

2. Can you talk about what makes for good in-scene pacing in romantic comedy? I had a lot of literature people tell me to slow down my romcom, and while they were definitely right the first time they said it, I do feel like there’s a point where you slow down so much it’s hard to get the sparks and comedy part right.

3. I’ve got too many subplots, and too many POVs. Any tips for figuring out which subplots + POVs to keep, and which to cut, especially in a story that’s partly about how the couple fit into their community?

4. I am curious about “creative writing teacher” as a profession. You’re such a good one, even just through this blog. Any tips or book recommendations for someone who wants to learn more about how to be a good creative writing teacher, either online or in a classroom setting?

So taking one at a time . . .

1. Are romance short stories a thing? As in, have you read ones you loved? Or does romance work better as at least a novella length? If they do work, do you know of anyone publishing them, outside of anthologies?

The problem is arcing a believable romance in two thousand words. You can write great short stories about a part of that romance–the cute meet, the big fight, the reconciliation–but selling a this-is-forever relationship in that short of a space is really tough. There used to be magazines that did short stories that would take a romance, but I have no idea if any exist any more. Anthologies sometimes take them but they prefer novellas (also difficult to write). The only short story I ever sold was something I’d written for my MFA and my agent sent it to Redbook and they published it. But it was women’s fiction, not romance, about a woman coming to terms with her divorce. I pretty much wrote the short stories I wrote to explore characters in the novel I was writing. When I was researching love, I read that it takes six months to three years to work through infatuation (very fun) to commitment (hard work), so what you have to do in romance is establish that the couple is slated for the long haul, trusts each other, works together, talks through their mistakes, is really committed to not just having a good time. Good luck doing that in two thousand words. Or five thousand. Even twenty-five thousand (novella). Hell, it’s hard in a hundred thousand words. There’s a reason I write novels. I’m lazy.

2. Can you talk about what makes for good in-scene pacing in romantic comedy? I had a lot of literature people tell me to slow down my romcom, and while they were definitely right the first time they said it, I do feel like there’s a point where you slow down so much it’s hard to get the sparks and comedy part right.

Okay, to be clear, we’re talking about arcing a single scene, not a novel, right?

If I’m having trouble with a scene, I fall back on beats, units of conflict. Break the scene down into a series of mini-scenes and then make sure the tension and the stakes get higher in each part. It’s easier than looking at a scene that you know is not working and trying to dope it out as a whole.

The key to scenes in a romantic comedy, or one of the keys, is to not sacrifice emotion for speed. Snappy patter is great–ask me how much I love writing snappy patter–but it does matter why the patter is snappy. If it’s just two people zinging off each other, it gets annoying. What makes patter really snap is what’s underneath.

Using one of my own examples because I’m self-centered, the first dinner scene in Bet Me isn’t just Min zinging off Cal, it’s Min being really angry and burying it under a sharp tongue, and Cal just trying to politely get through dinner to win ten bucks. It’s not the banter, it’s the two conflicting goals underneath the words. Min wants to break his smooth facade and he wants to charm her so she won’t maim him over dessert. If you break the scene down into beats, it’s obvious that his charm is working enough that she decides to play fair and admit she’s angry because of David, and he stops trying to charm her and talks to her, and by the end, the banter isn’t maim-and-charm, it’s two people having fun with words while they start to know each other. I didn’t want the reader thinking, “These are two people who are good with banter” or even “This is funny,” I wanted readers watching the romance happen as they negotiated under the words; I wanted the reader thinking, “I have to see where this goes,” not “I want more funny banter.” It’s the story, not the funny.

3. I’ve got too many subplots, and too many POVs. Any tips for figuring out which subplots + POVs to keep, and which to cut, especially in a story that’s partly about how the couple fit into their community?

Okay, first you pick a main plot. This is something Bob and I work on at the beginning of every book. He writes with me because he wants a wider audience, aka women, so he’s usually good with a romance as the main plot. Except he doesn’t write romance, he writes adventure and suspense, so when he starts plotting, he forgets My Girl is there. And we end up rewriting to pull the book back to the romance. The romance is the main plot. Any time the book spends too much time away from the romance, it drags for some readers. So the scenes we have to concentrate on are the ones where the lovers are together. They don’t have to be romance-y scenes, but they do have to show aspects of the relationship: how they work together, how they settle disagreements, how they come to know each other, etc.

