The Five Things I’ve Learned About Writing Romance from TV

If you call my house at eight o’clock on Tuesday night, I won’t answer. I’ll be working very hard, studying my craft by watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. How is that studying, you ask? Consider the following:

  • Television, or rather film, is the new language of narrative. If you’re under thirty, you probably learned the way story works not from books but from videos. If you’re over thirty, that’s probably the way you get most of your narrative now. So studying film has become just as valid as studying books as a way to learn more about storytelling.
  • Film is a form of narrative we have some distance on, so we can study it with an unbiased eye. We all write books, we’re all invested in books, so it’s likely been quite a while since any of us were able to read most books purely for pleasure. But TV is something that many of us can watch without critiquing for technicalities.
  • TV is fast. If you tape your shows and fast forward through the commercials, you can absorb an entire narrative arc in twenty-two to forty minutes. That makes it easier to see the story arc as a whole, instead of trying to wrap your mind around an entire book.
  • TV is efficient. A writer who only has twenty to forty minutes to tell a story tends to become very clean in her or his narrative and therefore has a lot to teach us.

Still not convinced? Here are five things I’ve learned from TV that I’ve blatantly stolen for my own work. All five have been around for a long time, they’re basics of writing craft, but TV introduced me to the shorthand versions and then demonstrated their power for me.

Lesson # 1: Opposite Attract, But Twin Souls Connect

I have never been a believer in the old “she’s a firefighter, he’s an arsonist” theory of characterization. At least I wasn’t until I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy has had three great loves in five seasons, or as her fans prefer to put it, two great loves and one loser. And guess what: the two great loves were vampires.

Her first love was a guilt-ridden vamp named Angel; it was, however, a love that could never be (don’t ask), so he exited just in time and in came Riley, Buffy’s dream date, an all-American blond teaching assistant by day and the leader of an elite demon-hunting commando unit at night. However, since Buffy is an all-American blonde college student by day and a vampire-slayer by night, there was a small contrast problem: they had none. And as Anne Stuart has pointed out, Riley wanted Buffy to be the perfect girlfriend and Buffy wanted to be the perfect girlfriend so they didn’t have much to talk about, either. When Riley left her to go fight demons in South America, there was general rejoicing, not only because he was a drag, but because over in the next tomb was Buffy’s worst nightmare and therefore the perfect guy for her: Spike, the most vicious vampire in the history of the world since Angel went straight, and Buffy’s most opposite number.

The dynamics of this relationship have been debated furiously on a hundred internet bulletin boards but the general consensus remains the same: Spike deserves Buffy. And I’m right there with them even though he’s a complete Alpha hero and I don’t like Alpha heroes. Spike works for me, not because he’s been redeemed–when Buffy compliments him on the way he’s decorated his crypt, he says, “I ate a decorator once”–but because he’s the one who’s different enough from her to challenge her and in challenging her, push her out of her comfort zone.

Or take The Gilmore Girls. Last season, Lorelei got engaged to a great guy: Max was smart, he was funny, he was kind, he loved her kid, and he thought she was amazing. So why did I keep screaming, “NOT HIM” at my TV? Because over in the town diner is a surly, badly-dressed misogynist named Luke who needs a shave and an analyst, but who is also the one guy in town who does not endorse Lorelei’s every word, thought, and deed. Max reinforces everything Lorelei is; Luke challenges it.

I think this is half of the key to the “opposites attract” idea, the part that I didn’t get when I was rejecting the firefighter/arsonist dynamic as too reductive: It’s not that they’re opposites and hate each other, it’s that they’re different enough to challenge each other’s world views, and because of that, their attraction to each other becomes a demonstration of their characters. Or to put it another way: Interesting characters like people who challenge them and make them grow, not people who reinforce them as they are and help them stagnate.

