Storytelling: one partner forever

Today, I’ll look into another romance-related part of storytelling: a scenario when a character has only one partner over the whole story. I’ll share my thoughts about scenarios where this works well and why – as well as mention a few alternatives.

I’ve probably mentioned it several times: I like romance subplots in my books but I’m not someone who’d go for a book where the romance is the dominant story element or the main driving force of the story. I like it the most when it’s something that allows the reader to further delve into the character while they’re going through whatever the author puts in their way.

Why am I mentioning this here? Because it has an impact on what type of romance subplots I tend to come across and because there are differences between romance being a subplot or the main plot. ‘Screen time’ being one of them.

Now, what do I mean by ‘one partner forever’ scenario? That’s simple: a story where the (most often) MC stays with the first romantic interest he’s seen with in the story.

Why can this work? I’ve touched this topic a bit some time before – in my two posts about romance elements in fantasy and the way they impact the endings. To sum those two posts up: positive ending tends to feel more satisfying, which is a strong reason for happy-ever-after or happy-for-now endings. Facing emotional challenges on personal level gives depth to characters when they’re already struggling against the main cause of trouble. And, finally, relationship lasting forever is just another level of escapism from the rarely-so-optimistic real life.

It’s about length

To elaborate: there are two different aspects of length: book length and story length. Even though these may be correlated. Book length is, simply said, the page/word count. Story length is how much time passes in the (fictional) world from the story’s start to the story’s end.

Obviously, book length is a limiting factor for story length – a 150-page book won’t likely cover more than a few days/weeks. A 400-page book, however, can have a plot spanning a week – or half a year. Worldbuilding and underlying ‘systems’ affect this – in the typical story where a hero spends some time to find a mentor, this part might flow fast only to slow down when they do, because the training takes time – and the pace then picks up when they’re to confront the antagonist (ready or not).

How this ties to romance subplots? Just as any aspect of a story, the romance takes time to develop. And unless there are simultaneous love interests, the story length limits how many chances a character has to fall in love.

And the longer a story is, the more challenging is it for one-love story to feel realistic. While a happy ever after scenario is a good ending, it’s good because it’s an ending. The driving force of a romance subplot is struggle – and reaching the HEA point means no further struggle on emotional level. Sure, new enemies might appear and some of them might threaten the hero’s love interest – but unless that’s somehow different from the previous situation, it’ll be lacking in engagement.

In one series I’ve read recently, four books long, the hero had to first face himself and the doubts he had, and only then he could try to gain his crush’s favor. By the time they were close to a couple, it was roughly 60% down the series – and thus the time they spent as lovers was not too long to drag that subplot out.

There’s always a choice…

Now, what are the alternatives, one might ask. Beside not including any romance subplot (which is a valid choice but not the point of this post), I think there are three main alternatives.

For action-based stories with loose continuity, the Bond Girl approach might work – a new partner each time. Then, those are not romance subplots in the typical sense, so this alternative is mostly for completeness. But it is an option so I thought I should mention it.

The second alternative is something I’d call not the right time yet. I think a well-known example would be Harry Potter – while there were hints for him and Ginny since the start (she eyeing him when he first departed for Hogwarts, he then saving her in the chamber of secrets), they both needed to reach the time when they were ready for each other – which could only happen after some character growth.

The third alternative could be called quite bluntly trial and error. The main advantage is the fact it’s realistic – which is also its biggest weakness because it might go against the escapism of books. Trial and error scenario mirrors the reality of most people, the fact they need to go through several relationships to realize what they want.

A teenage romance might give them a taste of love but it won’t be the same as when the character is an adult who might want to take long-term future and potential children into account. I think this approach – while risky – allows to show some long-term development in a character, by showing how another aspect of their values and priorities change over time but it needs a lot of story time unless the character is able to jump from one relationship into another in a matter of days. Such is possible in books that span years, or at least months.

I hope this look into some aspects of romance subplots might be interesting or inspiring to someone. And I’m always open to learning something new so you’re welcome to share your thoughts. Do you prefer stories where the hero has a single love interest, or some of the alternatives? Did I forget some possible alternative?

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