When we last met, the tea was hot, and the gaslights were a-flickering. Let’s continue mucking about with ideas re: showing, not telling….
How is the sex described and portrayed?
Not everything has to be sweet, soft, gentle, tender lovemaking. In fact, there is a lot of appeal in what Ash Litton once immortally called “a lion fuck,” just fast, furious, and animalistic. But don’t unwittingly communicate something else with how you show the sex.
Not all tension equals romantic or sexual tension, after all.
In fact, one of the most disturbing commonalities I’ve seen in the Romance genre is how often sex is described with violent, cruel, even hateful language. “He slammed harshly into her over and over, oblivious to her cries.” “She felt pain stinging, ringing, as he pounded on. She didn’t know if she was screaming his name from fear or excitement.” “He grabbed her arm and yanked her against him. She cried out, but he silenced her with a brutal kiss, overwhelming her with his violent passion, his scalding rage.” It makes sex sound like one of the worst experiences ever. And often this places things firmly in rape culture territory by describing the encounter with the language of rape, but framing it as something the heroine wants… or didn’t realize she wanted until he “overpowered” her or took it from her.
There are plenty of ways to do this kind of “lion fuck” sex scene, play with danger, depict raw physical passion, even depict actual violent sex or rape if it’s part of the plot. But if you haven’t demonstrated that your characters understand consent and obtain it in some way, if you only depict their encounters with fear or terror, conflict, fury, and/or even hate, you can’t then turn around and tell us “But they love and trust each other! She likes it! He really cares for her! She’s totally in charge! It’s just meant to be sexy! Aren’t you being too picky and over-thinking this?!”
We have to believe what the text shows us, and too much “She struggled, but it was like fighting a brute, unyielding force as he thrust hard, battering into her” is not romantic, is not passionate, is not sexual tension. You can’t claim “she’s totally in charge!” because she had an orgasm, or wanted sex in general with the MMC. It is rape, and you can’t make it un-rape by saying it’s not rape. You can’t make the MMC into a romantic hero if he’s a rapist by saying he’s not a rapist, and/or that she really had to have it but was too scared to ask.
(If you want/need to write a rape scene or something with sexual violence, it has to be with secondary characters to not undermine your main characters as sympathetic. Unless you are really prepared to interrogate power structures or trauma or rape culture or the rape fantasy as part of the plot, you generally cannot have your MMC rape someone, you cannot have the FMC raped by the MMC, and still call it Romance or erotica.)
If you show your MMC constantly giving the FMC alcohol to “lower her defenses,” if he puts her down by calling her (even jokingly) a “spoiled princess” or “too innocent for your own good,” or insists “Just try it, sweetheart. Once. For me,” then you have shown us that your MMC is a manipulative shithead. All of the “But he’s really into her, and he’s got a tender heart underneath it all” won’t be convincing after this.
If you show your FMC is always scared, intimidated, overwhelmed, or the recipient of actions portrayed in violent language, if she expresses zero awareness of her own body unless the MMC tells her to or makes her feel it, if she has no interest in or if she expresses real reservations about anal, three- and foursomes, an orgy, or BDSM, we won’t magically be convinced that she’s all of a sudden on board with such activities and is in control of her own sexuality when they happen. Vaginal wetness and climaxes don’t mean a woman is automatically in control of her own sexual desires.
You might think you’re describing passion and romance. After all, a lot of this verbiage is seemingly intrinsic to the genre, and we’ve read variations of it for decades without thinking about it. You may not have intended at all to show dubious consent, or abuse, or an unbalanced power dynamic. But if you look at the words and actions, that is what they are doing. Unless that’s what you meant to do and you are willing to deal with it in your plot, you can’t say that it isn’t that thing because that wasn’t what you were trying to do.
You also can’t just tell what you are trying to do, either. “I flush at what he’s doing to me. It’s so hot, so sexy, I think.” “This is so erotic.” “She was turned on beyond her wildest imagination” “He’d never wanted a woman like this before.” Okay. But you can’t just tell us it’s hot or erotic or they want each other more than anyone or anything. You have to show it. This is what makes a good sex scene. This is what makes a fantastic build-up to it in a couple’s relationship. It’s not enough to go “He’s gripping my ass, and it’s the most erotic thing I’ve ever felt.” You’ll have to use all sorts of details to show this: physiological reactions, the environment, emotional and physical descriptions, every plot point leading up to this, all of it.
