11 Tips for Romance in Your Novel
Chapter 2 “Genres” – Section 2 “Romance”
“I always think the most romantic books or films are the ones where the romance doesn't happen, because it makes your heart ache so much watching it.”-Natalie Portman
Within the genre of romance, as well as every other genre of fiction, one finds love stories. Love is enough of a universal human experience, that it can happen within the context of any type of story. It draws reader attention, unlike any other topic. However, the world of literature has been flooded with cliched, sexist, and stupidly unrealistic examples. We're so saturated with these examples, in fact, that it's often difficult to dissect and analyze all of the many tropes at play. This creates a rather difficult challenge when trying to analyze what works and what does not. So today we are going to focus on strategies for conceptually understanding romance within a story.
Tip 1: Consider the idea of character chemistry.
You've likely heard about “character chemistry”. The idea is that when you put two people together, romantically or platonically, there is a natural and inevitable reaction between them. This reaction can be clashing, symbiotic, or (most likely) something in between. Chemistry is not as simple as checking a list of hobbies that each person likes. Some couples thrive on clashing, using their differences to make one another better. Others need a larger degree of symbiosis. And the need for clashing and/or symbiosis changes depending on the type of relationship. A character can have a healthy and happy clashing relationship with a close friend, but need a symbiotic romantic relationship (or vice versa). The key importance of chemistry is in creating relationships (reactions) that are believable, that support the overarching plot, and that are interesting to your audience. If the relationship works for the characters but is generic or detracts from the plot, then it falls short of its own potential.
Tip 2: Take into account the many factors that will contribute to chemistry.
Chemistry is dictated by the characters' life experiences and personalities, as well as the plot situation. That means that if you have two people who should be perfect for one another, they still may not have the type of chemistry conducive to a good romance. For example, if you are writing a horror story where characters see the most extreme traits in one another, your protagonist may have better romantic chemistry with someone they respect for acting heroically, or perhaps the more emotionally fragile person they had to comfort. Additionally, if the characters' personalities match up but their life experiences have taught them to expect different things in a relationship, it still may not work. Or all the chemistry may line up for a decent relationship, but not one that is at all beneficial to the story. On top of that, there are so many variables that you, as the writer, will be unaware of until your last few drafts. Your characters will become more complex as you design and develop them, your story will take unexpected turns, and you will have to adapt your romance for these new developments.
Tip 3: Try to find natural chemistry between your characters.
In my own experience wring three novels, my protagonists have never fallen in love as I wanted them to. My first protagonist couldn't reconcile his strong beliefs with the strong beliefs of the other romantic lead, but had surprising chemistry with a minor character. My second protagonist was supposed to be asexual but had such organic chemistry with another character that it would have been unrealistic for them not to have fallen in love. And my third protagonist respected the other romantic lead, but the story led to a place where it was more important for him to find himself emotionally. Now, it is possible to center your story around forcing the situation between two individuals for romance to happen. But consider finding the relationships that naturally form as your story progresses. Often, the only way to figure out whether a romance will work is to solve it like an algebraic equation. Solve the puzzle; let the story unfold, put the characters together, and see what happens.
Tip 4: Keep sight of the overarching plot, in the light of romance.
One of my most grievous mistakes in writing involved romance. I was writing a dark comedy, which was actually kind of fun. But in the middle of writing it, I fell in love with someone. I was barely more than a teenager at the time, so my feeling of being love was a bit too consuming. As a result, my writing became an outlet for my feelings, and my fun dark comedy became an insufferable and severely broken romance story. Now, you are probably not as crazy overboard about things as I was, but the process of writing a romance triggers a lot of the same impulses and feelings as being in an actual relationship (though to a lesser extent). When that happens, realize it. You may not be able to stop yourself, but at least be aware that the romance in your story may begin to overshadow the plot elements that actually make your story shine. This includes the genre of romance, where writers can become so infatuated with writing romantic scenes that they lose sight of the core struggles and events that would create a truly romantic story.
Tip 5: Consider using different degrees of romance, depending on genre.
