Notes on writing romance

I initially wrote a shorter version of this for my AMM mentee while we were discussing playing up a romantic subplot for her YA science fantasy book (aka I successfully convinced her to make the hot grumpy ship captain with the mysterious backstory the sapphic love interest). After revisiting it while discussing writing romance with another friend, I thought it had some good points and that I might as well put it out, in case it’s helpful to anyone thinking about romantic subplots, or just breaking down how romantic subplots intertwine effectively with other plots. I would turn it into a thread, but I’m really bad at condensing things into threads and I prefer longform anyway :’)

A disclaimer that this was mainly written with my mentee’s book in mind, and what made romances compelling to me specifically! While I hope a lot of it is broadly applicable, it’s not meant to be prescriptive or dictate that romances/relationships in books HAVE to fulfill ALL these criteria, especially taking into account some fluctuations between genres or what you intend the romance to achieve for the story. 

Another thing to note is that this entire post is coming purely from a craft/narrative/reader response standpoint, and isn’t about actually crafting romantic beats or creating romantic chemistry. With Hannah’s permission, I’ve included some of the examples I originally used, as well as made up a fake YA fantasy to help illustrate the point.

The main question I was turning over: what makes a compelling romance?

“Exactly what each other needs”

When the two characters help supplement what the other is lacking, help fulfil their need, and actively benefit from or challenge each other to grow. The “unfulfilled need” is a common foundation for building a character arc, the thing/trait they (think they) have to develop or chase through the course of the story. You obviously need a plot mechanic for these two characters to be frequently interacting (fake dating, she has the information he needs, they must work together to get out alive, etc). But this is more on a character level, the thing that will make people stamp SOULMATISM on their foreheads: of all the other characters in the book, what does this one character specifically give the MC that no one else can/does? How does this one character uniquely see/understand the MC? How does this one character have exactly the piece of their heart/soul/confidence/top triangle on Maslow’s pyramid that the MC is lacking? 

And, of course, vice versa. The most compelling romances are when they complete each other. When it feels like, out of all the people in this (fictional) world, somehow they were drawn into the exact right circumstances to meet the exact right person they needed to meet. The best romances transcend feeling like they were constructed by the plot and instead feel like the narrative is simply transcribing an incidence of fate. This is the reason why fire/water, dark/light pairings are so poignant: they are both what each other lacks, and despite their seeming essential differences, they manage to come together.

They have chemistry

Obviously. My favourite description of chemistry is from Jen (the inimitable @mouthyjen), who calls it “how two people share intimate space”. Chemistry doesn’t have to be physical attraction (it rarely is) or banter–it doesn’t even have to be romantic, obviously, although that’s what we’re focusing on here. Not to overuse the adage, but there’s a lot of showing not telling involved here, I think; it’s not enough to say the characters are a perfect fit for each other, you have to show them playing off each other naturally, turning the space and energy between them symbiotic.

The relationship expands our understanding of the world

In a way, this is a worldbuilding hack: “the character has access to information the MC can’t get otherwise” is a generally good reason to introduce a character or POV. For a romance, if your MC is entering Royal Deadly Quest with Witch Assassins, then having the love interest be Neighbour Number One from Hometownsville isn’t only kind of more boring, but will probably hold the story back, unless Neighbour Number One is also involved in the Deadly Quest. On the other hand, the MC spending time with Broody Witch Assassin who’s got a complicated relationship with the hierarchy of Witch Assassins and the inequality of the Deadly Quest gives you an inroad into exploring these systems, their politics, their history, and their effects on the citizens in greater depth. It could also be that the MC’s people aren’t supposed to have dalliances with Witch Assassins, and that also gives you another avenue to worldbuild (as well as create tension!) 

They both have strong motivations and are dynamic characters who parallel and/or intertwine with each other

Falling in love with a flat character is boring! I think an important part of what makes a compelling romance is that the reader understands why the MC is attracted to the LI (and even falls a little bit in love with the LI themselves), and for that to happen, the LI has to be a fully-realised character, who’s just as interesting as the MC.

