Characterization, dialogue, Narrative Voice, Romance, Uncategorized

Romance 101

What makes a good romance? Why do some romances seem so cheesy while others pull you in and give you butterflies and goose bumps and ALL the feels? How do you find that balance between realistic and deliciously perfect? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve edited and read for fun and done some writing of my own, so I thought I’d share some thoughts (and hope they come out making sense).

First of all: In romance, possibly more than in any other genre, the mantra “show, don’t tell” is crucial. Romance is all about feelings, and feelings only feel genuine if we are allowed to absorb them and experience them. Telling me someone is sad is not nearly as effective as showing me someone curled up in their bed sobbing, her chest aching and throat exhausted from crying as her mind replays memories of the time she had with him. So in all of the following suggestions, you’ll see the common thread of showing instead of telling.

Obstacles = Tension

What is the obstacle keeping your characters from being able to fall in love or be together? This, in my opinion, is the most important element of a romance. It can be external–outside forces keeping them from being together–or internal–causing turmoil about whether they should let themselves fall in love. And there can be more than one obstacle.

If your book is primarily a romance—if that’s the most important part of the book—then it should take the ENTIRE book for your couple to overcome all of their obstacles. If they’re happily together by the middle of the book, the romance element is over. It’s not super fun to read about two people who are wildly in love. It’s fantastic to read about them falling in love and experiencing the tension that comes with the obstacle, but once they’ve come to an agreement—either declared their love, had their first kiss, or gotten married, depending on the type of romance you’re writing—then romance readers are satisfied and won’t be driven to keep reading. If there are no more obstacles to their romance, you’re no longer writing a romance, so it better actually be a book about good versus evil or magic or a kidnapping or spies or terminal illness or major family secrets or something.

So what might these obstacles be? There are so many options, and you can make just about anything work with the right balance and character development. Some examples:

External Obstacles

  • Family rivalry (à la Romeo and Juliet)
  • Social status/inequality or other inherent differences (rich and poor; race difference; religion difference)
  • Situational taboo (war enemies; competing businesses or teams; prior or current relationships)
  • Age issues (too young or too far apart)
  • Illness
  • Fantasy world obstacles (different species; a curse; a prophecy)
  • Distance
  • Bad guys
  • Zombies, armageddon…

Internal Obstacles

  • Bad first impression: think Pride and Prejudice. Make sure not to make it unforgivable.
  • Competing personalities
  • Insecurities: use EXTREME caution. Nobody wants to read pages of “poor me” or “I’m not good enough for him/her.”
  • Misunderstandings: again, use caution. Don’t make your readers want to hurl the book at a wall because the characters won’t just spit it out or have a conversation. And don’t use the old “Oh, I was about to tell you five times but got interrupted every time” tactic.
  • Past trauma: How do emotional scars inhibit a character’s willingness or ability to be vulnerable or let love in?
  • Broken trust or suspicions
  • Secrets and lies: another one to use with care. Don’t make readers hate your love interests. They’d better have a darn good reason for keeping secrets or telling lies. And they’d better pay the price for it.
  • Fears: of marriage; of commitment; of the kind of bad relationship their parents had. This could tie in with past trauma.
  • Loyalty: she’s in love with her sister’s intended or he’s falling for the girl who ruined his best friend’s life. This would be more like an intersection of internal external conflict.
  • Love triangle: it gets a bad rap, so make sure it’s believable and serves a purpose.

The point of any of these obstacles is to create romantic tension. The internal struggle; the forbidden fruit; the impossible decisions; the seemingly insurmountable odds. By the time we reach the climax, the reader should be invested—stressed out, curious, nervous, wondering how these characters can possible overcome this impossible situation. Will they make a sacrifice? Will they defy society? Will they convince everyone to let them be together? Will they run off? Will they finally forgive each other?

Once they overcome their obstacle(s) and are free to be together and happy, you only need a scene or two after that to wrap everything up. After all that work, we want to see the couple happy and together and carefree. But we don’t need much of that. Once we’re satisfied and the questions are answered, we don’t have the driving curiosity to keep reading. So get them to that happy place and wrap it up.

Details and Description

Respect your readers. Give them the benefit of the doubt by not stating the obvious. Don’t skip over the new relationship and the tension-filled encounters by simply telling us that they happened; let readers experience the moments instead of summarizing them. I don’t want to read “They had a great time at dinner, full of conversation as well as comfortable silences. The chemistry was palpable.” I want to actually read and experience the chemistry, listen in on the conversations, hear their tone of voice, see their facial expressions, and take in the implied meanings.

So give readers those details. What is she doing with her hands? Does his voice lower or crack? Does she keep nervously tucking her hair behind her ear? Do their eyes meet, or is there avoidance happening? What kind of back-and-forth game do they play? Is one pursuing the other or is it mutual? Show us how they hold back as well as what they choose to share. Use your empathy, your observation skills, and your emotional memory to create a realistic moment that evokes emotion without shouting it from the rooftops.

Read more about this kind of detail in “Give Me a Beat” or “Humans First, Please.”

Complementary Characters

One of the jobs of any love interest is to provide what’s missing in a character’s life. They should complete one another with a balance of shared interests and opposing traits that together make them more whole.

An uptight gal could use a laid-back guy. A studious guy could use an adventurous girl. Someone who came from a broken family could benefit from a relationship with someone whose family is awesome. But you don’t need to point any of that out for us. Just make it happen.

So do your character studies. Write their backstories. Give them flaws and balance them with the right love interest. Let your couples learn from one another and rub off on each other. Show us (remember, don’t necessarily tell us) why they need each other. Charm us with their easy banter, but don’t tell us that they’re charming or that their banter is easy. Allow them to comfort and lift each other up in hard times, but don’t say “She loved how he could always comfort and lift her up in hard times.”

So much of this goes back to respecting your readers and allowing them to absorb, make inferences, and experience the story as closely to first-hand as possible. Remember that your readers are smart, and allow them to come along for the ride instead of telling them about it later.

{I find that I have far too much to say on this topic than most people want to read in one blog post, so I’ll end for now and leave you hungry for Romance 202. In the meantime, feel free to peruse my other blog posts, such as “What’s My Motivation (for reading your book)?” or “Don’t MAKE Me Throw This Book Across the Room.”}

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