There are spoilers for A Kingdom of Dreams by Judith McNaught, Warpize by Elizabeth Vaughn, Angel’s Blood by Nalini Singh in the following post. Enjoy!
Remember in the movie Say Anything when Lloyd Dobbler, broken-hearted that Diane Court had ended their relationship, stood outside her window while she was napping blasting Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes? Rather than thinking of this as creepy, stalkerish behavior, my teenage heart swooned. Imagine, a boy who will do anything to win your love. When I look back on the scene now, I still see the teenage romance of it, but also think if I’d been Diane’s parent, I’d have run him off. But my point is Lloyd standing there with the boom box is what began my lifelong love affair with the Big Romantic Gesture.
Many of my favorite romances have them: gestures so grandiose, so big that they make the reader certain that the love between the hero and heroine will last forever. After all, if they’re willing to give up everything, dare anything for love, it must be the love of a lifetime. When I started thinking about the Big Romantic Gestures that stand out most to me in my years of reading romance, there were three that came to mind.
First, in Judith McNaught’s A Kingdom of Dreams, Jennifer Merrick, a plucky young heroine is abducted from a convent and forced to marry her family’s lifelong enemy, Royce Westmoreland, Duke of Claymore. Claymore is the champion of the king, his finest weapon, and a man who lives his life on the battlefield. He certainly knows nothing of love or tenderness. And yet Jenny challenges him constantly, and bewitches him with her intelligence and her willingness to do anything to uphold her family’s honor. Soon the two find themselves falling in love until Royce kills Jenny’s brother who he thought was drawing a knife to kill him, despite giving Jenny his word that he’d not harm her family. The king convenes a tournament, and commands Royce to participate. Royce is determined to honor his promise to not draw another drop of Merrick blood which allows Jenny’s family, also participating in the tournament, to do their best to kill him. That is until…
Through the haze of sweat and blood and pain that blurred his vision and fogged his mind, Royce thought for a moment he saw the figure of a woman running – running toward him, her uncovered hair tossing about her, glinting in the sun with red and gold. Jennifer! In disbelief, he squinted, staring, while the earsplitting thunder of the crowd rose higher and higher.
Royce groaned inwardly, trying to push himself to his feet with his unbroken right arm. Jennifer had come back – now, to witness his defeat. Or his death. Even so, he didn’t want her to see him die groveling, and with the last ounce of strength he possessed, he managed to stagger to his feet. Reaching up, he wiped the back of his hand across his eyes, his vision cleared, and he realized he was not imagining it. Jennifer was moving toward him, and an eerie silence was descending over the crowd.
Jenny stifled a scream when she was close enough to see his arm dangling brokenly at his side. She stopped in front of him, and her father’s bellow from the sidelines made her head jerk toward the lance lying at Royce’s feet. “Use it!” he thundered. “Use the lance, Jennifer.”
Royce understood then why she had come; she had come to finish the task her relatives had begun; to do to him what he had done to her brother. Unmoving, he watched her, noting that tears were pouring down her beautiful face as she slowly bent down. But instead of reaching for his lance or her dagger, she took his hand between both of hers and pressed her lips to it. Through his daze of pain and confusion, Royce finally understood that she was kneeling to him, and a groan tore from his chest: “Darling” he said brokenly, tightening his hand, trying to make her stand, “don’t do this…”
But his wife wouldn’t listen. In front of seven thousand onlookers, Jennifer Merrick Westmoreland, countess of Rockbourn, knelt before her husband in a public act of humble obeisance, her face pressed to his hand, her shoulders wrenched with violent sobs.
A Kingdom of Dreams, Judith McNaught (pp 420-421)
The second example comes from The Warlords of the Plains series by Elizabeth Vaughan. In Warprize, Xylara is the daughter of the warrior king, Xyron. When her father dies, her insane half-brother inherits the throne. The kingdom’s fiercest enemies, the Firelanders, have come to overthrow the kingdom. Xylara, a trained healer, begins healing the Firelander prisoners, and gets to know them. She learns their language and some of their customs and her respect for their way of life grows. Lara never expects that Keir of the Cat, the leader of the Firelanders, would sneak into the encampment to check on his warriors, nor did she expect that he would demand her in exchange for peace. Her brother agrees, telling Lara that she will be a slave, a Warprize, in order to ensure peace for her people. Lara, being a loyal servant of the crown goes, assuming that she’ll be treated as a slave and concubine to Keir. But in the Firelander encampment, Lara finds peace and love with the fierce leader of her country’s enemy. In the end, Keir decides he must leave Lara in Xy as the newly ascended leader of the kingdom, while he and his people return to Xy.
The sky was a vibrant orange when I finally heard the thunder of hooves behind me. I didn’t turn, just continued to walk at a steady pace. For a brief moment, I feared that Simus or Other had sent troops after me. But instead, as Simus had predicted, the first of the rear scouts moved past me at a gallop, their horses veering around me. One looked back, and let out a yelp of surprise. He pulled on the reins so hard his horse reared, legs splayed in its effort to stop. The other scout, hearing the noise, pulled his sword, and turned off the road, arcing back to me.
