Writing romance into your story doesn’t have to be an exercise in clichés.
“Writers write about how it feels to be human. Just as a sommelier must attune to the subtle difference between hints of peach or orange in a pinot gris, writers must attune to the subtle difference between lust and desire or outrage and disgust.” ― William Kenower, Fearless Writing
We’ve all seen those overly dramatic romance novel covers. You know, the ones with the buff hero showing off his pecs and abs in a loose white shirt while a gorgeous heroine swoons like she just can’t handle how the mere sight of him makes her tingle in all the right places. And if you’re anything like me, those covers make you want to drink until you can’t see straight. That’s because while these kinds of books are great for those who want to escape into a world where men don’t adjust themselves in public and women never seem to have a hair out of place (and don’t even get me started on the sex), they’re unrealistic. The dirty little secret about romance is that it’s sometimes ugly, at least occasionally complicated, and often hurts like hell.
I’m not here to bash you romantic types, or tell you that your narrative isn’t good because you air on the side of optimism when you write a love story. But, when it comes to writing a more balanced tale, there are going to be some bumps in the road―maybe even a few potholes that ruin your characters’ tires and leave them stranded for a chapter or two. And you’ll find that the tried and true stuff of fairy tale romances won’t always cut it. In fact, sometimes all of that just gets in the way of the real story and leaves you with a weak version of what could have been.
No two stories are exactly alike, and that goes double for a romantic plot or subplot. Want to weave a love story that will stand the test of time? Learn from the best, but ditch the formulas. Love comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, etc. Your stories should, too.
The knight in shining armor
First things first. When I say “knight,” I’m not just referring to a guy. A knight in shining armor could be anyone that comes off as just too good to be true: man, woman, child, centaur, talking cat, whatever. I wrote a whole post on this about villains versus heroes and making sure they were dynamic and believable, but the same can be said for the objects of your love stories. And no matter how much we’d like to think completely decent people exist, everyone has flaws and everyone makes mistakes. In a good love story, these are what will complicate things for your characters, but make them more interesting for your readers.
Take a book like Anna Karenina. No white knights there, and yet it’s continually lauded as one of the great romances in all of literature. Most people frown upon affairs, but we can’t help but root for this couple that shouldn’t be. And it’s not just the taboo that hooks audiences across generations and nationalities; it’s the fact that even if we don’t want to admit it, we often see a part of ourselves in these and other misbehaving characters. What Anna and the count is doing is socially unacceptable, but because they do it in the name of love, audiences get tiny pinpricks to the heart at the thought that those two crazy kids might not make it in the end.
They say love is blind, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. Most people will do the wrong thing in order to get the person they want, will disregard social norms and so-called rules if it means they can have a happily ever after of their own. If you want readers to buy into the romance in your story, you might want to rethink your Prince Charming or Cinderella. Instead, try channeling Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky for a little sympathy or outrage. All’s fair in love and war, right?
The love triangle
Before I dive into why love triangles are tired cop-outs by way of a pop culture reference, let me say that I have mad respect for Stephenie Meyer’s writing skills. She’s got colorful prose and tasteful cultural references down to a science. But the Twilight series makes me want to gag…and keep gagging until there’s nothing left. I could go down the rabbit hole and enumerate every reason why (sparkly vampires: do I really need to say more?), but for now we’ll stick to the love triangle and what about them does and does not fly.
Aside from her constant references to Romeo and Juliet (probably the only Shakespearean work I can’t stand), I found some common issues in Meyer’s love story, and most of them come down to the triangle. For one thing, it’s too obvious and she often uses it as a crutch to carry out other parts of her novels. That’s not to say that you can’t hint at the main players in a love triangle before you get to the heart of the matter. But you definitely don’t want to rely on other tropes just to make this particular one work for your story. The vampire versus werewolf battle has gone on a long time (supposedly), and it has nothing to do with anyone’s tender feels. If you find yourself leaning on one standby or subplot―whether a mythical rivalry or your main character’s ongoing prank war with her roommate―to justify other parts of your story, take a step back and decide whether or not it’s even worth keeping. Remember, subplots are mini stories within the larger narrative. They might not be the main focus, but they do need to be able to stand on their own two feet when it’s their turn in the spotlight.
Which brings me to my next mark against the Team Edward/Jacob frenzy. Unless you’re shooting for the type of romantic fiction that mainly focuses on the “will they, won’t they,” don’t let your love triangle drag on. Using it as subtext for the length of one book? Acceptable. Stretching it across a series with much bigger and completely separate issues at play, only to cut it off at the knees and somehow still let everyone win? Cue red flag and annoying game show buzzer.
Horrible people need love, too.
One of the more iconic aspects of Jane Austen’s work was that she wrote her stories with only the virtuous characters really finding love by the end, or even having the ability to love in the first place. She softens this declaration of morality by creating some confusion along the way, sometimes by leading her other characters and us, the readers, into believing that the good guy is a snob or the bad guy’s just misunderstood. But, in the end, virtues get the girl. As an Austen fan, I’m willing to overlook her formula and just enjoy the story. But we can’t all be Jane, and your readers won’t thank you to be so predictable.
Bottom line: ugly, mean, stupid, lazy, psycho, etc. people can love. And maybe they should. Not only does it give the character some depth, but it makes the idea of romance more inclusive and integral to the narrative. Think about it; how many terrible people do you know that would still sell their souls to keep their children safe and happy? How often have we seen the loss of a loved one, rejection and unrequited affection, or an unhealthy relationship help create a fictitious villain, or make them even worse?
So before you have just the obvious choices fall head over heels, take stock of your other characters and see if there’s another love connection there that could kick off an interesting subplot. Give the bad guy a reason to want to be better, or better yet, give him or her a partner in crime! The geek needs an object of affection, just like the bigger fella needs a date. Quirky couples add a touch of humor, and toxic relationships make us cringe for all the right reasons. If love knows no bounds, show us all the ways it could (or maybe couldn’t) work in your story.
Love to hate (and vice versa)
I actually like this trope, but only when it’s done well. Yes, it’s been done and done again, but there’s something about this narrative structure that brushes aside the “love at first sight” bullshit with real gusto. Because really―how much can you love someone if the first time you meet they’re making an ass of themselves? Not to mention that I’ve never met a couple that doesn’t fight, or doesn’t challenge each other in some way, and is truly happy.
In Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice and Benedict spend most of their time bickering and needling each other. They have history, and it’s driven a wedge between them until their friends intervene. Even at the end of the story, with wedding bells in the air, the couple just can’t help pushing each other’s buttons. But before you knock Shakespeare’s characterization methods and plot devices, think of a few of your favorite couples from modern TV shows and romcoms. It’s not all rainbow stickers and sunshine, and half the time the minor spats are what have us all nodding our heads and laughing along knowingly. Your readers deserve some laugh-track-worthy burns, not some sickeningly sweet rendition of, “No, you hang up first.”
A pair that sits around all day making heart-eyes and counting the ways in which they are in love is boring, not to mention about as common as a couple of unicorns. So why write about them? Your readers will notice early on that you’re taking the easy way out, and they won’t appreciate the insult you’ve doled out in the process―inadvertently or not.
Writing romance doesn’t mean choking on rose petals, drowning in half-assed poetry, or getting a cavity from all the sugary sweetness soaking through the pages of your manuscript. Learn to cut out this genre’s tired tropes, or at least how to use them to your advantage, and make the love story in your work one of a kind. And if you need some help, or just someone to tell you if something you’ve tried is gag-inducing, I’m happy to help rid your world of mush.