But Bob’s still got his action plot which is important to the story because the stress and tension of the action plot spur adrenalin which makes people fall in love faster. Bob will tell you it’s because at least something is happening in the action plot, but if the romance is the main plot, the action plot is there to serve it by pushing the lovers together. If the action plot is the main plot, the romance is there to serve it by complicating things, adding an emotional level to an intellectual plot.

So to winnow out subplots: Which ones are there to fill in information (cut them and find another way to get the info on the page), which ones are there to support other subplots or supporting characters (cut them or incorporate them as support for the main plot), and which ones support and enhance the main plot (those are the ones you keep).

For example, the famous here’s-the-best-friend’s-romance-too subplot, aka Pair the Spares (thank you, TV Tropes). Unless that subplot echoes, contrasts, supports, illuminates the main plot, you do not need it. And God forbid you throw it in there just to set up a sequel. But if that romance serves the main romance, then you need it. Again, self-centered example: In Bet Me, Min has two friends who have romances with Cal’s best friends. Liza and Tony don’t stay together although they stay friends because great sex and snappy patter are not enough for long term commitment. Bonnie and Roger fall in love pretty fast, but Bonnie is hardheaded, knows what she wants, and accepts that this is the guy and proceeds to a practical commitment, foreshadowing that Roger will always lead with his heart but she’ll be there to keep things strong and practical. Meanwhile, Min and Cal are a mess: they try to leave each other the way Liza and Tony do, no regrets and keep the friendship, but they can’t because they really are made each for each other. It just takes awhile because neither one of them can fall as easily as Roger, and neither one of them has the clear practicality and confidence of Bonnie. So both of those Pair the Spares subplots serve the main romance as a contrast. It’s the reason Tony can yell at Cal when he walks away from Min at the end because he’s never felt about a woman the way Cal feels about Min. And it’s the reason that it’s Bonnie who makes Min break down and admit she wants a life with Cal because she’s clear-sighted and not afraid the way Min is. In the same way, Diana and Greg are set up as the anti-Min-and-Cal, not just a contrast but the opposite, two beautiful people getting married in a beautiful wedding that’s a lie.

If a subplot doesn’t serve the main plot, cut it.

Point of view depends on the kind of story you’re writing. The more PoVs you have, the colder the story will be. That’s because you’re trying to invest the reader in too many people. So obviously you need the PoV of your protagonist/main character. But then who? Depends on the story. If you’re writing a romance, chances are readers want to know what the love interest is thinking/doing, too, because it takes a level of confusion away–the protagonist doesn’t know how the love interest feels but the reader does–and also because it’s fun to see two people begin to change and grow because of a relationship. After that, it’s what does the next PoV do for the story? And a lot of times, it’s not much. A third PoV often powers a subplot, so if the subplot supports the main plot, you may get away with it, but all too often readers hit that third character and just want to get back to the main two. I got grief on Rachel’s subplot in Welcome To Temptation because people wanted to stick with Sophie and Phin. They were right. Rachel’s PoV and subplot weren’t necessary to the main plot, I just liked Rachel. My most popular books have the protagonist and love interest as PoVs; my least popular book has seven PoVs. Every time you add another PoV to a romance novel, you dilute the emotion because you’re taking page real estate away from the main story.

Does that mean you should never have more than two PoV’s in a romance? Of course not, have as many as you want. Just figure out what you want them to do and realize that you’re taking time and emotional investment away from the main plot.

4. I am curious about “creative writing teacher” as a profession. You’re such a good one, even just through this blog. Any tips or book recommendations for someone who wants to learn more about how to be a good creative writing teacher, either online or in a classroom setting?

The big thing to remember about teaching creative writing is to teach craft not content. One of my MFA profs, a very good teacher otherwise, drove me nuts because she considered only literary fiction to be worthy of my time. She actually said, “Jenny, you’re such a good writer, have you ever thought about writing literature?” I said, “No,” because trying to explain to her that romance fiction is literature would have fallen on deaf ears. You never, ever critique content. I did once at McDaniel because the writer had her romance protagonist as an opiate drug dealer who was blackmailing an addict into selling for her. I tried to point out that it was going to be extremely difficult for readers to want this woman in a relationship with a good guy, let alone a drug cop, and she dropped the course. She was right, I was wrong. Her craft was excellent, very good writer, and it was none of my damn business what she was writing about.

