I've done a lot of thinking this year about the place of romance and relationships in my writing, the books I enjoy reading, and the shows I enjoy watching. A few more observations hit home this weekend. Whaveter the big, cataclysmic Problem, I don't care nearly as much about it if there's no romantic tension anywhere to be found in the story, probably because it's easier to relate to the bigger problem through the romantic tension than it is to relate to the bigger problem by itself. The romantic tension gives me the best access to the fictional world/problem created, which makes sense because I tend to look at the world as a matter of how I relate and interact with others, not so much as what happens in it. Not sure that made a whole lot of sense, but moving on.
This is why I don't write romance. The romantic tension isn't everything to me but a portal to What Matters, an expression of it, an extension of it, an tangible and understandable way to experience it and all its repurcussions. So I could never write a novel where the romantic tension is the focus. But neither can I write a novel without romantic tension as a major plot point.
I finally understood this by reading Janny Wurts's Curse of the Mistwraith and watching the latest Stargate Atlantis episode. Curse is the first of a supposedly nine-volume saga. I'm really having a hard time reading it because of Janny's writing style. She writes in an odd omniscient voice that's heavy on telling rather than showing. It drives me batty because I feel like I can never get into any of the characters' heads and get to know them. There is one exception, though, and this is the reason I keep at the novel. I like the story, and I can access it through one character Janny always seems to write in standard 3rd person, stationery point-of-view. It's a sorceress who, in addition to having a role to play in the Bigger Issues facing the world, is developing an attraction for one of the major characters. I keep reading just to get to this woman's scenes. The story flows for me when I read from her POV, and everything that was hazy and confusing before makes sense. The tension is there, not just the romantic tension, but the conflict of the dilemma her world is facing as well. I've started skim-reading the rest of the book, mainly because I know the big points will be told to me in rather obvious language so I won't get lost. I don't know if I'll continue reading this series, as nine books of this style may be impossible to wade through. But I will finish this book, regardless of the frustrations I have.
Similarly, Atlantis ain't doing a whole lot, and last week's episode wasn't all that grand from a plot or writing perspective. But it nailed something: romantic tension. I kept watching because they wrote that part right and the performers nailed the execution. Sheppard and Tayla had an awkward moment that didn't really get resolved to anyone's satisfaction other than that they were both relieved it was over and handled in a way that they could ignore--at least in theory--that it ever happened. How perfectly human, and how engaging for watching their future interactions. Wier and Skinner (can't remember his Atlantis character's name, nor can I reliably spell the actor's last name, so I'm going to mix shows here) have had a few moments of a vague something this season. Nothing too impressive, just something that made me pay closer attention every now and then. But this past episode, they really hit some pay dirt. Nice and subtle, something is there, but they have a lot of other conflict and tension to deal with between them that you get the sense that there might be a really big explosion between them. These two bits of romantic tension didn't really get me caring about the episode itself, but it did make me eager to see the next one. It got me caring more about the Bigger Issues the characters in Atlantis are facing and how they were going to deal with them.
That's the key to romantic tension in novels and shows and movies. It has to be done in such a way that the reader or viewer cares not just about the characters' relationship, but how that will impact how they deal with the problems they're facing. As great as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is, it fails horribly in the romantic tension department. The Aragorn-Arwen relationship never really had much of an impact on the story. If the two of them never resolved their conflict, no biggie. We never got the sense that a failed relationship between them would negatively impact how they dealt with Sauron and the end of the age of elves. It was still a nice little story, and it was sweet that they love each other and got to be together, but it really didn't enhance the overall story all that much, at least not in my opinion. But we had enough character conflict elsewhere to give us much the same sort of access that romantic tension affords. Sam and Frodo's friendship, the Boromir-Faramir-Denethor familial affection triangle, Eowyn's infatuation with Aragorn, and Merry and Pippin's friendship. These character interactions were so well done that the Aragorn-Arwen relationship could stand as something separate without detracting from the story.
I feel like I should have some sort of conclusion to all this rambling. I really don't, other than to expound on why I write romantic tension in all of my novels but won't write a romance novel. It's neat to uncover the bits and pieces of my writing and how it came to be.