Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #13: Handling Romance

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Full disclosure: I am not much of a romance lover. In fact, I rarely enjoy romance even as a side plot. This is mostly because it is typically done in a way that is so shallow, predictable, and annoying that I want to throw the book (or throw up). That said, I have edited a few romances over the years that I truly enjoyed because they had fantastically lovable characters and conflicts that were different and unique.

So here is my best advice on writing a romance that even I (and my fellow non-romance-lovers) will enjoy.

Don’t be Disgusting

No, not that kind of disgusting… I’m talking about the really disgusting part of romance – the mushy-gushy lovey-dovey, OMG I love you sooooooo much kind of disgusting.

You don’t want your readers’ eyes to roll back in their heads with exasperation, nor do you want them gagging into their e-readers. So use the mushy stuff sparingly. Here are some tips:

  • Show don’t tell (“Wow, everything comes back to that with you, doesn’t it?”). Rather than constantly telling the reader that they love, love, love each other, show it instead. Use actions, gestures, complex thoughts, and dialogue to convey their love. A great romance doesn’t even need to say the word “love” to be utterly and completely satisfying.
  • If you do use the L-word, don’t do it in every single gosh darn scene. Let it mean something. Use it sparingly.
  • Sparingly is a good guide to all elements of a romance. Unless you’re writing erotica, go easy on the smooching, sexing, ogling, and the compliments. We don’t need to hear how steamy hot the protagonist is in every single scene.
  • Avoid scenes that revolve around characters staring into each other’s eyes and endlessly professing their undying love. This seems weird to me, and also boring.

Don’t be Creepy

There are certain expressions of “love” that can be downright creepy. Some of these are used in published novels with varying degrees of success, but most should be avoided.

Here are some notable creep factors:

  • One or both characters are finally “complete” now that they’ve found the other person. The implication being that they needed a partner in order to become a real person.
  • Similarly: one character (usually the female) has no personality, goals, or interests until she meets the man, then suddenly the man brings meaning to her life. I’m not saying they can’t help each other grow, but they shouldn’t be empty shells before meeting.
  • The man (though it could be a woman) acts aggressively – grabbing or restraining the woman to prevent her from leaving because he just has to have a conversation with her about their relationship. This isn’t passion, it’s abuse, and it’s creepy.
  • One of the partners shows their love by being crazy jealous, perhaps even going as far as to attack another person or their property for expressing interest in their partner.
  • One or both characters are incapable of going any period of time without their partner. Missing each other is normal, but if life isn’t worth living because her bf went out to play golf, things start getting creepy.
  • The man is a total womanizer until he meets the female lead and then wham-bam he’s a gentle, amazing guy. “Yeah, but what about the whole womanizing thing?” said me, unable to forgive and forget.

Avoid Misunderstandings as Prolonged Conflict

A common issue with many romance plots and subplots is the primary conflict being based on a misunderstanding. This is a problem because it’s been done a million times and because it’s unrealistic.

The woman accidentally walks in on her man with his arms wrapped around another woman, but it’s not like that, she just tumbled into his arms while he was buying his love interest a wedding ring.

This is not a conflict that can be sustained for very long. In real life, normal people would just have a conversation immediately and then move on with their lives. Refusing to communicate over a misunderstanding can be maddeningly annoying to readers.

Weight the Romance According to its Plot Value

How much weight you give the romance should be balanced with its value to the plot. If the novel is primarily about the romance, then obviously there needs to be a lot of it! But if romance is a subplot, it can be helpful (and ideal) to consider how much it is enhancing the main plot and how much value it’s adding to your story.

There is no sense in lingering on a romance in every scene of your novel if it doesn’t tie in with or improve upon the main plot. If the romance doesn’t offer a stepping stone in the character arc or create interesting and complex conflicts that get in the way of the main plot, it probably shouldn’t have much “screen time” in the novel.

Take the genre into consideration as well. You do not want your horror novel turning into a paranormal romance. If the romance starts to push out the genre elements, you’ve gone too far.