In the same vein, if a student is working in a genre you don’t like–say horror–you pull up your socks and critique horror. Because you are not critiquing content, you are trying to help this person write the story they want to write. The reason most people take writing courses is that they know what they want to write, they just don’t know how to do that effectively, so you always teach the how not the what. And that is hard as hell to do. The best way is to figure out the aspects of craft that you want to teach–plot, character, theme, whatever–and present that as theory first–here’s how to structure a plot–and then apply that to the student’s work–here’s how to analyze this specific plot–by having them analyze it using your rubric. Most students will take from your theory the stuff that works for them and leave the rest, and that’s good. You’re trying to help them see their story more clearly, not trying to teach your theory.

And last, if they say, “No, that’s not my story,” believe them. They know their stories better than you do. At that point, you start asking them questions about their stories: “What part can’t be cut from this story, what must you keep?” “What parts aren’t working, can you figure out why? (Not how to fix them, but why they’re not working.)” “How does the beginning foreshadow the ending, what promise does the beginning make and is it fulfilled by the ending?” Not “This would be better with a dog.”

Creative writing courses, IMHO, should be theory which can be incorporated into the writer’s method or ignored, followed by Socratic teaching, questioning the students to help them discover the story they want to tell, to find the best way to tell that story.

Yes, it’s really difficult. Tremendously rewarding, though.

[I just realize I misspelled Cate’s name. I’m sorry, Cate!]

42 thoughts on “Questionable: About Romantic Comedy

  1. As a recommendation to question 4: I liked Lawrence Block’s book “Telling Lies for Fun And Profit” because, as the title already conveys, he has an entertaining way of talking about many aspects of what a writer does, what is helping and what’s not. I don’t know whether it helps to be a good writing teacher – I suppose like with every kind of teaching, you have to find out by really doing it.

  2. Romance short stories are very much a thing! We use them as reader magnets at the end of our books hoping that readers will click on them and subscribe to our newsletters to get more content. We also create anthologies with other authors as a vehicle for cross promotion. Most of mine tend to be second chance romance because it’s easier to rehab a couple in 10K words, but I’ve done a new couple, too. They’re actually fun because you’re only working with one thread–they meet, they get to know each other inside the confines of the story’s crucible (like they’re working on a community service project together or they’re in the same bridal party), they fight against falling for each other (in a much lighter way, so the conflict isn’t insurmountable), and then they get their HEA.

    1. Absolutely true! I also sold my ice dancers’ romance story to WMG’s Holiday Spectacular, which is funded through Kickstarter. Patreon is also an option. So there are ways, but I don’t know of any trad pub ways offhand.

      I am HERE for examples with Crusie novels, because then I actually know the novel and understand exactly what you mean, as opposed to literary novels that I either didn’t read or don’t remember.

      I’m so glad you emphasized that writers know their work the best. This is something I’m reflecting on as a potential director as well, trusting the actor.

      Thank you for this Questionable. Love it.

  3. I just re-read a trilogy by Nora Roberts set in a small town on the Chesapeake Bay. I was impressed with her ability to bring background or minor characters to life in just a few sentences, describing a few traits or habits about them in very clever ways. It made the whole world much more vivid and real, even if the characters only appeared once. Didn’t bog down the story or detract from the main plot. Just a few skillfully crafted sentences about the background characters that bolstered either the world building, the main plot, or both. And often revealed additional aspects about the main characters. It must have taken so much effort and planning to write all that in, but it felt effortless while reading it.

      1. I loved Seth in the Chesapeake series and the dogs, of course. I find Nora Robert’s stories have become a lot darker over the last few years, so I don’t read her trilogies anymore.

    1. The Chesapeake series is one of my favorites of Nora’s. I’ve read all four books several times!

  4. Jenny, This is a fabulous post. I need to keep it around cogitate slowly. Bouncing off #1, for years I thought that in Bet Me, Cynthie’s theory of falling in love had to be false — or no truer than Tony’s — because Cynthie was obtuse and judged everyone by how they fit her needs, yet was also scientific in her approach. It took a lot of head-bumping for me to realize that this is your definition of the process of falling in love.

    Responding to #3, which one of your stories had 7 points of view? I don’t remember which side characters have points of view in your books. I have to think about it to realize that Amy doesn’t have a point of view in Welcome to Temptation even though Rachel does. I like Rachel because she has the most wacko string of experiences in the entire story: who on earth offers to help out a couple of neighbors out in the country and ends up married to a Hollywood producer? Rachel has had even nuttier parents than Phin or Sophy. Yet her drive to get out of Temptation is so strong, and her confidence in her own abilities so sure, that she gets the super HEA.

