Writing

Lessons From Twilight vs Fifty Shades

Twilight vs Fifty Shades of Grey

We’ve dissected the first chapters of terrible novels and great ones.* We’ve looked at entire short stories, and now I’ll kick it up a notch. I’m going to pit two books against each other in a battle to the DEATH! No, I’m not sure how a book can die in battle. Just imagine it, okay?

I’ve selected two books that are indisputably similar: Twilight by Stephanie Meyer, and its off-brand offspring, Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James. I will jump to important sections in each book, cast judgement on each, and award one book a point. Then I’ll tally the points to find a winner. Which book will win? The answer will shock you not surprise you in the least.

The Opening

Which book makes the best first impression?

Twilight

Twilight starts with a preface.

I’d never given much thought to how I would die — though I’d had reason enough in the last few months — but  even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

[…]

I knew that if I’d never gone to Forks, I wouldn’t be facing death now. But, terrified as I was, I couldn’t bring myself to regret the decision. […]

The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me.

What we have here is a flash forward. It’s Meyer’s way of saying, “I swear there will be conflict later in this story, so bear with me!” This functions as a patch for a beginning without much conflict. You know what’s better? A beginning with conflict.

However, as flash forwards go, this is strong. It’s loaded with high stakes conflict and plenty of mystery. We don’t know who the hunter is, how she ends up threatened by him, what in Forks is so meaningful to her, and what happened in the last months to give her reason to think about her death. Plus, it’s only a half page long. Kudos.

That doesn’t mean the wordcraft couldn’t use help. Look at that awkward first sentence. It’s as though Meyer was trying to make her opening hook stronger just by lengthening it. Word economy matters; here’s how it could have been tightened:

Example

I’d imagined my death a lot in the last few months, but I never thought it would be like this.

Yes, I changed the content so she has thought about her death. The conflict is stronger that way. Also, it’s true. If Bella is really saying she doesn’t think about her own death before the climax of this book, she is a liar-pants.

Let’s move onto the actual opening chapter.

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt — sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.

Here we’re seeing the slowness we knew was coming. The first paragraph is devoted entirely to scene setting. Meyer adds some interest by contrasting the parka with the sunny sky and eyelet lace shirt, but it’s still mediocre as opening paragraphs go.

We have some more scene setting, and then…

It was to Forks that I now exiled myself — an action that I took with great horror. I detested Forks. […]

“Bella,” my mom said to me — the last of a thousand times — before I got on the plane. “You don’t have to do this.”

[…] I felt a spasm of panic as I stared at her wide, childlike eyes. How could I leave my loving, erratic, hair-brained mother to fend for herself? Of course she had Phil now, so the bills would probably get paid, […]

“I want to go.” I lied. I’d always been a bad liar, but I’d been saying this lie so frequently lately that it sounded almost convincing now.

[…]

“I’ll see you soon,” she insisted. “You can come home whenever you want — I’ll come right back as soon as you need me.”

But I could see the sacrifice in her eyes behind the promise.

After conflict is presented in an opening, the next important task is establishing the main character. For that, this is definitely above the curve. Meyer hasn’t yet revealed exactly why Bella is exiling herself,* but from these lines we can guess she is unusually responsible and self-sacrificing, two traits that are high in likability. We’ve also got some specific details: she’s a bad liar, and we know she’s stubborn because she’s been repeating the same lie over and over until her mother believed it.

But will someone please take the em-dash away from Meyer? She can have it back once she learns how to write without interrupting herself.

A little later we meet Bella’s father, Charlie. As the chapter continues, we slowly discover that Bella has a downside.

Charlie is Police Chief Swan to the good people of Forks. My primary motivation behind buying a car, despite the scarcity of my funds, was that I refused to be driven around town in a car with red and blue lights on top.

And then…

[Charlie] “Do you remember Billy Black down at La Push?” […]

“No.”

“He used to go fishing with us during the summer,” Charlie prompted.

That would explain why I didn’t remember him. I do a good job of blocking painful, unnecessary things from my memory.

And then…

It was beautiful of course, I couldn’t deny that. Everything was green, the trees, their trunks covered with moss […]

It was too green — an alien planet.

And my personal favorite…

I looked at my face in the mirror as I brushed through my tangled, damp hair. Maybe it was the light, but I already looked sallower, unhealthy. My skin could be pretty — it was very clear, almost translucent-looking — but it all depended on color. I had no color here.

This complaining about almost every little thing continues throughout the chapter. She doesn’t like the size of her new school, she can’t sleep while hearing the sound of the rain, and she is certain good luck avoids her. Meyer is probably trying to set her up as a relatable underdog, but the problems she’s choosing are too petty or, in the case of Bella’s appearance, downright insincere. It’s never enough to list problems to your reader; you must explain why those problems matter to the protagonist. For instance, if Bella had seasonal affective disorder, that would give her a great reason to hate those rain clouds.

Alright, Twilight has made its opening volley. Let’s see how Fifty Shades performs.

Fifty Shades of Grey

No preface here. Let’s start the first chapter.

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair—it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal.

Wait, what? Who is Katherine Kavanagh and how did she subject Anastasia to terrible hair?? I’ll say she’s Anastasia’s hairdresser, and she just needs one day off because she’s sick, for god’s sake.

Okay, okay, let’s read the whole paragraph. Maybe it will explain that the ordeal is not actually the hair but something more substantial.

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair—it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.

Nope, still hair.

So this is the worst of Bella wrapped up, tied off with a bow, and put right in the opening paragraph. And the way her clearly beautiful visage is presented as ugly is even less convincing. She has “eyes too big for her face”? Really?

Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of, for the student newspaper. So I have been volunteered. I have final exams to cram for and one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to
be working this afternoon, but no—today I have to drive 165 miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious
—much more precious than mine—but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me. Damn her extracurricular activities.

Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room. “Ana, I’m sorry. It took me nine months to get this interview. It will take another six to
reschedule, and we’ll both have graduated by then. As the editor, I can’t blow this off. Please,” Kate begs me in her rasping, sore throat voice. How does she do it? Even ill she looks gamine and gorgeous, strawberry blond hair in place and green eyes bright, although now red rimmed and runny. I ignore my pang of unwelcome sympathy.

This is clearly supposed to replace Bella’s sacrifice for her mother. But unlike Bella’s sacrifice, Anastasia’s support is begrudging. Anastasia blames Kate for something Kate has no control over and is almost certainly unhappy about. Anastasia even takes the time during Kate’s illness to feel jealous about how beautiful Kate is. And we know this resentment is on purpose, because Anastasia ignores the “unwelcome sympathy” she feels for the friend that is suffering more than she is.

Anastasia isn’t a likable character. That doesn’t mean every reader will dislike her. Some might strongly identify with her because they are students with unruly hair, or think of her as Bella because this was originally a Twilight fanfic, or just really want to like this book and its protagonist. But so far, Anastasia won’t charm anyone that’s not already on her side.

I’ll give the Fifty Shades opening one thing – it’s short. James gears up faster than Meyer does. This opening is James’ attempt at establishing Anastasia’s character and setting up conflict right away. If James had been a better writer, it could have succeeded.

Here’s what would need to change:

  • Anastasia would need to volunteer for this instead of being asked, and then she’d shouldn’t feel resentful or angry about it.
  • The hardship for Anastasia would have to feel real. Taking a day from study is just an inconvenience. Instead, what if Anastasia struggled with anxiety and rarely left her apartment? Or what if she was canceling an interview for an important job opportunity? Then she’ll actually feel selfless.
  • Because Anastasia is undergoing such hardship, this has to mean more to Kate. Maybe the interview is essential to Kate’s graduate thesis, and she couldn’t find anyone else who could do it for her.