What Makes a Romance Work

Now that I’ve told you all the things not to do, let’s talk about some of the things to do:

  • Show don’t tell (“Wait, didn’t she already say that…?”). I cannot emphasize this enough. You can tell readers all day long that your characters are in love, but if you don’t show it, it’s just a bunch of empty words. Readers need to feel that the characters are in love based on the way they interact.
  • The reader needs to perceive value in both characters. They need to have personality traits that are interesting and positive. Traits that offer something to their love interest. Traits that are likeable, loveable, or endearing.
  • But the characters also need to be flawed. Like big time. They need to have traits that the love interest identifies as negative. Nobody wants to read about two people who are totally amazing and perfect and love everything about each other. Have them accept each other despite their flaws and you will create something much more endearing.
  • Avoid insta-love. This is when characters become madly in love with each other all of a sudden out of nowhere. This sucks at the beginning of the book and it sucks just as much at the end. Romance should have a build up that should be clear but relatively slow.
  • Go for meaningful tiny gestures over big superficial ones. Juno filling Bleeker’s mailbox with Tic Tacs is a whole lot cuter and more meaningful than a fancy man in a suit taking a woman out to a candlelit dinner with a ring in the champagne glass. Characters that demonstrate that they know each other for real, deep down, in a special way are far more likely to be perceived as genuinely in love.
  • Develop love at moments that feel natural. Don’t try to stuff romance into scenes where it makes no sense, such as stopping in the middle of a burning building for a love-professing monologue. This reduces the tension of the burning building and also pulls the reader in too many directions to fully appreciate the romantic moment.
  • Differences don’t have to be about growth. Some of the best romances are those between mismatched couples where one is super crazy and eccentric and the other is rigid and orderly, or where one is super cowardly and the other is super brave and gets them into all sorts of trouble. These differences don’t need to result in changing the personality of the other partner. Sometimes relationships work because they balance each other. And that can be a beautiful thing.
  • Love your characters. If you don’t love them, they won’t love each other. Not really. If you don’t feel your characters’ souls as if they’re real, they can’t truly fall in love, and the reader can’t truly fall in love with their love. It just can’t happen.

Homework: Strengthening Your Romance

Whether your novel is a straight up romance or has the teeniest of romantic subplots, here are some questions to strengthen it:

  • If you took out all of the telling (whether it be narration or character thoughts) and all of the sexy/smoochy stuff, would the reader still be able to tell that the characters are in love? Do they demonstrate love without it having to be said? Do they have a clear connection?
  • Are both characters full and complete human beings before they meet each other? Do they each have value without being in a relationship? Do they each offer traits of value to each other?
  • Are both characters flawed? Both physically and emotionally/psychologically/mentally?
  • Does the relationship develop over time rather than the characters falling in insta-love?
  • Be honest: is a misunderstanding the backbone of most of their conflicts or do they have legitimate, realistic issues?
  • Is the romance weighted in the novel in accordance to its value to the plot?

These questions should get you moving on assessing and improving the quality of your romantic subplot.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

6 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #13: Handling Romance

  1. Jenna says:

    This is a wonderful topic, Ellen! I’ve sort of gotten used to range based on small misunderstandings throughout the plot when I read YA. There are great tips here and I love that you references Juno. This post is super helpful! I know that when I have to change elements in my story as advised in your homework assignments, I’m doing something to make it better, which is worth the time it takes.

  2. Julie Griffith says:

    Some really great points here! I’ve been guilty of creep factor #2 before, to a certain extent. In my current WIP, the romance takes a back seat to the action and adventure, but it’s still a part of the story and I’ll be using these tips to keep it real. The part about developing love in moments when it feels natural reminded me of those movies where the couple kisses in moments where they really should be more concerned with their safety–Let’s take a moment to trade spit even though every second we waste means our lives are in more peril.I hate that!

  3. Roman says:

    thank you for the lecture. I tried to stay away from romance but the story that I am working on is forcing me to. My main character finds another character attractive but realizes that falling for this character would force her to sacrifice her vengeance. This conflict lasts for the first quarter of the story when this love interest betrays my main character. is that good enough? or is it cliche?

  4. Hannah Murphy says:

    Are you psychic, Ellen? Because every little problem I’m having at the time, you post a perfectly corresponding lesson to. Thank you!

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