How do you write a love story that sweeps people away? Here’s a start: make sure your leads don’t fall in love at first sight (or, if vampires are your thing, “first bite”). While I worked at Random House’s Ballantine Bantam Dell imprint, I read hundreds of romance and women’s fiction submissions, and it never failed to bother me when characters instantly declared themselves to be in love. There is a word for this, and it is lust.
I need to believe in a romance in order to care about it. I need to feel that the two people who are falling for each other fit together like puzzle pieces or complement each other like peanut butter and chocolate. That is not to say that the hero and heroine shouldn’t find each other attractive from the get go, or that they shouldn’t indulge in that attraction within the first third or half of the book (usually they should!), but let’s see some development in their relationship. Let’s see it grow from lust into the real deal. To achieve this, something needs to draw your characters together beyond their ridiculous good looks. Intelligence, kindness, confidence, and a sharp-edged sense of humor are all qualities that help elevate a character from good to great, from mildly interesting to heart-stoppingly intriguing. Just make sure to show us these things rather than telling us about them. You can convey information about your characters via some sharp dialogue, for example, or a story that your hero’s friend tells your heroine. Kindness and attentiveness can be demonstrated through a thoughtful gift, a remembered comment, a glance, or even a fleeting touch. (Sometimes casual touching can convey so much feeling, particularly in novels with a historical setting.)
Personally, I always love “will they or won’t they?” storylines about people who absolutely belong together but don’t know it yet. Maybe your hero and heroine even think they can’t stand each other. (The sparks that fly between people who bicker can be red hot.) It’s so satisfying when we know right along that two people are meant for each other, and then they FINALLY realize it. It kind of makes us feel like modern day matchmakers, 21st century versions of Jane Austen’s Emma. If you decide to go this route, make sure we know early on what your couple doesn’t—that they belong together. Maybe they share a secret love for the same movie. Maybe they’ve both lost someone special in their lives and are eager for a second chance. Maybe a struggle with guilt is something they share. Or they could have trouble communicating because they’re just so much alike.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that there needs to be a believable obstacle to your couple’s love, whether it happens before they’re officially together or after. Maybe one of them is already seeing someone who’s calculating, or just a bit of a dud. Or maybe our hero is secretly a paranormal being, and he’s not free to introduce anyone to his world. Whatever plot device you use, please make sure it feels believable. Otherwise there’s not going to be much there to keep us reading.
One thing I’d advise against: please, please, please, do not make your obstacle be a misunderstanding that could be cleared up with one simple, upfront conversation. This is something that I find incredibly annoying and unnecessary as both an editor and a reader. It also doesn’t bode well for your couple’s relationship. If they’re so bad at communicating that they can’t even get the most basic facts straight, they’re probably doomed! Give them a meatier plotline; I’m sure they deserve it.
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