As I said before, it is possible to successfully merge the element of romance into any literary genre. However, that does not mean that every genre can or should be hybridized with the romantic genre. Going back to the example of horror, you can make your scary story more interesting by adding a romantic subplot between characters. Doing so can enrich your characters and make the audience feel more invested in their survival. But if you make the romance too over-abundant, you may end up exhausting your reader's suspension of disbelief. A reader can accept the emergence of feelings between two characters while a psycho killer is after them. But they may not believe a date scene where the romantic leads end up licking chocolate off one another's fingers (unless you are writing a 1000 page Stephen King novel that takes place over the course of years). On top of that, the emotional reaction that a reader takes away from romance may overpower their sensation of fear, humor, excitement, etc... So be aware that there is a balance to try to achieve, and that you may want to use a lower degree of romance. But don't worry that this will make the romance less powerful. In the right context, the romantic lead giving your protagonist a small keepsake to remember them by, can be supremely more impacting than even a kiss.
Tip 6: Look for pointless cliches and harmful romantic tropes.
Within literature there are conventions and there are cliches. Conventions are elements that storytellers use in an original or unique way. They usually utilize these elements because they are universal to human experience. Cliches, on the other hand, are previously used story elements that do not add anything original or interesting to the experience. Every time a story utilizes a cliché, it loses a chunk of its potential wonder, meaning, or uniqueness. So look at every romantic scene, plot event, and relationship. Compare each of them to every film you've seen and story you've read. Then ask yourself two questions. Have I done anything unique to make this a convention instead of a cliché? Does this convention actually work to enhance my story through universal human experience, or is there room for more originality?
Tip 7: Know the effect of the damsel in distress trope.
An example of a harmful cliché is the outdated and overused damsel in distress. I bring this specific cliché up because it has saturated storytelling to such a degree that the “chosen one” cliché seems original and inspired by comparison. In such a majority of stories, the romance is condensed to a weak woman that needs to be saved by a strong man. It reinforces the old ideas that men are strong and women are weak and in need of saving. Perhaps the origins of the cliché (in old knight tales before notions of gender equality existed) were a simple portrayal of reality. But the over-abundant use of the cliché in modern literature is closer to sexist propaganda, mostly due to lazy writing. After all, creating a romance via a man saving a woman is one of the easiest things in the world to do. Now, that does not mean that characters cannot rescue one another. If you are writing a fantasy adventure with a bunch of companions traveling together, chances are that all of them will need rescuing at one point or another. Nor does it mean that you have to ignore societal evils like human trafficking that prey specifically on women. It simply means that you should not allow “rescuer” and “victim” to be the defining traits of your male and female romantic leads if you want your story to be original; and that you should not single out women as perpetual victims who can't solve their own problems if you want your audience to respect them. Just like with any other character, create good female romantic leads who learn, grow, and take an active part in the events of the plot.
Tip 8: Believe in the romance you create for your story.
When beginning writers (myself included) feel that elements of their story are not good enough, we embellish and create melodrama. We don't fully trust that the reader will care about our hero as much as we do, so we make them orphans with no friends who are valiant and perfect even though the world is against them in every way. The same goes for romance. Writers will painstakingly construct super over-romantic scenes that take place under the moonlight with everything happening perfectly. We'll pull out our Shakespeare and craft perfect dialogue that the gods of romance would envy. We do this because we haven't worked out our self-esteem issues. We feel a need to make every romantic scene into something grand and spectacular, or else it isn't good enough to be crowned with the magical title of “romance”. My advice is to believe in the chemistry you have developed between your characters, and simply allow their relationship to unfold with the overarching plot. Don't go out of your way to make romantic scenes or to make scenes romantic, just show the emotions and organic events that occur as a result of love between two people. Just like with all the elements of your early drafts, your romance is probably going to start off terrible and maybe too subtle. That's just part of writing. But as you redraft and talk with test-readers, you will be able to slowly construct a subtle and sincere romance that ties neatly into the overarching plot. It just takes the time to learn.