    1. Cynthie’s theories were actually real theories, and I’ve used them to structure romance plots, but I think she was wrong about applying them as a universal to real life. I think Tony’s theories were closer to reality: love is chaos.

      Seven points of view: Trust Me On This. It was a farce, a kind of Night At the Opera plot, but it’s not an emotional book.

      Rachel was there as a contrast to Sophie. Sophie wanted in and Rachel wanted out. But I don’t think that had enough of an impact on the plot.

        1. Another reason Amy never had a PoV or a sequel. She was just immature, the baby of the family. I thought Davy had a good take on her, but I didn’t want her PoV.

      1. When I read that book, I recognized several things that Cynthia espoused that I had read in the news. I have a lot of essential oils, and I had actually tried to make a perfume that smells like pumpkin pie spices and lavender. It was a disaster. The joke about men liking professional cheerleaders was also from a survey of men’s top interests that had been in the news. I knew I was never going to seduce a man if I had to talk sports to do it. LOL The theory of infatuation and love was also in the news, I think. Never underestimate Jenny Crusie!

  5. I tend to doubt romances where couples meet for the first time and end up together HEA in less than a novel.
    Recently I wrote a 6000 word story where they met and started towards love. It was a happily for now with a potential for HEA later.
    I read it for critique and even that was too fast for some of them.
    I’ve read some attempts at this by skilled writers I ordinarily love and they’re always not quite believable.

    1. I’m a longtime reader and I’m pretty old, so the romances I grew up on were lengthy tomes. I like spending time in a world with people who develop and where things happen and the ending is at least positive and suitable.

      However, at times I’m in the mood for something brief — Georgette Heyer’s short romantic stories are fine, for instance.

    2. I think as long as you’re writing in depth about a piece of the romance they can be fun, but I don’t think they’re great at delivering the romance payoff. I think the most successful ones are the Cute Meet, but then there’s no follow up, so they’re not terribly satisfying.

      The promotional kind of story that Erika’s talking about (Hi, Erika!) often works because it’s usually a story about characters who have already been introduced in the novel that precedes them. If the short is about new characters and it’s really compelling, readers get annoyed–“So what happens next?”–because the juice in a romance novel is how they negotiate to the HEA. Falling in love is easy and fun, staying in love is hard work.

      You can do short stories that are all flirting and banter–ask me how I know–and they’re fun, but they don’t give the emotional ride that novels do. Other genres deliver a different ride–mystery short stories work really well because they’re puzzles, for example; horror just wants to scare the pants off you and you can do that in a couple of sentences–so those genres have a much stronger tradition in shorts.

      1. In case you’re into the Sarina Bowen Ivy League hockey stories, “Blonde Date” is a good example for a successful short story (or is it already a novella?). The setting is already introduced, the main characters have appeared before, and the whole thing is mainly focused on one event.

        1. I do like the Bowen hockey stories, didn’t know about that one.
          She did a three novella/short story book about characters she’d already done in the series that starts with The Year We Fell Down, and that was fun.

          Oh, that was the story about Katie, Scarlet’s roommate. I thought that was great, but I read it in a three-story collection, Extra Credit.

          1. It is the extra credit one. Very nice.
            I also like the one with the English tutor and the Québécois hockey player. Very cute plus I learnt lots about English grammar I have forgotten 🙂

          2. I got muddled too. Blonde date is the one with one of the Katies and Extra Credit is the one with the English tutor and Québécois.
            Both good.

  6. Thank you!!! Super helpful, as always.

    Also great timing—posts like this help remind me why I’m excited about craft, which was a reminder I needed today.

    Saving this page for future reference.

      1. I listened to the audio of Bet Me (for the millionth time) two weeks ago. On Twitter, Karen Babine was talking about using Bet Me in her food writing class. I loved that idea.

      2. My favourite also! The first time I finished reading it I was so not ready to say goodbye, I just immediately started reading it again. I don’t think this has EVER happened to me (at least, not as an adult). Fantastic book.
        My only complaint was that Liza and Shanna didn’t end up together, they were PERFECT for each other and I was sure it was coming up any minute now but then it didn’t… Oh well 🙂 Still my favourite book 🙂

  7. Also, re: short romance.

    I’m not an expert, but I have been wrestling with this issue for decades, ever since the majority of women’s magazines stopped publishing short fiction. (Remember Good Housekeeping’s Short Short Stories? Sigh.) I had some luck publishing in the confession market for a few years…and then they, too, stopped buying/publishing new material. Women’s World still publishes short romance stories. 800 words long. It’s very competitive.

