Merging Romance and Action

An action-adventure story has a lot of important elements you have to put in — fights, chases, cliffhangers, megalomaniacal villains, etc.

But love?

Sure, there’s usually a girl (or, in some of the more modern action-adventure stories, a guy) to rescue/fall for/team up with. But a love story is the stuff of romance novels and chick lit, isn’t it? You don’t find that sort of thing in action tales.

I tried to think about some of the biggest adventure stories in recent Western culture/literature for examples of love in the action genre. In Die Hard, John McClane’s estranged wife Holly is in Nakatomi Tower while he battles the terrorists, and he’s clearly in love with her.

But Holly Ginero is really just a variation on the damsel in distress. Die Hard isn’t a love story.

In the Star Wars trilogy, Princess Leia is much more than a beautiful woman who needs to be rescued. Once she’s out of her cell, she’s in charge. But none of those films is a love story in any meaningful way. Princess Leia is a supporting character to the epic of Luke Skywalker’s maturation into a redeemer.

In the first movie-and-a-half, she is Luke’s love interest. In the second movie-and-a-half, she becomes Han Solo’s. By the time she turns to Han, Luke is already emotionally gone. He’s on the path to becoming a Jedi, and the love triangle, such as it is, is conveniently broken by the retroactive revelation that Leia is Luke’s sister, so it wouldn’t work out anyway.

The only modern action-adventure story I could think of that really has love as a central theme was Ladyhawke. The largely forgotten 1985 Richard Donner film starring Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Matthew Broderick tells the story of two cursed lovers. She spends every day as a hawk; he spends every night as a wolf. While one is in animal form, the other is human. They are eternally together but forever apart. The action of the film may be Hauer’s quest for revenge against the bishop that cursed them, but it is the love affair between he and Pfeiffer that drives the story.

RD5 Hi-res coverSo, when I sat down to pen Red Dragon Five, I knew I wanted it to be a love story, but I didn’t have a lot of models to work from. How does one write an action-adventure novel that is also a love story without slipping into the realm of romance fiction but still creating an authentic tale about two people in love?

The funny thing is, despite there not being a lot of fiction to model my story on, I didn’t worry overly much about getting it right. I just wrote. Wolf and May are in love. Like any other two people, that is integral to whom they are. It also doesn’t mean they don’t have jobs with concerns independent of their relationship. Wolf is an Urlish Shadow. May is Captain of the Elite Guard. During the day they do what their governments need. At night, they come together and share their lives. I just wrote them that way.

It helped a bit for finding the balance that the lovers are apart for much of the novel. Wolf is off behind enemy lines in Jifan searching for the missing Red Dragon. May is home in Alfar dealing with a disintegrating political situation. The action aspect of the novel was easy to carry off, since the two main characters have their own separate plots.

But the love story drives everything else. Wolf leaves on a dangerous mission and is afraid for the first time in his life. It’s not going behind enemy lines with no backup that scares him. It’s the possibility he might never see May again. When he disappears and is presumed dead, May abandons her post and frees several prisoners to help her search for him.

And while they’re apart, their free moments are spent thinking of the other. Wolf yearns to be finished with his mission, so he can return to May. May worries about Wolf constantly and wonders what he’s doing.

And in between that there are battles and murders and political machinations and intrigue and suspense and all the things you expect from a good action-adventure story.

But there’s also love.

There is the poignant moment when May, having been told Wolf is presumed dead, visits her father to ask for advice on what to do. There is the realization by Wolf that he has never been in a real relationship before, never been in love before, and he has no idea what he is supposed to do or how to handle it. There is the uncomfortable understanding between the two that they both have dangerous jobs and someone’s career may need to change for them to continue to be together.

Red Dragon Five is a page-turning yarn about the sabotage of a top-secret weapons program. But it’s also a book about two people in love and their struggle to be together. Those two stories, while separate in a way, are not incompatible. They are blended together to weave a very human story . . . even if one of the lovers is an elf.

There may not be a lot of modern precedent for an action-adventure tale that is also a love story, but that wasn’t daunting to me. I wrote Red Dragon Five to be a book I could not only be proud of but that I would like to read. And, as much as I like thrills and spills, I enjoy a good romance too.

