Two attractive people meet. Adventure ensues. They get shot at together. One or both of them shares a moving past experience with the other. Suddenly, it’s love.
Sound similar to the romance in your story? Sorry, it’s also the romantic subplot in pretty much every action movie.
Or maybe yours sounds more like:
Two attractive people meet. One is awkwardly hesitant. One is powerful and forward. They are inexplicably drawn to one another. There are a lot of smoldering gazes and fluttering hearts. It doesn’t matter that they’ve only known each other weeks, days, hours. They know they can’t live without each other.
The problem? You’re just making Cool Whip. The relationships are based on nothing but physical attraction and a few gushy player lines. Corn syrup, oil and air.
You might have done this unintentionally. You might have intended to write something that spoke to the human condition…and watched with horror as the cheesy Jerry Maguire you-complete-me dialogue came oozing out of your fingers. “I’m supposed to be the next Markus Zusak,” you spit at your computer, “Not Stephenie bloody Meyer!”
I know. It’s happened to me.
So here’s the approach I’m taking: Try to forget for the first eight tenths of your book that there even will be a romantic relationship.
Develop the characters individually before you develop their romance.
It might help to think of primetime dramas instead of movies or books—the ones where the two leads are always dancing around a relationship. They work together, struggle together, probably see the best and worst of each other, and still go home alone at the end of the day for years. This means:
- The audience really gets to know the characters.
- The characters really get to know each other.
- You build a ton more tension.
Pretend you’re writing about two people becoming friends.
In literature, as in life, it’s best to build the friendship first. This will force you to stop depending on the cheap thrills of his devastating smile and her million stomach butterflies, and start finding substance on which to build a real relationship, like:
- Values, fears and interests they have in common.
- Things they can teach each other.
- Ways they can grow together.
For some reason, we don’t usually think of these things when we think of romance. Perhaps because most of it’s so cheaply crafted. But a few classics remain shining examples; Pride & Prejudice just celebrated its 200th anniversary.
Sure, it shares elements with a lot of shallow romances: things that appeal to our most basic desires:
- To be singled out by someone selective.
- To be adored and sacrificed for.
- To be protected and provided for.
But it goes much deeper. The heroine and hero of P&P:
- Value each other’s integrity and intelligence.
- Discover their own faults by interacting with each other.
- Become better people from having known each other.
They should fall for each other’s actions, not each other’s words.
There’s little mention of Mr. Darcy’s looks, and no pretty words but one impassioned proposal, which didn’t work for him anyway. It’s Darcy’s actions that win our hearts, from his awkwardness in pursuing Lizzie, to his strength in saving her sister whilst enduring horrible humiliation.
And while Edward Cullen is immortal by way of being undead, Mr. Darcy has been alive and adored for centuries. And, by all accounts, for centuries more.
Aspire to that.