That’s one of the most fun parts of what we do as writers, too, after all, isn’t it?
How are other relationships portrayed?
It doesn’t seem like it should be that big a deal, does it? But the way other couples demonstrate love and romance compared to the MC is telling. Are the other couples’ relationships presented as lesser, or silly, or not serious, or not as special as the MC’s relationship? Is everyone paired up like Noah’s heteronormative Ark?
Sometimes what seems like innocuous character-building for a supporting character ends up instead promoting hypocrisy regarding others’ relationships. (This was one of my biggest problems when I first started writing, in fact. I didn’t catch it until years later!) Does the FMC constantly criticize her best friend’s romantic relationships, complaining that Savannah gets involved too quickly with men or always gets her heart broken… despite the fact that the FMC is in the midst of a whirlwind relationship with her brother’s best friend on a two-week trip back home? Does the MMC express contempt for his father’s or mother’s infidelities or his brother’s free-wheeling single lifestyle… despite the fact that he’s been just as sexually active, even unethical, in his own past? If the MC’s relationship includes all sorts of “let’s sneak away from this party and fuck in my car” and “I’ve ducked under this tablecloth to orally gratify you in the middle of a conference” encounters, then it totally makes them sound like hypocrites when then get eye-rolly at FMC’s co-worker and her husband making kissy-faces at each other in public, or another couple in a different scene who they catch “looking disheveled” and snark at them to “get a room.” If you write a scene in which the FMC earnestly tells a friend to “take her time and get to know” a new guy, or expresses concern that “it’s just that you and Callum seem to fight all the time,” and she’s currently involved with an MMC who she’s known for less than a month, and who most of their depicted interactions show them in conflict, the FMC is a hypocrite. Add bonus points if the FMC thinks something judgmental about the friend rushing relationships or needing a life outside of a man.
It can work to have a couple there for contrast to your MC, to highlight values or ideology. But sometimes the secondary couple in a novel can be used as a sloppy shorthand to try to emphasize the magical and perfect lurve of the MC… and accidently end up doing something else instead. For example, does your FMC always make internal comments about her schlubby older sister and schlubby brother-in-law and their sticky, noisy children? Does she think about how much more handsome and glamorous the MMC is by comparison? Does the FMC have a friend who married mega-rich and lives in a NYC high rise, and whom the FMC always feels inferior to… until she has her own down-home values reinforced by her sexy soldier-rancher’s rugged, rural lifestyle? If the sister or friend or secondary couples have not been portrayed as actually antagonistic, then the FMC just comes off as a complete asshole when she makes comparisons.
Does your text show that something is okay, even celebrated, for the MC, but not for another couple?
This often ends up demonstrating…
Are there double standards for others compared to the MC?
A surprising number of romances, especially of the Alpha Male variety, include a villain who actually acts almost exactly like the MMC, but without the author or fans aware of it. So if your dashing duke-slash-secret-pirate MMC plots to get the FMC alone and in a compromising position, breaks into her bedroom once in an attempt to seduce her, and then brokers a marriage with her because he “has to have her,” you can’t have a bad guy whose big, evil actions include plotting to get the FMC alone, sneaking into her bedroom, and attempting to broker a marriage with her because he has to have her. Why is it okay for the MMC and not the bad guy? No, “he really loves her” or “she’s attracted to him, too,” doesn’t work. That is more gaslighting.
