Friday, August 8, 2014

Let's Discuss The Standard Romance Plot (SRP)

Here we go again.

I've talked about this issue before, but I'm bringing it up again, because, unfortunately, my feelings about it just aren't going away. The Standard Romance Plot or SRP has managed to incite my ire all over again. This is a major blow, as I was doing so well for a while. Really though, I don't know why I'm surprised, since it's obvious that the SRP is a pervasive situation that is here to stay. 

This is the SRP: 

Around the 75% mark in a steadily building romance (often after a really happy scene), Something Happens (usually - but not always - due to the stupidity of one or both of the primary characters) that leads to a Big Break between the leads. The next 20% of the story is the separation/angst fest/reflection time for the couple who is now not a couple. Occasionally it is short in duration, but frequently the break lasts several months or longer. Once the love interests finally come to their senses and realize that yes it is worth fighting for each other, everything wraps up quickly and happily in the last 5%. 

This storyline wreaks havoc on my emotions. The more books I read featuring this plot, the more I become frustrated by it. And in a specific book, the longer the Big Break is in duration, the more stressed and unhappy I am about the use of this storyline. Is there a rulebook somewhere that says all romantic plots must work this way? I'm beginning to wonder since it occurs in nearly every romance I've read. This is also why I have to seriously limit the number of contemporaries I read back-to-back, because they seem to employ it nearly across the board - YA, NA or Adult, it doesn't matter. It can be found in historical romances as well. 

 Some recent and classic SRP offenders. Note - I liked all of these books: Come Back to Me by Mila Gray, Behind the Scenes by Dahlia Adler. The Truth About Forever (and every other book) by Sarah Dessen. Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard (I particularly loved this book).

Three reasons I struggle with the SRP:

1) The more I encounter this storyline, the less authentic it seems to the characters and story I'm currently reading, and the more it feels like a plot device. Often when I get to the Big Break, I'm left wondering what happened to the characters I loved early in the book. 

2) I anticipate the SRP happening in every contemporary I read, which makes it hard for me to get inside the story as much as I want. All I can think during the first half of the book is it's coming! Then the story usually wraps so quickly after the Big Break, that I'm still dealing with the separation when the characters are back together and the book is over. 

3) It's usually easy to spot the Thing that will drive the characters apart during the Big Break, making me anxious even in the early part of the story, as well as annoyed at the character who will be blamed for it (most often the heroine). Reasons most often causing the Big Break: A) a festering insecurity or past/present trauma that one of the MCs can't overcome. B) A secret or lie that one or both characters is keeping that will come out and blow up in his/her face. 

I am desperate for more romance focused books that flow differently than the SRPI'll admit that the SRP is effective for raising tension, and has clearly become the norm for romances. I do like a lot of books that feature this storyline. But, I'd like to argue that it's become too common. I read a lot of non-contemporaries in order to break up the repetitive mold - though that often means series, which means the Big Break will inevitably come in a later book. But that's a discussion for another day. I know it is possible to achieve a different romance plot flow, though it usually means taking the conflict outside of the couple, instead of inside their relationship. 

I am happy to say that there are authors who have actively and successfully avoided the SRP, some in all of their books. Contemporaries I've enjoyed that have eschewed the SRP:

My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick* (Also What I Thought Was True). Hopeless by Colleen Hoover. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (All her books, really). One & Only by Viv Daniels. 

*Clearly I edited the SRP part out of my head, since I totally forgot about it. Though it didn't last that long, thankfully. 

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Magnolia by Krisi Cook (though this one does employ my other romance pet peeve the Decoy Boy). Free to Fall by Lauren Miller (not contemporary, but a great example of a steady romance)

Do you love or hate the SRP? 

What are your favorite non SRP romances?


  1. Amazing post sweetie. <3 Thank you so much for sharing. I love reading all your posts about these topics :D And omg. I must agree. I HATE THIS. It just hurts and doesn't make sense. Sigh. I don't get it at all. I don't read much of this genre, and this is a big reason for why not :p But ohhhh. Jellicoe Road. <3 Yess. That book was beautiful. Ack. I must re-read it. So gorgeous. Jonah and Taylor were just perfect together. :)

  2. It really has become the norm in contemporaries. I suppose because there's no real action or other conflict besides the couple trying to come together as a real, forever couple with an HEA. But it gets tedious, especially if you read a couple contemps in a row...which may be why I don't usually read contemps, much less read them one after another.

