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When you write for certain genres, there are rules you have to follow, or you'll likely get rejected. And the rules for romance include a couple of--if you ask me--unrealistic and silly ones that I simply cannot always follow if I'm going to write an interesting story.

The big one is about cheating. Infidelity on the part of the hero or heroine is an absolute big-time no-no in the romance genre. Now, I understand it's a sensitive topic, and that cheating has hurt lots of actual people, who therefore don't want to read about it. However...yeah, it does happen to lots of actual people. Therefore it's a pertinent issue. And while infidelity is usually not the *best* idea, I wouldn't qualify it as pure evil in most cases either. And, more to the point when we're talking about writing, it usually makes for juicy plot twists. Therefore, though I don't want to include it in all my stories, I do sometimes explore the sticky and interesting issue of being not 100% faithful to one's significant other.

Mind you, in both the published books where I've gone into that territory--What Scotland Taught Me and Relatively Honest--I was dealing with teenagers, not married adults. Age 18 is a time when plenty of us make questionable decisions, and learn from them. I was going more for realistic coming-of-age than strictly for romance. Nonetheless, I think a love story benefits from a dose of reality--and a dose of juicy gossip.

Also: how come we modern romance novelists have to stick to this no-cheaters rule when some of the most acclaimed love stories on film--and on paper--had infidelity in spades? A couple of whopping examples off the top of my head:

Gone with the Wind: All right, it's more like historical fiction masquerading as a bodice-ripper, but it's still considered to have set many a standard for romance. And, dude! Scarlett marries two other guys before giving Rhett a chance--stringing him along all the while--and, in the meantime, does her best to seduce Ashley, a (mostly) happily married man. This would never fly with a modern romance editor. But it's a great book, and Scarlett's ruthless, clueless flirtations make for a ripping good read.

Sleepless in Seattle: Again, held up as a contemporary classic of the romantic film genre. But Meg Ryan's character, throughout, has a fiance, a nice guy, who she's sleeping with throughout most of the film, and lying to about her crush on this stranger in Seattle. Again, romance editors would send this a tidy rejection letter. But if she didn't have the fiance, she'd have no particular reason to be so conflicted about checking out Tom Hanks, and you'd have no story.

Can you think of other examples? Do you have non-negotiable rules for the love stories you read? Or are there no deal-breakers as long as the story is well written?


J.L. Campbell
Sep. 19th, 2011 01:01 am (UTC)
Interesting post, Molly. Thank goodness for publishing houses that give us creative license. In one of my stories, the hero runs into an ex and goes off and does the deed with her. It makes things a lot more interesting not having to stay inside the box and write to requirements.
Sep. 20th, 2011 07:38 pm (UTC)
Yes, I'm thankful there are publishers willing to bend the genre rules! I think the example you give sounds much more interesting, and makes me wonder how it happens, than the traditional male-female loyalty story.
Sep. 19th, 2011 08:10 am (UTC)
My romance reading days are a bit behind me, but back in the day cheating was the deal breaker for me. Reality is for real life, romance is fantasy, and in a fantasy people are faithful to each other.

Sep. 20th, 2011 07:41 pm (UTC)
I get the impression the rules are in place for that reason: when readers want to have certain expectations met, they can safely turn to certain genres. So in stories like Gone with the Wind or Sleepless in Seattle, was that level of unfaithfulness enough to break the deal for you?
Sep. 22nd, 2011 05:06 am (UTC)
In short, yes. I never saw Sleepless in Seattle, never had any interest in it.

I read Gone With The Wind many years ago - but I honestly never saw it as a romance - more a sweeping historical saga.

Fred LeBaron
Oct. 16th, 2011 01:44 am (UTC)
I liked this post before I had read most of your books mentioned in it, but even more now that I've been immersed in the Molly-verse. It's weird how emotional people get when cheating appears in a story. Lauren Barnholdt's latest book, Sometimes It Happens, features a girl who gets together with her gf's bf while said gf is away at camp. It wasn't gratuitous or casual for the MC, it was awkward, and she knew it was not a good idea, but sometimes passion overcomes common sense. I thought it was touching and handled in a really sensitive way, with deep emotions, before and after. But wow, some of the reviews were so scathingly censorious, I felt glad they didn't still put people (characters or authors!) in the stocks. But the thing is, sometimes it does happen, a lot actually, and it's usually pretty intense and emotionally impactful for everyone involved (insert obligatory personal disclaimer here). So why is that so off limits? We can't even think about it happening, or if it's always bad, or if it is bad, how is it bad. And honestly, what if it's good, or good in some ways? Wasn't that kind of the point of Bridges of Madison County? My recollection of library school is hazy, but I'm pretty sure the first book printed in English was Mallory's Morte D'Arthur. Major cheating, love triangle alert there. So right from the get go, this theme has infused our literature. But I think the reason it's taboo in this genre is pretty much that readers identify with the protagonist, and if she's cheated on, it hurts and makes you feel foolish for having loved someone who would do that to you. If she's the cheater, it makes the reader feel like they've cheated, and that means you're a bad person, and no one likes to feel that way about themselves. So, I think that because people read romance and romance related books for a positive feeling of escape, it's kind of like getting on a ferris wheel and finding out that you're on the tilt-a-whirl instead. Maybe not bad per se, but if you're not up for a shake up, you're going to ask for a refund. Ok, thanks Molly, I realize this isn't exactly responsive to your questions, but it's an interesting topic to ramble on about. Thanks for listening!
Fred LeBaron
Oct. 16th, 2011 09:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Cheating
Bridges of Madison County, and Morte D'Arthur--aha, perfect examples! Both huge in the romance world, in recent and ancient ways, respectively. Yeah, what's with Lancelot and Guinevere, if cheating is such a deal breaker? OK, so it did contribute to the fall of Camelot, so it was a problem for sure...but still, a very romantic problem.

You're right, though: it's easy to see why people would steer clear of the subject. It *is* the kind of thing most of us wouldn't personally do, at least not as adults--though, by the same token, is the kind of non-illegal-but-still-badly-handled mistake we might have blundered into as teens. So I certainly don't want to write about it all the time. But it's hard to think of a good obstacle to a romance sometimes, and a third party is a pretty good obstacle. Especially in teen years when, let's face it, commitment isn't quite as important as it later becomes. ;)
Fred LeBaron
Oct. 16th, 2011 01:48 am (UTC)
I like the picture at the top of the post. She might make me rethink my obligatory personal disclaimer - jk (had to say that part to stay in genre!)
Oct. 16th, 2011 09:24 pm (UTC)
Re: P.S.
Hee, thanks! Artwork by Gil Elvgren, who apparently did lots of this pin-up stuff back in the day. She's a good choice for my saucy topics.