Romantic Subplots: Tips and Tricks

This month’s Writing with Rae is all about romance. While some of these pieces of advice apply to romance novels and subplots alike, we will focus primarily on romantic subplots within a novel of a different genre or mixed genre.

But before we dive any further, let’s discuss some of ISSUES IN ROMANCE that drive many readers crazy.

Lust at first sight happens, but characters who fall in love instantly is not realistic. Nor is it believable when characters fall in love after their first kiss or first sexual encounter.

Lovers can be assertive without being abusive. If a character says, “no,” and the other character forces him or herself, it’s rape. So many writers attempt to use this behavior to paint a “bad boy” image, when in fact these characters are abusers. Please stop trying to redeem abusers through love. It ain’t gonna happen.

And while we’re at it:  control and insane jealousy are frightening and dangerous, not romantic.

The most unrealistic trope, in my humble opinion, is the Adonis falling head-over-heels in love with the Ugly Duckling. I understand the appeal this can have, but most of the time the Ugly Duckling character is portrayed with extremely low self-esteem and only through the love of the hottest guy/girl in town can he or she realize their self-worth. Right. Okay.

Love triangles suck. How many love triangles have you experienced in your lifetime? Hmm? Can the real Slim Shade please stand up? Stringing two girls or two guys along through an entire subplot frustrates readers and takes your MC’s likability meter down several notches.  

One of my Twitter follows questioned this stance on love triangles, using Pride and Prejudice, The Hunger Games, and The Notebook as examples of successful love triangles. It’s important to note however that in these examples, the main character was not “stringing” two love interests along throughout the story. In the examples of Pride and Prejudice and The Notebook, circumstances kept the main character from being with their chosen romantic partner. The main character isn’t “torn between two lovers,” their situation has torn them apart from each other. In The Hunger Games, Katniss would certainly have gone on to have a romantic relationship with Gale had circumstances not bring her life as she knew it to a screeching halt. The time she spent between the two love interests was due to two things: 1) her desire to hang on to her own identity 2) her romantic relationship with Peeta began as a ruse. With that said, I still feel my point is upheld–Katniss did become a bit more unlikable in the love triangle situation.

What are some of the expectations readers have when it comes to romantic subplots?

READER’S EXPECT a romance to involve the relationship and love between characters. In romance novels, the story has a happy ending for the characters involved. Otherwise, it’s not a romance. When it comes to romantic subplots, the same principal applies, but there is more flexibility; subplots revolve around and are affected by the main plot, and that main plot is not romance.

Romance centers on love, not lust. It should not be confused with the erotica genre, which focuses primarily on the sex of the relationship. Romance does not require sex.

Romantic subplots include consensual characters engaging in a relationship of equality, respect, and love. They care about one another and value each other. They do not demean the other’s feelings and do not pass judgment.

This does not mean that your characters cannot or will not fight. Even healthy couples fight. But if you are including tactics such as physical harm, name-calling or verbal abuse, gaslighting, or manipulation within the fight, you are not writing a romantic subplot. You are writing a dysfunctional relationship that includes deal-breakers.

That’s not to say characters can’t make mistakes. Many people say things they don’t mean to their significant other. Most people have had moments of despicable behavior. The difference in a romance is how the relationship is mended. Does the character admit his or her mistake and take full ownership? Does their apology express remorse and does their behavior change in a way that warrants forgiveness? Does the character grow from this experience and make all efforts to not repeat their mistake?

Readers expect characters involved in a romantic subplot to be happy. This includes the ability and desire to communicate with one another. Don’t frustrate your reader with lengthy silent treatments or ridiculous plagues of miscommunication. 

We’ve examined lots of DON’Ts, so now let’s discuss some DOs. How can writers create realistic attraction between two romantic characters?

First thing’s first. Writers need multi-dimensional characters. They should be flawed, not perfect (this includes physically appearance too). I know it ruins the fantasy, but at least it’s real. Stop focusing on what is right about the romantic love interest, and consider instead what is wrong.

Writers should think about how the characters in a romantic subplot complement each other. A more timid character may not like the stubbornness of the other character, but can still admire that character’s determination when it comes to fighting for what is right. A character prone to anger may feel calmed by the other character’s ability to keep their head in stressful situations.

Find ways throughout the subplot where characters can be vulnerable with each other. Give them opportunities to build trust and experiences in which they can connect.  It is in these raw moments where the reader witnesses the relationship blossom. Discovering a person who appreciates you without judgment is something to be cherished. Make this happen and your readers will root for these romantic love interests with everything they have.