Once you have fully-realised characters: How do these characters impact each other’s journeys? They both have their own histories and goals—how does meeting each other benefit or impede their pursuit of these goals? You want romance to complement and ADD to the forward momentum and character growth. It’s about whether it’s narratively necessary—if I can imagine the plot/character arc proceeding the same way without this relationship, it’s probably taking up real estate we can’t afford to give away. Having their goals intertwine or be at odds also creates a more dynamic relationship and creates natural tension and chances for inter/action.

In our AMM discussion, we were weighing between the MC’s best friend from her adopted home, or the ship captain from the MC’s birth country who takes her onto her crew, helps her accept her identity, and helps her unlock her magic. IRL, of course it’s totally plausible that the MC might get together with her best friend anyway, but for fiction it’s not just about “I want these two characters to be together”—it’s what the relationship adds to the story, how its development and formation impacts the plot/character arc. X pairing could be plausible, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most compelling choice on a craft/narrative level. 

(It’s fine if not every character has a plot-driving agenda—that would be too overwhelming—but it makes them a lot less interesting and dynamic than the characters who do. I wrote originally: [BFF] supports her and complements her, but [Ship Captain] actively teaches her things, and teaches her more about herself, and that’s such a hallmark of an interesting, fulfilling pairing: they learn and grow and reach the end of their character arc because of each other.)

Enhances the premise, not distracts from it

I’ve seen this in a few manuscripts, and it’s more about plotting, sustaining momentum and delivering promises. Obviously, one, you want the romance to be directly tied to the main plot. Two, if your character has motives that aren’t about the romance (which most do), then the romance and romantic beats should tie into the progression of that goal (the LI could even be directly antagonistic to what the MC initially wants, and help them discover a new goal–but in most cases, the LI should never become the goal). 

Say the MC joins the Deadly Quest because they want to find a Witch Assassin that killed their family. They’re obsessed with finding this one assassin. Great. We are Invested. There’s tension and stakes because the MC has to impersonate someone in order to join the Quest and they’re afraid of being found out. But then they meet Hot Witch Assassin, and all investigation goes out the window. We see their growing relationship as they try to survive the quest Together. Then randomly at the critical point we remember that the initial motive exists and throw in a discovery (the MC learns the king killed their family and now they’re determined to survive the quest to get to the prize ceremony and kill the king. When they confront the king it’s revealed the Hot Assassin was involved in the murder too.) 

That ties up your loose ends, and the relationship is satisfying in retrospect because of the betrayal, but it makes the climax less satisfying without buildup and makes the middle frustrating, if the reader is wondering “When is MC going to quit yearning and staring at cheekbones and get around to finding out who killed their family like they kept going on about in the start?” 

HOWEVER, if the entire squad gets blitzed, leaving MC and Hot Assassin the only survivors who must now depend on each other to survive, escape their pursuers and get revenge on the orchestrator (the same person who killed MC’s family, obviously) – then the relationship suddenly plays a vital, active role in the MC achieving their goals. Also then you get to explore parallels on the death of MC’s family, killing the Quest Squad (who, let’s say, are made out of indentures), the tyranny of the royal family treating low class lives expendably, etc etc, you see where I’m going with this in terms of tying things together. The relationship should enhance the larger conflict or themes.

This works for any genre, really. If your premise is them coming together to compete in a baking contest, don’t toss out the momentum and stakes of the contest itself to focus on cute relationship moments–the two should build on each other. Story pieces should be like cogs: one thing turns, so does another.

Could only have happened if the MC took the plunge

Yes, there are other story structures and perceptions of character agency, particularly for BIPOC stories. But for these purposes, a book feels watertight and carefully constructed to me when all elements feel necessary. This relationship couldn’t have happened if this plot was any other way or the MC hadn’t entered the fray. This plot couldn’t have happened if this relationship was any other way. It’s powerful when the two feel inextricable. Again, that sense of fate, and that every piece of the story is deliberate for the larger narrative.  