    Nowadays, I write short, romantic flash fictions, usually meet-cute scenes (because like Jenny said, you it would be quite a feat to get the full story arc in a short story) and I publish them myself for free on social media and my website. I’ve found a local magazine who will publish them…for free. I chalk it up to marketing, but yes I get tired of giving it all away all the time.

    1. Yeah, my professors have been really been pushing us to try to get short stories published, and I’m trying to figure out how applicable that advice is to people writing romance.

      1. It really isn’t.
        Literary fiction has a healthy short story market, though. Or at least it did.

      2. I do know that there are quite a few short romance reads up on Kindle Direct Publishing. 30-minute reads, 60-minute reads. Romance readers are voracious, and I’m thinking they don’t bother with magazines anymore…they just go right to KDP and find a treasure trove.

  8. Thank you, Jenny! Your explanations are always so clear and make so much sense. I always come away with a better understanding of something I was confused about. You are a fabulous teacher!

  9. Years ago one of those mags included a (what would now be called) flash fiction piece by Anne Tyler. It intrigued me and I went searching for her.
    If I hadn’t found the novel that actually told the story I would have been annoyed because unsatisfied.
    I did find it and I am a lifetime Anne Tyler fan.

  10. I’m not aware of any trad publishers of F/M romance who handle short stories, novelettes, or novellas – to be honest, I never went looking, because for a long time I was writing purely as a creative outlet and didn’t need more rejection / disappointment in my life. The F/M shorts I’ve read have nearly all been self-published or bundled in anthologies.

    The publisher I’ve just signed with, JMS Books, specializes in queer romance. They handle flash fiction (2K) on up to novels / series.

    Since 2015 I’ve read an unbelievable number of romances of all lengths. Most times, a flash is no more than a scene. (I’ve written a few which I post on my blog.) A short story is typically a second-chance reconnection or a first encounter with promise. (I’ve written one that does not fit this description, also on my blog.) A novelette contains some actual plot. Novellas range from ‘an incident within a larger story the reader must infer’ (which can be totally fine) to ‘a series of sexual encounters strung along a thread of plot’ (these tend not to do much for me) to ‘a well-plotted, character-rich caper during which the MCs move from distrust to some form of commitment’ (KJ Charles).

    Just throwing this out here: if any Arghers would be interested in dissecting some of my nonsense, I would happily provide PDF reading copies of my novelettes ‘This Time’ (straight F/M) and/or ‘Star of Wonder’ (trans woman/bi man). Feel free to email aycaluen at gmail dot com. 🙂

  11. Aside from your stories, Jenny, Loretta Chase wrote Lord Lovedon’s Duel. A novella published in a few different anthologies. Great example of a novella, one of my favourites. Thank you for this post.

  12. There are a gazillion romantic comedy short stories within the fanfiction realm, some more successful than others. I don’t know how much of a difference it makes when there is a broader context of the characters being already familiar to the readers in some form, even if the entirety of the particular situation is contained within the short story.

  13. “Snappy patter is great–ask me how much I love writing snappy patter–but it does matter why the patter is snappy. If it’s just two people zinging off each other, it gets annoying. What makes patter really snap is what’s underneath.”

    I just saw a movie where the leads did nothing but zing and zap at each other for most of the film. (They were exes.) It quickly got annoying, made the characters into jerks, and undermined what should have been character development. As a result, I didn’t experience enough authentic growth to buy into or applaud the ending.

  14. Mary Balogh wrote a lot of short romances —I’m not sure where they were published originally.

    And two of the absolute best novellas I think were by Joanna Bourne —My True Love Hath My Heart in the Last Chance Christmas Ball and Intrigue and Mistletoe in Mischief and Mistletoe. Both are second chance stories, sort of, except the hero has been working all along to get them back together. She makes the whole story of the relationship feel part of the novella without flashbacks.

    I am so sad she isn’t writing any more and I really hope some day she gets inspired to try a new book.

  15. I loved Rachel’s parts – it made it her so much more interesting to see things from her perspective.

Comments are closed.