Wednesday, December 22, 2010

That Realistic Ending (Romance Style, Of Course)

I love a good happy ending. Probably why I return to romance time and again as a reader. I love being left with that optimistic feeling that good can triumph evil, that even a broken heart can be healed, that true love conquers all. Is it realistic in real life? Maybe not always, but our world is depressing enough. A little hope at the end of a book isn't too much to ask.

Realism is something readers will call an author on, though. The romance, that happily ever after, has to be believable or the reader walks away feeling cheated. A long lasting love is believable if a book spans a year or more, but what about when a book only covers a week? Or how about less than a week? Can two people fall in love for the long haul in such a short amount of time?

Let's look at the science.

Researchers have shown it takes between 90 seconds and four minutes to decide if you're interested in someone. This interest has little to do with what someone says but rather,

55% is through body language
38% is the tone and speed of the other person's voice
and only 7% is through what is said.

Four minutes tops. That's it. That's the same time it takes to watch someone board a train and find a seat or listen to them order a coffee or drop their laundry off at the cleaners.

From there, according to Helen Fisher, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University, there are three stages of love:

Stage 1: Lust - the sex drive or libidio, driven by the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen - in both men and women - that make people want to have sex.

Stage 2: Attraction - the time when a person is love struck and can think of nothing else. Scientists believe three main neurotransmitters play a role in this stage:
  • adrenaline - which causes the heart to race, the body to sweat and the mouth to go dry

  • dopamine - which stimulates 'desire and reward' by triggering a rush of pleasure, not unlike a cocaine high

  • and serotonin - which keeps the brain focused on one thing: that other person.
Stage 3: Attachment - the bond that keeps couples together. Scientists think there are two major hormones involved in attachment between people:
  • oxytocin - released by both men and women during orgasm. The more orgasms a couple experiences together, the more oxytocin is released and thereby the more connected they feel to each other. (By the way...oxytocin is also the same hormone released between a mother and child during childbirth and it's the same hormone that stimulates a mother's breast to release milk at the mere sight or sound of her child.)

  • and vasopressin - a hormone released during sex. The more sex a couple engages in, the more vasopressin is released in the brain, which deepens their connection and in some cases triggers males to become aggressive toward other males who show interest in their females.

Is there a time frame on each of these stages of love? Not specifically. Some couples go through them quickly, others take longer. A lot depends on how each person was raised, their previous experiences and their attitude toward relationships.

So what happens when two people are placed in a life or death situation? This happens in romance novels quite a bit. Someone's out to get the hero or heroine. They're on the run. Danger lurks around every corner. It is believable that two people can fall in love during extreme situations especially when their time together spans only a few days, and more it believable that they can sustain that love once once the danger has passed?

Well, let's look at what happens to the body when you're in danger. When the body is under extreme duress, the autonomic nervous system signals the adrenal gland that it's time to release adrenaline. Adrenaline, remember, is an important hormone during the attraction phase of falling in love. When you're attracted to someone, your heart races, your body sweats, and your mouth may feel dry. When your body is threatened, these same symptoms result, often triggering the fight or flight response. And when that threat happens to both you and the person you're insanely attracted to, those fight or flight responses are magnified. A lot.

Couples who fall in love during extreme situations tend to experience a deeper and often faster attraction stage than those who fall in love under normal circumstances. That "will we live through this?" mindset triggers the release of even more adrenaline, which then often leads to more sex (after all, if you're going to die, you might as well die happy, right?). More sex results in more oxytocin and vasopressin being released into the body, therefore deepening a couple's attachment. Will it last? That depends on the couple, their level of attachment and, in our case, the author.

The author's job is to get you, the reader, to believe, yes, these two can make it work even when the danger is gone and life returns to normal. This is why sex in a romance is so very important. Without sex, that attachment, especially between two people who have only spent a few days together, can't happen. There's not enough time. If the author has shown the lust, the deep attraction and, ultimately, the attachment in such a way that the reader believes the couple is going to make it, then the ending, no matter how it's written, will be one the reader won't soon forget.

