I’ve read hundreds of romance novel proposals in my day job as an editor, and I almost called this post “how to write a romance novel.” But that would be such a big subject, it would really need to be a series of posts. There are a lot of elements of a romance novel to cover for aspiring romance writers, from subgenres and heat levels to reader expectations and happy ever afters.
Today, I just want to talk about what makes a love story work, and I want to keep it very simple. This advice is just as applicable to anyone who wants to know how to write a good romance subplot in any kind of novel.
To write romance that’s believable and unforced, you can make sure to do these four things.
1. Know exactly why these two are perfect for each other.
He’s the best-looking man she’s ever seen in her life? If that’s the main reason she’s in love with him, that’s boring…and besides, most of us know that just because someone’s good-looking doesn’t mean they’re good to date. Even if he’s attractive, you’ll need to dig deeper. There’s just “something about her he can’t put his finger on”? Well, if you as the author don’t even know what that something is, the story’s going to be weak.
To get the readers caught up in this story, these two need to be soulmates. It should feel as though if they don’t pledge their love and commitment to one another, it’s going to be a devastating missed opportunity. Think about who the characters are as people and why they fit together so well.
The possibilities here are endless.
Maybe they bond over a past experience or a deep interest that few other people share.
Maybe they balance one another out. She’s practical; he’s a dreamer. She’s shy; he’s the life of the party.
Maybe they understand one another because they share a point of view, a strong sense of faith, or a snarky sense of humor.
There could be a few different elements that make your characters the perfect fit. If you’re well into a draft of a romance novel and you don’t have this figured out yet, don’t despair. Spend a little time thinking about it and maybe writing a few paragraphs about it. Your love story will come into sharper focus.
2. Know what the obstacle to the romance is…on each character’s side.
Here’s what I see sometimes in romance novel proposals. One character has a good internal conflict to the romance: they need to learn to trust again, maybe, or they need to move on from grieving their late spouse. They might also have an external conflict: they’re about to move to New York, for instance, so it’s not a good time to get into a relationship.
Meanwhile, the other character (usually the man, in a male-female romance) has no conflict. He falls for her almost immediately, his feelings deepen into love, and he tries to persuade her to be in a relationship with him.
Honestly? I’ve read and enjoyed books like that. But I enjoy romance novels even more when both characters have conflict. It makes the story more interesting. So once you’ve figured out why these characters should be together, figure out what might keep them apart.
It’s really common in a romance novel synopsis to have a sentence like, “Josh tries to ignore his attraction to the new guy at the office,” with no explanation of why Josh is trying to ignore it. (Fortune favors the bold, Josh! Shoot your shot!) If you give Josh a reason, it’s much more compelling: “Josh tries to ignore his attraction to the new guy at the office. After all, the last time Josh dated a coworker, the breakup was so messy he wound up leaving the company.”
3. Make sure the people spend enough time together to really have a chance to fall in love.
If they keep randomly bumping into one another, that’s going to strain credulity, and the interactions may not be long enough for feelings to believably develop. (In the first hundred or so pages of my WIP, the hero is ordered to take the heroine into custody and take her half across the country. This gives them plenty of time to talk.)
Give them a shared goal. Make them competitors. Make one of them a butler, a governess, a tutor, or a personal assistant. Do whatever you have to do to make sure they’re actually on a lot of pages together. If they only see each other for brief times and then go off and think about each other, it’s going to be harder to make that exciting.
4. Know how each character is going to change and grow throughout the story.
As readers, we like to see characters learn and develop. Maybe she gives up her goal of marrying a rich man, realizing that true love will make her happier in the end. Maybe he learns how to be a better listener instead of barking orders all the time. In order to overcome the obstacles to the romance, they’re going to need to change.
We don’t want to see that change all at once. Usually, we want to see it unfold gradually over the course of the story. For each of the characters, pinpoint two or three places where they show a little bit of change or growth.
I hope this helps as you write a romance novel or a love subplot. If you have any other questions, please ask them in the comments…and if you have advice of your own, we’d love to hear from you, too!
If you’re working on a novel or thinking about it, check out my book Blank Page to Final Draft. It takes you step by step through planning, writing, and editing, to get you to a ready-to-publish novel.
Thanks so much for reading, and happy writing!