Man, do I love a good, believable romance.
I like the slow kind, where looks are exchanged, where she ignores him, where he adores her, where their journey leads to something beautiful and long-lasting. I like the kinds of romance where the undercover action is a result of commitment, not the possibility of it.
Good romance stories, in my opinion, have the reader fully engaged in the feelings of the couple long before they figure it out themselves. I didn’t know there was a term for this.
Oh, this is why I write fiction!
I can get emotionally involved in the romance of characters without actually getting emotionally involved! And that’s what we want as writers, we want our readers to push our awkward heroine into the arms of the tall, dark stranger who happens to have a soft spot for kittens.
Let’s just put a caveat out there: I’m assuming that this romance that you’re writing is the journey of two people who fall in love and decide they can’t live without the other. If you’re writing the kind of book that, ahem, is only interested in the physical rewards of a relationship, without the nuance, the subtext, and the mature emotional growth, then you don’t need any help. You just need a Barry White soundtrack.
If you’re interested in something more story-like, more journeyed, and more character-driven romance, keep reading!
But how do we do this? How do we “ship” our characters? Can we toy with the feelings of our readers enough that they are rooting for the couple long before the couple is rooting for themselves? How do we pace this romance in such a way that our readers want to see what happens next?
The following suggestions are only that, suggestions. Perhaps you can use a couple to more couple your couple.
Put them together. If they are going to fall in love, then they need to be in each other’s company, in a variety of settings. Maybe the settings could be more formal, intentional dates. But maybe, they wouldn’t have to be. Maybe they work together, or maybe they are neighbors. I think the best stories of true love have a lot of conversation. Now, your reader may not need to read every bit of it, but you can’t build a foundation of a relationship if they never spend time together. As sweet as Sleepless In Seattle was, it kind of drove me crazy that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan weren’t in the same room together until the very, very end.
Go slowly. No matter how you feel about “love at first sight,” it can feel forced in writing. It may be better for one character to have some sort of emotional response to the other — and it doesn’t have to be a positive one. He accidentally trips her and she calls him a jerk. She gets his coffee order wrong and he snaps at her, not because he’s a big meanie, but because he just lost his job. This emotional response, positive or negative, is the spark. Something needs to be ignited at that point.
Show that they like being together. Now, there is probably going to be that tease factor — where she picks on him and he picks on her. They do kind of need to annoy one another. But deep, deep down, they like having the other person around. And it may be that they don’t know why. I’m not convinced that you need to figure it all out completely either — it could be that he’s that stable male figure she’s been longing for. It could be that she’s got a quality or skill that reminds him of his mother.
Make them need each other for practical things. Now we all need each other. We need our cars repaired, we need our taxes done, we need our trash picked up. Perhaps your characters could have occupations that provide legitimate, non-erotic services that would benefit the other. I say this, but I have seen way, way too many stories about a young, probably awkward and klutzy woman who just bought the inn/B&B/old house/coffee shop and is dependent on the boyishly good-looking contractor/handyman/plumber who is charmingly annoying. If you want your romance to stand out, be creative with your occupational choices for your characters. Need ideas? Try looking here.
Demonstrate how confused they are. Our hero and our heroine need to be in conflict between their reason and their heart. Your reader needs to see this. She says she doesn’t like him or care about him, but that’s not what her actions show. He says that she is nothing special, but he lights up when she comes in a room. Friends may ask them about their googly eyes, and this is when they deny everything. You could have them lose sleep, have trouble eating, or find themselves distracted.
Give them a chorus to argue with. You hero and your heroine need to spout off about each other to someone. They need coworkers, BFFs, a sympathetic sister, a nosy aunt, someone, that they can talk about their love interest with. Of course, the friends see this relationship blooming more clearly than our hero and heroine do. These friends will have the job to give warnings, remind them of other decisions, tease them, manipulate the circumstances, and perhaps create conflict. The more complicated you make the supporting characters, the more drama you can create, and this is a good thing. Make sure these character and their motivations are well understood by your reader.
Create a pursuit. It could also be that one of them has more interest than the other. There should be decisive action by one to get the attention of the other. If you are going to tease the reader, you need to take your time with this. One of your main objectives is convincing your reader that they will get together, and the matter of when will keep them turning pages. In the pursuit, the pursuer needs to make some big mistakes. The pursuee should be offended, insulted or ignorant. Don’t make this easy. Put as many obstacles as you can in the path of the pursuer. But, don’t go so far as to discourage your readers or make your pursuer look like a weirdo. (Unless that’s your intention, which means you may be writing an entirely different genre altogether.)
