Love is a Disease: Prevent the Romantic Storyline from Strangling the Scary
Ever wonder why some books get the horror classification, while others—sometimes with similar plotlines and the exact same monsters—get labeled paranormal romance? The difference is easy—the former has the primary goal of scary, and the latter focuses on a romantic relationship (to the degree that the plots rely on it to function). The real question, then, concerns the tipping point between the two genres, the point at which your young adult novel is less terror and more Twilight.
First, a caveat: There’s nothing wrong with paranormal romance; it’s simply a different genre from horror (and the two genres frequently have a substantial overlap in readers). A romantic storyline, in and of itself, is not a terrible thing at all. This argument is by no means a condemnation of love and the readers who love it.
Romantic fiction uses a different kind of tension—will the protagonist suffer heartbreak? Will the couple get together? End up together?—than the frequently external threats and emphasis on surviving found in horror. In a horror, too much ink spilled about love ends up replacing one tension with another, pulling focus away from whatever monster, human or not, is menacing your hapless heroes.
Obviously, the easiest way to solve this problem and keep it scary is to go without the romantic storyline. Most of the time, platonic means middle grade. The unspoken rule is that romance is the defining feature that separates middle grade from young adult, that young adult is defined by the inclusion of romance as the teen readers develop (interest in relationships). Luckily, this rule is not enforceable in a court of law; if romance hurts your story, drop it like it’s cursed.
Micol Ostow’s Amity—a classic-style haunting heavily inspired by everything Amityville—is one example of a book that eschews romance. In it, the male and female leads are temporally separated, so the possibility of teen love between them is off the table completely. Without the option of a happy couple ending plot trajectory, the characters lack romantic plot-armor right off the bat and therefore face an increased level of risk.
When Ostow breaks with the romantic conventions, she signals to readers that she is willing to disrupt normal narrative patterns. Considering the very classic haunted house nature of her story, this was a good decision—it interjects an element of unpredictability needed to enhance fear in the readers while the characters have spectrally expected experiences.
But just because some stories do better without romance doesn’t mean that love is dead! There are some stories that do better when frights and flirtations coexist. As long as you make sure that your romantic storyline doesn’t overpower the horror plot, you’re good to go. An easy way to test this is to go with a scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter breakdown, taking note of which tension is driving the story. Then, bring your tensions back into balance by disrupting any places where the romantic storyline starts to run away with itself.
(This type of tension charting is a good idea for any kind of story you’re working on if the narrative isn’t clicking correctly, and is useful for tightening up all sorts of other plots, so don’t shy away from its mechanical nature.)
Another option for the coexistence of love and horror is for the two to be married! That is, craft a plot where your romantic storylines feed into your horror, giving the reader extra things to dread. The two basic ways of doing this are to either create a world where the readers are not confident that the love interest will survive—so that they, and the protagonist, can fear for the secondary character; or to create a love interest that is compelling but also might be the story’s driving threat in disguise.
First, if readers believe that any character can die, you earn the pleasure of building characters that your hero and audience together can fall in love with. Then, the readers can worry just as much about the love interest as the protagonist, and you can keep them doubly on the edge of their seats with worry.
But how do you create enough threat towards the love interest? Though that depends on the specifics of your story, there are some things to keep in mind. Romances follow rhythms and rules—disrupt the rhythm and you destabilize the expected happy ending. And also, heroes and their one-true-loves aren’t the only characters off-limits in a murderfest; you can always off someone else unexpected to let readers know you’re serious. Just make sure it was someone truly unexpected.
On to a second way to write a romance that enhances your horror—the unreliable love interest. For every reason you give your hero to fall for her or his love interest, give also a reason to suspect them. The trick here is to make sure the audience really does suspect them, lest you lose the horror there. Make sure the doubt—and therefore fear for both the hero and the audience—is real.
Both of these narrative options can be used together, a fact capitalized on by the classic satirical horror movies Scream (1996) and Scream 2 (1997). These movies play with accusing the boyfriend of being the killer, and endangering (or killing) him, and the trauma that occurs when the heroine (and the audience) guess incorrectly.
What the Scream movies demonstrate is that, by openly flaunting risk of and fear for the love interest, you can keep the audience on their toes and torment your protagonist. Those movies do it rather openly—the narrative requirement of a fast paced horror movie doesn’t give as much introspection and breathing room as a novel. Take advantage of your medium’s flexibility to mess with your characters’ and readers’ heads! The more believable it is that your characters would be baffled and afraid, the more likely your readers will too.
But what if neither of those plotlines works for you? Another way to combine romantic and terror tension is to undermine the main character; this is more difficult, as you need an exceptionally likable love interest to anchor the story, and then must create fear in the reader that the protagonist will, either intentionally or not, cause harm to the love interest. This is tactic is harder, but it can be a fun way to shake things up (unless this type of story suddenly becomes so popular that it becomes expected).
The aforementioned ways to balance scary and romance in your horror are just a starting point. Please do take off running in new directions—the more surprising something is, the better chance your horror will be fresh. As long as you keep your horror tension in sight, making sure it is the primary source of tension and the rope that pulls readers through your plotline, no one will mistake your horror for a paranormal romance.
Mac Childs is a book reviewer, academic critic, and bookseller who has published (and buried) horror short stories under a different name. Mac first came to horror through the ancient art of “Making up stories for the sole purpose of tormenting younger siblings and giving them nightmares.” Mac’s favorite children’s horror tale is Goosebumps #43: Beast from the East by R. L. Stine.