But even more important is the other half of the key to this dynamic: the opposite character traits give the romance crackle, but they’re only skin deep. When you reach the bones of the characters, the stuff that keeps them upright and moving through the story, you find that the lovers are actually two of a kind. Spike is not Buffy’s opposite but her doppelganger: a super-hero who’s not only a little in love with death but also a lot in love with the person who is most likely to give it to him or her. In a less dramatic pairing, Luke and Lorelei are both iconoclasts, brutally independent and blatantly determined to live life in their own ways. No wonder Riley and Max couldn’t connect: they were the real outsiders in the mix.

Lesson 1: Your lovers spark because they’re opposites on the surface, but they love because they’re twin souls at heart. Peel back the surface and find where they connect, and your reader will believe your romance really is forever.

Lesson # 2: Say It With Action

I’m big on snappy patter. Dialogue is my favorite thing in the world to write. So it took TV to show me that talk is cheap.

Take The Gilmore Girls again. Max and Lorelei not only had great books and music to talk about, they had great banter: intelligent, fast-paced, and charming. Luke, on the other hand, is laconic. His conversations with Lorelei are often one-sided: she goes off on a tangent, talking faster than an auctioneer, while he stares at her in bemused silence. But Luke is also the guy who closed the diner to take her to the hospital when her father had a heart attack, who crawled under front porch when she found out she had termites, and who bought her picnic basket at the town auction even though he knew it only had a pop tart and a Slim Jim in it.

Or there’s the Buffy episode in which Spike, rejected brutally by Buffy, decides to kill her with a shotgun. He strides into her back yard, gun cocked and ready, and finds her weeping on her back porch steps. In the space of a minute, he slows, his shoulders slump, he puts the gun in the bushes, he sits carefully beside her, and then, very tentatively, he puts his hand on her shoulder for just a moment, in a gesture that says everything about hopeless love and compassion.

Joey’s in love with Rachel but sends her to live with Ross because it’s best for her and the baby. Miranda’s not good with emotion, but names her baby “Brady” so that he’ll have Steve’s name, too. Xander pays for Cordelia’s prom dress and doesn’t tell her. Television writers do not have pages to spare for big romantic speeches, and that makes for some of TV’s best romantic moments.

Lesson 2: Cut those romantic declarations you’ve been slaving over, the ones that sound long-winded and dorky no matter how hard you try. Go for the action; the telling gesture is infinitely more effective than telling dialogue.

Lesson # 3: Metaphor is Better For You

Along with action as shorthand, TV writers use metaphor to communicate love. Metaphor consists of two parts, a vehicle and a tenor: The vehicle is the concrete object or action that carries the tenor or the meaning. So Luke runs a diner and pours coffee into cups the size of soup bowls for Lorelei at all hours, insisting that she eat something. The vehicle of stimulating and feeding her body carries the tenor of stimulating and feeding her soul and is one of the many reasons we’re rooting for him. He’s not making coffee, he’s making love. And Lorelei knows it; she’s tracked him down at his apartment to make him cook breakfast for her when there was another cook on duty at the diner.

Lorelei’s daughter, Rory, just got a car from her boyfriend, Dean. He restored it himself, working on it for two TV seasons, and as a metaphor for someone who wants to help her leave home safely, it’s a beaut. In the same episode, her loving grandfather throws a fit because Dean is giving the car to her and goes with him to have it safety checked over and over again, selling the metaphor from a different perspective: he has to be convinced it’s safe for Rory to leave. Spelled out like that, it’s important, but it’s also a big yawn. Demonstrated in two characters fighting over a car while a bored mechanic says, “Can I please go home now?” it’s funny and touching and a beautiful demonstration of love.

Metaphor is also powerful in communicating sexuality, something that’s really tough on the page without descending into purple prose. One of the central metaphors of Buffy is that sex equals death–death of innocence, death of the soul, and sometimes death of the body–so that when Spike at one point early in their arc tells Buffy that all slayers are “a little in love with death” and stands before her, Death Incarnate, the sexuality in the threat is much stronger than any standard come-on could be. Then he adds that she can kill all the vampires she wants (reject all the men she wants) but they’ll keep coming, all of them hoping for the same thing, “one good day,” and that when that day comes for her, he’ll be there. If he’d been talking about sex, he’d look like a sleazy blowhard. Because he’s speaking metaphorically, a lot of us got the same glazed look in our eyes that Buffy did.

