Well, I've got one session left in the private writer's conference of this weekend. It's gone really great so far! I should live in a world with just these people. They're so my kind. I seriously adore them. (Editor's Note on 1 October 2016: This private conference was the first of what would become the public conference Ch1Con.)
This also means that I just finished my session in which I taught about including romance in novels! And I'm going to give you an overview right here.
Romance: Yeah, You Need It
First off, romance is vastly important in storytelling. I don't even WANT to have to argue this again. It just matters. Love makes the world go round, is all you need, etc. Character relationships of all kinds are founded in some shade of love, and they're necessary to character development, plot structure, and most of all, emotional impact. Friendships, family, you need positive interaction to reveal all the depths of your story. It's what readers connect to most! Romantic relationships are just another form of this, as well as a powerful, key part of human existence. I doubt the existence of many books/movies/TV shows that don't portray romance of any kind, even if it's only background romance between side characters (even between the main character's parents!).
Types of Romance
Implied: Here the romance is simply hinted at as a possibility for some time beyond the frame of the story. When used to the exclusion of other kinds of romance, this is best utilized only in younger children's literature, or in the first books of a series, where later books will include further forms of romance. (Stories can also work only with implied romance if it's being done to make a specific point, although I can tell you right now, as a romantic, I personally am probably not on board with that, haha.)
Crush: This is a romance centered around a simple crush, where the actual plot and characters actions don't progress far beyond the feelings. Good for older children's literature or books where the focus absolutely needs to be kept on another aspect of the story.
Boyfriend/Girlfriend: This is a very hot and heavy, physically driven, and intense kind of romance. I use this term specifically for romance that is based very strongly on the sexual attraction aspect. The problem with this is that it can lose the true core of romance, the love aspect, and trivialize relationships. You have to be careful with this, especially, not to fall into sexist-type traps or justify abusive behavior. Best for readers at the YA level or above.
True Love: This is the deep, for life and eternity, we'd die for each other kind of love. While attraction can be an important aspect of this romance type, it's more about love, respect, and interconnectedness. This is a relationship defined by stability and peace, equal cooperation, and intense, soul-deep emotion. In my opinion, this kind of romance belongs just about anywhere (though character maturity must be taken into consideration).
You can shift a relationship through these different types in the space of a story, pick a single type based on your story category and purpose, and/or portray multiple relationships of various types. It's a very flexible categorization--but you ought to know when you're writing which type you are working with.
How to Write Romantic Emotions
Attraction: This aspect of romance is all about the physicality and sexual response, best depicted in your writing through physical responses like the racing heart, twisting stomach, flourishing heat, etc. This is the most vital, of course in the boyfriend/girlfriend type romance, but plays a part in all. Remember when you write attraction not to get too cliche about it. Don't just use the phrases you've read all the time. Rather, choose your words based off of your own empathetic or personal experience with the feelings. (This is the case for all writing, really--make sure you know what you're saying with every word. Try to be original!)
Love: An emotional aspect that has the greatest impact in the true love type, this is about the mental and emotional reaction that characters have to each other. It has physical manifestations, but is even better portrayed through action and word. The true core of this is connection. It should be soul-deep, at some times incredibly peaceful and comforting and at others so strong it hurts. The desire each person has for the happiness of the other takes forefront.
How to Write Romantic Actions
Situational: This kind of "action" is purely author-driven, where you use the plot to place the characters together in as many complex, intense and intimate situations as it takes to create a legitimate connection. Get them in proximity, through some intense challenges or cutesy tropes (i.e. a fake relationship, comforting during nightmares, at a ball, taking care of injuries, locked in a closet, things of that sort). Then let them take charge--if you've set up your characters right, you should get an idea of how they would react, to the point that it feels wrong and even causes you writer's block if you try to make your characters react in a way contrary to their nature. (Basically, you as an author are entirely in charge of the circumstance, but not the response.) Now hopefully, their reactions will tend towards romance, if that's what you're going for. Their core natures will, in some positive way, mesh and balance to create that kind of love. It also helps that you do have some control, as an author, over their physical reaction. (Attraction is a lot more involuntary than love!)