It shows all sorts of problems if your main characters criticize other characters for the same things they’ve done, or if you show a “bad” character doing X, but it’s somehow okay when one of the main characters does the same thing. If you’ve introduced your FMC as angry or sad because “I’ve had enough of lying, cheating assholes in my life!” and yet the MMC’s actions are this, then that is sloppy, inconsistent, and, worst cases, end up sending hypocritical messages that a behavior is okay if the dude is sexy/an aristocrat/your “soulmate”/whatever. If the FMC is always blushing and stammering and feeling overwhelmed by the MMC, it is hypocritical when she observes “The barista couldn’t take her eyes off Adam, stammering over his order and turning bright pink. Calm down, sister, I can’t help saying to myself.” If the MMC is always swoon-worthy in his riding clothes or Regency-era garb or designer suit, it is hypocritical if the FMC notices that the woman she perceives as a threat to the relationship is “always dressed stylishly, in expensive designer business-wear” or “wearing the latest fashionable creation from Worth’s.” Why is it an indication that she is shallow and bad, but it’s okay for the MMC? Does the FMC freak about the MMC’s “skanky ex” who shows up at an event in a “slinky dress,” but then, later, the FMC shows up in a designer red dress that “hugs every curve,” and that’s okay?
Shaming other characters for being sexual is another problem, especially slut-shaming female characters. You can’t have the FMC freak out about the MMC’s “slutty ex-girlfriend” who might be promiscuous… but overlook the fact that the MMC has also been quite promiscuous in the past (and used to be in a relationship with the same “slutty” ex), unless you’re okay with being completely sexist. You can’t describe a female character as “predatory” or “feline” and then depict the MMC as some sort of panther-like master of seduction, unless you’re okay with being completely sexist. You can’t describe a female character as slutty or a whore, and then depict your FMC in the throes of trembling, wet, uncontrollable desire for the MMC, unless you’re okay with being completely sexist. If you want to dig in and explore certain double standards, go for it. But if you try to use it as shorthand to show that one character is bad or questionable, you can’t have another character behave the same or similarly and hand-wave it as okay because … reasons.
If Romance and erotica is an “empowering” genre because it depicts women having and wanting sex as something healthy, it’s a huge mixed message to shame other women within the text for… having and wanting sex.
(And please, please, please, stop with the couple, especially the MMC, saying of their new daughter, “She won’t have sex until she’s thirty.” One, creepy. Two, just second-hand slut-shame her mother, why don’t you?)
But it’s not just sex that can be a double-standard. If the FMC is keeping a secret from the MMC, she can’t hate his previous girlfriend for being “a lying psychopath” unless it’s part of the plot to interrogate her own deceptions, really interrogate, not rationalize it. If the MMC has been jealous, possessive, or hot-tempered during the whole courtship, then he can’t be all shocked and wounded and tell the recently-kidnapped FMC “I hate that he hurt you! I hate that he thought he could treat you this way!” when he’s done the same thing to her. If the FMC rebels against her demanding and overprotective father, she can’t unquestioningly hook up with a demanding and possessive MMC without triggering all sorts of “Girl? Therapy and some self-awareness, pronto!” messages. If the MMC is supposed to be dashing and heroic and gentlemanly, then he can’t just start sexually and romantically pursuing his sister’s kids’ nanny/governess without some real reflection on the appropriateness of it from every possible social, class, and familial angle… especially not if he disparages his best chum for debauching innocent women.
Is the character undermined by his/her own actions?
Yeah, this is pretty much what the whole blog subject has been about, but let’s get specific.
If you tell the reader that the MMC is gentle, tender, funny, and loving, but all we see is the MMC angry about this or that, you’re undermining that very point with his actions. If other characters in the story keep saying how the FMC is so nice, such a nice person, but her internal thoughts are nothing but her complaining, making snarky comments about other women and how insecure she feels about them, or whining and complaining about the romantic relationship and how the MMC could possibly want lil’ ol’ her, we aren’t going to think she’s nice, we’re going to think she’s neurotic. If that’s your point and the kind of character you’re developing and you’re going to make it a real plot point, go for it! It can work fabulously.
But if you really want your character to be genuinely nice and kind and appealing, the character’s actions aren’t displaying “niceness” at all.
A common expression in Romance is when the MMC, especially, tells the FMC, “You’re not like other girls” and often expands on that with “They’re all so shallow and superficial, but you have such a joy, a genuineness about you” or “You’re smart, not like those other bimbos,” or “Every woman I’ve ever met, it seems, is just out to find some man to take care of them. But you aren’t like that. You’re strong, independent.” This comes up a lot with the rich MMC, whether he is historical or contemporary, and the idea that all other women are just gold-digging whores. That’s not to say that a real issue can’t and shouldn’t be the idea that a wealthy MMC has to wade through people who only want him for his money in order to find a genuine love match. After all, that IS a romantic fiction cornerstone.