I ignored them and kept walking.
The first scout came up on horseback. “Warprize?” he asked, looking horrified. I looked up to see Tant, the warrior that had been whipped for falling asleep on watch.
The other scout came up, scanning for danger. He glanced at his partner. “That’s the Warprize?” […]
It seemed like hours before there was a commotion ahead of us. A cloud of dust betrayed the horsemen coming hard and fast up the road. My self-appointed guard faded back as Keir came thundering into view, galloping his horse, his scarlet cloak flaring behind him. There were a few more men behind him. I stopped and stood where I was, waiting.
Keir reared his horse to a stop in front of me. The animal towered over me, and I could hear its harsh breathing. I kept my eyes down, on the road.
“What in the name of all the elements do you think you are doing?” Keir thundered.
“Following my Warlord.” I kept my voice steady.
Warprize, Elizabeth Vaughan [pp. 311-312]
In both cases the heroine gives up everything she’s known for love of her hero – the Big Romantic Gesture. The gestures, so enormous that the reader is assured of the enduring love between the couple.
So how about the heroes? I struggled thinking of a hero who made the Big Romantic Gesture. Then I took to Twitter and was reminded of the actions of Raphael, Archangel of New York in Nalini Singh’s Angel’s Blood. When Uram, an archangel and a member of the Cadre of Ten archangels who rule the world, goes rogue, falling into bloodlust, the archangels must turn to Hunter Born Elena Devereaux to hunt down the threat to humans, vampires and angels alike. Having lived millennia, he’s lost almost all of his humanity, but when he meets Elena he is captivated. Elena is both terrified and undeniably attracted to Raphael, and due to the extreme danger of her hunt, she is very close proximity to him almost constantly. But as they get closer, Raphael realizes that he is losing just a bit of his immortality through his attraction to Elena. This loss could jeopardize his rule, but Raphael can’t help himself. He’s never had anyone treat him with anything other than deference, and Elena is anything but deferential. As Elena and Raphael track the rogue archangel, they fall deeper and deeper in love.
During the final confrontation with Uram, Elena sustains life-threatening wounds.
One of Uram’s last, desperate bolts had hit the building. Raphael knew Elena had to have been on the very edge of the eight-story structure when she’d shot up at Uram. That edge was now gone, but he could feel Elena’s life, feel her dying flame. Elena, answer me.
Quiet, peaceful, a hush of sounds. Then, Stay a little human, won’t you Raphael?
A request that was almost not a sound at all. But it was enough. He followed the mental thread to discover her broken body on the narrow ledge provided by a precariously hanging neon sign. Her back was shattered, her legs twisted in a way that was nothing natural. But she smiled when she saw him. And her hand still held the gun that had saved more lives than anyone would ever know.
He dared not touch her, afraid he’d cause her to slip over the ledge. “You are not to die.”
A slow blink. “Bossy.” It was a sound bubbled through with blood. The voice isn’t working so good. […]
His canines elongated, and a strange, beautiful, golden taste filled his mouth as he felt a tear slide down his face. He was an archangel. He had not cried in over a thousand years. […]
His heart stopped beating when her voice faded, and he leaned forward, his mouth overwhelmed by the taste of beauty, of life. “I won’t let you die. I had your blood tested. You’re compatible.”
Her lashes struggled to open, failed. But her mental voice, though weak, was adamant. I don’t want to be a vampire. Bloodsucking’s not my thing.
“You must live.” And then he kissed her, feeding that golden taste, that intoxicating blend into her mouth. You must live.
That was when the sign gave away, tearing loose from the building and plunging to the ground in a shattering crash. Elena didn’t fall alone, gathered as she was in Raphael’s arms, his mouth fused with hers. They fell together, his wings close to destroyed, his soul melded to that of a mortal.
If this is death, Guild Hunter, he thought to his mortal as angelfire scored through his boned and touched his heart, then I will see you on the other side.
Angel’s Blood, Nalini Singh [Kindle location: 4442-4470]
Raphael’s sacrifice, giving up his life as one of the most powerful beings in the world, his rule in the Cadre of Ten, his very immortality, is the very essence of the Big Romantic Gesture. He gives up everything for love.
The Big Romantic Gesture is not a necessary element of a successful romance, in fact, it’s somewhat rare. But when an author successfully writes it, it causes what I call the “big sigh” of a reading experience. For it to be effective the author must build the foundation – both conflict and romance. The stakes must be raised in order for the gesture to carry the weight of the “ultimate sacrifice”. If the author fails to establish the foundation, they risk the gesture being tell, not show. When it is successful, it confirms for the reader that the couple’s Happily Ever After is a foregone conclusion.