People don’t usually ask how to write romance. They typically just go ahead and write a scenario where two characters, maybe one dominating and the other insecure, meet, learn about one another, and then, eventually, make love.
If you’ve done that, then congratulations. You know how to write a kiss scene. But that’s not really a story.
Writing a romance story that sticks with a reader requires a little more than the basic elements of romance. What? Are these amorphous blob people without any defining characteristics just gonna mash lips against one another, and that’s it? Nothing beyond that?
I don’t see myself as any master of the craft. But I do have a Masters degree in this field, so I know a thing or two about the sort of things that make a compelling story. So, let’s figure out how to write a romance story.
Browse the romance section of your local book store (or, if they’ve all closed, just open Amazon’s book page). You see that the books are often distinguished by certain iconography. You have your bare-chested cowboys, your bare-chested punk boys, your bare-chested werewolves, and even, if you dig deep enough, your bare-chested Cthulhu creatures.
Or maybe you want to write a really good fanfiction. Well, you have your high school alternate universes, your fluff fics, your hurt-and-comfort stories, coffee shop AUs, and even, maybe, some kinky stuff.
Now, comparing published fiction to fanfiction may seem blasphemous to some, but if we’re learning how to write a romance story, we need to analyze a core element of storytelling: scenario.
Romances are, by nature, categorical. We all have certain fantasies we as readers wish to live vicariously through the characters. Every category has an audience, and romance writers, perhaps more-so than any other genre writer, need to consider the needs and elements of their romantic scenario before even putting a pen to paper.
The scenario and category of our romance informs all elements to follow: characterization, conflict, everything. There are certain expectations audiences will have when reading a western romance as opposed to an urban fantasy one. Remember: you are writing for an audience.
Consider the Setting
Setting, like genre, informs the plot, characters, and conflict of a story. This is especially true in romance. Once you’ve established the general romantic subgenre, you must consider your setting, and how this influences the narrative.
If you’re writing urban fantasy, does your story take place in a city? If so, how does the city life influence the story? Do the characters hit the local dive bars? Get stuck in traffic? Live in a crowded apartment?
Are you writing a romantic western? Are your characters going on the Oregon Trail to find their fortunes? Do they live on the frontier? On a ranch? If so, what brought them there? What difficulties do they encounter in their lives?
All of these factors influence the eventual conflict you will write about. They are essential to pin down before you start considering the conflict, because they will affect how the conflict plays out.
Now we can move onto the final part of this section: the conflict. Again, many might argue that we ought to develop the characters first, but I am of the mindset that all interesting stories derive from conflict. We then need to craft characters that best bring that conflict to the forefront.
In many respects, any scene where a character encounters a problem offers a conflict. Characters come to an issue, and, from there, must make a choice. If a character makes a lot of tough choices, the conflict feels more concrete. Of course, every choice made must lead to something happening. Maybe a few things happening. Not all of them need to be good.
As we have yet to create characters, we cannot map out the entire plot of the story, but, in order to create characters that will be interesting to read, we need to have an idea of the sorts of conflicts these characters will have to overcome to reach their happy endings. Conflict feeds into characterization, and characterization feeds into conflict.
With that in mind, conflict.
Come up with a core issue at the heart of the story. Allow the setting and tropes of your chosen subgenre of romance inform what kind of conflict you encounter.
For example, in a Western romance, perhaps the issue is survival. Can your characters survive on the frontier? How do they choose to confront the elements? Is there a criminal or gang of rogues who have come to town, causing trouble?
For, perhaps, a family romance story, is there some sort of problem going on with the family? Financial burdens? A huge project? A business struggling in hard economic times?
The romance reader is here for the romance, but a good conflict can offer the reader a context through which the romantic tension and climax have meaning. Intertwining the external conflict with the inter-character romance will elevate your story from merely just another harlequin novel to something far better.
And, on that note…
So why can’t your characters get together?
This is something you should keep in mind when creating your leads. Perhaps more than anything else, this is what your readers will remember when they finish the last page. Why aren’t your crazy kids together?
Could it be a matter of status? Is one character rich while the other poor? Is one character engaged to someone else? Perhaps the two characters are in love with one another and openly so, but there’s some other factor that is keeping them from being together?
The beauty of inter-character conflict is that, while the external conflict informs it, it really is a universal idea. Human interaction exists in countless contexts, but, at the end of the day, we tend to behave in similar ways across time, location, and reality. A werewolf and a vampire may have, at their core, the same romantic issues as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Just one has fur.
That’s a start, but, next week, we’ll dive into characterization.