Plotting romance: when it works and when it doesn’t

Romance in novels is a big part of what drives readers’ emotional connection and thus sales.

Whether YA, women’s fiction, literary fiction, mysteries or thrillers, romance can be a big part of the plot and should never be overlooked. Writers spend so much time crafting plot. But what about crafting a romantic arc, a relationship, or a marriage?

What makes romance work in books:
  • Authenticity. We want to believe that these two people are real, that their relationship goes through natural processes, and they share the same feelings we do.
  • Motivation. A character’s hotness level isn’t motivation. It’s factual evidence. So what drives two characters together? Is it opposites attract? Do they spend a lot of time together in a close environment? Putting two characters together doesn’t mean they are right for each other, just like in real life when you introduce two people to each other. So show the reader how they fit, how they flirt, and what their connection is really like. That’s how bonds are built between the characters and between the book and readers.
  • Complex 3D characters. Relationship success and failure is a big part of plot. It can drive it and layer it. When you show the sides of a character and consequently show the sides of the character in their relationship you build a layer of meaning to that character that they didn’t have before. It can help build character as I said, but also build plot because you weave storylines into it.
  • Whimsy. My final point may seem contradictory, but it makes the relationship complete for readers. This being that your book isn’t real life, it’s fiction. Romance is part of escapism. So don’t use too many mundane elements of everyday love unless you can layer them in a way that works. Dishes aren’t sexy. Dog walking isn’t sexy. Grocery shopping isn’t sexy. So pick and choose carefully the actions and scenes where the lovers/romance interacts.
What happens when it doesn’t work:
  • Zero believability. It’s really easy to see through a speculative romance when we’re being told rather than shown. It’s a combination of all the things mentioned above that make great romance, one missing step and you’ve lost your reader.
  • There is the bad sex writing award for a reason. It’s not easy to write romance or love scenes.
  • Parody. If it’s not gripping your heart, it’s probably not written well and that can be humorous as opposed to amorous.

Romance is a powerful tool in a book. It can turn it into a page turner, bring characters to life beyond the bounds of the page, and is a part of writing that is found in all genres, not just the romance genre itself. Use it to your advantage.

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

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