I have been working on a new project for the past couple of months, and as with most of my pieces, the story contains an element of romance. Depending on your personal taste, you might be cringing in anticipation of sentimental dribble and tawdry sex appeal. And yes, romance can be these things (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing!). However, I would hazard to argue that this is a very narrow view of romance. Romance, in my opinion, isn’t just bodice-ripping harlequins or maudlin stories of first love. Romance, at its core, is a genre that stems from Romanticism, a movement in arts and literature that originated in Europe in the late 18th century, emphasizing inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual.
This movement – prompted by the pens of Byron, Keats, and Flaubert among others – shifted the focus of relationships and marriage from one of economic stability and advancement, to one of love. Suddenly, feelings became more important in determining connections than socioeconomic order. When applied to modern literature, I feel that romance is a genre which, broadly speaking, places that very same emphasis on feelings and the relationship between the characters rather than the plot. Being that humans are complex creatures full of contradictions and incongruities, our feelings, and thus our relationships are likewise complex, variable and dynamic, and conveying this complexity is no small feat. It is, in fact, extraordinarily difficult. I say this so that anyone who has not tried to write romance might appreciate the hair-ripping frustrations faced by those of us trying to write good romance.
And this got me thinking…what makes good romance? I’m talking about the kind that makes your heart ache, the kind that makes you weep in despair and stands the test of time. And conversely, what makes romance fall flat? The answer isn’t always obvious. Sometimes the relationship in a story feels forced or the characters are missing that elusive ‘spark’ that makes it feel believable and organic and you don’t even know why, just that it does. Even Hollywood can mess this up. I’ve watched scenes so intense, you’re calling the fire brigade when the actors so much as look at each other. I’ve also watched – through splayed fingers as I cover my face in abject horror – scenes where the chemistry is so flat, paramedics should be called on set to announce a DOA (Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley, anyone?).
So what makes romance believable, and even more importantly, how do you convey it in writing? Here are a few things you can keep in mind to help it along.
Show the characters being vulnerable with each other
Nothing prompts intimacy like sharing vulnerabilities, especially if you have a character who is typically withdrawn and stoic. Having them expose themselves (no, not like that) is a sure-fire way to increase a sense of connection with another character.
Pay attention to eye contact
Direct eye contact is extremely powerful, and has been scientifically proven to produce chemicals in the brain associated with falling in love. Increase the romantic and/or sexual tension in a scene with moments of prolonged eye contact.
Use touch as a secret language
When you are in love, small touches mean significantly more, be it the brush of a hand or the brief grazing of knees. Show the impact these moments have on your characters when you otherwise wouldn’t mention them at all.
Make your characters have a shared interest or goal
In order to make relationships believable, you need to demonstrate why your characters are attracted to each other in the first place, and I don’t mean just physically. Yes, physical attraction is important, but if you want to develop a deep relationship between two people, they have to feel connected in some way mentally and emotionally. Perhaps they are both struggling to overcome similar obstacles (overbearing parents, tyrannical bosses, or, you know, the apocalypse) or have similar pasts. Maybe they both failed to achieve their dreams and can commiserate with each other? It doesn’t even have to be this drastic, especially at first. They could simply both enjoy the same pastime. However, if you are looking to develop a sound long-term relationship, keep in mind that shared values are important.
Have them notice small details about the object of their affection
When you’re in the throws of infatuation, you tend to notice everything about your crush, from how they dressed the first day you saw them, to how they pour milk into their bowl before adding the cereal (an atrocity under normal circumstances, but while you’re drinking the love juice, this comes across as nothing more than an endearing foible). Have your characters notice these small details. This can even be done unconsciously at first. Your protagonist might not even recognize they’re paying such close attention until its brought to their attention, perhaps by a third party or the crush themselves.
Have your characters try to make each others’ lives easier
A touching way to demonstrate affection is to have your character do something for the object of their love in a way makes their life easier. You can call this by the love language it’s commonly known for: ‘acts of service’. For example, have your main character (Character A) take the bus with their love interest (Character B), even though it takes Character A out of their way, just so they can help Character B carry their groceries, or have Character A stay up late helping Character B finish a project that is due the next day. Remember when Noah built Ally a house, complete with a wrap-around porch in The Notebook. Trust me, folks, actions can speak much more loudly than words in these scenarios.