Give them a clarifying moment when all could be lost. Your hero finds out that he’s being transferred to Poughkeepsie. Your heroine calls her local convent to ask if there’s an opening. The Ex shows up and wants to reconcile. You need to create a moment, I think late in the second act, in which it really looks like a permanent move is going to made by either one. What will happen next is critical.
Your hero and heroine realize that there are legitimate feelings here. Someone will have to make a dramatic move — either confess your feelings for this love interest of yours or lose them forever. Oh, this should be awkward, cringe-worthy and blubbering, but it must be done. This is the moment if you’ve been building this up all along, that your readers have been waiting for. Possibly, this is the moment that all of the friends have been hoping for. This is the moment in which they acknowledge to each other that they love each other. And then? A permanent decision has to be made — you get to decide what that is.
Keep their actions and their analysis consistent. If you want him to be introverted, kind of geeky and OCD-ish, he may be much better at following directions than improvising. If you want her to be an extrovert, lively and free-spirited woman, then don’t make her too analytical about his intentions. The best way to create believable reactions in romance is to have thoroughly drawn characters. You need to really know them so that they are convincing.
Make him want to “rescue” her. Please don’t think that I’m trying to stir the pot in 21st-century culture. But I believe that deep, deep down, a man in love wants to “rescue” the woman he admires. Back in the day, that rescue could have been from a dragon, starvation, the plague, or various Barbarians. But your tough-as-nails, feminist heroine is not perfect. Or at least she shouldn’t be. She needs to have weaknesses and make mistakes.
This is where your hero comes in. He needs to do something, big or small, that helps her out. We all need help from each other and this couple will need each other too. I think the best way to ship this is to create two or three of exchanges in which he “saves the day” for her. Make the first one an accident, but then make the next more deliberate. This will get her attention. She’ll be grateful. And if you really are going to put them together, then have her express her gratitude to him. Your readers will eat that with a spoon!
Make her want to get his opinion. A woman’s heart goes to the one she respects. He has a point-of-view on a particular issue — it could be something simple, like how to plant daisies. It could be something complex, like the US’s relationship with Sweden, but regardless, he has to have opinions that she respects. And she’ll seek it out. His viewpoint will be elevated above all other viewpoints in her mind. She may not do this deliberately, but she’ll do it just the same. Again, I’m not trying to appear to be overly Puritan, but he will need encouragement to pursue her. The best way for her to encourage him is to express respect or admiration. Make her see him as a hero. Your readers will too!
“The best love is the kind that awakens the soul and makes us reach for more, that plants a fire in our hearts and brings peace to our minds. And that’s what you’ve given me. That’s what I’d hoped to give you forever”
― Nicholas Sparks
Make them both want to improve for the other one. She attempts competency, intelligence, or sophistication to get his attention. She may not even realize she’s doing this. All of a sudden his opinion of her matters and she can’t explain it. He has standards in something that she thinks is beyond her. She may sense this most acutely when some other girl is better than she is at something. Our heroine may find herself reacting to this emotionally. This reaction, of course, is noticed by her friends and the reader. This is so shippy, you’re going to have to call the harbormaster.
Make him willing to be uncomfortable for her sake. This is where the seeds of true love germinate: when we are willing to put down our own desires for the benefit of someone else. He may not even realize he’s doing it. Or he may deliberately choose to be uncomfortable for her sake. If you want to plot a developing relationship, brainstorm for ways that he would sacrifice for her. Start small, in subtle ways that he doesn’t know about. Then move to the bigger things. This list could be a great outline for you. Even if you aren’t writing from his point of view, having him do this, and then have others notice, especially your reader, will ship this like crazy.
Consider making them both cowards. They both have to be afraid of dealing with the issue. Even if they are brave in every other area of their lives, they need to be fearful of rejection. I think that a reader who recognizes this cowardice will identify with it. I also think that your reader could cheer on a character who kind of freaks out about the possibility of romance. Now, this will only work if it’s consistent with your character’s personality. I’m going to bet though, that of all the couples you know, one of the pair is the neurotic one. I saw my husband’s when I looked in the mirror this morning.
Admittedly, all romance stories are unique.Or at least the good ones are.
I believe that the uniqueness can come in the setting or the quirks of the characters. But the story of romance itself is an old one. It’s a literal or figurative dance between two people who balance each other out and eventually get on each other’s nerves.
If you’re a romance writer, maybe this little list will help you and those crazy kids you have falling in love.
There’s no ship like a relationship!
Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.