Whatever the case, this kind of set up will create a connection of some kind between two characters that you can then work with. It's also, I think, the most fun part, where you get to torture your characters! (Which, hopefully, is enjoyable for you because you know where you're leading them--to a happier ending? I promise I'm not a terrible person.) Remember, fear and doubt are your friends when it comes to creating conflict and deeper emotion!
Dialogue: This is a character reaction subset where the two characters talk to each other. Wow, what a concept! For romance, there are basically three ways to go: a) a very awkward dialogue where literally no one knows what to do yet, b) the love-hate sniping and sassing used by these characters to disguise the intense emotions underneath the snark, and c) a close friendship-romance where they talk to each other deeply about their feelings and experiences. These can be used in conjunction, in progression, or separately, just like the romance types, but also should code appropriately with the romance type (as well as character nature). You're less likely to get the first kind of dialogue in a true love relationship, for example, though in difficult moments that may arise again.
Physical Actions: This is the other character reaction subset which is all about physicality and action. Touching is of course a major part, at all the levels: brushing against each other, holding hands, hugging, kissing, and beyond. Also included here would be action-type responses to romantic feelings, such as showing off, protecting/sacrificing, bringing gifts, seeking out company, or even just being really clumsy and awkward. All of these are important to the portrayal of romance--and the touching is definitely something to keep in mind.
In my experience, when you're a beginning writer, you should always hold the kiss off for the end of the novel. That's the easiest way to build up to a full and complex relationship and develop a strong romance subplot with conflict and tension and sexiness. More advanced writers learn over time how to put kissing mid-story while still maintaining tension in the relationship. You can also work with mid-story kisses by portraying a very stable relationship, in the true love arena, that doesn't require as much immediate intensity to impact the plot. Whatever the case, stay true to the character and stay calm. Physical stuff is just one piece of what it takes to create romance. (I can't give you any advice on anything further than kissing, as I personally dont include that kind of thing in my writing. I am a Mormon, after all, haha.)
Most importantly, you gotta know your characters and you gotta know how they relate to each other. The ideal romance is one between equals who act as partners and take care of each other through each and every trial, even as they themselves struggle. There should be a mixture of commonalities and difference that allow their relationship to be one of both stability and intrigue, where they balance each other out. Many novels don't go for the ideal romance, though. You have to know what your plot and your characters require to fulfill their purpose and nature. Some of the best romances are between prideful, stubborn people who love-hate until the moment they learn to give up their pride (but not their selves, that's an important ). Other romances are designed to address (which also means calling out) situations of abuse, etc. Again, it all depends on the thematic context of your book.
Don't shy away from writing romance. It's good stuff!
Please avoid love triangles unless you really know what you're doing. They're cliche and wishy-washy--most of the time, they're an overdone way of symbolizing a deeper choice that the main character has to make about their life. That can work if you're very sincere about both the thematic and human aspects and if you show why the character would be conflicted about the choice between the actual people, not just what said people represent.
Honestly, the only love triangle I really enjoy is the one in The Hunger Games because Katniss isn't romantically invested either way, which makes her inability to choose less about indecision and lacking loyalty; rather, it's about distraction and apathy (and, to a good extent, fear). Both Peeta and Gale also have symbolism behind them that make her choice powerful, because that symbolism is not only key to the theme of the series, but is also innate to the characters' nature and values, rather than an arbitrary kind of association.
One trope I love is where the couple or couple-to-be sleep together, meaning in the same room, without any sexual aspect to it. The intimate safety and comfort of those moments really work for me. Think Peeta and Katniss in The Hunger Games or Jesse and Suze in The Mediator series by Meg Cabot.
There you have it! Go forth and write your romance with confidence! I will see you again Wednesday.
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