As is, the opening of Fifty Shades is poor.

The opening round goes to: Twilight.

Introducing the Love Interest

The first glimpse of the love interest is essential. If you mess it up, your audience won’t be rooting for your romance. Let’s see how these books compare.

Twilight

Meyer uses a very slow build for her romance. She spends five entire pages describing Bella’s first sight of the high school vampires, and Edward in particular, as they sit on the other side of the cafeteria. This builds them up and creates romantic tension before Bella and Edward even meet.

They didn’t look anything alike. Of the three boys, one was big — muscled like a serious weight lifter, with dark curly hair. Another was taller, leaner, but still muscular, and honey blond. The last was lanky, less bulky, with untidy, bronze-colored hair…

After describing each boy vampire individually, the girls get the same treatment. This is a standard case of description overload and a great example of why you shouldn’t introduce more than two characters at once. No one will remember this unless they stop and draw a chart.

And yet, they were all exactly alike. Everyone of them was chalky pale, the palest of all the students living in this sunless town. Paler than me, the albino. […]

But all that is not why I couldn’t look away.

I started because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful.

Meyer continues to wax poetic about how beautiful and graceful they are for a couple more paragraphs. I have no doubt Meyer’s intent is to convey that the group is at a level above lil’ old Bella. It’s over the top, but it does the job.

“Who are they?” I asked the girl from my Spanish class, whose name I’d forgotten.

As she look up to see who I meant — though already knowing probably, from my tone — suddenly he looked at her, the thinner one, the boyish one, the youngest, perhaps. He looked at my neighbor for just a fraction of a second, and then his dark eyes flickered to mine.

He looked away quickly, more quickly than I could, though in a flush of embarrassment I dropped my eyes at once. In that brief flash of a glance, his face held nothing of interest — it was as if she had called his name, and he’d looked up in involuntary response, already having decided not to answer.

To emphasize Edward’s high status, his first response is disinterest. After all, since he’s one of the inhumanely beautiful people, why would he be interested in Bella?

Over the next two pages, Bella’s friend describes how the five students are the adopted kids of Dr. Cullen and his wife. They all moved down from Alaska two years ago. Her tone is that of a gossip in a judgmental small town, which builds sympathy for the vampires.

As I examined them, the youngest, one of the Cullens, looked up and met my gaze, this time with evident curiosity in his expression. As I looked swiftly away, it seemed to me that his glance held some kind of unmet expectation.

“Which one is the boy with the reddish brown hair?” I peeked at him from the corner of my eye, and he was still staring at me, but not gawking at me like the other students had today — he had a slightly frustrated expression. I looked down again.

“That’s Edward. He’s gorgeous, of course, but don’t waste your time. He doesn’t date. Apparently none of the girls here are good-looking enough for him.” She sniffed, a clear case of sour grapes. I wondered when he’d turned her down.

I bit my lip to hide my smile. Then I glanced at him again. His face was turned away, but I thought his cheek appeared lifted, as if he were smiling too.

Here we have more reinforcement of the idea that Edward is out of reach. This is an effective tactic used by many romances, including Pride and Prejudice. It makes the protagonist feel like an underdog and the love interest appear desirable.

But then, against all odds, we see tentative signs that Edward is fascinated by Bella. We even have a cute little bonding moment where they both inwardly laugh at the same thing. This inspires the reader to invest in their romance.

But what’s impressive here is how Meyer gives Edward consistent and understandable characterization even though she has revealed little about him, and he’s on the other side of the room. You’re probably familiar with this story, so you may know that Edward can read minds – but not Bella’s. That hasn’t been revealed yet, but Edward is behaving exactly as if that’s the case. He looks up when someone besides Bella thinks about him, then examines Bella in an attempt to read her thoughts, and finally becomes frustrated when he fails.

So many writers become sloppy in scenes like these. Either their characters will act contrary to information that is revealed later, or the writer simply won’t think through what their character is thinking and doing.

Despite being a little slow and over-the-top in its portrayal of the vampires, I give this introduction a positive rating.

Fifty Shades

Almost right after we left off, Anastasia shows up at Grey’s headquarters.

It’s a quarter to two when I arrive, greatly relieved that I’m not late as I walk into the enormous—and frankly intimidating—glass, steel, and white sandstone lobby.

Behind the solid sandstone desk, a very attractive, groomed, blonde young woman smiles pleasantly at me. She’s wearing the sharpest charcoal suit jacket and white shirt I have ever seen. She looks immaculate.

[…]

The elevator whisks me at terminal velocity to the twentieth floor. The doors slide open, and I’m in another large lobby—again all glass, steel, and white sandstone. I’m confronted by another desk of sandstone and another young blonde woman, this time dressed impeccably in black and white, who rises to greet me.

[…]

I know nothing about this man I’m about to interview. He could be ninety or he could be thirty. The uncertainty is galling, and my nerves resurface, making me fidget. I’ve never been comfortable with one-on-
one interviews, preferring the anonymity of a group discussion where I can sit inconspicuously at the back of the room. […]

I roll my eyes at myself. Get a grip, Steele. […]

Another elegant, flawlessly dressed blonde comes out of a large door to the right. What is it with all the immaculate blondes? It’s like Stepford here. Taking a deep breath, I stand up.

James is trying to set up the same out-of-reach mystique that Meyer uses on Edward. That’s why she goes into excessive detail about how rich and opulent his headquarters are and all the immaculate people there. I think she added the tower’s ridiculous population of blonds to demonstrate that Grey can have any woman he wants, including women supposedly more attractive than Anastasia because they’re blonder. The problem is that this setup suggests he is a serious creepster.

Yeah, Fifty Shades is supposed to be a BDSM fantasy, and Grey is a dom, but trust me, he can be a good dom without unethical hiring practices and a quid-pro-quo atmosphere.

We also see that Anastasia has some social anxiety after all, but it’s too late. If it had been already established earlier as an important obstacle, then it could have make her decision to come more powerful. Having it slapped on here just makes it feel like another petty complaint.

After spending way too long in various lobbies, Anastasia finally heads into Grey’s office.

I push open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own feet and falling headfirst into the office.

Double crap—me and my two left feet! I am on my hands and knees in the doorway to Mr. Grey’s office, and gentle hands are around me, helping me to stand.

For some reason I had the impression that this book was a kinky erotic romance. I must have heard wrong; it’s clearly a romantic comedy. Naturally Grey helps her up, because it’s soooo sexy when some random person touches you before you’ve even gotten a look at them.

I have to steel myself to glance up. […]

So young—and attractive, very attractive. He’s tall, dressed in a fine gray suit, white shirt, and black tie with unruly dark copper-colored hair and intense, bright gray eyes that regard me shrewdly.

Oh I see, the tie is the love interest. It has unruly hair and intense eyes, so it must be. I’m afraid I have misjudged this story; it’s about how Anastasia must free the tie from it’s creepy corporate overlord so they can be together.

It takes a moment for me to find my courage. In a daze, I reach out as if to shake Mr. Grey’s hand. Just before our fingers touch, I dart in and grab the tie, feeling an odd exhilarating shiver as its copper curls brush my palm. I withdraw my hand hastily, pulling the tie loose. I blink rapidly, my eyelids matching my heart rate as I flee towards the door, my love dangling from my arms.

If only that’s what James actually wrote, I’d hand this round to Fifty Shades. Here’s what the book actually says.

It takes a moment for me to find my voice.

“Um. Actually—” I mutter. If this guy is over thirty, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. In a daze, I place my hand in his and we shake. As our fingers touch, I feel an odd exhilarating shiver run through me. I withdraw my hand hastily, embarrassed. Must be static. I blink rapidly, my eyelids matching my heart rate.