What are other ways writers can create BELIEVABLE ROMANCE within their subplot?

When introducing two characters who are intended love interests, it’s important writers allow the readers time to get to know each character. Readers want to invest in the relationship, so if you give it all from the start, not only is the romance presented falsely, but readers no longer have a reason to care.  Allow time for expectancy. Provide opportunities for the love interests to get to know each other; it’s how your reader will learn these two belong together.

With that said, realize slow burns that last too long may not succeed in leaving your reader on fire for the romance. Slow burns that go on forever are usually victims of miscommunication, which most readers find extremely frustrating. Slow burns are fine, as long as there’s a purpose.

One trope often used is that opposites attract. And sometimes this is true, BUT these subplots do not always ring true for several reasons. Often times the differences are there to create conflict between the characters, but conflict does not create attraction. Instead, writers should examine the character arcs to find ways in which these differences can lead to experiences where personal growth occurs.

Another way writers create believable romance is to keep the characters evenly matched. Many times we read about couples on opposite sides of the spectrum, and the character with more to offer has no reason to find the other attractive. Seriously. How many times do we see this in real life? I’m not saying the prince can’t fall for the pauper, but that pauper better have something to complement the prince. We need reason for the prince to find the pauper attractive. There must be a common ground where the characters can meet and bond. They must build a source of support for the each other if they are to be in a romantic relationship.

Lastly, if you want a believable romance your characters better darn well like each other. There must be more to their relationship besides conflict and miscommunication. Readers expect romance. The love interests should make each other happy, not miserable.

Let’s discuss some tips for kissing scenes.

Kissing scenes in novels require description, but many times writers make the details technical and sterile. Like fight scenes, readers are lost when play-by-plays diminish the visceral quality.

Instead, use the senses to describe the kiss: the feel of the lips, the sound and/or smell of the breath, the taste of the mouth, etc. Instead of describing the each move the body makes, writers should focus on how the body reacts. Does his heart begin to race? Do goosebumps spread across her neck? Does he begin to perspire? Is her breath warm? Do her cheeks burn?

More importantly, readers are interested in how the characters are feeling. What emotions are bubbling within? Are they nervous? Calm? Terrified? You should also include how the feelings shift throughout the scene. Does anxiety turn to calm when the kissing partner returns his or her affection with fervor? 

Now let’s channel  Salt-N-Pepa and talk about sex, baby.

First, please, for the love of romance get your facts straight. If you have not had sex, a certain type of sex, or understand how bodies react and work…ASK SOMEONE WHO KNOWS. Things like reaching orgasm simultaneously are rare, so writing about it for each sex scene won’t fool many readers. If you are a male writing from a female’s perspective—please talk to a female for accurate information.

Second, let me reiterate that romance does not require sex. Nor are you required to write a sex scene in your romantic subplot. Don’t feel pressured to do so. You can also do what is called a “fade to  black” or “offstage” sex scene that is understood or referenced to  within the story, but not described. It’s perfectly acceptable. This is a romantic subplot, NOT a romance novel.

If you have taken the advice from the week’s #WritingwithRae you will have a believable romance no matter if a sex scene is present or not. If you do want to include a sex scene, be sure it has a purpose beyond the characters hooking up.

Sex scenes in novels landing in the YA category should focus more on the emotions, not the body. Children do not need graphic descriptions or confusing metaphors. Most adult novels with romantic subplots should include sex scenes that focuses on both the body and the emotion. This will come across as realistic for your readers.

Do you know what kind of sex scenes do not feel genuine? Painful virgin sex, sex on the beach, sex against a wall, sex in a tub or shower. In reality, these things are usually not sexy, accurate, and just plain awkward.

Do you know what kind of sex scenes do feel genuine? Ones that include birth control. Scenes where the characters declare mutual consent. Timid first sexual encounters. Sex on a bed! A BED, for the love of romance!

Congratulations! You now know all about creating ROMANTIC SUBPLOTS in your novel. For an additional resource in writing romance subplots, my wonderful CP, Brittany Kelley, a romance author, suggested the resource ROMANCING THE BEAT by Gwen Hayes.

I appreciate you being a part of Writing with Rae this month.  You can follow me on Twitter or Instagram @RaeHardingbooks to receive notice of upcoming #WritingwithRae posts!

If you would like to learn about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments!

See you next month!

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