In the romantic comedy television shows, movies, and even the romance novels I admit to occasionally reading in my youth, one common thread united that now-cliché of institutions: the unspoken love. Also known as couples with “UST,” sometimes unrequited love, or (more wordily) “will they/won’t they” pairings, these include such hallmark couples as Sam and Diane from Cheers, Maddie and Dave from Moonlighting, and Mulder and Scully from The X-Files. On the page, couples were allowed to stare longingly at each other, the point-of-view character’s thoughts drifting over the object of desire and telling the reader what was so great about this person. On the screen, lips quivered, eyes locked, souls kissed. Actors got to bust out all their fun acting skills to convey longing, desire, words left unsaid with just a single glance.
In my overly romanticized memories of ‘80s and ‘90s TV, we had lots of these moments–the accidental declaration of love under anesthesia, the forced sharing of a sleeping bag on a stakeout, the soft play of careful lighting across Cybill Shepherd’s perfect face as she gazes at Bruce Willis. We got string sections. We got rainstorms and being trapped underground together and Angel turning evil from a moment of perfect happiness with Buffy. We got moments. And we got the pacing to pause and drink them in.
Now, though? We don’t.
Sure, you’re saying, we have romcoms and favorite OTPs and all that good stuff. We ship like nobody’s business. We ship people who don’t even appear in the same book together. We ship people from storylines that never intersect, we ship people who never appear in a scene together, we ship people based on a single funny look that passes between them. But the sad thing is, a single funny look is sometimes all that gets to pass between even the show’s golden couple, the canonical pairing, the pairing we’re meant to root for. I barely even remember Pam and Jim having more than one good romantic moment in nearly ten years of The Office.
Some folks still do it right. There was a kiss between Leslie and Ben on Parks and Recreation that was immediately .gif-worthy and amazing. Mostly, I think, because of its rarity. The scene was allowed to linger, to expand, to play itself out. We got time, as viewers, to let this big change in their relationship sink in and register it.
On Brooklyn Nine Nine, we’re meant to root for Jake and Amy, but while the actors are intensely appealing and banter well, there’s no “there” there. No moments of chemistry allowed space and breathing room and slightly-darkened sets and a pause from the rapid-fire comedic moments. We aren’t even allowed those things in films, which should be all about beautiful shots and Moments with a capital M but too often just aren’t anymore. The most romantic conversation I’ve seen in a recent film is in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, not in an actually romantic comedy. In books, unless it’s a full-on romance novel rather than a novel-of-another-genre with romantic elements, we have to keep the A plot moving, moving, moving at such a breakneck pace that sometimes we lose those pages of silence and stares and longing for the brush of a knuckle on a cheek or someone smelling a letter, eyes closed, in memory and rapture. If romance isn’t the main thing your book is about, you’re too often asked to cut for pacing.
So, authors, showrunners, directors, listen up. Even if it’s an action movie, even if it’s a science fiction novel, in those romantic subplots?
Give me space.
Give me space to see and feel and soak up as many senses as the medium will allow. Just for a moment, let these two crazy kids calm down from the hectic pace of Modern Hurried Plot long enough to really see each other, and let us in long enough to recognize the moment their feelings awaken.