Even pretending we didn’t witness a description failure of epic proportions, this is sillier than it is sexy. Slow down with the shivers and shocks! Build some actual rapport between these characters.

After Anastasia sits down, stutters, drops her digital recorder several times, and flushes, she finally asks this guy an interview question.

“You’re very young to have amassed such an empire. To what do you owe your success?” I glance up at him. His smile is rueful, but he looks vaguely disappointed.

“Business is all about people, Miss Steele, and I’m very good at judging people. I know how they tick, what makes them flourish, what doesn’t, what inspires them, and how to incentivize them. I employ an exceptional team, and I reward them well.” He pauses and
fixes me with his gray stare. “My belief is to achieve success in any scheme one has to make oneself master of that scheme, know it inside and out, know every detail. I work hard, very hard to do that. […]”

“Maybe you’re just lucky.” This isn’t on Kate’s list—but he’s so arrogant.

What?? James has established that Anastasia is SUPER nervous. Then she immediately turns around and disses this intimidating guy for giving a completely natural answer to her question. And continues to do so. Next, Grey says having the right people and helping them grow is what leadership is about, and she calls him a control freak. If Anastasia is a radical anarchist, this is a weird time to reveal that.

And Grey isn’t any better.

“And do you have any interests outside your work?”

“I have varied interests, Miss Steele.” A ghost of a smile touches his lips. “Very varied.”

And for some reason, I’m confounded and heated by his steady gaze. His eyes are alight with some wicked thought.

“But if you work so hard, what do you do to chill out?”

“Chill out?” He smiles, revealing perfect white teeth. I stop breathing. He really is beautiful. No one should be this good-looking.

“Well, to ‘chill out,’ as you put it—I sail, I fly, I indulge in various physical pursuits.” He shifts in his chair. “I’m a very wealthy man, Miss Steele, and I have expensive and absorbing hobbies.”

If you were a famous CEO with a kinky personal life, and some college student came to ask you generic interview questions for a school newspaper, would you be weirdly evasive about what you do for fun while giving her a creepy stare? No, you would just tell her what you like to do besides kinking, without the dismissive attitude. James is writing Grey’s lines for their effect on Anastasia, without considering what he would actually say as a person. And it doesn’t even benefit the romance. Grey needs to be competent to be attractive; this is just unprofessional.

While it may be hard to believe, James does salvage this scene a little. Grey becomes increasingly disapproving of Anastasia during the interview until he learns that she didn’t write the questions, and the reason she came unprepared is that she’s doing a last-minute favor for her friend. Why he likes Anastasia after that is anyone’s guess,* but they finally build a little rapport. The first chapter closes as he stuns his blonde secretary by canceling his next appointment and walking Anastasia out. Of course, he also suggests she get an internship at his company, because why not be a creep?

Introducing the Love Interest goes to: TWILIGHT

Unhealthy Romantic Moments

Both of these romances are problematic. But which one is worse?  For the sake of brevity, I’m skipping over problematic elements that aren’t a direct part of the central romance.

Twilight

“It would be more… prudent for you not to be my friend,” [Edward] explained. “But I’m tired of trying to stay away from you, Bella.”

Trying? Is Edward infected by an ant zombie fungus that moves his legs against his will? Romanticizing the idea that Edward is simply unable to keep himself away from Bella is not cool. The idea that men just can’t help themselves is used to justify rape in many cultures. And it’s insulting to men, too.

And it gets worse.

“I followed you to Port Angeles,” [Edward] admitted, speaking in a rush. “I’ve never tried to keep a specific person alive before, and it’s much more troublesome than I would have believed.  But that’s probably just because it’s you. Ordinary people seem to make it through the day without so many catastrophes.” He paused. I wondered if it should bother me that he was following me; instead I felt a strange surge of pleasure.

Edward is following Bella around; that makes him a stalker. Meyer is trying to cover this by insisting he’s doing it for Bella’s own good by protecting her. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with him protecting her. The problem is that he’s doing it on his terms instead of hers. He doesn’t ask her what she needs or what support she wants; he chooses for her. Meyer really wants us to believe that he knows what’s best for Bella and that Bella is a foolish girl who can’t take care of herself.

If that wasn’t enough, Edward also spies on Bella while she is sleeping, and he gets angry and jealous just thinking about her being with other guys.

“That was the first night I came here. I wrestled all night, while watching you sleep, with the chasm between what I knew was right, moral, ethical, and what I wanted. I knew that if I continued to ignore you as I should, or if I left for a few years, till you were gone, that someday you would say yes to Mike, or someone like him. It made me angry.”

These are all clear signs of an abusive relationship in the making. Meyer knows this. That line in the previous excerpt where Bella wonders if she should be bothered by Edward following her is Meyer lampshading the problem. Several other times in the book, Bella acknowledges to herself that her relationship with Edward is unhealthy, but she doesn’t care.

Edward also invites Bella to go alone with him in the woods, but he makes it clear that he might murder Bella once they are there. Naturally Bella agrees to go with him.

“You already know how I feel, of course,” I finally said. “I’m here… which, roughly translated, means I would rather die than stay away from you.” I frowned. “I’m an idiot.”

To prevent this murderous behavior he simply can’t control, Edward tries to ensure he will face consequences if he does murder Bella. Bella purposely sabotages those measures. Because she’s so in love with her murderer she doesn’t want him to face charges!

Clearly, Meyer does not give a crap about telling her audience that the abuse of women is really a romantic dream come true. If she did, she wouldn’t include this behavior. Instead, she parades possible abuse from Edward and Bella’s acceptance of it as signs that they’re really in love. Not like that fake, sub-par love that people who aren’t in abusive relationships have.

Then of course, we must throw in the obligatory slut-shaming nugget. After Bella finally asks Edward if vampires have sex, we get this exchange.

[Edward] seemed to deliberate for a moment. “I’m curious now, though,” he said, his voice light again. “Have you ever…?” He trailed off suggestively.

“Of course not.” I flushed. “I told you I’ve never felt like this about anyone before, not even close.”

Meyer is Mormon, and so naturally she wants Bella to follow Mormon values. That’s all and well, but if she’s going to do that, she should make Bella Mormon. But instead of framing Bella’s virginity as her personal choice based on her values, this “of course not” suggests that making any other choice would degrade her. It also implies their love would be inferior if Bella had ever felt this way before. Divorced people of the world: don’t bother dating again, because your love won’t be real.

We’ve looked at problematic elements in Twilight. Can they get worse? I think you know the answer.

Fifty Shades

James makes a big blunder with her premise – the story doesn’t have a built-in excuse for getting Grey and Anastasia to interact. So how does she get them back in the same room when they aren’t dating? If you guessed “by making Grey a creepy stalker,” then you’re correct!

Anastasia is earning her paycheck at a hardware store when Grey just happens to stop by to pick up some rope.

Then, for some reason, I glance up…and find myself locked in the bold gray gaze of Christian Grey, who’s standing at the counter, staring at me.

Heart failure.

“Miss Steele. What a pleasant surprise.” His gaze is unwavering and intense.

Holy crap. What the hell is he doing here, looking all outdoorsy […]

“Mr. Grey,” I whisper, because that’s all I can manage. There’s a ghost of a smile on his lips and his eyes are alight with humor, as if he’s enjoying some private joke.

Hitting on women where they work, not to mention where they can be fired for being rude to you, is creepy as hell. Grey says showing up at her workplace is a coincidence, but by the way he acts, that’s obviously not true.

Then a creepy male employee also shows up to hit on Anastasia, and we get to see how jealous Grey gets.

When I glance up at Christian Grey, he’s watching us like a hawk, his eyes hooded and speculative, his mouth a hard, impassive line. He’s changed from the weirdly attentive customer to someone else—someone cold and distant.

