Love affects all of us, it’s one of the themes that is universal to almost every single genre. Whether it’s a parent’s love in children’s lit, first love in YA, or the Fifty Shades kind, love is everywhere you look in literature.
As it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d take a look at what makes a really good romance in writing. As my genre is YA, I’m going to stick to what I know – these tips are for romance as a subplot rather than the main focus of your novel, although they could be adapted however you please.
Scroll on, intrepid reader!
Know your audience
The accepted age-range for Young Adult seems to be 12-18 years old, which is pretty broad when it comes to experience, if you think about it. An eighteen year old might enjoy the odd steamy scene in their novels, but younger teens are probably not looking for too much steam. (Or maybe they are, but their parents would prefer not!)
On the other hand, teenagers have a lot of hormones pumping through their bloodstreams, and almost every teen has had a crush or a relationship at one time or another. They think about sex, talk about it with their friends, but they’re not all necessarily doing it.
Personally, I don’t mind sex in YA. I think there is a line though and some authors cross into New Adult territory at times. For me, first times and learning about sexuality are completely normal subjects for YA books to cover. Graphic scenes that border on erotica are better left to adult novels, in my opinion. But, it’s up to you. Do what feels right for your novel and your characters, and you can’t go wrong.
The Friend Zone
Nowadays, it seems that being in the “friend zone” has become a bad thing. Personally, I have to disagree. I absolutely love friendships that become more, it’s the best way to find your soulmate and the person you want to spend the rest of your life with. If you can’t even be friends, how can you be partners?
For teens, I think the most common way of starting a relationship is to be friends first. A lot of people go through years of school together and don’t start dating until they’ve known each other for a really long time. They have things in common, have grown up together and spend time together in groups of friends as well as alone.
Some authors forget this fact, and tend to omit the friendship side of the relationship in their books. Yes, it might add to the word count and not technically be essential to the plot, but readers need to see relationships where the two people involved enjoy each other’s company. It’s our responsibility to show young readers how life and love can and should be (ignoring the fantastical elements, those are just fun embellishments). It’s not all angst, flirtatious looks and sex – people actually talk sometimes, and those can be some of the best bits.
Three’s a crowd
Ah, the old-fashioned love triangle. Some readers love them, some hate them. They have become a pretty overused trope in literature, and are not actually very common in real life. (Are they? Am I missing out? I don’t think so…)
There is still a market for books with love triangles (hence why so many have them), but I would encourage you to make yours a little bit different. Don’t follow the usual path of girl dates sweet guy, meets sexy bad boy and has to choose. Switch it up a bit. Think about what would ramp up the tension. Are your two potential suitors from rival gangs? Are they from two different species that are at war with each other? Is one dead and one alive? Make it really interesting.
The best love triangles keep you guessing until the very end. Make sure both choices seem equally good, or bad. It’ll be obvious to the reader if you’re leaning one way the whole time, and it’ll take all the tension out of the situation.
Ten things I hate about you
One of the most popular romances in literature is the “hate/love” trope, where two individuals who initially despise each other gradually fall in love – or realise their animosity was just a facade all along. Such classics as The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado about Nothing use this type of romance, and if it’s good enough for the Bard, it’s good enough for me! Even Ron and Hermione’s relationship in the Harry Potter series fits into this category.
My advice would be to see how the masters do it before trying it yourself, read a few books that use this style of romance and make notes about what works and what doesn’t. This is another one where pacing can be a nightmare, so send your manuscript to beta readers you trust and grill them on how they thought the romance developed. The change of heart should be gradual, but if readers are left staring at the page in confusion rather than whooping in delight, then it’s too subtle. If it doesn’t feel natural to your readers, it will probably just annoy them.
Probably the most frustrating type of love story is the unrequited one. Where the smitten kitten spends their days desperately seeking the attention of their crush, never to be noticed.
This story line can go one of two ways. Either the crush eventually realises they also have feelings for the protagonist, wondering how they ever missed how cute/funny/perfect they are, or the protagonist falls for someone else and finally sees their crush for the self-absorbed jerk they really are.
An unrequited love story where the protagonist discovers self-love and realises she doesn’t need anybody else would be a fun, inspirational read!
Obsession = not just a fragrance
My least favourite type of romance is the creepy, stalkerish obsession. The “if I can’t have him no one can” variety. It makes a great thriller, but probably isn’t the best example to be giving young adult readers. If done well, it can teach a number of important lessons, but it’s easy to do badly.
Quite a few YA books use this trope though. Often a brooding, sexy boy starts appearing wherever the female protagonist is, giving her dark looks and making intimidating comments about how she’s in danger, or how she’ll come to him soon and he’ll be waiting for her. I can totally see how a tall, dark and handsome guy who is clearly interested may be attractive, but if there’s no more to it than that it gets old pretty quickly.
When you were a teenager, did you ever see a guy or girl and become instantly obsessed with them? I did, all the time. Celebrities, boys in my class – I changed my mind almost daily about who I fancied and who I didn’t. But, that’s not love. That’s attraction. Infatuation, even.
It’s rare to meet someone and both immediately feel something, let alone be brave enough to admit it. Teenagers in particular are shy and secretive – they wouldn’t tell their crush how they felt straight away. So, why does it happen in books, all the time?
Insta-love is not realistic.
Now, if it’s being used to further the plot, e.g. if it turns out one of the couple is using the other to get to someone/something, especially if they then develop real feelings (one of my favourite tropes!), then that’s different. That’s a legitimate plot device. But, too many writers jump the gun and have their characters fall for each other too quickly, skipping the awkward, clumsy flirtations and nervous interactions that make romances (especially teen romances) believable.
Readers love seeing the sweet, getting-to-know-you moments between your characters. They want to feel like the romance happened in real time and they got to see it develop in front of their eyes.
It can be difficult to judge pacing, but this is something your beta readers can definitely help with. Ask them if they felt like the romance felt rushed or took too long to build, and then make the appropriate adjustments.
Can you think of any other traditional romances in literature? Which is your favourite? Let me know in the comments! And have a lovely Valentines (or Galentines), whatever you have planned!