I’ve written before about how technological change has made some plot devices obsolete; and also about how social and cultural change have done the same. Today’s blog entry is about another example of the second kind of obsolescence: the changing fortunes of Forbidden Love.
Forbidden love has been a reliable plot engine at least since the day when Paris looked at Helen across King Menelaus’s dining-room and started a ten-year war. That much, at any rate, has stayed the same – but what counts as “forbidden” keeps shifting, and an observant writer needs to keep an eye on the trends.
It used to be that writers could add the plot-energy of forbidden love to their stories with a simple “Alas! Your/My parents would refuse their permission for us to wed!” That particular old reliable (and the related “Our countries/religions/ethnic groups frown upon our love!”) has fueled countless tragedies and probably an equal number of romantic adventures, but the passage of time has deprived it of a lot of its juice. Impatient modern readers are likely to say to the characters, “For heaven’s sake, you’re both over twenty-one; just go ahead and marry him/her already! Your parents will get over it. And if they don’t, you can always leave town.”
A similar fate has overtaken “Alas! If only one of us were not already married!”, along with all its lesser included tropes, such as the mad wife in the attic. So long as divorce was both difficult to obtain and a source of scandal, the lovers’ predicament could generate everything from romantic angst (the classic Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere love triangle, for example, and all its fictional cousins) to murder (The Postman Always Rings Twice.) Once again, a modern reader is going to wonder why the characters are making such a fuss over something that can be settled with a couple of visits to a good lawyer.
These days, not even “Would that we could acknowledge our love – but alas! we are of the same gender!” can be counted on to provide one’s plot with a forbidden love. And a damned good thing, too; an increase in social justice and general human happiness is worth losing the occasional plot device.
But social and cultural plot devices, like matter, are neither created nor destroyed; they just change form. My own candidate for the next likely source of forbidden-love plot energy is the workplace: “Alas! Would that we could acknowledge our love, but if we did so, one of us would either have to quit or request a transfer!”
It’s not quite as juicy as some of the oldies, but throw in a “Both of us are mission-critical personnel!” or “The only current job openings in my specialty are in Kuala Lumpur!” and maybe we’re getting somewhere.