Naturally, Grey also won’t take “no” for an answer when he asks Anastasia out on for a date.

“I wondered if you would join me for coffee this morning.”

My heart slams into my mouth. A date? Christian Grey is asking me on a date. He’s asking if you want a coffee. Maybe he thinks you haven’t woken up yet, my subconscious whines at me in a sneering mood again. I clear my throat, trying to control my nerves.

“I have to drive everyone home,” I murmur apologetically, twisting my hands and fingers in front of me.

“Taylor,” he calls, making me jump. Taylor, who had been retreating down the corridor, turns and heads back toward us.

[…]

“Mr. Grey?” Taylor asks when he reaches us, giving nothing away.

“Please, can you drive the photographer, his assistant, and Miss Kavanagh back home?”

“Certainly, sir,” Taylor replies.

“There. Now can you join me for coffee?” Grey smiles as if it’s a done deal.

I frown.

“I have to drive everyone home” could be the real reason Anastasia isn’t saying yes to coffee, but it could also be a way of letting Grey down gently. Removing her excuse without inquiring about her motivation is manipulative behavior.

On the way to their coffee date, Grey just takes and holds her hand for no reason, without asking. Once they sit down for coffee, he inquires if she has a boyfriend. If he considered that an obstacle, why didn’t he ask before insisting she go to coffee with him or taking her hand? After coffee, he does the Edward thing by telling Anastasia she shouldn’t see him. When Edward did this hot-cold nonsense, it was at least before he asked Bella out.

Then once again, James is completely baffled by how to get her characters close enough to bat eyes. Which is why after telling Anastasia she shouldn’t have anything to do with him, Grey sends her a random gift of rare books with this quote.

Written on one side, in black ink in neat cursive handwriting, is:

Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me?
Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks…

I recognize the quote from Tess. I am stunned by the coincidence as I’ve just spent three hours writing about the novels of Thomas Hardy in my final examination. Perhaps there is no coincidence… perhaps it’s deliberate.

[…]

“This quote—Tess says it to her mother after Alec d’Urberville has had his wicked way with her.”

In case you had any doubt, “wicked way with her” means rape. The classic Tess of the d’Urbervilles is about a woman who is manipulated and raped by the villain. James mentions it throughout Fifty Shades as an analogy for her central romance.

Anastasia thinks this note is a warning, but that doesn’t make any sense, because they aren’t seeing each other so he has no reason to warn her away. So Anastasia drunk dials him, and more creepiness ensues.

“Why did you send me the books?” I slur at him.

“Anastasia, are you okay? You sound strange.” His voice is filled with concern.

“I’m not the strange one, you are.” There—that told him, my courage fueled by alcohol.

“Anastasia, have you been drinking?”

“What’s it to you?”

“I’m…curious. Where are you?”

“In a bar.”

“Which bar?” He sounds exasperated.

“A bar in Portland.”

“How are you getting home?”

“I’ll find a way.” This conversation is not going how I expected.

“Which bar are you in?”

“Why did you send me the books, Christian?”

“Anastasia, where are you? Tell me now.”

She is not interested in telling him where she is; she hangs up on him. That doesn’t prevent him from doing his creepy stalker thing. He shows up, commands her to drink water, brings her to his hotel room, takes her pants off while she’s passed out, and puts her in his bed to sleep.

Then the next morning he tells her this.

“You’re lucky I’m just scolding you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if you were mine, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week after the stunt you pulled yesterday. You didn’t eat, you got drunk, you put yourself at risk.” He closes his eyes, dread etched briefly on his face, and he shudders. When he opens his eyes, he glares at me. “I hate to think what could have happened to you.”

I scowl back at him. What is his problem? What’s it to him? If I was his …Well, I’m not. Though maybe part of me would like to be. The thought pierces through the irritation I feel at his high-handed words. I flush at the waywardness of my subconscious—she’s doing her happy dance in a bright red hula skirt at the thought of being his.

Grey is now suggesting Anastasia might be his personal possession that he can beat whenever he wants to. And Anastasia likes this. At least outright murdering her isn’t up for discussion. Though since what’s written here is closer to reality than blood-sucking vampires, I’m not sure this is better than the Twilight version. Edward doesn’t glorify beating Bella.

What makes Fifty Shades special is the way it not only depicts an abusive relationship but also blames that abuse on a real and innocent group of people. After Grey reveals to Anastasia that he’s into BDSM, we have this paragraph.

My mouth presses in a hard line. This is what I cannot reconcile. Kind, caring Christian, who rescues me from inebriation and holds me gently while I’m throwing up into the azaleas, and the monster who possesses whips and chains in a special room.

People who engage in consensual BDSM do not deserve to be called monsters. It’s possible this was intended as early prejudice by Anastasia, but if that’s the case, James fails to make that clear. As the story unfolds, James continues to treat Grey’s kink like it’s vampirism or something. She fails to portray BDSM roleplay in an accurate and respectful manner.

“What paperwork?”

“Well, apart from the NDA, a contract saying what we will and won’t do. I need to know your limits, and you need to know mine. This is consensual, Anastasia.”

No no no, that is not how consent works. You cannot sign away your right to refuse sexual activity. In BDSM communities, contracts are not a basis for consent but simply a tool to improve communication and planning. But Grey is presenting it like it’s legally binding. Later in the book, Anastasia tells him it isn’t enforceable, and Grey admits that’s true. Then he tells her he wouldn’t choose to bring her to court if she violated it, as if that’s actually an option.

As the book proceeds, Grey finally makes it clear he will never do anything that Anastasia doesn’t consent to, and he makes sure Anastasia knows her safewords (words used to halt a roleplaying session, particularly useful for roleplaying that might include a fake “no”). Even so, he insists that she signs a contract, pressures her to agree to a full three months instead of one, and tells her that if she can’t complete the full contract, it’s over between them. These mixed messages feel like the emotional manipulation of an abuser.

Like Twilight, James peddles the idea that men become stalkers because they are so in love and just can’t help themselves.

“Anastasia, I’ve told you. There’s something about you. I can’t leave you alone.” He smiles ironically. “I’m like a moth to a flame.” His voice darkens. “I want you very badly, especially now, when you’re biting your lip again.” He takes a deep breath and swallows.

My stomach somersaults—he wants me…in a weird way, true, but this beautiful, strange, kinky man wants me.

“I think you have that cliché the wrong way around,” I grumble. I am the moth and he is the flame, and I’m going to get burned. I know.

“Eat!”

“No. I haven’t signed anything yet, so I think I’ll hang on to my free will for a bit longer, if that’s okay with you.”

We also see that Grey doesn’t understand the difference between sexual roleplay and the rest of his life. Throughout the book, Anastasia acts like a submissive,* and Grey acts like a domineering asshole, outside of any agreement to roleplay in that manner. This spreads a terrible myth about kinksters: that their kink means something about their personality. In reality, a person who’s submissive or dominant in bed could just as easily be the opposite in their daily life.

On top of that, as Anastasia tries to discover Grey’s background, James strongly suggests that he’s kinky because of something traumatic that happened to him as a kid. Perhaps the trauma is only responsible for his stalker behavior or his discomfort with being touched, but this book makes no distinction between that and his kink. Suggesting that people have the sexual preferences they do because they were abused is a horrible shaming tactic. As long as what they do is consensual, they have nothing to be ashamed of.

James could be aiming for something better that doesn’t become clear until later books. Anastasia could learn her prejudices are wrong. Then with Anastasia’s support and encouragement, Grey could leave his self-loathing behind and learn to accept himself. Counseling could help him deal with his actual problems, such as being a controlling stalker. But even if these corrections appear in later books, it doesn’t make Fifty Shades itself any less problematic. And James didn’t need these problems to write a strong BDSM romance.