Lesson 3: Use your metaphors; chances are they’re already in your book. What do your heroine and hero do for a living? What gifts do they give? What things do they prize? What objects or actions characterize their relationship with each other? Find those concrete things, figure out their deeper meaning, and enhance them in your final draft to add power and depth to your lovers’ relationship.

Lesson # 4: Mean What You Don’t Say

Of course, sooner or later characters have to say something. The problem is that it’s hard to make talking about love real on the page. Any on-the-nose dialogue sounds sappy, snappy patter sounds shallow. What I learned from TV is that the sentence or two that seems to be about something else says it best.

When Toby on The West Wing meets with his ex-wife, a powerful senator he’s trying to resist, she offers him pie, which he refuses. When the scene is over, he stops her at the door and says, ”Leave the pie.” You don’t need the middle of the scene to understand what happened; it’s all in that last line of dialogue. When Josh sees Donna in a dress she’s planning on taking back to the store, he’s stunned by how beautiful she is, but what he says is, ”Keep the dress.” When Buffy comes back from the dead and asks how long she’s been gone, Spike says, “A hundred and forty-seven days. A hundred and forty-eight today. But we can’t count today.” All three of these men are in love, and the fact that they say something else makes the emotion all the stronger. My mother used to say, “Before you leave the house, stop at the mirror and take off one piece of jewelry so you’re never overdressed.” Of course, this was before she realized that it was a good day if I was wearing shoes before I left the house, but it stuck with me and it applies here, too.

Lesson 4: Before you send that manuscript out, take out all the on-the-nose dialogue (and internal monologue) you can. Then look for places where your characters can briefly say what they don’t mean and mean what they don’t say.

Lesson # 5: Pace Yourself

Everybody knows not to rush your lovers. Foreplay is everything in romance writing, the slow build is as important there as it is in other things. From watching TV, however, I can tell you that there’s a breaking point. Take The X-Files , for instance. I loved Scully and Mulder, the way they worked together even though they were opposites, the way they fought for each other, yes, even the way they bantered. But along about season fifty-seven, I just lost interest. It wasn’t because they hadn’t consummated the relationship yet, it was because they didn’t have any reason not to consummate it and they still played footsie with the viewer. At that point, they moved into the TDTL category of lovers (Too Dumb To Love) and I wandered off. I hear they had a baby. God knows how.

Sports Night also hit the wall for the same reason. After two years of giving each other hot glances, Dana and Casey finally kissed and it was Magic. Then Dana told him he had to date other women. Why? Because she was insane. No other reason was given, so I’m going to fall back on that. And since it wasn’t an appealing kind of craziness, I had to let Dana go. Josh and Donna are approaching this on The West Wing, as are Ed and Carol on Ed. Yes, it’s difficult to sustain sexual tension if the lovers consummate the relationship, but it’s even harder to sustain it if there’s no reason for them not to. At that point, they’re TDTL and we’re gone.

This one is especially annoying because it’s not as if sex solves anything besides lust, and even that’s temporary. Buffy and Spike have been boinking like bunnies for weeks, and they’re in as much trouble as ever, if not more. The Gilmore Girls is getting close to this point, and I have my fingers crossed that the writers are realizing that Lorelei and Luke as lovers are going to have infinitely more problems than Lorelei and Luke as friends, that the fall-out from their consummation among their family and friends will be intense (there’s that thing that Luke’s nephew/surrogate son has for Lorelei’s daughter, for example), and that the eventual marriage between them will only raise the stakes and make the future more difficult, exasperating, and interesting.

Lesson 5: If your conflict is “they can’t have sex”, your story is too weak to play. Recast it so that when your lovers do connect, things get more complicated for them. You know, like in real life.

Those are the five things I’ve learned from TV, at least, those are the five I have time to write about now. I’d like to write more, but I have to stop because Buffy ‘s on. I’m starting a new book, and I need all the help I can get.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Romance Writer’s Report.