But the implications of “You’re not like other girls/guys” and “Other women are all gold-diggers” are troubling. The idea that one has to put down an entire gender in order to complement one character is not good. There are better ways to communicate “You’re different, you’re special to me” without it being a shallow and generalized swipe at others.
Furthermore, if the MMC complains that other women were using him for his money, and then he flings expensive gifts at the FMC without it being a point of examination, that makes it look like the “You’re different” was just a line, or that he treats all women the same.
Childlike behavior is another inadvertent problem if overdone. I get that there’s a whole daddy-and-baby-girl thing that some readers love. But if that’s not what sub-genre you’re working with, then having a FMC who is always handling her relationship with the MMC in childish ways doesn’t show us she’s cute or endearing or appealing. It shows us she is immature or their relationship is manipulative if she responds to his anger or possessive demands with childish behavior. “I pout and cajole until his scowl starts to soften,” or “She screamed, and, picking up a priceless vase, hurled it at his head in a fit of temper. He ducked, and laughed as it shattered against the wall. ‘Ooooh!’ she shrieked again, stomping a foot.” Or even “Once again, he’s made me feel like a naughty child, and I hide my face from his piercing gaze.” The flip side is the MMC who is fetishized as “boyish” or a “little boy.” “Underneath it all, he’s just a lost, scared little boy, and my heart melts.” “He gave her his boyishly engaging grin, and she sighed. ‘I can’t stay mad at you.’” Again, we’re fishing in the creepy pond, not to mention revealing an unhealthy undercurrent of manipulation and immaturity with what the actions show.
Does the character end up doing the very things they said they wouldn’t do or accept? (I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting this when I look at FMC-specific “strong women” issues.) Does your FMC say assertive things to the MMC, but then not follow through? Sure, it’s great if she says “I won’t accept that” or “I’m not going to do that.” “No, Lord Etienne, I do not wish to live in Paris and be your kept woman! I will not be your little poppet!” “Max, I can’t do these things. I don’t want you controlling what I eat and what I wear and where I go, and I won’t tolerate it!” If, four chapters later, he’s picking out all her clothes and she’s ensconced in a Parisian apartment without there being real work in the text to show us why this has changed, then that’s completely disempowering. If your MMC is adamant that he never wants to get married and have children, it’s not going to be a HEA ending that Samuel marries Brie and they have a baby together unless one of the main points of the plot is real exploration of how and why he changes his mind. If your MMC declares that he will never let some woman manipulate him with sex, then the readers will question that character’s judgment if we see the FMC using her feminine charms to seduce him, unless it is addressed in the text. If the character him- or herself says one thing and then shows us something else by their actions, that’s usually a problem.
(Related to this: I’ve never found it convincing that the slutty MMCs suddenly just stop being slutty because they fall in love with the FMCs. If the dude’s identity or reputation is built on seducing women or he loves the excitement of the chase, sorry, but that leopard ain’t changing his spots so easily, not even for love. Right, Dad?)
The magic single-scene personality change for no real reason is another disconcerting character element. Take the shy, self-conscious and/or distant brooding characters suddenly acting like party animals because the novel has a scene that takes place in a club or bar or at a party. It would usually indicate psychological problems, unless you’ve shown a real reason why the FMC is suddenly knocking back shots and dancing on tables to have fun. If you’ve given us a cold, autocratic modern-day prince MMC who supposedly hasn’t found love because he spends all his time on matters of state and family, then it’s highly implausible if he’s suddenly taking the FMC to the hottest club in town where he knows everyone, dances to all the new songs, and wins a dramatic tango contest.
Additionally, there is a related element, the unintentional effect of using booze as a character trait. So many works of fiction take the “girls drink wine!” stereotype to extremes. Sure, having mimosas or a cocktail with the girls is a common scene in contemporary fiction, and I’m sure plenty of us have a glass of wine with dinner or splurge on champagne when we’re hanging out by the pool with friends. But if every single scene with a FMC and her friends includes bottles of wine and/or getting drunk, it sounds less “cute and fun” and more like “you need twelve steps and a sponsor, chica.”