As it is, Fifty Shades dials up the problematic aspects from Twilight, then adds stereotyping of a marginalized group on top of that. Because time is short, I’m not even describing how James normalizes sexual assault as some “boys will be boys” thing.

Point for having a less problematic romance goes to: Twilight

Conflict & Climax

Creating conflicts between two people in love is hard enough. Stretch these conflicts out for a full novel, and they usually become repetitive. That’s why most romance novels have another big conflict to switch things up. It could force the pair to separate or simply change the nature of their relationship. Let’s see how Twilight and Fifty Shades manage their escalating romance and bring in outside help.

Twilight

The nature of Bella and Edward’s relationship continues to evolve throughout the book. First there’s some hate-love between acquaintances, then sort of dating, then hesitant dating with the threat of murder. Finally their relationship becomes official and Bella meets Edward’s vampire family. That includes Edward’s father, Carlisle, who is a benevolent doctor for humans, and his sister Alice, who has plot-convenient future vision.

Just as it begins to feel like they are an established couple, Meyer brings in an outside threat. While Bella is out in the woods with Edward and his family, they are approached by a new group of vampires coming into town. This group is lead by a vampire named Laurent, and unlike Edward’s family, they feed on humans. Bella tries to remain unnoticed as the vampires chat.

Three things seemed to happen simultaneously while Carlisle was speaking. My hair ruffled with the light breeze, Edward stiffened, and the second male, James, suddenly whipped his head around, scrutinizing me, his nostrils flaring.

A swift rigidity fell on all of them as James lurched one step forward into a crouch. Edward bared his teeth, crouching in defense, a feral snarl ripping from his throat.

[…]

When Laurent spoke, his tone was soothing — trying to defuse the sudden hostility. “It appears we have a lot to learn about each other.”

“Indeed.” Carlisle’s voice was still cool.

“But we’d like to accept your invitation [to visit].” His eyes flickered toward me and back to Carlisle. “And of course, we will not harm the human girl. We won’t hunt in your range, as I said.”

James glanced in disbelief and aggravation at Laurent…

James is the big villain of Twilight. Instead of being established early in the story as a villain should be, he pops into existence once Meyer needs a threat. He is introduced as nothing more than “the second male.”

Shortly after this, Bella, Edward, and vampire siblings flee to their car. Edward, clearly freaked out, speeds away.

“Pull over Edward.” Alice’s tone was reasonable, but there was a ring of authority in it I’d never head before.

The speedometer inched passed one-twenty.

“Do it Edward.”

“Listen to me, Alice. I saw his mind. Tracking is his passion, his obsession — and he wants her, Alice — her, specifically. He begins the hunt tonight.”

“He doesn’t know where –”

He interrupted her. “How long do you think it will take him to cross her scent in town? His plan was already set before the words were out of Laurent’s mouth.”

Conveniently, James is obsessed with hunting Bella after seeing her for only a few moments. Despite this arrangement, the villain still doesn’t feel scary. Bella has a full five vampires on her side. This is just one, with perhaps the help of a friend.

So Meyer tries to make him more threatening with a conversation between Carlisle, Laurent, and Emmet, Edward’s muscled brother.

“What will he do?” Carlisle asked Laurent in chilling tones.

“I’m sorry,” he answered. “I was afraid, when your boy there defended her, that it would set him off.”

“Can you stop him?”

Laurent shook his head. “Nothing stops James when he gets started.”

“We’ll stop him,” Emmet promised. There was no doubt what he meant.

“You can’t bring him down. I’ve never seen anything like him in my three hundred years. He’s absolutely lethal. That’s why I joined his coven.”

His coven, I thought, of course. The show of leadership in the clearing was merely that, a show.

It turns out this “second male” is actually a super badass coven leader that no other vampire can kill. The effectiveness of this conversation in establishing a threat is questionable: is he really so lethal he can defeat five other vampires? If he had a unique and devastating magic power, that would make it more believable. And like everything else, these details should have been established earlier. As written, this is the cherry garnish on a contrivance cupcake.

However, this snippet does improve the explanation for James’s obsession with Bella – Edward offended his pride. If Meyer had shown that during the scene instead of telling it later, the villain’s motivation might have felt natural.

Edward’s family isn’t completely stupid, just somewhat stupid, so even though they part ways, Bella always has two vampires as bodyguards. To get Bella alone, James calls her and reveals he is holding her mother hostage.

[James] “Now I want you to listen very carefully. I’m going to need you to get away from your friends; do you think you could do that? Answer yes or no.”

“No.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I was hoping you would be a little more creative than that. Do you think you could get away from them if your mother’s life depended on it? Answer yes or no.”

[…] “Yes.”

“That’s better. I’m sure it won’t be easy, but if I get the slightest hint that you have any company, well, that would be very bad for your mother.”

So Bella decides to sacrifice herself, without making any effort to inform her super-human bodyguards that she or her mother are in trouble. It’s a bit much, but at least Meyer has thoroughly established that running toward the nearest death trap is part of Bella’s character.

So Bella ditches the friendly vamps and goes to meet James. Their meeting must be the incident Meyer refers to in her preface/flash-forward. Unfortunately, Meyer doesn’t do anything to acknowledge that she is returning to the beginning clip or even make it fit. Bella doesn’t consider whether she has any regrets in this scene. She also contradicts the opening line of the preface by thinking “There would be no quick end like I’d been counting on.” I told you she was a liar-pants.

When Bella arrives at the meeting spot, she finds an old home video with her mother in it. A clip from it was obviously used to fake her mother’s presence over the phone call.

And suddenly it hit me, my mother was safe. She was still in Florida. She’d never gotten my message. She’d never been terrified by the dark red eyes in the abnormally pale face before me.

[…] “You don’t sound angry that I tricked you.”

“I’m not.” My sudden high made me brave. What did it matter now? It would soon be over. Charlie and Mom would never be harmed, would never have to fear.

Bella is the main character, and this mistake does not make her look good. That’s okay, because now Bella has to face the big bad villain alone. Edward can’t steal agency from her. So does Bella use her wit to trick James or her ingenuity to alert the others?

No. She just wants to die quickly.

Through the nausea and dizziness I saw something that gave me a sudden, final shred of hope. His eyes, merely intent before, burned with an uncontrollable need. The blood — spreading crimson across my white shirt, pooling rapidly on the floor — was driving him mad with thirst. No matter his original intentions, he couldn’t draw this out much longer.

Let it be quick now…

… I could see, through the long tunnels my eyes had become, his dark shape coming toward me. With my last effort, my hand instinctively raised to protect my face. My eyes closed, and I drifted.

The most proactive thing Bella does during the climax is to put her hand in front of her face. And even though this vamp has super speed and amazing reflexes, he decides to go ahead and suck on her hand instead of just pushing it aside to get to her neck.

I was brought back, almost to the surface, by a sharp pain slashing my upraised hand, but I couldn’t find my way back far enough to open my eyes.

And then I knew I was dead.

Because, through the heavy water, I heard the sound of an angel calling my name, calling me to the only heaven I wanted.

“Oh no, Bella, no!” the angel’s voice cried in horror.

Behind that longed-for sound was another noise — an awful tumult that my mind shied away from. A vicious bass growling, a shocking snapping sound, and a high keening, suddenly breaking off…

You have just witnessed the demise of the primary villain. Those sounds are all we experience of the fight against the “lethal” vampire. Edward pulls James off of Bella when he arrives but does not otherwise participate. Instead, two side characters finish the big bad off, raising the question: why didn’t they just do that in the first place?