Sometimes it’s also something like, “what’s the point of the Witch Assassin World if the MC is just stuck on Neighbour Number One from Hometownsville the whole time?” Pre-established relationships can be more compelling sometimes, like when it’s them against the world, or when the point is for the MC to realise what they needed was their roots all along. But when you want the MC to build a new found family, integrate into this new world, or grow beyond the restraints of their origin, having their main developing relationship be with their original best friend takes impact and page space from that, because it’s expanding inward rather than outward. (Re: “expanding the world”) For example, Clary/Jace and Alina/Darkling (even Katniss/Peeta) get developed as romances first as the protagonists enter their new worlds, while Simon/Mal(/Gale) are brought back in to create conflict only once they’re settled. 

Finally,

I’ve always felt that the strongest romances come from letting the characters develop naturally into a compelling archetype rather than building around a trope. I feel like, especially in this era of trope marketing, it’s important to hone in on why and how those tropes became popular in the first place, and focusing on achieving that same level of natural emotional and narrative satisfaction rather than relying on the label to make something interesting. This isn’t a knock on tropes–it’s a fun, effective way to pitch to Gen Z especially, using a familiar shorthand, and is great for the medium of TikTok/Twitter. But I think there’s been increasing discussion about trope pitching at the expense of good execution (or even misleading marketing–please stop pitching Poppy War as enemies to lovers opposites romance I am begging) and so it feels important to emphasise building toward the popular trope, not backwards from it.

TLDR

Why this pairing specifically? What does them coming together as a pair add to the narrative or themes/how does it complement them? How does it impact the characters’ goals and the overall plot? How does it deepen the reader’s understanding and experience of this world?

Final note

And if you happen to already have a character that checks all those boxes (hi Hannah), but for some reason are not the love interest, then you’re just setting the other love interest up for failure, tbh. 

That is NOT to say that only romantic interests can have this kind of depth or narrative relationship with the protagonist, OR that books must have a romance to be compelling. I think these points can be relevant whether the romance is straight/queer/allo/ace, or even if it’s about a significant non-romantic relationship. But these identities and experiences will ultimately shape the nature of the relationship and how it’s paced–see Lilly (and Ann’s) thread about writing acespec stories and romances

Bonus content

I’ve gotten invested in Deadly Quest over the course of this post, so here’s a fake pitch, in case that’s helpful for structuring, lmao:

Every winter, seventeen-year-old Jen Elilly’s village is upended by Royal Witch Assassins on a rampage in the name of their king’s glorious Deadly Quest. They leave wreckage and take anything they desire–including, two years ago, the lives of Jen’s entire family. [set-up] 

To find out why they died, Jen infiltrates the Quest. She will pose as an Assassin, find out who killed them, and get her revenge. It’s a stupid plan, one that might get her killed as well, but it’s not like she has anything left to lose. [starting point and goal] Then a surprise attack kills the entire Quest Squad on the second night, leaving Jen fleeing for her life with the only other survivor: Naomi, the contemptuous, hotheaded Assassin that nearly saw through Jen’s ruse the moment they met. [inciting incident + introducing LI] Now, the only thing helping them survive the perilous Quest Track and outrun their pursuers is each other. [increasing stakes]

As they make it further and further down the Track, however, they discover terrible skeletons buried beneath its glory. Jen begins to suspect Naomi had her own reasons for joining the Quest that involve the secrets the organisers have tried to erase, including the seemingly random massacre of Jen’s family. [intertwining the two characters with the plot and each other] But the secrets of the Quest go all the way to the Crown, and the Crown has razed entire villages to keep them–it will not balk at adding two girls to the graves. [overall stakes + hint at overall plot] 

COURSE OF GRAVES is a sapphic YA fantasy complete at 90,000 words that would appeal to fans of [comps].   

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