Romance writing tips
Before you begin writing page 1 of your romance novel, here is a handy checklist to reference and perhaps work into your outline or storyboard:
1. Interview your heroine and hero
- Who are they and where did they come from?
- What are their habits and eccentricities?
- How do they handle stress?
- What are their favorite foods?
- Who has an Italian grandma with a killer biscotti recipe?
- What are their favorite Netflix shows?
- If they were in a fender bender, how would they react?
- What makes them laugh?
- What circumstances or situations do they tend to avoid?
- What are their everyday habits?
- How do they like to dress?
- Are they dog or cat people?
Having a firm handle on these personal attributes will help with the SHOW.
How well do you utilize visuals and the five senses to bring your main characters (MC) to three-dimensional life? This, too, can be utilized in a rom-com, for example, if there is a Netflix date night in your story.
The dialogue exchanges (SHOW) can tap into your attributes list, resulting in a humorous conversation about TV shows or TV characters, or why the hero thinks the heroine’s taste in TV is questionable. Why does he feel Narcos is the better pick over Outlander?
Fleshed out individual backgrounds and influences will resonate off the pages when you, as the writer, know the who and why of your characters. You want your readers emotionally invested in the first chapter, but avoid love at first sight. Solid relationships take time, and that’s your goal when writing a romance novel (v. erotic romance, in which characters may have a fling and move on).
2. Establish the MCs’ internal conflicts
What are your MC’s greatest fears? Think about how to incorporate that fear into the plot and bring the character face-to-face with it. Think of this as an inner demon: worry, fear, anxiety, doubt, insecurity. It’s visceral; not something tangible or that can be seen unless it manifests physically (e.g., your character popping antacids).
The character can struggle with this internal battle and can try to understand the root of it. Or not. Connect this internal conflict to the external conflict and the risks that need taking as your plot plays out. Your reader will root for a sympathetic hero or heroine when given the ability to understand the characters’ struggles.
If your heroine suffers from social anxiety, how does she cope when she’s the center of attention at the biggest party her company has ever thrown? If this social anxiety affects her ability to get dressed or to step into an Uber, work this into the plot. What happens if she never makes it to the party?
And who should be there supporting her because he gets her? Your hero. Her champion.
3. Establish the MCs’ external conflicts
Think of this as something you can see or hear. Ideally, one character has what another wants, or they both pursue the same goal but are driven by different reasons. It should be something that’s just between the two of them.
For example, if your hero is a small town guy, born and raised, he probably knows everyone and everyone knows him. Generations of his family have owned a business in that small town. But maybe all the young people have been leaving this small town for the bigger cities. The way of life is changing. Maybe our small town hero has to face the fact that he may lose this family business and the building it’s housed in. He’s not on social media. Still has lunch every Sunday with his parents.
Along comes a black-wardrobe-wearing New York City gal in her stiletto boots, carrying a large leather tote bag and an iPhone X. She wants that building Simplified, what drives him and what drives her is internal. What they each want is the external: the building. And that building shall bring them together.
The internal + the external should be meaty enough to sustain a full-length manuscript all the way to the last page. If you resolve the conflict too early, the air leaves the balloon. The tension disappears. Yes, romance novels are often predictable and trope-driven, but it’s the original execution of the familiar, tried and true storylines, that matters.
4. Point of View
In my opinion, perspective is the most important technical aspect of writing romance. In this genre specifically, the handling of POV can make or break a connection with a literary agent or a contract with a publishing house. In this particular genre of commercial fiction, the narrator should not be your main POV.
Figuratively speaking, the hero and heroine each hold a “camera.” Constantly passing it back and forth will result in a shaky “image.” To keep the image clear, use only the hero and heroine’s POV. Try to avoid passing the camera to secondary or walk-on characters or a narrator. Ideally, the POV is a 50/50 hero/heroine balance and only one POV per chapter. The result of not limiting your POV, or switching from hero to heroine within a conversation or a love scene, may be the dreaded “head-hopping”—a major no-no.
The reader bond is critical, and if the reader isn’t able to establish a bond due to being tossed in and out of the heroine’s head every other page, the reader will lose interest. It becomes too much work to follow who’s speaking; which character’s internal monologue is being heard. As you map out your story arc, ask yourself which character benefits the most or risks the most in a particular scene. That character will most likely benefit the most from carrying that scene’s perspective.
An effective way to switch POV can be to close out the end of a chapter at a tension-filled moment; action or dialogue in progress. For example, perhaps the heroine has the POV in chapter 9, and she reveals a critical piece of the plot thread to the hero. Fade to black. Open chapter 10 in the hero’s POV as he is hit with her revelation. It isn’t as important to perfectly balance that 50/50 with an every-other layout. The goal is for the reader to feel they know the MCs equally. That both have been brought to life successfully.