Also, the gimmicky “And then I knew I was dead,” dramatically placed in its own paragraph, won’t fool anyone. All it might do is make readers feel manipulated. Don’t put little tricks like that in your narrative.

“Carlisle! Her hand!”

“He bit her.” Carlisle’s voice was no longer calm, it was appalled.

I heard Edward catch his breath in horror.

“Edward, you have to do it.” It was Alice’s voice, close by my head. […]

“No!” he bellowed.

“Alice,” I moaned.

“There may be a chance,” Carlisle said. “See if you can suck the venom back out. The wound is fairly clean.”

[…]

“Carlisle, I…” Edward hesitated. “I don’t know if I can do that.” There was agony in his beautiful voice again.

[…]

“Edward, you must do it now, or it will be too late.”

Edward’s face was drawn. I watched his eyes as the doubt was suddenly replaced by a blazing determination…

This is the actual climax of the story; the villain was just an excuse to get here. In this excerpt, Edward gets an important final test. If he can start sucking her blood and then stop himself, it will prove he can be in a relationship with Bella without her becoming his victim. If Bella had just gotten her own moment of positive agency, this would be nice. Instead it just emphasizes how disempowered she is.

And why does Edward have to be the one to suck on her hand? Plenty of other vamps are hanging around, and Meyer has established that Bella is especially tempting to Edward. Edward would never do it himself if another vampire with a better chance of resisting was available. Meyer should have left the defeat of the villain and this sucking moment to just Bella and Edward. Having the other vampires present is trivializing their victory.

Altogether, the escalating conflict and climax of Twilight has some serious flaws. Let’s see how Fifty Shades does.

Fifty Shades

The romance in Fifty Shades doesn’t really evolve like it does in Twilight. The majority of the plot goes like this.

Grey: Will you sign my roleplay contract?

Anastasia: This is probably the wrong choice, but yes.

Grey: Now obey me in all things.

Anastasia: No, I haven’t signed the contract yet.

Grey: Good point well made. Kinky sex now.

Anastasia: Oh my.*

[Kinky sex happens.]

Anastasia: I feel gross about the kinky sex I consented to and enjoyed, and it’s all your fault for being a monster! Plus, you’ll never love me; all you want is kinky sex.

Everyone: We’re pretty sure he loves you.

Grey: I will try regular dating, just give me some time.

Anastasia: My inner goddess is doing happy somersaults!*

And the cycle repeats over and over and over. Sure, there are variations. They go to different places, talk to different people, and get a little more acquainted with each other, but this basic conflict stays the same for almost the entire book. To be fair, the story also includes Anastasia’s quest to uncover Grey’s past, so she can figure out why he is creepy/kinky. Even if that wasn’t problematic, she finds out almost nothing anyway. By the end, I would expect anyone to get bored with this book, even those who are reading just to get hot and bothered.

But there’s some conflict outside this drama cycle, right?

Well, there’s this.

“Ana Steele, I’m Jack Hyde, the acquisitions editor here at SIP, and I’m very pleased to meet you.”

We shake hands, and his dark expression is unreadable, though friendly enough, I think.

“Have you traveled far?” he asks pleasantly.

“No, I’ve recently moved to the Pike Street Market area.”

“Oh, not far at all then. Please, take a seat.”

I sit, and Elizabeth takes a seat beside him.

“So why would you like to intern for us at SIP, Ana?” he asks.

He says my name softly and cocks his head to one side, like someone I know—it’s unnerving. Doing my best to ignore the irrational wariness he inspires, I launch into my carefully prepared speech, conscious that a rosy flush is spreading across my cheeks.

So we have a new boss with creepy vibes, named after Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He appears a little over 2/3rds through the book. Maybe like in Twilight, he’s a convenient villain.

Twenty pages later, he gets Anastasia to sign a roleplaying contract by threatening her mother. Just kidding, we never see this guy again. The rest of the book takes place before Anastasia starts work. Maybe Jack Hyde is a villain in the next book. Or considering how creepy Grey is, Hyde could be a competing love interest.

We can’t give up yet. There could still be some helpful external conflict in this story. This appears 9/10 of the way through the book.

I glance down at my phone and frown; there’s a missed call from Christian. He never phones me. I call him straight back.

“Anastasia,” he answers immediately.

“Hi,” I murmur shyly.

“I have to return to Seattle. Something’s come up. I am on my way to Hilton Head now. Please apologize to your mother—I can’t make dinner.” He sounds very businesslike.

“Nothing serious, I hope?”

“I have a situation that I have to deal with. I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll send Taylor to collect you from the airport if I can’t come myself.” He sounds cold. Angry even. But for the first time, I don’t immediately think it’s me.

“Okay. I hope you sort out your situation. Have a safe flight.”

“You too, baby,” he breathes, and with those words, my Christian is back. Then he hangs up.

Oh no. The last “situation” he had was my virginity. Jeez, I hope it’s nothing like that.

The star-crossed lovers are parted by a situation! Oh my, what will this situation entail?

Over the next several pages Anastasia continually asks about “the situation,” discovering only that it hasn’t been resolved but nothing about what it is. Then she joins him at his place in Seattle.

I have no idea what kind of mood Christian’s going to be in when I arrive. My inner goddess is hopeful for one type of mood; my subconscious, like me, is fraught with nerves.

The elevator doors open, and I’m in the foyer. It is so strange not to be met by Taylor. Of course, he’s parking the car. In the great room, Christian is on his BlackBerry, talking quietly as he stares through the glass doors at the early evening Seattle skyline. He’s wearing a gray suit with the jacket undone, and he’s running his hand through his hair.
He’s agitated, tense even. Oh no—what’s wrong? Agitated or not, he’s still a fine sight. How can he look so…arresting?

“No trace…Okay…Yes.” He turns and sees me, and his whole demeanor changes. From tension to relief to something else: a look that calls directly to my inner goddess, a look of sensual carnality, his eyes scorching.

My mouth goes dry and desire blooms in my body…whoa.

“Keep me informed,” he snaps, and shuts off his phone as he strides purposefully toward me. I stand paralyzed as he closes the distance between us, devouring me with his eyes. Holy shit…something’s amiss—the strain in his jaw, the anxiety around his eyes.

That is the last readers hear about this “situation.”

Fifty shades isn’t a story; it’s a piece of one. Not only does it lack a good external conflict to give the romance some relief from monotony, but it has no satisfying climax. What good is erotica without a climax?

Point for conflict & climax goes to: Twilight

The Ending

Which book has the best closing?

Twilight

Meyer starts setting up for her ending note during the story’s climax. This is what the villain says to Bella after he’s caught her.

“It happened once, oh, ages ago. The one and only time my prey escaped me.

“You see, the vampire who was so stupidly fond of this little victim made the choice that your Edward was too weak to make. When the old one knew I was after his little friend, he stole her from the asylum where he worked […] — and as soon as he freed her he made her safe. […] The old vampire made her a strong new vampire, there was no reason for me to touch her then.”

This clearly sticks in Bella’s head. After she wakes up in the hospital she mentions it to Edward.

“I’ll be the first to admit that I have no experience with relationships,” I said. “But it just seems logical . . . a man and woman have to be somewhat equal . . . as in, one of them can’t always be swooping in and saving the other one. They have to save each other equally.

[…]

“You have saved me,” he said quietly.

“I can’t always be Lois Lane,” I insisted. “I want to be Superman, too.”

Did you hear that, Meyer? Your main character wants to be more than a useless lump during her stories. Maybe you should give her a little agency or something.

This is what drives me nuts about Meyer. She is clearly aware of everything she’s doing wrong; she just doesn’t bother to fix it. Instead of looking ignorant, she now comes off as lazy and uncaring. This is why you shouldn’t lampshade problems that you can actually resolve.

