Thursday, February 12, 2015

Romance & Cliches: An Exercise in Subversion

Figure 1. Writers, Dean needs you to try harder.

Here is an exercise I've used for years in my writing classes for teenagers at the The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

First, I give them the list of my Top 10 Most Hated Romantic Cliches.

I explain that this is a personal list of tropes that I avoid, and that they should please not view it as a list of tropes all writers must avoid. We all have fictional gimmicks that repel or please us. Identifying them is part of becoming a writer who seriously contemplates her own stories. So, no shame in disagreeing with me.

Then I tell them to read and mark any that they actually like, as well as ones they strongly dislike. Then we discuss them as a class, which often results in students generating additional romantic cliches they cannot stand.

After we finish laughing and hollering (this activity tends to be quite ebullient/amusing), I invite them to return to a cliche that they hate. It can be one they added, or one on my original list. Then I ask them to write a scene that includes that cliche, except in a way that makes it palatable and fresh to them as a reader.

What comes out of this exercise is absolutely stunning and delicious. Subversion of paradigms and tired stereotypes and cliches is nothing short of a delight for all involved.

Indeed, all good writing is such subversion. Cliches and stereotypes exist for an important reason. They contain some quantity of truth. A good writer recognizes that and then pushes further, squeezing out more meaning, or slapping on more layers of paint, or tweaking and tilting motifs just slightly askew until we're experiencing the familiar as new. It's a beautiful endeavor and one I most enjoy as a reader and writer.

After the jump is my list of Top 10 Most Hated Romantic Cliches. Feel free to add your own in the comments...


1. Principal love interests meet by accidentally “bumping” or crashing into each other. Usually involves the spilling of books, bags of groceries, or some other bulky parcel, and both parties becoming acquainted when they jointly collect up the dropped items.

2. Male offering a garment (coat, sweater, letter jacket, etc.) to female because she is cold or in distress. Often followed by male’s comment of “You’re shivering!” or “Your hands are ice cold!”

3. Male sweeping up female and carrying her over threshold. Also includes any variation of this sentence: “He swept her up into his arms, saying, as she protested, ‘Why you’re as light as a feather!”
4. Any type of intimate musical exchange between principal love interests. Examples: piano or singing duets, acoustic guitar, window or balcony serenades.

5. Offers to slow dance that occur when there is no dance floor in sight. Often involves character asking “May I have this dance?” in affected, unnatural manner, in an incongruous locale (a living room, a swimming pool, the Brooklyn Bridge)

6. Marriage proposals that are made on bended knee and/or proclaimed loudly in public situations. For example: a big party, the Jumbotron in Wrigley Field.  Use of middle names in either case is also wretched:
“Jennifer Maria Schmuckatelli, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”  
“Yes, Jonathan Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt!  Yes!  I will marry you!”

7. Use of the phrase “table for two” when entering a restaurant. Further restaurant no-no’s include: the man ordering for the woman (“The lady’ll have the pasta primavera…” ), violins serenading tableside, and characters buying dinner companions a rose from roving flower salesperson.

8. Situations that force principal love interests into sharing a bed or sleeping quarters.
  “There are no other rooms in the hotel!”
 “We are trapped in this remote cabin in the wilderness and a terrible blizzard is coming!”
 “Due to clerical error, we booked the same compartment on the night train to Katmandu!”

9. Conversations about circumstances and details surrounding a “kiss” between two parties. This can be between the principal love interests, or between one of the principals and a rival.
  “Come on, Ramona! Did you even mean it when you kissed me the other night?”
  “So you kissed Barbara, too? You just kiss every girl you meet, then?”
   “Oh, Enrique! That kiss with Larry didn’t mean anything. With you, it’s different…”

10. Slow disrobing from a distance between principal love interests prior to intimate contact. This only happens on television/porn, because it looks better that way. 


  1. Wrigley Field doesn't have a jumbotron. At least not yet.

  2. There's a fascinating spin on #8 in Lee Bantle's DAVID INSIDE OUT wherein the principal character and his ex-girlfriend share a cabin in the midst of a maelstrom. He's newly out and proud while she's doing her best to support him. But they're this cabin...together...and, you know, they USED to have sex.


    Sounds super cheesy when I anatomize it like this. But it's super rich. That whole book is, really.