If the FMC has a best friend supporting character who is always wanting to go clubbing, and is usually shown getting drunk, that indicates a potential problem with alcohol. I mean, maybe instead of spending all their time talking about the FMC’s relationship with the MMC, the FMC should be paying attention to her friend’s behavior and offering her support and help, maybe even an intervention? If the MMC is always pressing wine on the FMC, that indicates a potential problem with alcohol… and with the MMC as a person, since this is a common abuse/assault tactic. If the FMC gets drunk in order to (pick any one or combination of the following, especially if it happens more than once) cope with her problems and feelings for the MMC, for courage before an encounter be it sexual or otherwise, to defy the MMC, and/or to prove a point about her maturity or independence, then that indicates a potential problem with alcohol and reveals her to not be ready for a romantic and/or sexual relationship. And that she’s probably in a bad place emotionally.
All of this means that actions and words in a text can have surprising implications. So, for instance, do you notice that whenever the MMC interacts with his mom, the FMC has to make internal comments about how intimidating the mom is, or crack jokes about boys and their mamas? You may not have intended to as a writer, but suddenly, there’s a disturbing undercurrent of tension about this based on what you thought were just a few cute jokes. If your FMC laughs and tells your super-macho MMC. “I thought you were gay. How ridiculous I was!” it sounds really homophobic. If your MMC refers to your FMS as “unspoiled,” that sounds like women who have had sexual experience or possess knowledge are “spoiled” by comparison. If your FMC tells us that “with uncharacteristic joy lighting up his usually brooding face, he kisses me,” then that also suggests the MMC is usually not joyful, that his usual state is misery.
Innocuous things can work together to send unintended messages.
Is the story itself undermined by the details?
One of my favorite things about writing and about reading is the detail. Historical, fashion, locations, menus, sex scenes, yeah, all of it. But sometimes the details can be the very thing that accidentally shows something when a writer is telling something else.
For a while, fiction in multiple genres hit heavier than usual with name brands. Everyone was wearing MAC and Manolos and Prada and Agent Provocateur, and it seemed like you couldn’t read about the simplest middle-class FMC without getting a shopping list of designer products, beauty rituals, top-of-the-line electronics, and car makes and models, often as sloppy shorthand for character development. Name brands or luxury surroundings, like any detail, have to work for the story.
The fantasy aspect of the sex-and-shopping novels is appealing, but if you have an innocent, down-to-earth, pragmatic, no-nonsense and/or snarky heroine who supposedly doesn’t care for superficial bullshit, you can’t suddenly have her marveling at how great she looks post-makeover and dropping designer names like it’s second nature to her, or slinking around in satin nightgowns and matching robes like a film siren, or enjoying a Black American Express Card shopping spree on the oil baron’s dime, without real reason.
It’s also possible to inadvertently undermine your characters and/or plot with completely implausible details. I did this in one of my earliest novels when I first started writing, intending to show a MMC in a tough family situation, low-income, alone and unloved… but I included details (based on what I thought the market wanted and what other YA included) about what kind of car he drove, what brand of shirts he wore, and the dog he’d recently gotten. Yeah, all of those things would be highly unlikely for a high school student living with a guardian who hated him. It took practice to see things like this, but now they leap out. But you can see how it’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy for the filthy-rich FMC dressed in the most fashionable clothing, with a horse or car or business of her own, plenty of food and a place to live in the ancestral home, attending ritzy parties or traveling the world, unless we really can see just how and why she is miserable and ill-treated despite all the trappings.
Seemingly throwaway details add up. Like if your MC relies on comments like “You’re beautiful” and “Oh, god, he’s so gorgeous” when they have conflicts, or as deflection of criticism, especially regarding actions. “Braden looked up from where he had been helping Joey with his science project. My heart melted. Yes, I’d told him not to interfere, especially not with my son. But how could I resist? Braden was so handsome and sure, with his tousled hair and crooked grin.” “‘Damn,’ he groaned, taking her in his arms. ‘I should turn you over my knee, but I can’t resist you when you look up at me with those big, beautiful eyes.’” The focus is all on looks, superficial. That’s not character development or problem solving.