The idea of Bella becoming a vampire does not go over well with Edward. He wants Bella to have a normal human life, and she doesn’t. Obviously Edward and Bella’s opinions about how Bella should live her life are not equal in merit, but naturally Meyer ignores that. The two argue to an impasse.

But the book doesn’t end in the hospital. We cut to new scene.

Edward helped me into his car, being very careful of the wisps of silk and chiffon, […]

“At what point exactly are you going to tell me what’s going on?” I asked grumpily. I really hated surprises. And he knew that.

“I’m shocked that you haven’t figured it out yet.” He threw a mocking smile in my direction…

[…]

“You’re taking me to the prom!” I yelled.

It was embarrassingly obvious now. If I’d been paying any attention at all, I’m sure I would have noticed the date on the posters that decorated the school buildings. […]

He wasn’t expecting the force of my reaction, that was clear. He pressed his lips together and his eyes narrowed. “Don’t be difficult, Bella.”

My eyes flashed to the window; we were halfway to the school already.

“Why are you doing this to me?” I demanded in horror.

To give the relationship a sense of romantic closure, Meyer decides to end with prom. Bella has no interest in prom, but who cares what Bella thinks?Naturally Bella’s friend Jacob appears for a dance with her, and we have a moment where Edward is super jealous because somehow abusive behavior = love.

Edward and Bella get to some real talk.

“I brought you to the prom,” he said slowly, finally answering my question, “because I don’t want you to miss anything. I don’t want my presence to take anything away from you, if I can help it. I want you to be human, I want your life to continue as it would have if I’d died in nineteen-eighteen like I should have.”

I shuddered at his words, and then shook my head angrily. “In what strange parallel dimension would I ever have gone to prom of my own free will? If you weren’t a thousand times stronger than me, I would never have let you get away with this.”

This is so self aware that it’s painful. The fact that Edward can overpower Bella is literally the reason she’s at prom against her wishes. He is using that power to impose his idea of what a good life is on her. GROSS.

“I’m curious — what did you think I was dressing you up for?”

[…]

“Well… I assumed it was some kind of … occasion. But I didn’t think it would be some trite human … prom!” I scoffed.

“Human?” he asked flatly. He’d picked up on the key word.

I looked down at my dress, fidgeting with a stray piece of chiffon. He waited in silence.

“Okay,” I confessed in a rush. “So I was hoping that you might have changed your mind… that you were going to change me, after all.”

[…]

“So ready for this to be the end,” he murmered, almost to himself, “for this to be the twilight of your life, though your life has barely started. You’re ready to give up everything.”

“It’s not the end, it’s the beginning,” I disagreed under my breath.

Here Meyer works to integrate her “happy” ending into what is clearly an important conflict in upcoming books. Despite my disgust at the way Bella is treated, I think Meyer’s choice of ending tone is a strong one. It provides a sense of conclusion while giving readers something to anticipate in future works. It continues the evolution of Edward and Bella’s relationship. And Meyer even works the title in here.

Let’s look at the ending lines.

I touched his face. “Look,” I said. “I love you more than everything else in the world combined. Isn’t that enough?”

“Yes, it is enough,” he answered smiling. “Enough for forever.”

And he leaned down to press his cold lips once more to my throat.

For her ending line, Meyer chooses something that brings out the premise of the book. We’ve got threat and lust wrapped up right there. However, it feels odd after reading the ending scene. Edward isn’t cold or threatening anymore. It also doesn’t help pass the torch to the next book. Instead, I would use Bella’s “It’s not the end, it’s the beginning” as the closing line. Or something similar about twilight coming before dawn. That would tell loyal readers to pick up the next book. The current closing feels like it’s targeted at shoppers who skip all the way to the end before deciding whether to read the book at all. Do people do that?

Fifty Shades

All right, let’s see how Fifty shades finishes. Grey and Anastasia are doing their kinky thing. She runs away from a spanking, and he makes chase.

“Anyone would think you didn’t want me to catch you.”

“I don’t. That’s the point. I feel about punishment the way you feel about my touching you.”

His entire demeanor changes in a nanosecond. Gone is playful Christian, and he stands staring at me as if I’ve slapped him. He’s ashen.

“That’s how you feel?” he whispers.

[…]

“Well…no,” I reassure him. Jeez—that’s how he feels about people touching him?  “No. I feel ambivalent about it. I don’t like it, but I don’t hate it.”

“But last night, in the playroom, you…”

“I do it for you, Christian, because you need it. I don’t. You didn’t hurt me last night. That was in a different context, and I can rationalize that internally, and I trust you. But when you want to punish me, I worry that you’ll hurt me.”

His eyes darken like a turbulent storm. Time moves and expands and slips away before he answers softly.

“I want to hurt you. But not beyond anything that you couldn’t take.”

This a little strange, because the erotic scenes sure make it sound like she enjoys spankings. But arousal isn’t everything; maybe she has other reasons for not liking them, and that’s fine. But if she really is ambivalent rather than uncomfortable, engaging in it to make someone she loves happy is more like a molehill than a mountain.

But James needs conflict in this romance, and she’ll use inconsistent characters with mixed messages to get it.

[Anastasia] “Show me how much it can hurt.”

“What?”

“Punish me. I want to know how bad it can get.”

Christian steps back away from me, completely confused.

“You would try?”

“Yes. I said I would.” But I have an ulterior motive. If I do this for him, maybe he will let me touch him.

He blinks. “Ana, you’re so confusing.”

“I’m confused, too. I’m trying to work this out. And you and I will know, once and for all, if I can do this. If I can handle this, then maybe you—” My words fail me, and his eyes widen again. He knows I am referring to the touch thing. For a moment, he looks torn, but then a steely resolve settles on his features, and he narrows his eyes, gazing at me
speculatively as if weighing up alternatives.

This is clearly a bad idea. Until now Grey has been trying to ease her into BDSM as any sane person would do. Now they’re jumping to the end, without even discussing whether Grey can live without the more intense parts of his routine.

I can believe that Anastasia is stupid enough to ask for something she can’t handle because of an ulterior motive she probably won’t get, but Grey is experienced enough to know better. Yet he doesn’t, so he takes out a belt and gives her six lashes.

“Six,” I whisper as the blistering pain cuts across me again, and I hear him drop the belt behind me, and he’s pulling me into his arms, all breathless and compassionate…and I want none of him.

“Let go…no…” And I find myself struggling out of his grasp, pushing him away. Fighting him.

“Don’t touch me!” I hiss. I straighten and stare at him, and he’s watching me as if I might bolt, eyes wide, bemused. I dash the tears angrily out of my eyes with the backs of my hands, glaring at him.

“This is what you really like? Me, like this?” I use the sleeve of the bathrobe to wipe my nose.

He gazes at me warily.

“Well, you are one fucked-up son of a bitch.”

“Ana,” he pleads, shocked.

“Don’t you dare ‘Ana’ me! You need to sort your shit out, Grey!” And with that, I turn stiffly, and I walk out of the playroom, closing the door quietly behind me.

I’m starting to think Anastasia is emotionally abusive herself. Asking him to do this and then tearing him down when he does is certainly abusive behavior. However, she does apologize once she calms down. If only Grey didn’t answer with “you didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know.” Sigh. Is it really too much to expect a kinky erotica to not kink shame?

“I don’t think I can be everything you want me to be,” I whisper. His eyes widen, and he blinks, his fearful expression returning.

“You are everything I want you to be.”

What?

“I don’t understand. I’m not obedient, and you can be as sure as hell I’m not going to let you do that to me again. And that’s what you need, you said so.”

He closes his eyes again, and I can see myriad emotions cross his face. When he reopens them, his expression is bleak. Oh no.

