I’ve always been the type of media consumer who loved a romantic subplot. I adored it in TV shows and always craved more in books when I was a teenager. There was always something so magical about the tension between two characters—that push and pull before ah, yes! The long awaited kiss (and I would get SO upset if they didn’t!) Sometimes this is called UST, or unresolved sexual tension.
Now, I know that romantic subplots are not for everyone, and certainly not all books need them. Sometimes readers get frustrated when the romance overtakes the plot or that too much emphasis is put on who a character should choose if there’s a love triangle (Gale vs Peeta anyone?) I always like to encourage readers to really think deeply about why they’re extra critical of romance as a subplot and as a genre.
When I first began to include romance in my writing, it didn’t come easily to me. I didn’t understand why either. If I liked the idea of these two characters to want to be together and wanted to create this relationship arc, why couldn’t I actually write it? I actually sort of had an epiphany while watching the Norwegian show SKAM, and ever since then I’ve had a (somewhat) better grasp on how to write it. (Here’s the scene, but it might not make sense if you haven’t seen the show, but basically she hates him and agreed to a date to help a friend.)
So, if you’re interested in improving the way you write romance, or to better assess what you like when reading it, here are some things I’ve learned from writing (and also interning at a literary agency that represents a lot of romance titles.)
- What’s the Hook?
Your book already has its concept/hook, but your characters and their relationship need one, too. Think about TWILIGHT for a second. What do you think the hook is? If you guessed that Bella is human and Edward is a vampire, you’d be right! Immediately, that hook gives us expectations about the manner in which that relationship is going to play out.
What about the book THE HATING GAME by Sally Thorne? The hook of this book (a lot of WBPartiers enjoyed this one!) is that two office coworkers hate each other. There’s a promotion up for grabs and they’ll both do whatever they can to snag it, and if they other does they’ll quit.
Think about how you would boil down the relationship between your characters. Are they childhood friends with a history? Are they rivals? Does one character have something the other wants? There are so many possibilities, but thinking about the main appeal of the relationship arc will help you map out where you want it to go as it weaves with your plot. You can also think of the hook as the spark!
- Keep Tension Between Your Characters Throughout The BookOne of my pet peeves in any kind of romantic arc is when it loses its momentum. Back in the day I was a hardcore fan of Damon and Elena from THE VAMPIRE DIARIES to get together. The hook was certainly there—the kind human girl brings out the good from the bad, dangerous vampire brother. But when Damon and Elena finally kissed… I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t feel special to me. It sort of fell flat despite how much I wanted to like it (though plenty of my friends did!)
Eventually I figured out that once Damon and Elena kissed, the tension between them melted away. Sure, there was still plenty of tension on the show, but there was less of a push-pull between them and when it was there, it was repetitive. (“You can be good I know it!” “I’m BAD Elena, this is the SKIN OF A KILLER.” Oops wrong vampire, but you get it.)
A book that does a good job at keeping the tension between the characters throughout the book (and it even accomplishes #3 of this post) is TIMEKEEPER by Tara Sim. Again, the hook here is that Danny is human and Colton is a clock spirit. The tension that Sim layers throughout the book is part of the plot, but it impacts the relationship between these two young men.
If Danny falls for Colton and vice versa, they could put the entire town at risk and stop time all around them. Obviously this is a problem. And Danny knows that, which affects some of his scenes with Colton and how much he reveals about himself.
When you’re writing tension, try to practice a push and pull of your own. I tend to let characters indulge a little bit in what they want, and then scale back. I mostly do this because that’s what I enjoy reading and watching on TV (it’s fun and keeps things interesting!) But you can find what works for you. Maybe a character’s particular choice causes a rift between them and their love interest. Arguments totally keep tension going! After all, they have to make-up and apologize at some point!
- My Characters Are Dating… Now What?Ideally a writer keeps the tension going between the characters and the dynamic does not necessarily change. Just because the characters are now together doesn’t fundamentally change who they are as characters. Honestly, that sounds so simple as I write it out, but it took me a really long time to figure it out!
Similarly to keeping the tension between two characters who haven’t gotten together yet (and we all hope do!) you have to keep the tension going. Remember my Damon and Elena example—the dynamic between them changed and not for the better. You have to find the balance between the new relationship the characters begin without sacrificing what got them to that point.
A great couple that so many of us rooted for was Leslie and Ben on PARKS AND RECREATION. At first, these two characters disliked each other, but slowly they began to see eye to eye. When they got together, there were still problems in Pawnee to keep them occupied, and the tension became whether their relationship would continue to level up. These two characters also never lost the true essence of themselves (also true for April and Andy), which is why it worked so well.
Good things to think about are, what would my character want out of this relationship and does it match up with what the other person wants? At the beginning of a relationship these things really might not match up. Those tough, honest conversations continue the tension, but it’s leveled up from any arguments previously. What situations can you put your characters in to test their relationship (doesn’t have to necessarily threaten it!) Think about how your character would have reacted before their relationship—would it be the same or different and why?
Hopefully some of these tips and examples have been helpful to anyone writing romance into their books. Again, I know that romance is not for everyone, but I think these rules of tension work for any type of relationship, obviously friendships included. Tension makes for an engaging and fun read and can help create so many layers in our writing!
I’d love to hear about some of your struggles with writing romance or some of your favorite relationship subplots from books/shows/movies!