Happy Valentines Day, everyone! In honor of this day of love I asked one of my writer friends to contribute a guest post here related to creating believable romance in fiction. Though she writes for adults, those of us who write YA stories know that romantic love often finds its way into our stories. Many young adults out there are wanting their first romance, wanting to fall in love. So part of writing stories that feel authentic is recognizing the desires of average youth and making sure our stories check out. But that’s enough from me, let’s hear from my friend, who goes by the pen name Elinor Diamond!
In the Spring, the saying goes, a young man’s (or woman’s, with apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson) fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. Well, it’s not quite spring yet – at least, not in Seattle – but as we have come upon Valentine’s Day it seems appropriate to divert writerly attention to the subject of love and romance in fiction. Love can be a tricky topic to cover without coming across as either too straightforward (not romantic enough) or veering in the other direction and slipping into clichés or purple prose. So! In honor of the day of hearts and flowers, let’s take a look at three basic guidelines for writing a romance arc.
Conflict is a basic rule of any fiction writing, and a romance arc is no exception. If your heroes meet, fall madly in love, and ride off into the sunset with no problems whatsoever, you are going to have an extremely short (and pretty boring) story. Good fiction thrives on conflict, and really good fiction establishes the grounds for the conflict early on, before the actual conflict itself even arises. Your characters should be built in such a way that they will naturally clash when you bring them together. Perhaps one is very orderly and the other more of a free spirit. Or perhaps they both have deep beliefs that clash – one thinks the land should be used to rehome refugees, while the other thinks it should be preserved as a nature reserve. Whatever it is, whether internal or external conflict, make sure that this element is an integral part of the character and that it exists before the characters meet. And most importantly of all, don’t make it an easy fix! Your characters should struggle with both internal and external pressures – their own beliefs and self-perceptions, the expectations of their jobs or families or communities, etc. – before they are able to come together with a solution.
Of course, while you’re writing all this conflict, don’t forget that the characters do need to come together at some point. They should have a point of connection, either early on (which then gets buried) or after a turning point in their relationship. The connection should be something significant – a shared value, perhaps, or a backstory reveal that makes one more sympathetic to the other, or even just a strong physical attraction that can develop into something more. Like the conflict, this point of connection must be present in your characters from the very beginning, even if they don’t figure it out until halfway through the book. This is easier to do if you’re writing from a single perspective; you’ll need a very deft touch if you’re writing both sides of the romance so as not to present the connection point as being so obvious that the heroes are idiots for not figuring it out sooner. And speaking of idiots…
Miscommunication is a well-worn trope in romance. True, it has its roots in real life (we’ll go into that later) but too often, it’s used as an Idiot Ball to move story along. I know it’s tempting, but don’t use the Idiot Ball. Do not have your characters fall out over a simple misunderstanding that could be cleared up in about five seconds of talk, because it begs the question of why your heroes are incapable of making that five seconds to talk. A strong relationship involves lots of listening and communication, even if you’re super pissed at the other person for kissing someone else. If your characters flounce off and refuse to speak to each other, how strong is that relationship? And how can your readers believe that these two idiots are ever going to make a go of it?
There are ways that you can do miscommunication, of course, but it requires subtlety and an early set-up and generally, a lot of work. You will need to convince your reader that your hero A has a really solid reason for not listening to hero B; perhaps hero A underwent some pretty serious trauma prior to this relationship that makes it difficult to trust people, or was kidnapped and can’t physically listen to anyone but the villain right now. Perhaps there are complex societal rules à la Pride and Prejudice that prevent these two people from simply sitting down and hashing it out.
For more on this, check out TV Tropes’ Poor Communication Kills. (And then say goodbye to your free time because this site will suck you in. You have been warned.)
Bonus! Reality and fiction
I mentioned this briefly in No. 3 (above), but it’s so important that it bears repeating: just because something happened in real life does not make it a good story. Real life has random happenings and insignificant coincidences and people we might meet only once or twice and never again and messy unsatisfying endings (that aren’t really endings because life keeps going). In fiction, everything is significant. If you name or spend time on a character, your reader will remember that. Random happenings and coincidences are never random; they serve the story and will somehow move the plot or character arcs forward. And endings are invariably neater than real life.
My point is that fiction has rules and expectations which real life does not and likewise, even though people make stupid mistakes in real life all the time (sometimes for apparently no reason, or for a really dumb one), mistakes in fiction have a lot more significance behind them. Everything needs to be motivated, because your readers need to feel like they know your characters better than the characters know themselves. So no – you may not argue that your plot device works because it happens in real life. This is fiction; it has to work in fiction.
Elinor Diamond is a writer, classical musician, and geek aficionada currently dwelling in the Seattle area. “The Man on the Midnight Train” is her fourth story published with SilkWords. When not composing romances, she enjoys writing genre fiction, poetry, and fairy tale retellings.
Check out her blog on writing, cooking, baking and culture at http://www.elinordiamond.com.