5. What do the MCs want?
What are their individual goals? The goal can be an extension of the internal conflict (vow to resolve the social anxiety in order to achieve success), or the external conflict (buy the building to achieve the lifelong goal of being an independent business owner), or a combination of both.
The MCs need to be fairly clear-eyed at the start; their eyes are on the prize. Establishing the goal and what drives it up front gets your plot ball rolling. The MCs meeting before page 3, each in pursuit of said goal, brings the chemistry and attraction into play, along with the tension the story needs as they come to discover that they are on opposite sides of the chosen conflict. They realize that loving the other puts their goal in jeopardy, or one betrays the other. Read Wicked and the Wallflower by Sarah Maclean for an incredibly effective take on this critical aspect of romance storytelling.
6. What obstacles or challenges will the MCs face in pursuit of their goals?
Throw those curve balls! Kill the favorite secondary characters or villains. Lie. Throw smoke and mirrors. Break a heart. Gaslight. But never ever kill the pets! Your MCs have to figure out how to get around these obstacles in a realistic and uncontrived way. And these obstacles must test their resolve. Like Odysseus on his journey: storms, witches, battles!
Given the parameters of time and place in your romance novel, what is present within the circumstances you have created for you to utilize as obstacles? What are the characters’ options? How will your MCs’ resolve be tested in pursuit of their goals?
- A blow to self-esteem?
- A firing?
- A broken engagement?
- A loss of social standing?
Make these obstacles a direct danger to the internal conflicts as well. Bring on the dread. Your MCs’ true colors will be revealed by how they handle themselves in these circumstances, which can tie directly back into your original “personal attributes” profile. (See number 1.)
7. What risks are the MCs willing or forced to take?
Risking it all for love. You are writing romance so this must happen! Hero and heroine take the risks because both have come to realize that being with the other is worth it all. Going public in some way risks humiliation. He loves someone viewed by his family as not “proper and acceptable,” but he will challenge them to get the girl he loves.
Think about the timing of the risk-taking. When each MC has to take the necessary risk is critical to the tension—that last race towards the end. The morning after a dark night of soul-searching. And the worst possible time for characters to take risk is probably the best place to write it in.
- When they are feeling defeated.
- When they have been betrayed by a loved one.
- When they have been abandoned.
- When they are penniless or homeless or without a support net.
- When one or both are physically or emotionally harmed or disabled, temporarily or permanently
- When they are burdened with keeping secrets
Take the ultimate risk by baring all. Walking into a hostile or challenging environment in this emotional state is exactly when the MCs should make their moves.
8. What are the stakes if the MCs don’t take the risk?
Of course, your MCs have to grapple with their decisions. Weigh the pros and cons. But love must win the day. They must ponder the steps needed in order to win their lover.
- If they don’t risk it all, then what will be left?
- Are they willing to risk a broken heart, loss of job, loss of home, war, family, public humiliation, pity?
- Can they abandon all that is familiar and safe for something potentially unfamiliar and scary?
- Can they walk away from their family, their land, a legacy?
The stakes should be THAT LARGE.
Large enough so the other understands in their bones that they are loved beyond reason. And hopefully the execution of the risk-taking—the determination to show the other they are loved beyond reason—is romantic and shows a deep understanding of that character.
9. How are your MCs transformed as a result of their actions?
The classic hero’s journey: the pursuit of goals, the risks, the stakes, the challenges to one’s resoluteness, facing those inner demons and conquering them.
The heroine we meet on page 1 is fully realized by page 300.
An awareness of her flaws, her shortcomings, the strengths she didn’t know she possessed. Redemption. A shedding of a fake skin. A shedding of protocols perhaps. A kinder, better heroine. And not because of the hero, but because together they handle life’s journeys.
10) Happily ever after
Bring the romance to a finale. Let them ride off into the proverbial sunset. Don’t leave their love story dangling. If your reader has spent money (just as a movie goer), they want to feel satisfied and fulfilled with proper closure.
The romance reader relies on, expects, and anticipates that these two characters will end up together, madly in love. Dangling threads lead to frustration, and frustration is to be avoided in romance.
If you are writing a romantic series, each individual title should stand alone with a beginning, middle, and end. Book 2 should be able to be read without having read Book 1. If you have secondary characters who warrant their own stories, keep these threads to a minimum and don’t increase your word count by building their profiles. You can also end the story in progress with another couple embarking on their journey. This can be handled with a “sneak peek” after an “Author’s Note,” for example.
CAROLINE T. has edited 400 novels, including 3 New York Times Bestsellers. Her genres include romance, women’s fiction, thrillers, and mysteries.