Tip 9: Understand the value of difficulty and complexity in romance.
The most unsatisfying romantic stories that I have ever encountered have always been those where the romance came easily. Inversely, the best ones have always been those where the romantic leads had to overcome struggles, fights, long distances, etc, for their love to be realized. The reason is that romance is a sub-plot element that works almost exactly like an over-arcing plot. It is the complex stages of it, the work, the sacrifice, the tension, and the build-up which make a romance more dynamic and interesting. You can even utilize the twelve-point plot-outline to map a very developed romantic subplot. So if you are going to have romance, treat it with the respect, precision, and attention that it requires to serve your story well.
Tip 10: Leave the payoff for the end of the story.
One of my all-time favorite television shows was Psych. It wasn't perfect, and I'm sure it wasn't the best show ever written, but it was still one of my favorites. And for me, one of the core parts of the story was the romantic subplot between Shawn and Juliet. So when the romantic payoff finally came, with the characters admitting their love for one another, I stopped watching the show. One reason for this is that I know most shows milk their own franchise until the story collapses on itself, so I had already wanted to pick my own ending before that happened. But the other reason was that the small romantic subplot struggle was an important part of the experience for me. Once it had been resolved, I was satisfied and felt like the story was neatly concluded. Now, your readers will probably not be as silly and ridiculous as I am. However, the tension and forward drive created by the romantic subplot is very important to the audience's investment into the story. There can be good moments where there are no struggles, but consider saving the ultimate realization, actualization, or conclusion of your romance for the end of the story.
Tip 11: Know that romance is not necessary for your story.
Because romance is such a predominate element in literature, some beginning writers begin to get the idea that romance is necessary for a good story. I've received emails from discouraged writers who felt pressured to write romance, even though the writers themselves did not feel comfortable with the topic. Don't worry; if you are not writing within the romance genre specifically, a love story is not a requirement for writing novels. Romance in a story is like having a blackbear in your yard—really awesome if you have it but kind of hazardous and not in the least bit necessary. Your story can still be relatable, engaging, and wonderful without this topic. And chances are that your abstaining from artificially creating romance will lead to an accidental one that is tremendously more powerful than what you could have planned.
Weekly Recommended Watching: Pixar's “WALL-E”. (I recommend this movie to learn how to tie your romantic subplot to the overarching plot. It also exemplifies the creations of scenes that are romantic through the naturally entertaining chemistry between the characters.)
Write-a-Novel Exercise 2.2
This exercise is only for those who have a romantic subplot in their story. Write a paragraph detailing what is interesting or unique about the romance between your characters. This is not about explaining the background of the characters in love, or explaining why they are in love. This is about proposing ideas for relationships that will actually be engaging and serve to make your story better.
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This was done so often, that it starts to annoy me even more than some other tropes, because it feels forced so many times. Adding more tension, unnecessary drama or love triangles without any chance just so that the big payoff is together with the big climax (on the battlefield in the bullet rain over the sound of dying people xD).
I would change that tip into "Just do the payoff when it fits into the flow of the story/characters!". An early paroff can take something off from the experience, but it's still better than sitting in front of the book/series screaming "JUST FUCK ALREADY!" because they "missunderstand" each other again. I think the biggest problem with early payoffs is that some authors just let the romance be after the confession, but a relationship between lovers also give enough material for new subplots that can fit (and again pay off) in the story. And even if it takes a step more into the background, I think it's still better than force in any direction...
While I am always up for people having a differing opinion of my own (which are always good to hear), I think we may be talking about different things. I agree that unnecessary and obviously artificial romantic complications are stupid. And I also agree about the silly melodrama of the love actualization in a battle ground, haha. (Actually, I would recommend saving any calm closure for the epilogue).
What I think you are talking about for "payoff" is the characters getting together (whether that be sex, confession of feelings, marriage, etc...) I could be wrong (and please correct me if I am) but I believe that is what I am understanding. And I believe that you think I am talking about the same thing because a) I did not clarify otherwise, b) my example of Psych was the characters getting together, and c) the English language has no words to precisely distinguish the different things we are talking about.
