Romantic subplots are like mushrooms. Some love ‘em, some hate ‘em, some avoid them as if they were poisonous, which is nigh impossible because they are everywhere. And this makes sense to a certain extent, because for most of us, sex and romance are a very large part of our lives. As good writers know to make stories and characters relatable to their audience, they’re naturally going to be tempted to throw a few kissy faces in there.
Since romantic subplots are so prevalent, let’s break them down. Much as I love bitching about the bad ones, we’re going to be doing case studies on the ones that work. As a result, this article will contain major spoilers for Game of Thrones and Heroes of Olympus, with minor spoilers for Black Panther. You’ve been warned.
Romance Stories vs. Romantic Subplots
While most writers find themselves at one point or another writing romance, many of them do not write romance stories. What’s the difference?
A romance story is a book/movie/play/what have you that focuses primarily on the romance. It is explicitly what the audience is after. You don’t pick up Twilight to read about the intense political struggle within vampire and werewolf society. You pick it up to see Edward acting creepy around a weirdly charmed Bella. While there are paranormal elements and fight scenes and school drama, those all take a backburner to the romance itself. They are the subplot, the relationship is the plot.
In contrast, a romantic subplot is secondary to the actual plot. How to Train Your Dragon focuses 90% of its energy on the platonic relationships between Hiccup, his father, and Toothless. Hiccup’s budding romantic relationship with Astrid is just extra, capable of being cut out entirely without disrupting the story. No one watches this (frankly amazing) movie to see Hiccup awkwardly flirting with Astrid. We watch it to see him struggle to relate to his father and ultimately defy his society to make friends with a dragon.
Let’s Study Romantic Subplots!
There are three different types of romantic subplots: ones that are essential to the larger story, ones that are a cute little bonus, and ones that are utterly unnecessary and should not exist. We’re going to look at case studies for the first two. (I did have a section written about romances that deserved to die centered on the Throne of Glass series, but LSQ didn’t want a 500-page essay. So, here we are.)
The Essential Romantic Subplot (Game of Thrones)
Game of Thrones is a grimdark fantasy series that has a dozen romantic subplots. Seriously, you can’t take two steps in Westeros without stumbling on someone’s ill-fated love affair. But that’s okay, because they are essential to the story, not just on a personal level for the characters, but for the whole world. Robert’s Rebellion, which sets the stage for season/book one, started because of the love triangle between Robert, Lyanna, and Rhaegar. The War of the Five Kings, which is arguably more important to the actual story than the apocalyptic ice zombies, started because of Cersei and Jaime’s incestuous relationship. And Robb Stark’s reign as King of the North met its disastrous end because he chose love over duty.
George R. R. Martin also uses romance to less global but equally important ways to help define his characters. Daenerys’s first big test and life lesson is her marriage to Drogo. Tyrion’s crippling self-esteem stems in large part because of his failed relationships with Tysha and Shae. Jon is put in sharp contrast with Robb by choosing duty over love.
There are several more examples in this series alone. I support the theory that the Prince[ss] Who Was Promised is neither Dany nor Jon, but a kid they have together because of their romantic subplot. (Or maybe that’s just me. Hit me up in the comments and we can argue theories all day.)
Bottom line: you can write an excellent romantic subplot (or twelve) that is crucial to your story without having it distract from the main story. You just have to put a lot of effort into it.