In Romance, Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid

Towards the beginning of Todd Hayne’s new film CarolTherese (played by a sublime Rooney Mara) is watching a movie from a projection booth with her frustrated boyfriend Richard and his friend Dannie. Dannie is furiously scribbling notes. When asked why, he replies, “I’m writing down when a character’s actions are different from what they say.”

That sums up how the film approaches the love affair between Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese. Obviously, given it’s the early 1950s, these women live lives where their words and actions are often diametrically opposed. They are forced to pretend they’re “normal” (i.e. heterosexual). They must hide their passion for one another.

But as they fall in love, Carol and Therese also speak to one another in actions rather than words. They seldom express their feelings directly, instead displaying them through subtle gestures – the way Therese meets Carol’s eyes while standing behind the doll counter at the department store where she works, how Carol brushes her hand across Therese’s back while she’s playing piano, the air of mystery and fragility Therese captures in the photos she takes of Carol.

Carol and Therese’s love affair is so moving because they don’t reduce it to words. They don’t need to. They both know what they feel about one another and we do too. We often see one or both characters obscured by dirty, rain streaked or light reflected windows. They’re hidden, and yet we understand the deep emotions inside them.

Therese rarely speaks her mind. Carol saves her emotional speeches for her battles with her husband, who is trying to take away her daughter because of “morality charges.” In fact, only one of these two passionate women ever says “I love you,” and it’s very late in the movie. Because we haven’t heard such a direct expression of their feelings, it’s a powerful, moving moment. I had tears in my eyes.

PriceOfSaltI haven’t read The Price of Salt, the Patricia Highsmith novel Carol is based onbut I think there’s a lesson in Carol for romance writers. We can’t be visual in the same way a film can, but we can consider how much more can be expressed with actions rather than words. If our characters love one another, our readers will know it. Our job as writers is to explore the depth of their love and their pain. That’s best done with as little dialogue as possible. “See it rather than say it” should be our mantra.

If you haven’t already, hurry out and see Carol. It’s a beautiful love store, and an important lesson every writer should absorb.

Best Wishes,

Kelee

My First $.99 Sale

Tired of food, football, and family this Thanksgiving weekend? Then curl up with a hot archeologist…

14481536No, not that one, or even this one…

Indiana

I’m talking Dr. Ashland Stewart, a hunky scientist who knows how to please a woman.51IfhDBj+SL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Goddess is on sale for $.99 this weekend. Buy it for your Kindle!

Silver Linings Playbook: One Screwed-Up Romance

Last weekend I was watching Silver Linings Playbook on DVD. (Yes, I am aware of streaming. I’m just old fashioned in some ways.) It struck me what a great example this wonderful Oscar-winning movie is for romance writers. (Sad to say I haven’t yet read the novel it’s based on, which is probably even a better example.)

The problem with most Hollywood romantic comedies is that they give us characters with one issue they need to overcome before they get together. Perhaps the woman is afraid of commitment (Runaway Bride), or the hero is keeping secrets from the girl (You’ve Got Mail), or is pretending to be someone she’s not (Maid in Manhattan). These situations make for a light, entertaining ride, like a big bucket of popcorn soaked in fake butter. But you would never meet these characters in the real world.

Playbook is refreshingly different. Pat and Tiffany have ISSUES. They’re both crazy in a literal and figurative sense. Pat imagines that he can will himself out of his bi-polar illness and win back his wife. Tiffany was fired for sleeping with everyone in her office as she coped with her depression. Yes, the way they act sometimes seems over-the-top. But if you know someone with bi-polar illness or depression, you can see a great deal of reality in the way they interact.

These two people are f***ked up. Winning a dance contest and falling in love isn’t going to make their problems go away. They’re always going to have issues. Even if they get together in the end, you know they’re probably not going to live happily ever after. I wonder if they’ll last three months.

One of my favorite scenes in Playbook nicely illustrates how this movie veers from traditional romantic comedy. It’s a montage where Pat and Tiffany practice for the dance contest. It’s not a sensual or sexy scene (Except for the lingering stare Bradley Cooper gives Jennifer Lawrence’s naked back.), but we know these two messed up people are falling in love.

We see that Pat is changing, but he can’t admit his feelings. After staring at Tiffany, he runs home and throws himself on the bed. He’s so stunned and confused that he doesn’t notice he’s knocked to the floor all the novels he’s been reading to convince his wife to take him back.

But it’s the music over the scene that gives it an even deeper complexity you won’t find in other romantic comedies. Most directors would have chosen some pop confection that blatantly tells us what these characters are feeling. But director David O. Russell chooses a very different song — Bob Dylan’s 50-year- country/folk song, Girl From the North Country.

The song has nothing to do with the music they’re dancing to, or their situation, but it says so much about who they are. It’s far from a traditional love song. The song’s narrator is asking someone to check on the woman he loves, to make sure “she’s wearing a coat so warm, to keep her from the howling wind.” It’s likely he’ll never see his love again. It’s a plaintive cry of longing and loss.

I wish more romances (at least in the film and literary world) were like this. I like boy and girl to get together in the end, but I also want to know that life is deep, complex, and more than happily-ever-afters.

Best Wishes,

Kelee

Hot For Teacher… Or Student

“Elena could be the best student in the department but she gets distracted easily.”

“You mean by Dr. Stewart?” I immediately regretted bringing him up. The last thing I wanted to know about was a sordid departmental affair.

Nina smiled. “She’s not too subtle about it, is she?”

“Does she stand a chance?”

Nina looked at me a moment, as if considering how much to share. “I don’t know.”

The man made me want to throw up. “It doesn’t seem very ethical, getting involved with one of your students.”

“Dr. Stewart never has a relationship with a student he advises.”

“But anyone else is fair game?”

“I think you’re judging him too harshly. He never makes promises or shows favoritism.”

I was surprised by Nina’s naiveté. “Does he pass out his ground rules with the syllabus?” I said. “’Here’s what you can expect when you sleep with me.’”

She offered me an odd little smile, as if I was the naïve one. “He’s always very honest about his feelings, though I’m sure some women still fall in love with him.”

–excerpt from Goddess

When I first created the character of Dr. Ashland Stewart, I knew I wanted him to have a history of dating much younger students. It would make Julia Nelson, a 40-something mother of three, even more incredulous of the evidence that his lust was now directed towards her. But I was concerned that some readers might be turned off by the hunky archeologist’s professional ethics.

None of my beta readers seemed bothered by Dr. Stewart’s past, but a real-life professor–Laura Kipnis from Northwestern University–received a very different reaction when she defended professor/student romances in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Two students filed a Title IX complaint against her, claiming that her article created a “chilling atmosphere” on reporting sexual assaults.

I’ve certainly had my share of crushes on teachers. A few of them may have had an interest in me, though I was too shy to consider that possibility. Would I have been worse off if I had slept with them? Sometimes yes, when I wasn’t ready to hold my own in a relationship with someone older. But at other times, I could see where taking a relationship from the classroom to the bedroom could have been an opportunity for a lot of fun as well as a great deal of personal growth.

My point is, while some sexual relationships (i.e children and adults) are clearly wrong and imbalanced, it’s unfair to make sweeping indictments when a student and teacher who are both adults want to continue their education between the sheets.

Best Wishes,

Kelee