[…]

“I’ve fallen in love with you, Christian.”

His eyes widen again, but this time with pure, undiluted fear.

“No,” he breathes as if I’ve knocked the wind out of him.

Oh no.

“You can’t love me, Ana. No…that’s wrong.” He’s horrified.

“Wrong? Why’s it wrong?”

“Well, look at you. I can’t make you happy.” His voice is anguished.

“But you do make me happy.” I frown.

“Not at the moment, not doing what I want to do.”

Holy fuck. This really is it. This is what it boils down to—incompatibility—and all those poor subs come to mind.

“We’ll never get past that, will we?” I whisper, my scalp prickling in fear.
He shakes his head bleakly. I close my eyes. I cannot bear to look at him.

That marks the end of their relationship. Or the end for now; we all know it’s temporary. James is trying to use all the lines about love and happiness to make their breakup more tragic, but frankly, it just feels like they’re not trying that hard to make it work. They don’t give each other time to adjust. They don’t sit down and discuss what their deal breakers are and what they can compromise on before deciding their needs are mutually exclusive. If they really wanted to stay together that badly, they would do that. The whole breakup feels inconsistent and contrived. But at least the drama cycle is over…for now.

All right, it’s time for the last paragraph.

I fall onto my bed, shoes and all, and howl. The pain is indescribable…physical, mental…metaphysical…it is everywhere, seeping into the marrow of my bones. Grief. This is grief—and I’ve brought it on myself. Deep down, a nasty, unbidden thought comes from my inner goddess, her lips contorted in a snarl…the physical pain from the bite of a belt is
nothing, nothing compared to this devastation. I curl up, desperately clutching the flat foil balloon and Taylor’s handkerchief, and surrender myself to my grief.

So that’s what we call purple prose, or melodrama. In my experience, melodrama occurs when a writer wants to make a passage very emotional, but doesn’t know how. Instead of showing events that are sad, THEY SHOUT ABOUT HOW SAD EVERYTHING IS. Emotion has to be evoked, not told.

To make readers cry, James needed to have narrated a parting scene that was truly touching and tragic. She should have leaned on body language that showed their longing for each other, thoughts on how the happy future they planned will never come to be, and reminders of their good times together. It would help if their romance included some times that were actually happy. As it is, the only gifts Anastasia has to return to Grey are ones she didn’t want, but that he forced on her anyway. Since the only good thing they had together was sex, trying to make their breakup matter is an uphill battle.

Even if James didn’t succeed at evoking tears, she still could have done better than purple prose.

Point for the ending goes to: Twilight

And the Winner Is…

Twilight, obviously. Twilight isn’t a strong work, but it isn’t terrible either. It has strong characterization, a passable plot, and emotionally compelling scenes. Why does it have such a bad reputation? Because Twilight is for women, and people are sexist.

Sure, there could be other explanations, but it becomes pretty obvious once you look at works on the masculine side of the spectrum. Let’s take Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time works. They are just as problematic as Twilight and contain gratuitous male wish-fulfillment. Jordan’s story is messy and bloated; his skill is not superior to Meyer’s. But his works don’t have the reputation for being terrible that Twilight has. In fact, the series as a whole (including Sanderson’s portion) was nominated for a Hugo in 2014.

Fifty Shades, on the other hand, is a train wreck. James has some good instincts, she just lacks any idea of how to implement them. If she learns how, she might be a great writer. But unfortunately, having so many bestselling works probably won’t inspire her to improve. Her work successfully arouses and satisfies a demographic willing to spend money on books; that’s probably good enough for her.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. Sam

    I could use a lesson from this. I’m currently writing a time-traveling romance that I got influence from a Greek myth (the Persephone myth (along with psychological themes from Jung and Freud).

    I could use all the lessons from this article on how not to write like Twilight or 50 Shades. Make my protagonist couple with a healthy relationship and actual conflict. Thanks for this.

  2. Passerby

    Because of course, non-religious people can’t decide not to have sex before marriage…

    • Cay Reet

      No, because you should give a reason for that decision. It can be religion, it also could be little interest in sex overall, not being good with other people, living a very sheltered life, and a lot of other reasons. But they need to be well-communicated.

      • Passerby

        But why should you need a reason NOT to do something? There should rather be a reason to do something. Really, not every teenager had sex, and now you are suggesting that everybody who didn’t is socially awkward, sheltered or devout. What’s wrong with just assuming little interest and moving on? Does Bella really have to say, “You know what, I was never really interested in sex”? You don’t typically presume that someone is interested in cars unless they give you some indication. You don’t have to explictly say you’re not interested in cars, why should it be different with sex. Like I read somewhere on this website, it’s a want, not need.

        • Kate

          They’re talking about their sexual histories, a normal thing to do in a romantic relationship and a natural time to say “I’ve never really been interested in sex” or something similar. Really, the point is that once the writing raises the “have you had sex” question, pretty much any answer is better than “Of course not!”

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Remember, Passerby, it’s the book that brings up the issue of whether Bella has had sex before. Then it asserts that Bella would have been degraded if she had.

  3. Tyson Adams

    I’m just impressed you managed to read and analyse both books without needing therapy.

    In all seriousness, my partner enjoyed the Twilight books and couldn’t stand the 50 Shades book. My main issue with Twilight (based on the movies) was that the relationship was emotionally abusive. I agree that the main reason Twilight is derided is that it is aimed at a female teen audience, since it is a high school romance, with the requisite melodrama that entails. It achieves exactly what it aims to, even with the flaws Chris outlined.

  4. Conniecappadonia

    Twight.is.better.then.fifty.shades.of
    .gray.twight.had.more.romance

  5. Jesse

    I enjoyed your analysis of both books, I hope you continue comparisons in future posts.

    In the section on conflict, you wrote that Bella is a lair-pants instead of a liar-pants. You should give your editor a hard time.

    • Chris Winkle

      Thanks for the correction!

      I would give them a hard time, but they’re generous volunteers, so I’d better not push my luck.

  6. William Hainline

    I don’t think “Twilight” is roundly hated because people are sexist. I was in a literary criticism class two semesters ago, and everyone there hated it — women included — because of the abusive nature of Bella and Edward’s relationship, and because of Meyer’s blatant anti-feminism. With regard to Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series, well, it’s problematic — but in a completely different way than “Twilight” was or is . . . Most of its problems come from Jordan’s gendered approach to creating a magic system as well as the con-world’s basic social infrastructure. So whereas it’s not as chocked-full of pointedly, blatantly unhealthy relationship models and its female characters are not as plainly anti-feminist as Bella is, it’s still got some major issues . . . However, which work would I have a bigger problem with my daughter (if I had a daughter) reading just for fun? Definitely “Twilight.” The “Wheel of Time” won’t encourage her to date someone as patently abusive and as hateful toward women as Edward Cullen.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Just to be clear, we’re certainly not denying that Twilight is hella sexist, because it is.

      However, I think Wheel of Time is significantly more sexist than you’re giving it credit for.

    • Kate

      Is it possible that the difference in reaction is at least partly due to the fact that Twilight’s issues are mostly on a level of interpersonal dynamics while Wheel of Time’s issues are more systemic? It’s easy to imagine one’s daughter in a relationship with an abusive man like Edward. It’s harder to see how a gendered magic system normalizes the idea that women should fill specific (devalued) social roles and that powerful women can’t have healthy relationships with men. It’s even harder to see how internalizing that message might harm one’s daughter.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        That’s certainly part of it Kate. Although Wheel of Time also has it’s fair share of abusive relationships.

        • Kate

          Ah, unfortunate. I haven’t actually read Wheel of Time, just your article on how sexist it is.

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