Or take something like infantilizing talk and behavior. It’s meant to sound caring and sweet, but a little goes a long way before it actually starts sounding like pedophelia. If your couple is constantly spoon-feeding each other, or she’s always curling up on his lap like a child or being picked up and carried by him, and his nicknames for her are all of the “my little baby girl” variety, or if she’s always picking out his clothes for him and marveling that he’d never be able to manage without her, or that he “acts like such a child sometimes,” that can be less sweet and more squicky.
Another common infraction would be the put-downs that aren’t actually put-downs. It’s usually another attempt at shorthand minor/secondary character development that is a complete misfire, especially when it comes from one of the main characters’ viewpoints: “She’s one of those brainiac intellectual types.” “Well-groomed and shapely, she sauntered over.” “…such a nerd, like they spend all their time making costumes from the latest superhero movie.” “Balding and portly.” It’s possible to use details like this effectively, but if it’s just there, it doesn’t work, because none of those things actually really indicate a character flaw. Someone isn’t inherently bad, unsympathetic, a nemesis, or a threat to the MC’s relationship if they drive a convertible or work at a mortuary or have a certain color hair. Hell, I’ve even read Romance novels before where the FMC disparages women who read a lot, or women who read Romance novels!
Yes, every detail matters.
So what does work? I’ll be exploring this over several blog posts as well, but let’s start here with what I call “the Why Game.” This works with fiction and critical projects, and is often something I do with my students, too: don’t just state something on the assumption that it’s obvious or that everyone will agree. You have to demonstrate why. So when they turn in an essay that says “Author is one of the most important writers of the early twentieth century,” or “This book is a significant work,” my comment in response will be “Why?” And I push and push them until they’ve articulated real, personal, insightful answers.
In fiction, this means you have to push at the platitudes, really interrogating and understanding the character’s motivation for doing something. So you can say “Grayson Hayes-Shaker was the most gorgeous man I’d ever set eyes on. I felt like I couldn’t breathe when his dark, smoldering gaze snagged mine.” But that’s flat until we know why. It’s a Romance or erotic work, so obviously we know it’s about sexual attraction. That’s the no-duh starting point. But… why this man and not others? Why now? Why under these conditions? As it stands, the “why?” is just “He’s gorgeous,” and that has connotations. Without expanding on the “why?” it just sounds superficial and shallow. You can’t assume that the reader will be on board with there supposedly being all sorts of deep and meaningful connections between your couple unless you show us that as a writer.
Ask why, and keep asking why, until you move your characters into a place that reveals to your readers their unique qualities, and you’ll end up with a more believable story and more engaging couple at the center of it.
If a story is depicting the enemies-to-lovers plot, then it has to show the emotional connections growing and changing between the couple, not just some hot hate-fucks. Otherwise, we can’t find it believable when they suddenly decide they are madly in love and have to be together forever. If one of your characters is about to embark on a new sexual/romantic lifestyle, like poly or BDSM or Master/slave, you have to show why beyond “I’m attracted to that person.” Otherwise it’s unconvincing, and even looks psychologically questionable, like they’re engaging in sexual behavior they normally would have no interest in only because they want to fuck a certain person, or want a love interest to love them back, or even just pay attention to them. (This is one of my all-time major beefs with good ol’ Fifty Shades. Ana not only has no interest in BDSM, she has no interest in sex at all until she decides she wants to be Christian Grey’s girlfriend. So rather than a novel about a young woman coming into her own sexually and exploring new passions and all that, it’s the story of an insecure girl who will compromise herself and do things that she doesn’t want to and that frighten her, by her own admission, in order to try to get Christian Grey to be her boyfriend, for him to care about her. If Ana had been secretly reading Victorian erotica or BDSM message boards, or even masturbating regularly, the books might be slightly less problematic.) So if your FMC has not expressed interest in lesbian activity or a poly relationship before, but now that she’s involved with the MMC and he wants her to be part of his nontraditional lifestyle, it really only feels like the FMC is doing things to keep her may-un, because it’s the only way she can have him, and she’d rather share him than not have him at all and-
And that’s not showing a story of sexual freedom, autonomy, and grand passion, no matter what the text tells.
