Smut Reporting

Addendum to Deception and the Heroine’s Meltdown

Since I wrote my initial rant about deception plots, it turns out that we’ve read several of them (you can see the pingbacks at the bottom of the original post if you’re curious). Given the possibilities for tension and drama in this trope, it’s not terribly surprising that it’s out there quite a bit. 

What I forgot when writing that prior rant is that one thing authors often do with this trope is to give the deceiving protagonist second thoughts, prompting a desire to confess. AND THEN THE OTHER PROTAGONIST UNDERCUTS THE DECEIVING PROTAGONIST BY HAVING SEX WITH THEM!

RUDE.

I mean yes, the first protagonist really should stick to their guns and say, “No, partner, I really need to talk to you. This is serious.” But really, if you were about to potentially jeopardize your whole relationship because you’re not sure if your partner will still accept you after you confess, wouldn’t you also decide to table the conversation for later so you can have one last romantic moment now?

What could possibly go wrong?

Although, in all honesty, if my partner ever said, “We need to talk,” there would be zero else happening until the talking happened. I know I am not alone in this, because when I was on a trip to Russia with some schoolmates, one of their boyfriends told her they needed to talk and she lost her mind because he was half the world away. So. (Also, who does that? They worked it out, though.) 

But why do the deceived protagonists never say, “You want to talk? What do you want to talk about? We need to talk right now or my anxiety will make me curl up into a seething ball of adrenaline.” Why? Why are they always saying, “Talking is bad for us, let’s just have sex,” and then having a trust meltdown later? 

You know, as I write this now, I’m thinking that my annoyance and frustration ultimately boils down to this: I’m supposed to believe that this romantic team can overcome obstacles and achieve the HEA. But if they can’t even have a conversation when doing so is important, their ability to convince me that the relationship is going to work is dangerously undermined. So the author then has to do extra work to convince me that they’ve really stepped up in the healthy relationship department. Which is hard work. 

Smut Reporting

The Dancing Lesson

If we’re going to talk about realism in romance, let’s talk about the popular forced proximity historical romance scene designed to kick the sexual tension into high gear: the dancing lesson. 

I was recently in eyeroll central after reading a historical romance that included one of those brief, informal dancing lessons. You know the ones – one protagonist is some kind of a bumpkin, and that protagonist is about to begin moving in such elevated social circles as would include fancypants balls and whatnot. 

The bumpkin must dance!

And the teacher must be the other protagonist because Sexual Chemistry!

Pretty sure this is what we’re all meant to be picturing.

Maybe there’s another character around to play the piano or to provide a moment of jealousy, or maybe our protagonists are alone. That all doesn’t matter, because what does matter is that the closeness – the touching of hands – the waltzing! – makes that sizzle really burn. 

I’m sure that when I was in my late teens I ate that up. 

Then I took ballroom dancing lessons.

Real footage of me learning to dance

Aside from learning square and line dancing in my youth, I have no knowledge of any country dances like the minuet or cotillion or quadrille or what have you. Waltz, yes. Competitive ballroom sorts of dances. Also, I have been known to join a family outing to the local biergarten for a spot of polka (Hi, Judy and Chris!). But I have no knowledge of how social norms in the 18th and 19th century might have influenced people’s understanding of dance or anything like that.

Period pieces definitely give us a solid understanding of the history of dance. #academic

I definitely know the difference between a partner who can lead and one who is learning to lead. I also understand what it’s like to know how to follow and how to keep up (hello fun polka times!). Ergo, any time protagonists are learning to dance, like, at all, but definitely more than one dance, and it isn’t occurring over the course of multiple weeks, my credulity is strained. 

ESPECIALLY if it’s a male character learning to lead the waltz. 

Also, note his hands. Hands don’t go on waists. They don’t.

My point is that actually dancing any structured dances with, like, actual names is much harder than grinding on the dance floor. And it probably takes more than a week to learn how to do it even passably. With plenty of time allocated for practice. So really, dancing lessons are an excellent forced proximity opportunity – from a time-lapse perspective.

He didn’t just wake up like this.
Smut Reporting

When the Blanket Statement Isn’t

Every now and then, a denizen of Romancelandia makes a declaration on the bird app, and that starts a conflagration. Recently, a reader declared, “romance authors please consider not adding that annoying ass third act breakup, do something different, break the mold,” which caused a huge flurry for several days.

I commented with my perspective on our Twitter account and left it at that, because, to be honest, the bird app is not my favorite place to exist. 

