In honour of Valentine’s Day, I thought I would turn my attention to all things roses and glitter and take a look at romance writing. It is perhaps a sad but inevitable truth of modern literature that it is rare (not unknown, but rare) to see a best-selling novel that does not, at some point, in some way, in some form, involve a romantic storyline. Even crime fiction these days seems to require the mandatory Castle-Beckett relationship.
It means that writing romance needs to be a part of every writer’s arsenal. Whether you are planning to keep it to the periphery (like Harry Potter for example, where the romance story lines had very little impact on the plot) or dead centre (Twilight. 50 Shades of Grey – or for a better example, The Fault In Our Stars) chances are you are going to come up against writing romance.
And you’d think it was easy.
We all know the blueprint – Boy Meets Girl – They fall for each other – They suffer through a series of unfortunate events that keep them apart – They end up together. It should be easy.
But romance is one of those things that is so easy to get wrong. It is so easy to go too cheesy, or too saccharine. (I’m sorry but I’m putting anything ever written by Nicholas Sparks here). We feel the compulsion to add a love triangle but doing that without it seeming both contrived and also a waste of time as she is clearly going to go with choice a) leaves us stumped (Twilight **cough** **cough**). And then there is the compulsion to add conflict. To add danger. Which can result in just ridiculous story-lines. See Divergent. See Twilight. And then there are the books where the romance storyline is meant to be background, it is meant to just be soft character development and yet somehow ends up hijacking the book and stealing the limelight (Doctor Who – Season 8 – and the title character wasn’t even involved in the romance *she grinds her teeth noisily*).
So when even the pros are struggling, how are we, the breakers-in, supposed to get it right? Well, there is no simple how-to to follow but there are a few easy steps you can take to at least help you along your way.
1. Choose your players
Is this going to be a linear romance (which I’d recommend for background romances) or is this going to be trifecta? Or are we talking quadrophenia? If you are going to try for a love-triangle, do that from page one. Don’t realise when your book contract is renewed that you are running out of “they are so perfect for each other” plot and need to add a second man to the mix to eek out another three pointless books only to get back to the ending you wrote in book one because that was always the ending you wanted. It cannot be someone out of the blue. Or a random secondary character that you yank out of their mid-novel obscurity to drag them kicking and screaming into the limelight. The readers have to care about all involved for it to work.
2. Give them a ‘why’
“Because they want to be loved” is cliché and two-dimensional unless there is a back story that gives it depth. If I read another damn story about a ‘plain girl’ that steals the heart of the ‘local hunk’ I may scream. Romance needs variety. In real life, love is not conventional. It doesn’t work like that. People get into relationships for all sorts of reasons. Love at first sight is rare (it does happen, I’ve seen it) but rare and these days makes people roll their eyes in books. Every character needs a motive for everything they do. It beds the romance, stops it being only surface deep and allows it to have real gravitas in your story. So whether she is an orphan who has never had someone and just wants to know what it feels like to be ‘loved’ or he is a serial playboy trying to go straight after his ways got someone hurt badly and so he is choosing the straightest arrow he can find, make them interesting. This is one of the many reasons Game of Thrones is so popular. The relationships might be bitter, and twisted, and often plain disturbing, but they are still 100 times more believable that Edward and Bella.
3. Don’t make it easy
Love is not simple. Love is not straight forward. So don’t write it that way. Let them fight. Let them hate each other at times. Give them conflict. Romeo and Juliet is a classic for a reason. But don’t feel the need to go Mills and Boon. I have known marriages that have honest-to-God broken down over the dishwasher. It is the small things that break people apart. Don’t look at conflict like a giant hammer. Look at it as a ream of tiny cracks.
4.Keep it natural
This is a rule in any kind of writing but worth repeating. Don’t have things happen for the hell of it. Readers can smell it a mile off. Divergent is a great place to look for things that happen for no good reason other than to set up forced ‘romantic’ moments. Some readers go for that but I’m not one of them, and I consider it lazy writing. Let the characters lead. Ask why at every step. Ask would he/she actually do that. And don’t let the plot be driven by the need to add romantic moments. Let the romantic moments take you by surprise. There are always moments. And if they surprise you, they will surprise the reader as well, making each moment more poignant, tender and stronger.
5. Be open to all eventualities
Because if you are, the reader is too. If you go into your romance story already absolutely decided on how it is going to end, the readers will feel it. It takes the shine off the romance. In this case, I refer to Hunger Games. I never felt like she was going to **spoilers** end up with Gale. It was clear from the start that Peeta was always going to be her eventual choice. The problem with that is you can never really convince the reader that anything else is going to happen. I knew Peeta was not going to die. Katniss too **spoilers end**. It was in the tone, in the inflections, you just sensed that happily ever after was coming. GRR Martin is the polar opposite, and in recent times, taken the theme a little too far in the other direction in my humble opinion, now just killing off his characters for some rather flimsy reasons that could be summed up somewhat easier with “because that’s what I do”. If you have a triangle, be open to both endings. Actually all three endings, be open to her ending up alone. Let the characters lead the story. I want to be on the edge of my seat. If romance is your leading story, you have to keep it alive by keeping the reader convinced that it may not happen. That there is a chance anything could happen. The Fault In Our Stars is a master class.
6. Keep it flawed
Another writing basic. No one is Snow White. No one is Prince Charming. No one is perfect. We fall in love because of our imperfections. So give her morning breath. Give him an inability to articulate his feelings. Uncertainty of self is not a flaw. It is a cliché. It is something everyone suffers from so don’t lean too heavily on it. The “oh he could never fall for someone like me” has been done to death. It bores readers. So give it depth. Same with looks. Everyone wants their hero to look like Dean Winchester but there is a reason Dean looks the way Dean looks and unless you are writing a soldier or a hero who spends a lot of time working out, people won’t buy it. So give them flaws. Give them big ears. A crooked nose. A weird laugh. Make them interesting. Again (and promise this is the last time I worship the Master but…) The Fault In Our Stars is a perfect example. Before they got Hollywoodised for the movie, Grace and Augustus were flawed. And when he likens her to Natalie Portman, it makes it all the more powerful because you realise that is how he wants to see her, that he doesn’t see all the flaws that we know she has.
7. Make them both better people for being together
This to me is the single most important thing. Love changes us. If they fall in love but at the end of their journey are still the same two people they were on page one, then the romance has been cheapened to a gimmick. Love has to be a journey. Romance, at the end of the day, is a very public form of character development. The pair at the end should be different people to the ones you started with. Their relationship, their partnership should have a personality of its own and they need to have grown. The boy becomes a man. The cynic learns to trust. The villain learns to love.