So play the Why Game to push the platitudes. Your MMC finally confesses to his lady-love, “I’ve never felt this way about a woman before.” Okay, MMC, but why? Why should she believe you? Why should we believe you? How does he respond to “Why do you love this woman and not others? Why have you never felt like this about other women?”
“Her sea-green eyes seem to look into my heart-” No, come on.
“Ethan held her slender body close to his. ‘I was an empty shell before you came along. No one has ever loved me or trusted me the way you do,’ he breathed.” Yeah, you’re a self-centered ass, Ethan. Try again.
“‘You’re amazing, Maddie,’ he told me, taking my face in his hands. ‘You’re smart and gorgeous and strong. You’re bright, witty, honest, and I am just completely blown away by you. I’ve never known a girl who-’” Gah, no! Remember, show, don’t tell!
“‘It seems,’ Clive murmured near her ear, ‘that I cannot remember a time when you did not occupy my every waking thought. Do you realize I traveled for two days and nights just to be here tonight in hopes that I might hear your laugh?” Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. Keep going.
“‘I don’t know why,’ Jake said, his forehead furrowing. ‘I can’t solve it like a formula. There isn’t a why. I just know that I do.’” Ah, okay. We get past some of the usual purple prose, and can even get an idea of what this MMC is like from something like this.
Asking “why” can help reframe things, so, for instance, the “you’re not like other girls” crap shifts to become a specific comparison. It turns into something more personal, like “this is different than [my specific bad example].” (“After everything ended so badly with Petra, I think my soul went into hibernation. And I didn’t want to wake it up again until I met you.”) Or “I’ve never met anyone like you who [specific examples].” (“‘It is not only that I think you are beautiful, Lady Anne.’ His expression was as direct as ever, but Anne could see his hands were clenched tight. ‘In fact, at this point, I do not even dwell on your physical beauty. It is about the look in your eyes, the sound of your voice. That is where your true beauties lie.’”)
Let’s try again, just for fun. Your FMC is trying to explain to her bf or her sister or her mom why the MMC is The One. If she blushes and sighs “He’s amazing, everything I ever wanted,” that’s not enough information. Like what? What did you always want, FMC? Why?
“‘He’s my Prince Charming,’ is all I can say. It’s so simple, but so true.” And so lame. We’ve heard variations of this six dozen times. Next.
“‘I know that he’s not perfect,’ I admit. ‘I know that it seems like it’s all happened so quickly, but I just know it’s right! And having faith is what love is all about.’” Sounds sweet and nice and self-aware, huh? But actually, there are a half-dozen red flags waving in the breeze. Let’s go again.
“I’m just a girl who is completely, totally, madly in love with this beautiful, sexy man. He is my whole world. I am his, body and soul.” It sounds like she’s trying too hard to convince others, and herself. This doesn’t show “in love.” This shows she’s immature, superficial, insecure, and disempowered.
“How can I explain it to them? How can they possibly understand? When he kisses me, and my blood pulses, races through my veins, all I can think is This. This is what love is.” Um, kissing is obvious in a relationship, and your blood pulses because you are a human being, FMC. Why do you think this is what love is? Why does your blood race? Go further.
“It’s that… when I’m with him, the whole world seems to come into clearer focus. And not because I’m seeing it through his eyes, either. But because he loves that I see it through mine.” Now we’re on to something. Keep on….
“I can’t even tell you how it happened or when it started. All I know now is that it feels like I’ve always loved him. Something brought us together, and wants to keep us that way.” All right, this is an angle on “Why?” that communicates something deeper.
So show, don’t tell.
And be able to answer “Why?”
Rather than hand-waving details about work or kids or social demands, make it a believable plot point. Instead of the glamorous workaholic attorney characterized by a few jargon-y telephone conversations, you might explore the real tension of work demands on their relationship, or public versus private personae. Instead of “Red or white?” and a sex-pun-filled scene talking about guys with her bestie, the FMC might be dealing with deeper things like divided loyalties, or concern that Jenn’s in a bad place with too much drinking, and she needs to be there for her friend despite her new romantic relationship. How will she handle it all? How will the MMC?
Have fun with it! If details like this are made into believable plot-points that are examined by you and by your characters, you won’t accidentally weaken your characters and story with unexplored elements.