Erin Lindsey is on a quest to write the perfect summer vacation novel, with just the right blend of action, heartbreak, and triumph. THE BLOODBOUND is her first effort. She lives and works in Bujumbura, Burundi, with her husband and a pair of half-domesticated cats.
She also writes fantasy mysteries as E.L. Tettensor.
by Erin Lindsey
If Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that the two most exciting things in the world are sex and explosions. Any genuine blockbuster must have both of these things, or at least, some very near cousin. Sex and swordfighting, say, or sex and car chases. If possible, a blockbuster should have sex, explosions, swordfighting, car chases, and a hint of sci-fi/fantasy, like shape-shifting aliens. This is known.
But combining sex and swordfighting – okay, action and romance – is tougher than it looks, as I discovered not so long ago while writing THE BLOODBOUND, a fantasy novel about love and war, or war and love, depending on how you look at it.
Oh, it’s simple enough to throw the ingredients together, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to end up as a scrumptious dessert. Or, to use a different metaphor, it’s easy to have all the instruments playing in the same key at the same time, but that doesn’t make it a song. Combining sex and swordfighting into a scrumptious dessert-song is not as obvious as it sounds.
That probably explains why, in spite of the fact that sex and explosions are the #1 formula for blockbuster movies and bestselling genre novels, the true Action/Romance story – that is, a story where the action and romance are seamlessly interwoven – is still something of a rare breed, even in genres where blending the two is practically mandatory.
In most cases, especially in traditional fantasy and sci-fi, what you tend to find is an action story with a romantic sub-plot. This usually serves three purposes. First, it lets you bring in the Token Female Character (TFC). Second, it gives you an excuse to throw some sex in there, and as we’ve already established, sex is awesome. Third, it gives your hero some backstory, something to fight for, or some other humanizing element that allows readers to empathize with him/her (let’s be honest – usually him). That’s not to say stories like this are necessarily bad. On the contrary, when done well (and avoiding the TFC cliché) they can be tremendously entertaining. Some of my favorite books and movies fall into this category.
On the flip side, there are plenty of stories that emphasize the romance, but have comparatively few explosions (outside the bedroom, at least). Car chases and swordfighting take a back seat to character drama; the conflict tends to originate in the heroes’ attempts to overcome some fundamental obstacle to their being together. A lot of paranormal romance falls into this category, and these too can be very satisfying.
In neither case, though, do you have a true Action/Romance; instead what you have is an action story with romance, or a romance with some action. Again, that doesn’t mean these stories are any less entertaining. Emphasizing one over the other isn’t a flaw, it’s just a choice. By the same token, putting the romance and action on equal footing doesn’t guarantee you a great story.
So what makes an Action/Romance story great? The same things that make any story great: well-drawn characters, rich settings, a suspenseful plot. For me, though, to get full marks, I like to see the action and romance come together into an integrated, organic whole.
What does that mean? Well, just because you have two plots running in parallel doesn’t mean they’re actually linked in any meaningful way. Your characters may be falling madly in love while slavering werepoodles terrorize their small Indiana town, but if the action would unfold in essentially the same way even if they weren’t falling in love, what you’ve got here is a parallel plot. They’d make the same choices, with the same consequences, even if they weren’t fantasizing about ripping each other’s clothes off. That might be a fun story (seriously, I’d read that; hell, I’d make an HBO show out of it) but it doesn’t quite qualify as a true action/romance, at least not in my book.
Let me give you some examples of stories that do. The Princess Bride. Try to imagine that plot unfolding without the romance. Inconceivable. That’s because the action follows from the romance. Without Westley and Buttercup’s true love, none of those events would have been set in motion. Westley would have gone off and become a pirate. Buttercup would have married Prince Humperdinck and been murdered. War with Guilder ensues, the end. No Man in Black. No fire swamp. No R.O.U.S. Inigo might have gone after the six-fingered man, but without Westley’s help, he’d never have made it past the castle gates, and there’d be no you-killed-my-father-prepare-to-die. I don’t even want to think about it, frankly.
Here’s another example, this time from outside the genre. Romancing the Stone. In this case, the action sets off the romance. If Joan Wilder hadn’t been travelling to Colombia to save her sister, she never would have met that loveable rogue Jack T. Colton. On the other hand, if Joan hadn’t fallen in love with Jack, she never would have agreed to go after El Corazon; she would have just handed over the map, collected her sister (probably?) and that’d be it. Joan would be back in New York throwing up on the escalator at Bloomingdales and Jack would be scraping out a living smuggling macaws over the border.
Yes, I grew up in the eighties. What of it?
Anyway. In both of these examples – and, in my view, in any truly great Action/Romance – the romance and the action are interwoven and mutually dependent. The choices of one have significant knock-on effects on the other, and this relationship is bi-directional. Removing the romance wouldn’t just mean eliminating the sex and diminishing the overall human element; it would fundamentally change the plot.
That’s what I was going for in THE BLOODBOUND: a romance that influences the plot, which in turn influences the romance. Whether I managed it is something only the reader can judge, but I can promise you three things: Sex. Swordfighting. And a really big explosion.