AND THEN I attended the Chicago-North RWA Spring Fling conference, and in the live sessions, comments on the black moment (that third act breakup) came up frequently. They all sounded a little bit like, “this is a bit of a controversy right now, but I like the black moment because it is important for tension/conflict/resolution of characterization issues/etc.”

I’m not the first person to say this, but obviously one person’s opinion is not universal, and if you’re an author selling books to a warm readership, they’re probably buying your books because they like how you’re creating a narrative. Just sayin’

That said, what occurred to me as I heard this raised by several published authors is this: I, personally, actively dislike the runaway/breakup black moment that occurs at about 85% of a book most of the time. But that’s not all the time

This is a space where what you like as a reader totally matters, but also, I’d argue that it’s dependent on how much you read. I have been voraciously consuming books this year. My reading goal for the whole year was 150 books. I’ve consumed more than 200 romances this year, and we’re just about two-thirds through 2020. They have not all been good books. They’ve definitely not all been amazing books that I’d readily recommend. 

I have read so many of the same problems/conflicts/characterizations so many times, that it’s been really easy to get fed up with some genre conventions that I’ve never cared about at all in the past (please see me ranting about every protagonist ever declaring they’ll never love again). 

But here’s the thing, and I’ll use specific examples in order to be clear…

For me, the black moment in Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert is not the same as the black moment in She’s Got Game by Laura Heffernan. For example. I could list many other pairings, but those are two books that we’ve posted about on this site, reviewed by me. 

There’s a runaway situation going on in both of the books above, but in Chloe Brown, both protagonists have very clear backstories that lead to the behavior that occurs at the black moment. Everything about the black moment is grounded in those emotions, and the protagonists haven’t really known each other long enough to fully let go of the trauma in their pasts and embrace the trust that goes into the future of the relationship. The choice to have the separation is a deliberate choice on the part of the heroine to shield herself, and it makes sense in context, which makes the ending extremely satisfying. 

With She’s Got Game, I was enraged by the heroine’s behavior most of the time. The heroine had some emotional baggage we were made aware of, and which was supposed to explain her response to the hero, but in fact she was simply rude almost all the time, which was super unappealing. These protagonists also didn’t know each other terribly well, so based on the relationship they’d developed, I did not understand why the hero would want to make the continued effort to be with her. When the black moment arrived and she made an assumption based on a something that could just as easily have been a nothing (and was, in fact, a nothing), ditching the hero without a word, the resulting resolution was not satisfying. It was me thinking the heroine really didn’t deserve the HEA. 

The result is the same in both of these books. There is a breakup black moment before resolution and denouement. And different readers will react to these breakups based on how they feel emotionally connected or disconnected to the protagonists. But storytelling matters, and casting a wide net to make readers feel emotionally connected to the protagonists, even if they personally feel they would not behave as the protagonist behaves, does take skill and attention to characterization and motivations and fears of the protagonists.

Rather than accepting the blanket statement as a universal sentiment one does or does not agree with, maybe we should dig a little bit deeper and figure out what’s driving that hot take. If we, the readers, are meant to believe that this relationship has staying power, we probably shouldn’t be left with concerns that the protagonists never really knew each other or that they never had a solid relationship before the black moment. Just sayin’.

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Best Friend’s Sibling

This week we’re doing a bit of housekeeping by focusing only on the Best Friend’s Sibling trope. What that means is, Erin read a bunch of books and wrote a bunch of reviews, but we all keep reading new books and writing reviews, so a little binge is in order. Why not use a little theme week for a trope Erin finds it hard to resist?

To begin, all of the Smut Reporters share their thoughts on Best Friend’s Sibling…

Bottom line: Do you like the Best Friend’s Sibling Trope?

Erin: I am a total sucker for this trope, even though it’s usually ridiculously predictably tropey. More so for the men being besties than for the women being besties. Much more drama that way.

Holly: I can take it or leave it. It’s not a trope I actively seek out, but I’ll happily read a book that features it.

Ingrid: I have a serious soft spot for it…selectively.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: It’s an excellent melting pot for a scoop of angst (I shouldn’t! But I want to!), a splash of seduction (Let’s succumb to this burning desire!), a pinch of sneaking around (Sibling can’t find out!), and a healthy dose of she’s-worth-fighting-for (not gonna lie, I need it sometimes).

