I want to start this post with a quick comment on romantic tension.
When I look up posts about writing romantic tension, I see a lot of talk about tropes and technical definitions, but not much about where tension actually comes from or how to write it.
It’s fine to use tropes like miscommunication, having an outside force stop them from getting together, and personal conflict as a barrier. But none of these things actually create that tension that engages your audience. These are symptoms, not the source.
No matter what tropes you use, the fundamentals of an engaging relationship stay the same. And that’s what this post is about. This is what goes into creating that tension that can be used in various different tropes and stories, and what will hook your reader from start to finish.
Let’s talk about cardboard, spark, and chemistry.
Cardboard Characters Will Only Fall Apart
Step One™ of writing an engaging romance is to have well-rounded characters.
If your reader doesn’t care about the characters as individuals, the romance will be one-dimensional and hard to connect with. I recently read a contemporary with so little characterization that I couldn’t engage with the mc or her girlfriend on any level. I wasn’t invested in them as individuals, and it left me wondering why I cared when they got together in the end.
Flaws, backstories, motivations, and goals are incredibly important. We, the readers, need a reason to care about the characters as individuals before we care about them as a couple.
And this characterization needs to continue even after your characters have gotten together. All too often I see the love interest’s character arc flatline after the romantic arc is complete. You don’t want your character doesn’t become a cardboard cutout by the end of the book.
For example, Percy and Annabeth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians ) are are a beloved couple, but also whole characters in their own right. Percy is a sassy, lovable, loyal, action-based protagonist, while Annabeth is a smart, strategic, think-it-through-first co-protagonist. People relate to them as individuals, and love them together because of it.
And it’s significant that by the eighth book, Percy and Annabeth still have flaws and independent arcs to work through. They continue to grow as characters, while also being together and leaning on each other for support when needed. Keeping this kind of independence is incredibly important in their characterization.
CHARACTERIZATION QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF:
+ Are your characters – particularly your love interest – still making independent decisions based on their core character?
+ Do your characters have a life goal, beyond the current situation? (i.e. they want live in a certain place, achieve a career goal, live happily ever after, etc. Not just defeat The Current Bad Guy™)
+ Do your characters have varying likes, dislikes, and interests? Favorite color, smell, weather, etc. are very basic examples that can work across any genre.
+ What is their backstory? Do they have anything going on outside of the main plot?
+ Do your characters ever disagree on anything? Possibly moral or ethical decisions?
+ Does your love interest still have independent scenes? Or do they only come up when it’s relevant to the MC?
The Compelling Spark
Sometimes I find myself reading a book with excellent characterization, but I’m just not invested in the romantic subplot.
I have to ask myself why I’m not engaged if they’re characterized really well. If I love their individuality, why wouldn’t I like them together? This truth is, it always boils down to asking one question: why do these characters like each other? And in every one of these situation, I don’t have an answer.
If your romance is based in the fact that they’re around the same age and in the same story, then any amount of characterization isn’t going to help you creating an engaging relationship.
When I say “spark” I’m referring to the thing that attracted the love interest in the first place. Maybe it was a personality trait they admire. Something that the love interest wished they had, or another person they love has. Tenacity, bravery, or kindness are always great ones. Maybe it was just that they were attractive (though there needs to be more behind this, which we’ll talk about in the next section).
Whatever it is, it’s important that you, the author, know so that your reader can know. It doesn’t need to be explicitly stated, but by knowing what it is you can add it in the subtext (which can sometimes be better than just telling the reader outright).
Sometimes it doesn’t need to be written down at all. Sometimes you can see it in a lingering look after the MC does something incredible, different, or shows one of the traits that the love interest admires. Many authors add this towards the end, in a confession of love during the climax of the book.
And let’s be honest, who doesn’t love those scenes?
For an example of a lack of a spark, let’s look at Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo:
You can tell us that Mal and Alina have been friends their whole life, and that they’re super close, but it’s hard to connect to that unless we’re shown that closeness between them. In the entire series, we’re never shown that spark of why Mal likes Alina, or why Alina likes Mal. But we’re told that they’ve got a connection because they’ve been friends forever.
Being told that two characters are close is never the same as being shown it. What’s “on-screen” is the most important part.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF IF YOUR ROMANCE IS STRUGGLING:
+ What did the love interest* like about my MC in the first place? Maybe it’s their kindness or tenacity? Maybe they just thought they were pretty.
+ And why is this characteristic something that your love interest is attracted to? Is it a trait that they lack? Or maybe it reminds them of someone else that they love?
+ Why does the love interest still like your MC?
*Of course, You can use love interest and MC interchangeably in these questions.
These questions are not ones that need to be answered in your novel, but you as the author should know. These are questions that would influence how the character acts and reacts in situations.
After you have that spark, what happens next?
The initial attraction is there, but now it’s time to have fun. This where you can add any tropes that you like – instalove, forced to share one bed, etc. Go for it! Add whatever makes you happy. And yes, this does include physical displays of affection, if you so chose. But it also includes emotional bonding, which is arguably the most important part.
Though it’s a lot of fun, it’s equally as important as the other points. There has to be something more behind the spark. Either these characters will grow together or they’ll grow apart, but either way this arc needs to be handled with the same amount of care.
What differences do they have? What similarities? Are they the type of couple to have witty banter? Is one character really closed off and personal? Is one a cinnamon roll? It depends on the characters, of course, but this is typically where you get vulnerable with you MC and love interest. It’s an excellent chance to both develop your MC’s character arc, as well as advance the romantic subplot in one go.
Remember the first two sections of this post when writing these interactions. Nothing brings a scene to a grinding halt more than out-of-character action or dialogue. I find it helpful to know a character’s love language when writing these scenes. It adds just another layer of characterization, and can be a lot of fun to play with.
When writing these scenes, it’s incredibly important to remember to show, not tell.
I often see chemistry being told instead of shown, particularly in the case of childhood friends (Mal and Alina could be placed here as well). The banter, the inside jokes, the fondness that comes from knowing someone forever- it needs to be shown, or you’ve lost that emotional impact.
In conclusion, romantic tension comes from these three points. No single trope creates tension, and no trope is better than another (I saw a lot of posts saying not to use certain tropes, but I encourage you to write what makes you happy!). And finally, if you find you’re having trouble with your tension, go back and address the problems in the order given in the post. You can’t fix chemistry without fixing the spark, and you can’t fix the spark without fixing the characterization. They all play into each other with equal importance. Like a Triforce triangle.
Who is your favorite fictional couple?
I have many favorites, but I’ve always loved Percy and Annabeth (Percy Jackson & the Olympians). Any of The Lunar Chronicles ships (particularly Cress and Thorne), and C.J. Redwine always write fairytale romances that I adore!
And finally, yes I did write this post while listening to Hozier. I don’t think there’s any other way to write about romance.
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