For as long as we can remember, storytellers have depicted idealized romances that would translate to abusive, unhealthy relationships in real life. Now audiences are starting to catch on, and anyone who wants their story to last has to update old conventions. But there’s a reason why creepy tropes are so popular; for many people, they still represent true love or passion. Storytellers today are tasked with depicting healthy relationships, while still evoking those emotions.
Here’s how to do that for some of the worst romance conventions:
The Sleeping Kiss
The Brothers Grimm changed romance forever when they published Little Briar Rose, wherein Prince Charming fulfills destiny by kissing Sleeping Beauty while she slumbers. She immediately wakes up after a 100 years’ rest, signaling to audiences that they were meant to be. Today, the sleeping kiss still represents true, destined love.
But someone who’s asleep can’t consent to being kissed. How would you feel if you lay down for a nap one afternoon, and some stranger wandered into your home and kissed you on the lips? Probably not great. And that’s why the sleeping kiss has to go.
However, that doesn’t mean lovers couldn’t meet in a similar fashion. They could even have some physical contact, but it must be for the benefit of the sleeping person, not the pleasure of the conscious person. The admirer could take the hand of the cursed sleeper, as that’s a gesture commonly used to comfort those who are ill. If the sleeper is on the floor, or in an otherwise uncomfortable looking position, the admirer could move them to a soft area and cover them with a blanket.
If the sleeper needs a romantic trigger to wake up, a small token of affection should suffice, such as closing their hands around a few flowers. Regardless of whether the sleeper wakens, don’t let the admirer become obsessed. Visiting every day to stare at a sleeping stranger isn’t healthy behavior.
The Surprise Kiss
The potential lovers are just friends, but one or both wants more. How do they transition from the friend zone to a couple? Surprise kiss! Without any signal of what’s about to happen, one of them kisses the other. Storytellers like this because it’s entertaining, and because it highlights the passionate and impulsive nature of their love.
But like the sleeping kiss, surprise kisses happen without getting consent first. I’m sure you can think of at least one friend you would not want to kiss you. While technically two people who go in for a surprise kiss at the same time are both consenting, it’s not much better because it’s too coincidental for real life. A real person executing a surprise kiss can’t expect the object of their affection to dive in simultaneously.
A couple’s first kiss requires clear, unambiguous permission. By far the best way to get it is for one of them to outright ask the other, “May I kiss you?” While this might seem like a mood killer, that’s only because we haven’t romanticized it yet. But we can – Disney’s Frozen provides a great example. Enough stories like those, and this question will have as much romantic significance as “Will you marry me?”* Done in the right manner, this question can be as passionate and impulsive as the surprise kiss.
The Fatal Breakup
The low point of the romance arrives – one of the lovers leaves the other. It’s a tragedy, and storytellers emphasize this by having one or both of the lovers go to extreme measures to display their pain. In Twilight, Bella engages in suicidal behavior in order to hallucinate about Edward. In other romances, it’s common for a former lover to slowly waste away out of grief, or to even just drop dead on the spot.
Self-harm should never be glorified in this manner. It tells audiences that their love isn’t real unless their life is threatened when it’s over. And as everyone begins to recognize this behavior and compare it to real life, it looks increasingly pathetic.
However, it’s okay for someone to mourn after a breakup. They can cry on a shoulder or two. They can change as a person, perhaps losing some innocence or naivety. You can use the five stages of grief as an inspiration. Perhaps your character starts in denial, then becomes angry, then tries to negotiate their way out of it. But no matter what emotions they go through, they must be on a path to the last stage: acceptance. Healthy people realize they will need to move on at some point.
Making your audience feel natural and healthy grief along with your character requires more thought than depicting melodramatic behavior, but it will create better results too. Early on, establish the dreams they have for their future together. After the breakup, they can look back on those dreams and realize they are lost forever. Important gifts they gave each other, and places where they created important memories, can be revisited to represent their longing. They can be reminded of each other when they see other people on the street who look similar. Details like these will draw in your audience because they can actually relate to them.
The Persistent Suitor
If two people just met, went on a date, and began a happy relationship, there wouldn’t be story. To make romance interesting, one or both of the potential lovers must be reluctant to start a relationship. Then they need an opportunity to change their minds. But all too often, only one of them is reluctant, and their admirer gives them a chance to change their mind through sheer persistence. Usually, these advances continue even after it’s clear they aren’t wanted. Traditionally, this behavior represented the strength of their affections.
But in real life, anyone who won’t take “no” for an answer is a harasser at best, a rapist at worst. It’s the calling card of a dangerous predator, and that’s the last thing we want for our romantic heroes. To steer clear of this, anything a potential lover says has to be taken at face value, as their final word on the matter. The admirer can ask a second time only if the object of their affection literally says, “I’m not sure,” or “Ask me later.”
There are better ways to keep couples from getting together. One of them could already be in a relationship. They could be friends that are nervous about asking for more. They could have vastly different traditions or lifestyles, making them think a relationship wouldn’t work. Many romances use a ploy where the two pretend to be lovers without actually meaning it. Take any of these challenges, then show how devotion motivates the characters to overcome them. That will give you a perfect replacement for persistent suitors.
The Uninvited Guest
The potential lovers have already met, but they’re not romantically involved. Then one of them suddenly shows up at the other’s home or workplace, without being invited or otherwise encouraged to do so. Their appearance isn’t a coincidence – they intentionally looked up the home or workplace and showed up to make advances, or just to watch them. Storytellers use these moments to give the two a chance to interact, and to illustrate the visitor’s longing for the host.
But we have a word for someone who invades another’s personal space and privacy: a stalker. It’s especially bad if the guest is visiting someone with any kind of customer service position while they are working. In these instances, the worker might risk losing their job just by turning the stalker away. These kinds of visits are only okay if a) it’s actually a coincidence, and the visitor just wants to say hi briefly or b) they have just learned the apocalypse is happening in four minutes, and if they don’t warn the other person, it will mean their death. The first is not an intentional invasion; the second is justified by extreme circumstances.
A potential lover can still go to extra effort to run into their crush. The key is that it must stay in the same context in which they met. If they met on the subway, one of them could go back to the same route and time repeatedly, hoping to see the other again. If they met at a party, one of them could ask the party’s host if their crush is going to be at the next one. This pattern should continue until the crush invites the admirer into other areas of their life.
Most outdated conventions are used out of laziness. They’re easy to think of, and they don’t require any effort to get their meaning across. But there are better options that add creativity and complexity to your character relationships. The extra work will pay off with a fresher story.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?