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: This private conference was the first of what would become Ch1Con.)
This also means that I just finished my session in which I taught about writing romantic subplots! And I'm going to give you an overview.
Romance: You Probably Need It
Romance is important in storytelling. Character relationships of all kinds are founded by some shade of love, which is the most beautiful and powerful feeling in existence, in my opinion. Love is necessary to character development, plot structure, and most of all, emotional impact. Positive interpersonal connections reveal the depths of your story. They're what readers connect to most!
Romantic relationships are one form of love/connection and are a common reality in human existence. Most books/movies/TV shows portray a romance of some kind, even if it's only in the background (i.e. between the main character's parents). Though I know that many writers aren't interested in exploring romance in depth in their stories, it would be unrealistic to reject it completely. In fact, many readers adore it!
Types of Romance
Implied: Here romance is simply hinted at as a possibility beyond the frame of the story. This is best utilized in younger children's literature or in the first books of a series, where later books will include further forms of romance.
Crush: This is a romance centered around a simple crush, where the actual plot doesn't progress far beyond the feelings. This is good for older children's literature or books where the focus needs to be kept on another aspect of the story.
In Lust: This is a very hot and heavy, physically driven, and intense kind of romance. The problem with this is that it can trivialize actual love. You have to be careful not to fall into sexist traps or justify abusive behavior. This kind of romance is best for readers at the YA level or above.
In Love: This is a form of romance founded on mutual respect, deep love, and interconnectedness. It often lasts long-term. While sexual attraction can be an important aspect of this romance type, it's not the center. This is a relationship defined by stability and peace as well as moments of profound emotion.
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.
How to Write Romantic Emotions
Lust: This aspect of romance is best depicted in your writing through physical responses like a racing heart, twisting stomach, flourishing heat, etc. Strive not to get too cliche or repetitive in your descriptions. Choose your words thoughtfully based off of your own empathetic or personal experience.
Love: Romantic love can differ from other kinds of love in some ways, but the core feeling remains the same. It has physical manifestations but should also be portrayed through action and words. The true foundation of this is connection. It flourishes best when one feels true respect for another person and seeks for their happiness. It can be soul-deep; at some times, incredibly peaceful and comforting; and at others, so strong it hurts.
How to Build the Romance Up
Situational: This is where the author places the couple in as many complex, intense, and intimate situations as it takes to create a legitimate connection. These situations may be in the form of familiar and beloved tropes. This situational manipulation is, I think, the most fun part. 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.)
Once you've set up the situation, you have to let the characters take charge--if you've formed them right, they should have a will of their own that you can "feel." If you try to write your characters as reacting in a way contrary to their nature, you should consciously sense the wrongness. (You may also unconsciously sense it in the form of writer's block.) Hopefully, with enough appropriate experiences, the characters' reactions will lead towards romance as their core natures mesh and balance. (It helps that you do have some control over their physical attraction to each other.)
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 they don't yet know how to manage their feelings and communicate with each other, b) love-hate sniping and sassing used by a couple either to disguise intense emotions or just because that's how they show affection, and c) genuine, intimate dialogue about their feelings and experiences in the vein of a close friendship. These dialogues can be used in conjunction, in progression, or separately, but should code appropriately with the romance type as well as the characters.
Physical Actions: This is the other character reaction subset. Touching is of course a major part, at all the levels: brushing against each other, holding hands, hugging, kissing, and more. Also included here are 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 portraying romance.
In my experience, when you're a beginning writer, it's best to hold the kiss off until the end of the novel. That's the easiest way to build up the tension and create a full and complex romance arc. More advanced writers can learn how to put kissing mid-story while still maintaining tension in the relationship. If the relationship is pre-established, of course, the tension isn't as necessary, and there can be kissing throughout. Stable relationships may not have much of an arc at all. Just remember to stay true to the characters in their physical affection--and keep in mind the importance of consent!
The ideal romance is one between equals who act as partners and take care of each other through every trial. There should be a mixture of commonalities and difference that allow their relationship to have both stability and intrigue. However, many novels aren't meant to portray the ideal romance. You have to know what your plot and your characters require to fulfill their purpose and nature. I do think it's important, regardless of your focus,to promote good values and appropriate messages, i.e. by not justifying sexism and abuse.
Don't shy away from this too much. It's ust another aspect of writing that you can learn to succeed in.
Be aware of the tropes you're using and do your best not to become cliche. There will always be people who love and people who hate any trope, but it's important to allow your individual storytelling focus to shine through. I recommend avoiding love triangles unless you really know what you're doing. In the interest of honesty, they are my least favorite romance trope, because of their wishy-washy nature. However, they're also hard to do without becoming cliche, which is the bigger issue. Good love triangles will a) symbolize a deeper choice the main character has to make and b) make it clear why the character is conflicted about their choice, not only between the deeper issues but also between the actual people.
The only love triangle I really admire is the one in The Hunger Games because Katniss isn't interested in romance/marriage/children for most of the story, which makes her inability to choose understandable. Both Peeta and Gale also have traits and are strongly associated with symbols that reveal the deeper choice Katniss has to make. This decision is not only key to the core message of the series but is also innate to the characters' natures and their relationship dynamics. If you're going to do a love triangle, be like Suzanne Collins!
(BTW, my favorite romance trope is probably the one where the couple sleep in the same bed/room in a nonsexual way. The intimate comfort of those moments really works for me. The Hunger Games did it too!)
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