Romance continues to dominate the book publishing market, depending on which figures you look at. We’re all obsessed with love; finding it, losing it, keeping it, living without it. But how do you write about it? First, we have to differentiate between a love story and a romance. A love story doesn’t necessarily end happily, unlike a romance, which is all weddings and happy ever after by the end. When it comes to love stories, just think Romeo and Juliet or Cathy and Heathcliff. Both end in a whole heap of death and unhappiness, which isn’t very romantic, but they still remain two of the most enduring stories of tragic love.
Then there’s your High Romance (HR), as I like to call it, which comprises Mills and Boon, Harlequin and other publishers of formulaic bodice-rippers. The best place to find tips on that sort of stuff is the publisher’s website, they normally have strict guidelines.
Don’t worry, there is a middle ground between love and death and hearts and flowers. Romantic fiction is best exemplified by Jane Austen and especially Pride and Prejudice. Obviously, Austen was more than just a writer of romance, she was also a social commentator and literary wit, but her romantic formulas are still being used today. Bridget Jones’s Diary is simply Pride and Prejudice for a modern audience. Maybe you’re not writing a romance novel, but you just want a romantic subplot – imagine Star Wars without Leia and Han. So how do you craft a great romance story? It just so happens, I have some tips to help you on your way.
1. Our plucky heroine
The best romantic heroines aren’t sappy pushovers. Look at Jane in Pride and Prejudice – she’s strong, independent, won’t be taken for a fool and all in an empire line dress and bonnet. Enter modern day and we have Bridget, the hapless disaster area or sassy, fashion forward Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City, out to get her Mr Big, but also out to have a successful career and strong friendships along the way. Our heroine must make mistakes, but nothing that makes the reader stop rooting for her.
2. Our hero
If we were in HR land, the heroic love interest would be tall, dark and handsome. He’d be a doctor, a sheikh or a racing driver or something and may need his heart thawed by the love of a good woman. In your standard romance, the hero may be those things, but it’s better if he’s a bit more down to earth. These days, the romantic hero doesn’t have to be rich, handsome and a bit of a jerk. He does need a flaw, whether it’s pride (as in Mr Darcy), a lack of commitment, until he finds out what he wants or in a romantic comedy, he may think he’s in love with our heroine’s sister or best friend. The reader must fall in love with the, strong, manly hero and the idea of him getting together with our heroine.
3. Will they won’t they?
All good stories have an element of suspense, otherwise we wouldn’t bother reading them. Romance novels need to keep the reader wondering if the couple will ever get together and this means adding conflict. Whether it’s external conflict, such as they live on different sides of a wall dividing a city in a distopian future setting. Or social conflict – they come from different gangs (see Romeo and Juliet) or their parents don’t approve because she’s poor and he’s rich or black and white. Or maybe if they get together, someone else will get hurt. Love triangles can also help add to the suspense. Whatever the conflict is, make it good and pile it on to keep the reader guessing.
4. A good pinch of sexual tension
Your hero and heroine should meet in chapter one and the sparks must fly from the very first scene. There must be a frisson between our couple. The first Twilight novel achieves this very well – the energy between Bella and Edward crackles and we feel every moment, even when their little fingers touch for the first time, across a school desk. Of course they pull away from each other and try to act as if nothing happened. The push and pull of emotions is how you build the tension. Think of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, in The Great Gatsby, meeting for the first time in years and struggling to express themselves. In short, ramp up the tension, until your readers can take no more.
5. From first kiss to sex
With your sexual tension building, the only release is to have that moment when our couple kiss for the first time. Slow the action down, ensure your heroine’s heart is pounding, she’s slightly breathless and notices a small detail, as our hero moves in. Then use all the senses to make your reader live the moment. Keep the first kiss brief and leave the readers wanting more. Sex is optional, but even YA novels seem to go there these days. I’d still say less is more and resist the purple prose trap with things like “we rose and fell like the ocean, waves of ecstasy crashing on the shore”. You want to make your readers gasp with pleasure, not snort with laughter.
6. The happily ever after
By the end of the story, our couple should have overcome all the hurdles, made personal discoveries and come to realise that they must be together. There should be a sense of moving forward, whether it’s a wedding or moving in together or some other symbolic gesture that suggests a happy future. Some romances don’t end with the couple together, think Gone with the Wind and the film 500 Days of Summer. In both cases, the protagonist has grown and there’s a feeling of optimism, even though it didn’t work out with the love interest of that story.