And an ending a reader doesn't forget - especially in a romance novel - is what it's all about, isn't it? That happily ever after that says...hope remains, good DOES triumph evil, a broken heart WILL be healed and true love ALWAYS conquers all.

How about you? What makes a short time-frame romance realistic for you?


  1. When I first starting reading romance, I used to scoff at the short time span the H/H fell in love. Impossible! I would say.

    But then, I began seeing a trend from one book to the next and realized this WAS fiction and it would be really boring to stretch out the romance too long. :)

    Great thought-provoking post!


  2. I don't know about you, but before I met my DH, I had the sense of missing someone even when I was in a relationship with another guy. When it's right, you just know.

    Thanks for the post, Elizabeth. I just started reading MARKED and I'm loving it.

  3. To me, an effective romance novel is one that leaves me confident that the hero and heroine have a strong foundation from which to BUILD a happily ever after. That's one of the reasons I find it so satisfying to catch a glimpse of a previous h/h in later books in a series. It's reassuring to check in, to see how their relationship is progressing. ;-)

  4. In my very, very, very first romance, my hero and heroine spent months and months in the story getting to know each, what did I know? It was my very first story! :) But in reality, my parents met and fell in love and married within 3 months and until my father's death, were happily married for 46 years. They had fun, adventure, and all that made romance, romance. :) So it happens!

  5. First, I'm geeking out over your hormone spiel. I'm an Anatomy and Physiology professor by trade. You explained the physiology very well.

    Second, I do think people can fall in love quickly, even without the extra "in danger" situation. I know a lot of authors separate their H/h for a while after the danger has passed to let the love "sink in" or whatever, but I usually want the couple to be together, so I'm more than willing to suspend disbelief.

  6. I got hung up on lust. Did you say something after that?


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  8. It helps me if the H/H have a little history together before the book begins. Maybe they knew each other in college or were once lovers. But I love all the science in your blog. Makes sense to me!

  9. All I can say is thank goodness we don't have all that science stuff in romance books. It's a sure way to kill the love at first sight moment and ruin a lot of lusty and fabulous romance books! Give me the fantasy! :-)

  10. It was me who deleted the comment ... got all excited thinking about that vasopressin and clicked the enter button before the comment was finished! LOL
    Impressive post! Someone scoffed at my daughter reading one of my cowboy romances at her work place. She told him to take the book home to his wife and she'd guarantee after she read it HE would get lucky that night!

    With all this new knowledge I'm redoing my Santa letter at the last minute ...
    Dear Santa,
    Please bring me a whole bucket of vasopressin and oxytocin for writing purposes of course (wink, wink)!
    I've been very good this year and promise not to waste a bit of what you bring me for Christmas!

  11. My hubby proposed 10 days after we met. We've been married for over 20 years. :)

    Thanks for a fun blog!

  12. I really enjoyed this post! Very thought provoking for anyone who writes romance.

  13. Loved the explanation of the biochemical underpinnings of love.

    The real question about HEA is not whether a couple can fall in love quickly, but whether the relationship will stand the test of time.

    The problem with a plot driven by immediate danger is that there's little opportunity to discover if the couple can live together when nothing much is going on.

    Regardless of the time frame, for me to find the HEA believable and satisfying, I need to see evidence that the couple have some degree of insight into one another, and that they simply enjoy the other's company.

    When those ingredients are added, I can believe that, over time, the relationship will mature and the love will deepen.

  14. Elisabeth~ Great post. I just finished writing a romance that spans a week. It was love at first sight for him, not so much for her, and he dragged her kicking and screaming into love. It happens. I knew the morning after my first real date with my DH, it took him about 2 1/2 months to propose and we were married 6 months after that. We've been married 21 years and we're still going strong.

