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.”}

Narrative Voice

Don’t MAKE me throw this book across the room.

book-614836_1920I don’t think I’ve ever actually thrown a book across the room. But I can’t be sure. Sometimes it’s all a blur. I’ve definitely come close, though, and I’ve definitely stopped reading a book and busted out a pretty feisty review on Goodreads (yeah, I’m hardcore).

Sometimes the narrator (and by extension, author) just makes me so mad.

Here’s the thing. It can totally work for readers to be mad at characters. Antagonists most of the time (that’s a given), but even protagonists at times. They all do dumb things, because in order for a story to be interesting, characters have to be in some kind of trouble and try to get out of it. Often the character causes the trouble themselves, or at least makes it worse in their attempts to fix it. It’s called rising action, and it’s completely acceptable. As long as it’s done the right way.

So I have a few rules about making readers angry. There’s a difference between being angry at the character and being angry at the author. We can be angry and frustrated with the protagonist or supporting characters for awhile—deliciously frustrated, if it’s done right—but as long as the narrator is guiding us through it, we’ll maintain the hope that propels us through the mess. It’s when the narrator doesn’t do his or her job that I become angry with the author. And then the book is in danger of being hurled across the room.

So here are a few ways the narrator can drop the ball and incite the wrong kind of reader anger.

Withholding too much information for too long. I read a book once where the protagonist/narrator had a terminal illness that kept her from wanting to form attachments and prevented her from doing her job well. In addition, she felt guilty about something that had happened in her childhood, which cause an aversion to her hometown, where she had returned to work and where nobody knew about these secrets. And guess what? The reader didn’t get to be in on either of these secrets until the climax. A whole book where we’re in her head but not clued in to why she feels the way she does. Just vague references to her guilt, to her weakness, to her limitations. So much potential for reader empathy wasted. Instead I was frustrated the whole time, feeling like I was being dragged along and not respected. Taunted and teased by vital information withheld. If you want to slowly reveal a backstory, fine by me. But don’t miss out on the opportunity to bring readers into the full emotion of the character because you turn it into a guessing game.

Being unclear about who knows what. I love the movie Groundhog Day. I could seriously discuss it like it was a literary masterpiece. But I have this problem with one of the very last scenes. The main character, Phil, has just lived the same day over and over for possibly 30-40 years, finally figured out the secret to being happy, and gained the attention of his love interest. She’s amazed by the change she sees in him and by everybody’s reactions to him, and wants to know what’s going on. He asks if she wants the long version or the short; she says “Let’s start with the short and go from there,” and then it cuts to a wide shot of the whole group and the scene moves on. I have never figured out if we’re supposed to think he doesn’t get the chance to explain, or if it’s implying that he tells her all about it before the scene moves on. It’s important to me! Is he completely honest? Does she get to know about everything? Or does she fall in love with him even without that knowledge?

So here’s the deal. (And this could be a really annoying paragraph to read, but stay with me.) If a protagonist knows something, I want to know that they know. Even if the narrator doesn’t let me know what they know right away, I’d like to know that they know. Like we don’t usually find out what Sherlock Holmes knows when he knows it, but we can usually tell if he’s figured something out. If a character—especially the protagonist—doesn’t know something, I need to know that, too. Don’t make me feel like I’m missing something as a reader, like maybe I spaced out when something important was mentioned. If they know that someone else knows something, that should be clear. If they don’t know if someone else knows something or not, they should wonder about it so that we as readers know whether or not the protagonist knows if they know. (Is there a better way I could have said that? I don’t know.)

Ignoring obvious problems or solutions. You guys. Seriously. Readers are smart. Think of the solutions that a reader would think of, and address them. If there’s an obvious reason it wouldn’t work, just say it real quick. Sometimes we don’t know if our ideas are possible in the world of the book (rules of the fantasy world, rules of the character’s occupation, rules of their society, rules of science we may not know etc.), so you need to let us know. If the real solution is the obvious one, either (1) think of a more complicated solution, or (2) find a way to communicate the reason our hero is not seeing or executing that option at the moment. We need to understand their thought process. Which leads me to my last narrator pet peeve.

Going against their own morals with no justification/explanation/remorse. Every character has their own set of values and morals. Often, our protagonist will bend or break these rules to try to solve their problem or achieve their goal. It’s what causes conflict, and it’s entertaining. But it has to make sense in their mind, and usually, we need to see that, deep down, they know it’s wrong. Just a little hint of guilt, a little over-justification to self or others, or even a conscious decision to change their value system—a choice to change the way they judge themselves or the way they see the world. All of these make for a great dynamic character. But having a character lie unnecessarily, seek disproportionate revenge, or abandon a relationship without explanation, justification, or remorse will cut off a reader’s empathy pretty quickly.

Don’t get me wrong—you can play with a reader’s emotions by purposefully employing any of these tactics for a short amount of time and then redeeming your narrator, but be careful about how long you do that to us, or your poor book may end up mangled in a corner.