So let me clarify what I was trying to say. In this context, I'm talking about romance in terms of its overall structure, as opposed to when the characters get together. As in, I am completely fine with the characters getting together, having sex, confessing their love, etc, at any point in the story that it may naturally fit in. However, I think that the romance needs to have an ultimate destination--a planned ending that everything else builds up to.
For example, the ultimate destination for the romance in a children's novel may be a kiss. And that is fine because that is the ultimate destination that the writer wanted to take the romance to. For a more mature novel, the characters may fall in love and get married in the middle of the book. But the ultimate destination in this example wouldn't be sex or a confession of feelings but something more developed. Like maybe the writer wants the romantic subplot to conclude at a point where the characters overcome marital troubles that were leading towards divorce. Or the romantic subplot can be something in-between.
So I completely agree that you shouldn't use lazy writing tricks and constant triangles and misunderstandings just to artificially stave off the characters getting together. You should let it happen when it happens. You should have a plan for your romance that takes into account both how the characters will get together in the most natural way possible, as well as for continued development towards definite destination in the end. Simplified, don't let your characters get everything they want and need in a relationship in the middle of the novel, or you will lose driving force.
Now I may be misunderstanding you completely, or you still may disagree (which is totally valid). But I did want to clarify that I do not disagree with your ideas, as I understand them. Regardless, I do appreciate your thoughtful and polite input, and for bringing my attention to something that I don't think was clear enough before.
It's pretty obvious, that romance stories should have their payoff (in whatever form) at the end, because that's the center of the story. (Unless you start a second half with a totally different theme). But based on that many (indie) authors are in the mindset, that the big climax of the romantic subplot has to be together with the big climax of the story. That's why we have all these "Power of Love" or "Battlefield Confession" scenes and I think, they are stupid. "There's the demon lord? Let's talk about our future children!"
I personally think, that the destination of a subplot should end in its own climax (whether it's a kiss, sex, marriage, maybe even the reconciliation after a fight, ...) and I think, that those subplots should have their own climax either after (like the last scene of the lovers in the epilogue) or before the climax. I think ending a romantic subplot in the middle of a non-romance book is way better, but sadly most authors tend to drag things out so that we can have all the payoff for everything in a big climax at the end. And that feels so unnatural for me.
I think it would be better to have the romantic climax just where it fits, even if it ends in the middle of the story. Let the hero and the princess be together before he fights the evil dragon. Let them marry before he has to go to save his new found life. Of course one shouldn't forget it totally after that and mention it (and maybe let them still be together at the end), but more in background.
I think, we are quite on the same page and maybe I should use two words - "payoff" and "climax". It's true that even a romantic subplot should have a payoff at the end. The hero seeing his love again after all the death. And that mostly should be around the epilogue. But the big climax, that defining moment for the whole subplot, where even the story itself stands by for a second - that one should be where it fits...
It's the first time I've seen your profile, and I just wanted to let you know that I admire you for given such valuable writing advice to everyone.
The way you labeled the exercises interferes with the exercises from Chapter 2 World-building – Section 1 Story Types!
Stuff is being mixed in the same file.
I hope you hadn´t planned that, then I´ll look like a fool :3
Because we are not a super-group we cannot have subfolders. That initially led to having a folder for every exercise. But someone (WhiskeyDreamer) wisely advised that this will end up being WAY too many folders for people to sort through, particularly when we get up to over a hundred tutorials. So until a day comes when we might get super group status or DA improves, we are going to start conjoining tutorials by chapter instead of by exercise. We'll trust that the members will continue to cite which exercise they are doing in the title, and pasting the instructions, as they've already been doing.
But thanks for alerting me, it is appreciated
Tip 13: Don't make adult characters falling in love for the Xth time act like teenagers with their first crushes.
Tip 14: Don't make teenagers with their first crushes act like experienced adults.
Example: I support character PP with character RD, to be a couple. But someone else supports FS with RD instead. Me and him ship two different pairings.