I love romance in a novel. I love the depth and conflict it gives to a story and the butterflies I feel when the author gets it just right. It has even gotten to the point where I only tend to pick books up if I know they at least have some kind of romantic subplot.
However, not all romance is created equally. Despite its prevalence in books, romance that a reader can really get behind, or ‘ship’, is actually very hard to write. There are so many layers and nuances to creating a fictional relationship that people will love, and there are so many ways you can get it wrong.
In this article I want to first cover all the things you shouldn’t do when writing romance. Then I want to give you a blueprint for writing a successful romantic plot or subplot. By the end of this article, my hope is that you feel confident writing romance that even Maas or Armentrout would be proud of.
Don’t throw romance in there for the sake of it.
Ok so I know I just said that I only like to read books with some sort of romance thread in there, but I am just one reader. Often a bad romantic thread can be more damaging than one at all (even for me that loves it). Not every story needs romance and sometimes it can actually take away from the story’s impact. So take a long look at your novel and decide whether romance is really necessary and whether it adds to the story overall.
Don’t promote abusive partnerships
I have read a lot of romance books in my time that take harmful and abusive relationship behaviours and romanticise them. We have a duty to readers everywhere, especially our younger and more impressionable ones, to portray healthy and equal relationships. Controlling, possessive behaviour masquerading as ‘love’ just doesn’t cut it, neither does violence nor physical abuse dressed up as ‘passion’ – this goes for women being violent to men as well – domestic abuse against men is a real and important issue.
As a reader, I want to see characters that are kind and respectful to each other and empower their partner – the relationships we would want our daughters and sons to strive for.
Don’t portray just one type of love
In the world around us, love comes in all shapes and sizes. Make sure that your story also reflects this. Readers want more than a portrayal of one type of love. We want to see our own love reflected in the pages of the books we read. In the same way that diversity of character is important, so is the diversity of relationships. Write the entire spectrum of romance and watch your readers fall in love with them all.
Don’t make the love interest just a plot device
Please give your love interest more than just rock hard abs, an intense brooding stare and a tortured past or a heaving bosom, gentle nature and tiny waist, please. Now I know I was really generalising with utterly awful stereotypes there, but you would be surprised by how many times I have read a romance novel and the love interest has nothing more than those three traits. Readers want, no we need, well-rounded love interests that are characters in their own right. They need a full and varied backstory, they need an arc and they need to feel like they can exist off the page without the protagonist. If you miss this, then you take away the depth from the romance and the impact your love story will have on the reader.
Don’t resort to kissing to show they are in love
The age-old adage is that if they have to kiss to fall in love, then you aren’t doing it right. There are several non-verbal cues you can write to show your characters are falling in love, such as:
- butterflies in the stomach
- lingering gazes
- subtle smiles
- breathless speech
- brighten up when they’re around each other
- maybe some jealousy or heartache
Do use tropes
Many writers fear using tropes, they often feel that they will make their stories predictable or boring. In romance, tropes are necessary and they are loved by readers everywhere. I for one, LOVE tropes. It is how I know I will love a story. For example, if a book is marketed as enemies to lovers fantasy story with arranged marriage, I will buy it instantly. Tropes let me know it is a story that I will enjoy. Conversely, if it is friends to lovers story with a love triangle, then I’m less likely to buy, and that is ok because there is less chance of me reading a book I will not like and potentially leaving a critical review. Tropes help manage the readers’ expectations and ensure that the right readers are reading your book.
Some popular romance tropes:
- Enemies to Lovers
- Friends to Lovers
- Forbidden Love
- Soul Mates
- Second Chance Romance
- Fake Relationship
- Stuck Together (sometimes arranged marriage)
- Secret Billionaire
- Love Triangle
Do make it believable
It goes without saying that the more believable the romance, the more likely your readers will get behind it. Here is a useful list for writing believable romance:
- It is based on shared experiences
- It is built on mutual respect & trust
- It develops naturally
- They care for each other
- They have differing opinions but also respect the other’s point of view
- They are supportive of each other’s goals
- You show the ups and downs
- You show them working problems out together
Remember to match your protagonists up with someone that makes sense for them. People tend to fall in love with people who are opposite to themselves, people they admire or people with similar traits or are broken in the same way.
Do develop the romance at a natural pace
For most, romance at a ‘natural pace’ will be a slow burn. This is also what seems to be favoured by readers. When a romance develops at a slower pace, it allows for a buildup of tension between the characters. By making them work for, and earn, their love from each other, it makes the conclusion even more satisfying.
Make sure that sparks fly when they meet and then introduce a situation for them to have to work together so that you have a reason for those sparks to develop into a lasting relationship. Most importantly, leave breadcrumbs out for the reader to follow as the relationship blossoms. That way the romance seems to develop over time and at a natural pace.
Do use beats to plot out your romance
Many of us will be familiar with Save the Cat or The Hero’s Journey where you have a specific set of beats to plan out your story. Luckily, there is a set of romance specific beats. Even if your romance is just a subplot, I would still recommend you follow these beats below. Not only does it help with the pacing of the romance, but it will also ensure that you are hitting all the key elements of a ‘shippable’ romance.
The Romance Beats by Gwen Hayes (4 Act Structure)
- Phase 1: Set up
- Introduce protag 1 & protage 2
- Meet Cute
- No Way (reasons for not being together)
- Adhesion (the two are pushed together by circumstance)
- Phase 2: Falling in Love
- No Way (for the second time)
- Inkling of Desire
- Deepening Desire
- Maybe This Could Work
- Midpoint of Love (usually something wonderfully romantic has happened – a kiss, an amazing night together, etc.)
- Phase 3: Retreating from Love
- Inkling of Doubt
- Deepening Doubt
- Shields Up
- Break Up
- Phase 4: Fighting for Love
- Dark Night
- Wake Up (and realise what they have lost)
- Grand Gesture
- What Whole Hearted Looks Like (happy ending)
Gwen offers a free beats sheet on her website – click here for more.
What do you think is needed for a successful love story? Comment below or tell us on Instagram.