I don’t think authors should incorporate romantic subplots into books which are non-romantic. It drags the reader away from the main plot and may leave them confused if they begin to read about a character’s love life in a thriller or a horror novel. Readers like to be able to follow a story and not be left with a lot of question marks. Ideally, romantic subplots need to be kept to books based on romance because a subplot should be based around what the book itself is about. If a romantic subplot is incorporated into a book from a different genre, it might not be woven in correctly, which could lead to the subplot sticking out like a sore thumb. At the same time, it resembles bad writing.
If readers can’t follow a book or feel as though the author is going off on a tangent, the reader will put the book down and move on to something else. If it’s the first book the reader has discovered from the author, a romantic subplot in a non-romantic book has the potential to pose the ‘what the hell’ question if it goes in a different direction to the main plot. Readers are also less likely to buy another book from the same author in case it happens again. If the author isn’t well known, like Stephen King or JK Rowling, the reader may wonder how the book was published in the first place. The more vocal readers could post negative reviews, which potential buyers will see. A substantial number of negative reviews can lead to a loss in sales as they can convince other potential readers not to buy the book. A romantic subplot is a risky game, and sometimes it just doesn’t pay off.
Full disclosure: I’m a giant romantic, and will usually seek out novels with romance as a main plot feature, just because it’s what I enjoy reading. It is therefore very likely that I am looking at this with a certain level of bias, but I really enjoy romantic subplots within other texts. I’m not going to dispute the fact that they’re not always necessary, but they don’t usually have that much impact on the plot as a whole.
Within most genres, specifically crime or science-fiction texts, I would argue that as long as the end goal is ultimately met — the bad guy gets caught, we find out whodunnit, the aliens are defeated, and all those other literary tropes we’ve become attached to — it doesn’t really matter what else takes place alongside it. If the detective whose academic brilliance you’ve been following suddenly finds themselves seeking a relationship with their newfound nemesis, does that make their powers of deduction any less impressive to you as a reader? If anything, the romantic subplot can often be used to humanise characters — what’s more human than falling in love, especially when said love is awkward, illogical or unexpected?
I would also argue that a romantic subplot, especially in works for teens and young adults, can open the story up to a wider range of readers. I, generally, have very little interest in crime novels, but have found myself reading entire series after being recommended the first one, and becoming attached to the ‘will they, won’t they’ element which existed between two characters — the individual stories could be read independently, it was the longer-running romantic arc which kept me engaged.
In defence of the romance genre
Sense and Sensibility. Jane Eyre. Pride and Prejudice. Wuthering Heights. You may be wondering what all these novels have in common. Well, they’re all considered ‘romance’ novels. They are also considered some of the greatest works of fiction of all time. So, here’s my recommendation to you: never dismiss a romance novel as just being about romance. Despite their categorisations, novels are never solely about one theme and are often intertwined with many different genres. Plus, so many novels have romantic subplots, so what actually constitutes a romance novel?
As an English Literature student, it may be said that I have consumed an abundance of pretentious and exceedingly lengthy novels over the course of my academic career, and thus I often feel as if I would be scoffed at if I were to say my favourite book is a romance novel. I think there is some expectation that literature students are constantly reading War and Peace or obscure Latin poetry, and some will indeed conform to this stereotype. However, for others, being inundated with heavy reading means occasionally we want to take a break and read something where our eyes can just glide across the page, and we don’t have to worry about getting the dictionary out.
David Nicholls’s One Day changed my life. Whilst romance novels are usually dismissed because they are seen as surface, shallow, and boring – and don’t get me wrong, some of them are — Nicholls’s novel contains a multitude of sub-themes, such as grief, marriage and divorce, lost dreams, and the uncertainty of your early twenties. I read it for the first time at age 13 and have re-read it countless times over the years. It changed my outlook on the world and taught me an unbelievable amount about navigating life.
You can dismiss romance novels all you like, but it is ingrained in human nature to seek relationships. Works of fiction can teach us a whole lot, whether you’re a hopeless romantic longing to fall in love, someone seeking a diversion from mundane pandemic life, or someone who is averse to novels that deal with heavy topics.
So what if they’re considered trashy or shallow? Books are being read — surely that’s a good thing!
When a romance novel is well-written, just like Wuthering Heights, it can be a worthwhile companion whilst alone on the Moors.