  3. "2) I anticipate the SRP happening in every contemporary I read"

    ME TOO!!! It's why I can't read too many NA books in a row, I know that moment is coming - the moment when there's a miscommunication or someone misinterprets something they see/hear and everything falls apart in epic fashion. It causes me so much stress! I agree that sometimes its all very well done and creates the tension and the feels it's supposed too, but like you, I think it's too common and many romances have become overly predictable:(

  4. I definitely understand how frustrating a SRP can be, I tend to get annoyed when both characters keep pushing each other away more, when you know how things are going to end up anyway. And neatly wrapped endings are ones that I hate even more. I ended up loving Jellicoe Road, My Life Next Door and Fangirl, I liked how they didn't follow this set up. I'm glad to see Magnolia on your list as I have this book coming up pretty soon! Brillant post Lauren! :)

  5. YES!! My thoughts exactly! I've noticed that my favorite books are ones that don't have the "big break." I can only handle the couple breaking up if they come back to their senses quickly. No matter how "in love" they were before, I'm always half-scared that they will go find a rebound or something, and that ruins the whole book.

    Sometimes you can tell that a couple is going need something dramatic to get their heads on straight and I can roll with that most times but the absolute worst is when a couple is going strong and all of a sudden they're pushing each other away and breaking up. And it's so obviously a plot device and it annoys me to no end.

    Anyways, great post! :)

  6. Hmm, you know, my issue with the SRP isn't with the Big Break. Shocking, but I actually LIKE it.

    I'll explain.

    I don't read nearly as much contemporary romance as you do, so perhaps that's why this works differently for me, but when I pick up a contemporary romance novel--YA or Adult--it's usually because I'm in the mood for a predictable plot line. I want an effortless read I can slip into and really become involved with. For me, the measure of a solid romance novel is just how strongly the Big Break guts me. I go through a lot of books feeling so ambivalent towards them. I liked them, but I didn't love or hate them. Or, even worse, I just flat-out disliked a novel. Far too often I find myself turning to a love story because I know that the Big Break will propel me to truly become emotionally attached and feel for the characters. I cherish open-endings precisely because of that same emotional plunge that comes with knowing that there aren't any more concrete answers; you just have to fill in the blanks yourself.

    Where I really dislike the SRP is in the fact that the Big Break usually points out obvious difficulties in a couple's relationship but it also--usually--causes the couple to solve these problems too easily and then hints at a happily ever after when, really, that isn't how life works. I love so many of the books you mentioned above because they use the Big Break to propel character growth--sometimes people become so involved in a relationship that they fail to take the time to look into themselves and the Big Break gives them that opportunity. Moreover, in many cases, the books I really love use the Big Break without resorting to the movie-like quality of all-will-be-well-till-the-end-of-time--which, sadly, isn't usually the case. I like a happy ending just as much as everyone else, but usually with an acknowledgement that the happiness comes from being together, not because life is suddenly effortless.

    Fire by Kristin Cashore--hands-down--features my favorite non-SRP romance as well as Gone With the Wind (but, fair warning, it's a classic with a huugely open much so that I was distraught for a week over it!). Also The Scorpio Races (which you've read and loved) and Marillier novels, like Heir to Sevenwaters. I can't think of any others off the top of my head at the moment but if I do I'll be sure to let you know. :) Fantastic post, as always, Lauren!

  7. I don't hate the SRP except when it's inconsistent with the characters and feels more like a plot device and a way to make the story longer. A lot of times, if the couple doesn't break up at the 75% mark, it's because they don't get together until the very end of the book. I don't like that either because I want to see the couple be happy together for a little bit. It's been awhile since I read My Life Next Door (which I loved), but don't they break up because of what happens for a little bit? I'm being vague to avoid spoilers. Maybe I'm not remembering that right. But yes, completely agree with your post, it's not very powerful when so many books include it so you expect it. ~Pam

  8. And this is another reason why I avoid contemporaries that heavily feature romance. Or any books that have romance as a major component yet aren't actually categorized as a romance.
    I think with YA contemporaries in particular, romance does seem to provide the major conflict. And, I mean, I guess it makes sense. First love - or early loves - are something that teens (and older readers of YA) can relate to. And we do experience other issues during that time, but I think romance is going to be the major conflict that young people do experience as teens. So it feels real many times. More real than some other issues the characters may be dealing with, at any rate.
    And I do agree with Keertana that a break can actually work really well for character development. I'd be much more upset if everything's perfect, and we're left closing the final pages with still everything more or less perfect. Sure, there are other (maybe even better) ways for character growth and maturation to occur, but this is certainly an effective way.
    The Queen's Thief series certainly doesn't follow any standard romance. Other than that, I'm drawing a bit of a blank. I don't focus on romance in the novels I read!

