Outlander’s Ronald D. Moore on Writing a Good TV Love Story

Den of Geek talked to Ronald D. Moore about how hard it is to write a good romance on TV.

Romance is the bread-and-butter of much of commercial storytelling, from the publishing world to the ever-expanding television landscape. However, romance as a worthy narrative pursuit is not often talked about when it comes to the discussion of TV writing and craft. The subject is too often delegated to the gossip column or embarrassed conversations, as are many subjects coded “female” and therefore taken less seriously.

The thing is: romance is incredibly hard to do well, something Den of Geek had a chance to talk about with showrunner Ronald D. Moore during a conversation at this June’s ATX Television Festival. Here’s what Moore had to say about what it takes to write a good love story and why we don’t see self-proclaimed romance as a genre more on TV.

“Romances are kind of hard to write, frankly,” said Moore, who is currently the showrunner of the romance-driven time travel drama Outlander on Starz. “It’s easy to write, ‘They look at each other, and the sparks are flying.’ So you write that a lot and then you try to write dialogue that seems to be drawing people together and finding what their flaws are, and so on, and so on.”

Moore is no stranger to the on-screen love story. Though the shows that he has written for and executive produced — from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Roswell to Battlestar Galactica and Outlander — are science fiction, they also tend to have strong romantic elements, something that doesn’t get talked about enough, in my opinion, when discussing Moore’s talents as a storyteller and showrunner.

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So how does Moore craft such compelling love stories? For Moore, the biggest element is noticing on-screen chemistry. “There have been many times when you’re writing, you’re trying to make a love story work, but the actors just don’t have the chemistry for it,” said Moore.

Of course, sometimes, the opposite is true: a chemistry between two actors on screen is there to be written towards in a way the writers room may have never origially intended. 

Other times, we’ve discovered, ‘Oh, look at those two on camera. That’s going to be fantastic. And then you start to write toward it and, as you watch the actors interact, you start realizing where the chemistry and spark is in their on-camera relationship. And so, you kind of write towards it, in my opinion, to make it successful.

Speaking about what has worked specifically for Outlander, Moore noted that the on-camera relationship between actors Caitriona Balfe (Claire) and Sam Heughan (Jamie) is a more helpful guide for crafting their characters’ romance than the book source material.

Yes, it’s a romance setup from the very beginning, so that had to happen, but we just got lightning-in-a-bottle where these two actors really sparked off of each other and we knew this was going to work.

But it was still a factor of starting with the book version of things – the book dialogue and scenes – but the characters on the page are not Sam [Heughan] and Caitriona [Balfe]. So, we write for Sam’s voice and Caitriona’s voice. How they interact and their relationship on-camera tends to play a bigger guide, really, than the romance as laid out in the book.

As one of the few (or arguably sole) prestige TV shows with a romance so unabashedly at its center, Outlander proves what is possible when stories with strong romantic storylines get the kinds of resources usually reserved for more male-centric, male-targeted storytelling — not to mention a talented writer and showrunner who sees value in a well-told love story.

Outlander Season 3 premieres on Sunday, Sept. 10 at 8 p.m. ET. For more information about what to expect from the upcoming season, check out our news hub.

Read and download the full Den of Geek SDCC Special Edition magazine here!

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