Wednesday, February 10, 2010

WWW - Crafting a Powerful Romance

If any of you were fans of the soap DAYS OF OUR LIVES back in the late 1980s, you probably remember the twisty, angst-ridden, sweeping romance and marriage of Steve "Patch" Johnson, the tortured bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and Kayla Brady, the pretty, sweet daughter of a fishmonger who ran a low income emergency clinic on the riverfront. It was a bad boy/good girl romance that transcended the archetype, and Steve's tragic death not long after the birth of their daughter was one of the most heartbreaking moments I've ever watched on a soap.

The Steve and Kayla romance sucked me in completely. I bought my first VCR just to tape their story, and when they returned to the show in 2006 (yes, both of them—did you really think Steve was DEAD dead?), I discovered that most of their story had been saved as digital video files, so I got to relive it again. Even twenty years later, the story stood up beautifully, proving that a well-done romance is timeless.

So what was it about the Steve and Kayla story that kept me riveted two decades ago and drew me in all over again when I discovered the clips? Here's what I discovered when I gave the question some thought.

1) Great romance starts with conflict.

There is nothing more bland than a couple of pretty people with good attitudes and lots in common falling in love. Yeah, it happens in real life a lot, and those people probably have great, happy lives. But it's not compelling to watch.

Humans crave drama. And drama comes from conflict.I'm not sure I've ever seen a successful fictional romance develop from a more unlikely pairing than Steve Johnson and Kayla Brady. Steve was rough, bitter and sarcastic. He was basically a hired thug—and Kayla was one of his paid projects. First he was hired to scare her away from a doctor she was working for, which he did by trashing her apartment while she was out, making threatening phone calls. In fact, the first time he ever saw her, he was hiding in her closet, watching her undress. Later Steve took a job following her and spying on her for a bad guy who wanted information about Kayla's brother.

At first, Kayla came across as a sweet, optimistic goody-two-shoes. A crusading nurse willing to put herself on the line to help other people, she wasn't particularly warm to Steve's rough talk and sexually aggressive posturing. With a cop for a brother, she was in a position to make a lot of trouble for Steve, and she didn't mind reminding him of that. Hardly an auspicious beginning. But man, the set-up promises one heck of a pay-off later.

2) Great romance works through conflict a step at a time.

Steve and Kayla didn't go from stalker/victim to husband/wife in a couple of months. Every step along the way played out in a logical and interesting manner. Internalization gave us glimpses of the shame that Steve felt for what he was doing to Kayla, and the curiosity and attraction Kayla felt for the glimpses of the good man inside the thug who was driving her crazy.

We slowly saw different facets to both of their characters: Steve's compassion for a couple of abandoned kids living on the streets and Kayla's strength and determination in the face of dangerous circumstances began connecting them, shattering preconceived notions about each other and building a new understanding between them. Slowly they began sharing truths about themselves with each other.

3) Great romance is built on character growth.

Every character in every book starts with a worldview. For Steve, it was that there were actually two worlds. One where normal people lived, where the justice system worked and everything was happy and rosy, and one where people like him lived, people who couldn't trust the system to find justice for them. It was the jungle for people like him, survival of the fittest, every man for himself. People in his world stayed far, far away from people in that shiny happy world where normal people lived.

Kayla, on the other hand, believed that if you trusted the system to work, it would. You just had to tell the truth, be good, let justice take its course and everything would work out.

Neither of them managed to hold onto those worldviews after they came into contact with each other. Kayla saw how the system let people like Steve and the young street kids he helped fall through the cracks. And Steve saw that the system could work if there were compassionate and decent people—like Kayla and eventually her family—who cared enough to patch up the holes so that people didn't get lost in the shuffle. Each of them learned something from the other, incorporated those lessons into their lives, and became better and fuller people because of it.

For any good romance, you need conflict. You need to work through those conflicts one step at a time, adequately dealing with the obstacles that arise. And you need character growth as the pay-off for the conflict.

I've simplified a very complex romantic story to cull out three important points, but I think these are points that all of us need to pay special attention to when we're developing romances for our own characters.


Jemi Fraser said...

You're so right - conflict is the basis of the story. Having conflict between the 2 makes the development of their relationship much more intersting :)

Anonymous said...

Paula, the writing for S&K was stellar and the writer's were willing to build them up slowly, take them back down and finally put them together. The conflict is what made us root for them to get together against all odds. I love these kinds of books and love my soaps to have this kind of character developement with the conflicts. Thanks for putting it into words what makes it work.

Paula said...

Jemi, I learned the hard way (i.e., lots of rejections) that I needed to pay close attention to conflict in my stories. I'm too nice, I guess, always wanting to keep peace between my characters rather than stir the pot.

I got over it, though. ;)

Sherry, it really was amazing storytelling. Sheri Anderson had the heart of a romance novelist.

Hilary said...

Fantastic blog, Paula. You've really captured why SK worked so well back in the '80s and why so many couples written today run out of gas before they've even left the station. Great stuff, here.

danelle said...

love the blog, Paula.

and I totally understand the to nice part. I love the drama and conflict and I see it in my head that it makes for greats stories, but when I try to write, I always end up with the nicy nicy and then it just fizzles out and never gets finish. I have a hard time writing the characters in harsh, conflicting scenes.

Paula said...

Thanks, Hilary. The Steve and Kayla story lingered with me long after most other soap pairings faded in my memory. Maybe it's because their relationship had such an obvious beginning, middle and end (sad as it was) with some hope for a final conclusion. (I just didn't think it would be so many years later).

Danelle, fortunately, conflict doesn't have to be harsh to be strong. Romantic comedies have conflicts, too. The big conflict for Sleepless in Seattle, for instance, was the situation itself. Her conflict: how can I possibly fall in love with a guy over the radio, especially when I'm engaged to another man? And his conflict: how can I let go of my past and move forward with the future in a way that honors my wife's memory? Those are viable, powerful conflicts, and yet there's no real arguing, no real torment.

So maybe you're meant to write romantic comedy. :)

Anonymous said...

Paula, that was beautiful. You put into words why I love Steve & Kayla aso much. And why decades later you can watch their storyline and still cry, laugh and get that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you feel the love they have. I wish we did get a beautiful goodbye. A real exit. It would have made their long history complete. But, at least their together somewhere in soap world.

By the way, I'm sitting here in tears after reading what you wrote. You're a great writer.