  9. Now that you've brought this up, I can think of so many books that use this plot device, and it's kind of bugging me too. I definitely see it a lot in YA contemporary which is why I think I gravitate more towards fantasy (among other reasons). Though don't get me wrong...I also love many YA contemporary books, even ones with this setup. Insightful post!

  10. *tiptoes in, hoping it's okay that she's here, swearing it's strictly as a reader/blogger, not an author, and that she will not discuss her own book, but is just in love (no pun intended) with this topic*

    I love this post, and often feel the same way. (Yes, irony, whatever.) I read Romances when I'm in the mood for the formula - which definitely happens - but it does get hard to read a bunch in a row, and it does get frustrating always feeling like you know what's coming. (I do read them more for characters/banter/kissing, and enjoy them a LOT for those things alone, but still, it'd be nice to be more often surprised by actual plot.)

    The thing is, what differentiates romances from each other are the tropes used. A trope like friends-to-lovers or even enemies-to-lovers (probably my favorites, and it looks like probably yours too) has its own formula, but it's always one of character improvement and bonding on their way up to love, with the pairing off only happening at the end. They're the best because both the characters and relationships are always going uphill. You only ever like everything and everyone better.

    It's the tropes that necessitate a couple be together for at least 3/4 of the book that force the SRP, because...what kind of plot would you have without it otherwise, I guess? I never really thought about it, which is why I love this post so much. It really makes me wonder if I've ever read a Contemp Romance where the couple is together for the overwhelming majority of the first 75% of the book but doesn't break up at any point. (I seem to remember MLND the same way as Pam above, but I read it a while ago and don't recall that much.) I can't even figure out what that would look like, or what the plot would be without it. Now I'm determined to find one!

  11. I know how you feel. I get that stories need conflict, and I get that formulas make the story process easier...but when it's become "standard," we need to break away and try something different. I recently read an NA ebook, If Only (which was pretty bad), but it had the happily ever after at 50%, followed immediately by a breakup at 51% (due to the stupidity of both MC's), got back together at 74% and hit the usual SRP hiccups again at 75% (again due to stupidity and lack of communication). Things like this make me avoid romance books. :(

    1. I'm all for different; It's more a question of figuring out what that *can* be, within the realm of Romance. (I got a rec from Lauren for exactly what I'm trying to hunt down, so I'm excited to check it out!) And that's funny that you mention IF ONLY, because I get it about the breakups, but what I liked about that book a lot (*leans in to whisper out of respect for/fear of the site title*) was that there were points, especially in the beginning, where I wasn't totally sure who the LI was going to end up being, and to me that was a novel (no pun intended) thing. The ones I really hate/try to avoid are the ones where literally every single plot point is interchangeable with another book, and I swear you could piece together a hundred of them, make the names the same, and never realize you were combining books. As long as you do *something* different with your book *somewhere*, I'm baseline happy.

    2. As the writing professors always said, there's no such thing as an original story- only old ideas done in a different/unique/interesting way. ;)

  12. HATE the SRP with the fire of a thousand suns! Seriously, it's so common and so banal. I can't imagine why an author would want to employ this technique at all. I want more time together with my happily ever after couple...5% is just not enough! And I can always see that big break coming from a mile away, too.

  13. You know my feelings on this, girl! Not as bad as the Love Triangle, but yes, it has gotten way too pervasive in contemporary romance books. The three points you list perfectly illustrate my feelings. I hate reading a book just waiting for the Break to happen - I think it definitely takes away from what's currently happening, and it just makes me way too anxious. But it's like my mind is now trained to expect it. The worst ones are those that seem to happen for no other reason but to create drama and tension - it isn't true to the characters. :/

  14. I just want to applaud forever and raise my hand and amen you over and over...if that all makes sense (remember, I just got back from Nicaragua;) You described the SRP and the troubles that go with it perfectly. It's so frustrating when it happens, very predictable, and now it's expected, which is horrible. I can stomach this a little more than a love triangle, but both need to be banned.

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