Monday, May 3, 2010

ICK. Or: What is hot and what is NOT?

I read a lot of books with a romance thread. Action with a romance woven in, UF with a romance woven in, mystery with a romance woven see the pattern.

Some (read:most) is formulaic. Once in a while something is fresh. Writers are always looking for the angle to bring a new twist to the ancient story of boy meets girl. Like a sonnet, a few rules must be observed or your story/subplot does not qualify as a romance.

  1. The protag must be single at the beginning of the story. Possible variances include attached in the context of a bad/abusive/dying relationship.
  2. The couple must be together by the end of the story. Or, in a series, there must be clear intent to move in this general direction.
  3. During the course of the story, there must be tension. If our hero and heroine are the destined to be together/soul mates/love at first sight variety, the tension will be external, like a mutual enemy. Dean Koontz does this to great effect. The other end of the spectrum is the classic love/hate tension. They drive each other batty but have an undeniable chemistry and a moment of vulnerability somewhere during the story where they gain a better understanding of each other. Think Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. I'm a sucker for this trope. And the du jour of pop fiction is the "I'm a human and my lover is not" variety. This one is usually resolved by "upgrading" the human in some way.

The beginning and end are pretty easy to master. They start off apart and end up together. The tricky part is how they get there, the journey and the tension. And this is where the shark jumping takes place.

Please. If you are writing a book with romantic elements, for the love of all that is holy, respect the limits of the ICK FACTOR. For the most part, the couple should not be so May/December that the reader is prompted to speculate about basic biological limitations like ED and reduced post-menopausal sex drive, for example. If you go there, you better be good. Harold and Maude? Soul mates, hilarious, and a great soundtrack worked to downplay the ick factor of a barely grown young man falling madly in love with an eighty year old free spirit. The Mary Russell books by Laurie King have a fifty something Sherlock Holmes fall for a twenty year old difficult genius. The age disparity is dwarfed by the complete lack of anyone else in the world who might be a suitable companion for either character.

Occasionally somebody pulls off a Thornbirds. I suspect this does not have the shock value it used to, though, so not many people go for the man-of-the-cloth trick to heighten tension.

But I read one over the weekend that is irredeemable. Absolutely not. NO WAY. Let me set the stage: YA UF. Usual cast of characters. Decent world building. Snappy dialogue. Love triangle (which is not my cuppa but I make allowances since it clearly makes millions swoon). So we have some nice little sparks flying in the middle of a generational conspiracy for genocide. Sweet little kiss scene followed up by the fellow being a complete jerk but we know he's not such a bad guy, simply conflicted. We're doing well on the tension front. But since the author has designs on a series (there are published sequels) there must be the Big. Bad. We can never be together. So what's it gonna be? Guilt? Angst? Misunderstanding of I Love Lucy proportions? No such luck.

INCEST. Incest, people. As in, the two people you are pulling for find out at the end that they are brother and sister. And yes, being a savvy reader I totally get that this will most likely be resolved in some convoluted plot twist involving a baby switch or something but the damage is done. These two people think they are siblings so there is no potential for anything but ICK. ICK. and more ICK every time they gaze longingly at one another, innocently brush hands reaching for the same death dealing supercharged silver tipped ninja star, whatever. It's not just no spark. It's anti-spark.

Greek mythology in UF? Totally acceptable. Greek tragedy? Not so much.


  1. Hm. I've seen this done well in Speaker for the Dead (Orson Scott Card). But the focus there was definitely not romance. That was a sub-plot not involving any of the main characters.

    Want a good romance that fits your loose formula, but doesn't fit the formulaic? Try Freudian Slip (Erica Orloff). Will have to review it on my blog soon.

  2. I've been eyeballing Freudian Slip. Thanks for the heads up!

    So far the only place I've seen this done well, or at least where I didn't want to crawl out of my skin, was The Brady Bunch movie where Marsha and Greg have the hots for each other. And in that instance, they used the ick factor for comedy. Plus they were step-siblings.

  3. I haven't read FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC but my understanding is the brother and sister do the dirty deed.

  4. Good point, Rick. I think I am the only gal my age who never read that book. By the time I was old enough to be aware of it, I was old enough to shudder at the premise.

    On the other hand, I think the whole point was that the family was crazy and the kids were locked in the attic Anne Frank style but minus the threat of concentration camp.

    So I still say...ICK.

  5. Flowers In The Attic totally turned me off because yeah, the brother and sister claim they couldn't help it they were stuck in a room together for, like, a really long time. And I was at puberty-level-just-about-anything-would-turn-me-on age. Seriously. ICK. I am still haunted by the memory of the summer my older brother decided it would be okay to wear Speedo trunks to the local swimming pool. LET'S NOT GO THERE.

  6. Oh, Lydia. I'm so sorry to hear about your brother.

    I've informed mine that unless he is training for the Olympics or the Ironman he cannot wear a Speedo. We are not European.

  7. The ick factor was the POINT in Flowers, though. It wasn't just kind a "oh, let's go for this cool thing." The family was balls-out nuts and you were never meant to think "oh, how sad that this wonderful couple can't get together." Or at least, I certainly didn't.

    The ick factor is a big issue for me. I tried to read a book by...hmmmm...Kat Martin, maybe?... where the hero & heroine had been raised as siblings. They weren't actually related, but they had always been treated as siblings by their parents. But they had the total hots for each other anyway.

    Sorry. No go. Just gross. The problem isn't just the prohibition against incest, it's having the hots for someone you lived with as a kid. I mean...think about your family members for goodness sake!

    OK, I am going back to my corner now.

  8. If you're talking about City of Bones, I encourage you not to give up. The series is fantastic. One of my favorites.

  9. @ Laura: So you get where I'm coming from? There are very few lines you can cross and leave no possibility of interest for sexual exploration but the sibling line is a big on. Like, electrified wire fence line.

    @ Roni: Tkx! Always looking for book recs. (Seriously. I am always looking for good things to read. Series? BONUS!)

  10. Laurel, you're ruining the stereotype image you've created of yourself in my mind.

    My favorite scene of potential incest is in the original Back to the Future movie. Michael J Fox's expression when his teenage mom kisses him is one of the best reaction shots I can remember.

  11. @ Pete: Uh-oh! Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

    And the Michael J. Fox/Lea Thompson scenes are funny. Because he is completely icked out. So I may have to make that an axiom to sub rule section 6, para 3b. Incestuous overtones may be used for comedic effect in the event that one or both parties are immediately revolted by the very limited physical contact between the two.

  12. Sometimes I wish we celebrated more complexity in writing, more offbeat and challenging. But I get it. Writing a book is a big investment in time. People want their clear payoff. The romance needs to be big and undeniable.

    I wonder how most people reacted strongly to the incest element of Flowers in the Attic. It didn't nauseate me. But I was an only child, so what do I know?

  13. @ Jason: I agree that the offbeat and challenging are worthy goals, but there is a place for that. If your goal is genre fiction, you need to respect the expectations of your readers. This particular twist would have been better in Sci-Fi or Speculative Fiction, for example. Lit fic could also explore the idea if it was handled delicately.

    Pop fiction is like pop music. The creativity shouldn't stray too far off the reservation or it isn't what it is supposed to be. Fantasy has come a long way from the "must have a sword, an orphaned boy, and a quest" days but it is still genre. And even within a formula there is room for massive creativity.

    Our language is limited to only 26 letters but the possibile combinations are limitless. No one has had to go inventing new letters to make the words more interesting.