Holly: I do really like it when protagonists already know each other when the book begins. What’s fun about the Best Friend’s Sibling is that they know each other already – but they get to know each other in a completely different way.

Ingrid: I love that there’s a “forbidden” element without necessarily being too…angsty. The ones I like are often rom com, and I love the whole “seeing a whole new person in someone you’ve known your whole life” thing.

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: Some authors are able to create a less problematic dynamic of “Let’s not mess up important relationships with someone we both care about,” but most of the time, this trope involves mad caveman behavior on the part of the sibling, especially if it’s a man/man friend pairing. Independence, good judgement, control – they all get in the mix with caveman sibling behavior.

Holly: There are two popular iterations of this trope: the best friend’s yummy older brother who I’ve been crushing on forever, and the best friend’s pesky younger sister who is suddenly hot. The second one is more problematic for me, mainly because the best friend / older brother also gets involved and is weirdly overprotective of his sister. Bro, if your friend is too lame to date your sister, maybe he’s too lame to be your friend. Just sayin’.

Ingrid: Obviously you walk a fine problematic line of possessiveness. Ideally, the sibling should end up being really happy their two favorite people are hooking up, and those are often just…yummy. However, I absolutely detest when the older brother is a clunky, irrational caveman about the whole thing or when the hero acts like the heroine is someone who needs to be protected from her own urges. That’s gross.

Does the trope work better in a specific sub-genre or time period?

Erin: Given that the primary conflict in this trope tends to be that the sibling (brother) won’t approve, it’s a bit easier to stomach without having wayward thoughts of “wrong!” in historical romance, given that women’s rights and social understandings of equality have evolved in Western civilization over the past couple centuries. On the other hand, having a contemporary sister lay into her brother about his caveman behavior can be pretty entertaining.

Holly: Thinking about this in terms of the problematic side of things, the overprotective brother works better for me in historical romance – it feels less gross caveman and more about acknowledging the economic insecurities of unmarried women. 

Ingrid: Historical certainly takes the edge off the caveman approach, but I have enjoyed it in a historical and a contemporary context.

What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?

Erin: I don’t know! 

Holly: Being Hospitable by Meka James. This is a sexy f/f novella where a young woman moves in with / seduces her older brother’s best friend. There’s definitely the dynamic of “Oh, yeah, you’re still the pesky young’un” that allows the characters to banter and play with the boundaries between them, but the brother is not an impediment. In fact, the heroines worry about it for a hot minute, and then Charley calls up her brother (alone – she wants to stand on her own two feet in her relationship with her family), tells him she’s dating his best friend, and…that’s the end of it. 

Ingrid: Charming as Puck, by Pippa Grant. This is the first Pippa I ever read, and I absolutely adored the way she executed the whole thing. Humorous perfection.

Author Spotlight

Author Spotlight: Pippa Grant

Looking for a new author? Here’s everything you need to know about Pippa Grant, author of Charming as Puck, Humbugged, and Flirting with the Frenemy. You may also recognize her style under the pen name “Jaime Farrell.”

What She Writes:

Contemporary romantic comedy with minimal angst, a heavy dose of absurdity, healthy love stories, and panty-melting love scenes.

What Makes Her Unique:

Pippa Grant weaves tight-knit communities and friend groups from which her multiple series springs with hilarity eternal. She also tends to turn macho contemporary rom-com heroes on their heads after they meet badass heroines.

Writing Style:

She primarily writes alternating 1st person POV. Characters are described through their personalities; you won’t see elaborate or superficial character descriptions.

Her Books in GIF Form:

Why We Love Her:

These books are plain fun and easy to read. Also, she doesn’t shy away from normal awkward behavior and feelings, which is funny. There are multiple entry points for her different series, but you’ll find Easter eggs and cameos from old friends if you keep reading.

She Might Not Be For You If:

You really enjoy an angsty read. Or super domineering heroes.

Notable Quotation: 

“If men are pigs, his body is the bacon, and god help me, I love a good piece of bacon.”

The Pilot and the Puck Up

Content Warnings:

There aren’t a lot of warnings with Pippa Grant, but her characters do tend to be white and privileged.

The Bottom Line:

If you’re having a bad week, read Pippa. If you need to restore your faith in humans, read Pippa. If you’re lonely and missing your friends during this insane pandemic, read Pippa. Basically, if you want to feel good…READ PIPPA.

Start With:

Flirting with the Frenemy (Bro Code #1). Check out her full suggested reading order here.