Why writers should avoid cheap romantic shorthand and what they can replace it with
Valentine’s Day is almost here.
The one day a year couples are expected to make the time for one another, to rekindle the old flame, to make bold romantic gestures. So naturally I’m thinking about revenge thrillers.
Ever notice how women are portrayed in these vengeance fantasies? A widower flashes back to his lost Lenore dancing, haloed in sunlight, a ballerina spinning on top of a music box in his mind. She is the picture of innocence, riding the hypnotic bliss of her man’s presence. She rolls in the grass, laughs at nothing, and smiles for the sake of smiling.
The couple embraces. Lenore whispers “Forever” in an overdub echoing over passionate kissing.
The Lenore of these movies never asks her forlorn lover to pay the bills, to take out the trash, or to watch his drinking. She never nags, because she doesn’t want a thing. While other women ask their man what he’s thinking, she’s blowing on dandelions. While others try to get their man to guess what day it is, she’s making kissy faces. While other women scold their husbands for offering solutions when they just wanted acknowledgment, she’s undressing.
Before a killer stuffs Lenore into a refrigerator, her only goal is to make her tortured lover feel better.
I loved Joe Hill’s Horns as a book, but I turned on the film adaptation within the first ten-seconds. It opened with one of the clearest examples of romantic shorthand I’d seen in some time. Ig and Merrin are making out on a mattress in the middle of the forest.
Ig says, “I’m going to love you for the rest of my life.”
Merrin, like a true Lenore, says, “Just love me until the end of mine.”
Ig wakes up on the floor, casts a bottle aside, and puts a record on. He flashes back to a vision of Merrin. She dances with lens flair shining through her hair. I had a feeling I’d be seeing a lot of this shot throughout the film.
These scenes feel like they were written by someone with no first hand romantic experience, an alien who’s observed earthlings for a week and believed they knew everything about human courtship.
These visual shortcuts are just there to give the audience a cheap Hallmark moment before the blood starts spilling. They’re an excuse for the Crusading Widower to rack up a body count with a clear conscious, because nothing says romance like a trained killer with survivor’s guilt.
Romantic Shorthand Shortchanges Everyone
Revenge thrillers don’t have the precious minutes to develop these women beyond their roles as sacrificial lambs, so they resort to montages of interchangeable images to convey the romance. They assume their audience isn’t there for a believable romantic subplot. The problem, besides treating women like possessions to be stolen, is that this romantic shorthand is showing up in places where writers ought to know better.
While revenge thrillers use romantic shorthand to setup plot devices, blockbusters use it to showcase the likability of their leading men.
The hero of 2014s Godzilla doesn’t need to charm the audience because look he made his wife laugh with a joke he told off screen. If she sees something in him, shouldn’t we? Now she’s kissing him in a warmly lit room with a shakey cam.
The hero of 2014s RoboCop is just as charismatic. Look at how he’s putting the moves on his wife in a warmly lit room with a shakey cam. How intimate. No mood killing tripods in sight.
In screenwriting, we’re always told to enter a scene late and leave it early. These examples enter too late. If only they’d started early enough for us to overhear the couple’s interactions. We might have believed them.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with showing a happy couple kissing, but audiences are exposed to this type of romantic shorthand all the time. They recognize when they’re being manipulated. They know that when they’re introduced to lovers during a make-out session something terrible is going to happen.
Every scene needs to hold up its end of the story equally. Every scene must reveal character details, further the plot, and have conflict, even romantic flashbacks. Just because the audience for these stories appears to be mostly men doesn’t mean you can get away with underwriting.
It’s 2015, we can come up with a better excuse for violent mayhem than the sacrificial lover (at least John Wick was about a man avenging his puppy).
Conflict Can Be Romantic
It’s possible to show brief romantic encounters without the relationship feeling shallow. If you really want us to believe we’re looking at a real couple, show us how they navigate turbulence. Do they avoid arguments or do they cross each other’s boundaries? Are they jealous? Do they have conflicting expectations about where the relationship is going?
Marriage takes work. Show the daily grind. A struggling couple is more relatable than a pair with perpetual smiles.
If the lovers are driven into opposite directions, but still find some common ground, they’re much more compelling. If they struggle to make the relationship work, the relationship will seem more important to the audience.
If you really want to sell me on a couple show them fighting. How much more tragic would a revenge thriller be if the couple left things on a bad note? What if the hero isn’t haunted by his wife’s perfect visage, but the last things he said?
How much more likable would a hero seem if he admitted he’s on the wrong side of an argument? Make him eat some humble pie. Make him earn that kiss goodbye.
Here’s another option: introduce the lovers separately. Give them a scene of character development that shows them doing something independent of the relationship. Make us appreciate them as individuals before we see them as a couple. This way if something happens to one of them, it’s not just the hero’s loss, it’s the audience’s loss as well.
Think about this the next time you’re writing cheesy declarations of affection to help set up your explosions. Romantic shorthand is a flimsy foundation to build a plot on. It forecasts further clichés to come.
Comedian Patton Oswalt says, “You have to love something in order to make fun of it.”
I love B-movies, horror schlock, and revenge thrillers. I’ve seen enough of them to recognize their shortcomings.
In the eighth grade, I watched a VHS copy of The Crow every day after school. The Crow is the story of Eric Draven, a rock singer, who comes back from the dead to avenge the death of his girlfriend Shelly.
Eric returns to the couple’s abandoned loft. The Crow, Eric’s spirit guide, uses the environment to remind Eric of his mission. Eric flashes back to a greatest hits collection of their tender moments. At the time I found this romantic shorthand compelling. I thought love was a constant reciting of vows over a playfully passionate montage. Life had yet to teach me the reality.
When I lent The Crow to some girls in class they said they couldn’t get into it. They didn’t like that Shelly’s sole purpose was to die a brutal death so Eric had something to avenge. They had trouble accepting his grief, because they didn’t believe the relationship in the first place.
I thought they’d missed the point, but maybe I was the one who had it wrong.