Red Dragon Five is both.


8 thoughts on “Merging Romance and Action

  1. I think there are at least a few other action/romance models to consider, John, although these may not all fit your sense of action/romance, perhaps:

    – The Princess Bride
    – The Time Traveller’s Wife
    – Matrix (and sequels)
    – Blade Runner
    – The Adjustment Bureau
    – Cloud Atlas

    (I almost listed the recent 007 film Casino Royale, but figure that’s not really a true romance movie, despite his Bond falling head-over-heels for Vesper Lynd).

    I enjoyed the interaction and love you created between May and Wolf—it helped to paint Wolf as a more-fully-rounded character vs. his portrayal in State of Grace (which I also enjoyed, but in which Wolf’s character is less developed and more conventional). I think you still need to work on writing about sex some more, but even though that was somewhat awkward in places, it didn’t detract from the believability of their romance and relationship.

    I’m definitely looking forward to Roses are White 😀


    • Hi, Allan! I haven’t seen CLOUD ATLAS, so I can’t comment on that one, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (based on a Philip K. Dick story, right?). BLADE RUNNER moves closer to an action-romance blend, but I think the romance in that story develops as a result of the characters meeting. The story is really about tracking down Rutger Hauer’s character. THE PRINCESS BRIDE is, in my opinion, a romantic comedy with a fairytale setting.

      You may have me on THE MATRIX. The emphasis of the story is Neo’s emergence as The One, but Trinity’s love for him is a driving vehicle behind the action.

      At any rate, I don’t think there is a lot of precedent for action and romance to meet and be equal driving parts of a story in modern storytelling. They are typically very different genres despite often borrowing from each other.

      Glad to hear you enjoyed both Wolf Dasher novels. I agree with you on many levels about RED DRAGON FIVE being superior to STATE OF GRACE. Despite being flooded with themes about patriotism and religion, the first book in the series is much more of a standard Bond-type action yarn. The second is more of a story about people.

      Interesting you thought the sex scenes needed work, since my standard tactic in the Wolf Dasher series is to fade to black just as things are getting interesting. 😉

      Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the books. Ideas for ROSES ARE WHITE are bouncing around in my head right now. Looking forward to writing it.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Intriguing question. Maybe Romancing the Stone? Lady Hawk for sure – it is their overwhelming desire to be together that drives the story. Shreck? Oh, The Terminator – totally The Terminator. Dances with Wolves- but halfway through the movie. True Grit, in a very weird way- might be love,might be loyalty or the need for redemption. Excalibur? But that was lust. Of the list above I would agree with The Adjustment Bureau. Ah… Eye of the Needle. The Bourne Identity.
    I am so glad you asked this question.

    • Julia,

      ROMANCING THE STONE is an interesting film to consider. It’s a romantic comedy, and it’s clearly modeled on romance novels, especially since the main character is a romance author. But there is quite a bit of action in it, and the final confrontation with General Zolo and the crocodiles is pretty suspenseful. I think you’ve got something there.

      Likewise, my initial thought was to pooh-pooh THE TERMINATOR, but then I got to thinking about it. Love drives the action of that story. Reese comes back in time, because he’s in love with Sarah Connor. John sends Reese, because he knows he’s his father. The very impetus behind the plot is love. The love angle is a lot more subtle, because it’s overwhlemed with the action and terror, but, much like in THE MATRIX, it’s there, and it’s important.

      Good thoughts. Thanks for the comment!

      • Yeah, Reese comes back for Sarah. She is his primary goal, not the future, but Sarah in the past. It’s why he carries her picture, why he has no relationship but his internal relationship with her. Reese is one great romantic hero although he would deny it.

      • Ooh, I never thought about that, but you’re right! He has no agenda other than meeting and protecting Sarah. I’m going to have to watch THE TERMINATOR again. I haven’t seen it in awhile, and I think I’m going to see it in a whole new way after this discussion. Thanks, Julia!

  3. Instead of watching Blade Runner you should read “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”. Decker is searching for his humanity and attempts to relearn how to love. Dirst with his wife, then with his pet, his spirituality and finally with the androids he attempts to retire.

    Also, think of “Westside Story” or “On the Waterfront”.

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