  15. I think this is fascinating! Yes, I do tend to love science. And, yes, I love research and discovering the why to everything, then figuring out a how to fit my story. But I'm also a sucker for that love-at-first sight and, as Mia said, you just know, sort of connection between two people.

    So, I'd have to say I'm more apt to believe the short-term high-octane romance can sustain itself for the long haul, cause, hey -- I want to believe it.

    But, yes, the author has to back that up with substance. As the saying - once a cheater, always a cheater - illustrates, a person's behavior displays character. If an author builds strong characters who show all the facets of being keepers, then I can believe they will work things out and stay together in the future.

    Success: where science meets author.

    Nice post, E. (And awesome info form my next book and the h/h in that story. Thanks!)

  16. Terry, Catherine and Robin--love your stories! I'll take my foot out of my mouth...

  17. Part of closing that credibility gap for me in the short term romance is the set up in the character's back stories. Sometimes we're just poised in the very brink of accepting a relationship into our lives (or needing one) and the exact, right crooked lid comes along to fit our crooked pot.

  18. Hi Elisabeth
    It is about chemistry but more simplistic for me. Just as you can meet a person & just know that you're going to get along & be friends, it can happen with falling in love.

    Hubby & I met over the phone working for the same company in different cities. His voice literally gave me chills up my spine every time I had to talk to him (still does 27 years later). Months later I was invited to his town by another coworker. We met that weekend. Three weeks later, he came to my city & met my family. He proposed that weekend & we got married 6 months later. No one was surprised. They all said they "just knew" like we did.

    In matters of short stories, it would be easy for the plot to be reunited lovers but I've read a number of shorts that were perfect because the pace was perfect.

    Besides, I'm pretty sure that's where we got the saying "truth is stranger than fiction". LOL

  19. What an excellent post! I always love reading a blog when I learn something. I'm an RN and know some of those responses, but I learned specifically what happens and more importantly when!

    I've been accused of letting my H/h get together too quickly. I thought it was because I come from the romantica genre. Now I know it's absolutely realistic!

    Thank you!

  20. Tracey - I have to admit, I love the fast paced romances that span only a short ammount of time. No time for all the "boring" stuff. :)

    Hi Mia - thanks for stopping by. I'm so glad you're enjoying MARKED!!!

    Tamara - I'm with you. I LOVE getting glimpses of previous H/h's in books. Just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

  21. Terry, what a great story about your parents! I love hearing those. My hubby and I got engaged 6 mo. after meeting, married 6 mo. later and next year will celebrate our 20th anniversary. Who says whirl-wind courtships don't last?

  22. Olivia - thanks so much! Always nice to know I got it right from an "expert". I used to be a science teacher - before becoming an author - so I'm forever fascinated by the science behind, well, everything.

    Tawna - LOL. Sorry to distract you with the "L" word.

    Shana - I think you're definitely right. And I've found in novellas, where the story is already short, that previous attraction is a big help in making it believable that the couple is going to "make it".

  23. Amelia - LOL. Most of the time I try to keep that science geek side of me hidden.

    Carolyn...ROFL. You totally cracked me up! Very nice Santa letter!

    Catherine...congrats! What a great story!!

    Thanks, Sara, and thanks for stopping by!

  24. Mary, good point. That "attachment" has to go deeper than just sex. I agree. (Though good sex doesn't hurt.)

    Robin - can't wait to read that story! It sounds fascinating. And congrats to you and DH on 21 yrs!! Another success story!

    LOL, Joan. (For those who don't know, Joan is my CP.) Thanks for giving me the topic idea! What would I do without you???

  25. Grace - so true. If two people aren't open to the whole falling in love thing it won't happen - fast or slow.

    Hey Mary...what a great story. Congrats to you and your DH!

    Ashlyn, totally realistic. From now on when you hear someone say "it happened too fast" you know what to tell them. ;)

  26. Great post - love the science! I find the biology of love and attraction fascinating!