Yeah, yeah, I know. You're looking at this page title and thinking, "God, why does this exist? It's self-explanatory, nobody needs this!" Maybe it is, and maybe no one does, but decent romance is harder to write than you might think. The biggest problem is that you don't have any room for error: Love is a universal part of human life, and (especially in Western culture) is generally considered the epitome of positive experience; the standards are high, and audiences will nail you if you mess it up. Plus, if you can do it well, you might be able to make a killing off of it; according to The Other Wiki, romance novels account for more than 50% of all paperbacks sold.
This article is focused on the creation and execution of a love story: two people meeting, discovering they really like each other, and deciding to stay together for the forseeable future. Since this can be a subplot in just about any genre, this article aims to be relatively generalized, as opposed to being specific a "Write A Romance Novel" So You Want To. (That's why it's named the way it is.)
Necessary TropesHmm. Love Tropes, maybe? Check out Romance Novel Plots, Romance Novel Tropes and the Romance Arc for more ideas. Or visit the Romance Novel section of your bookstore. Or read Nicholas Sparks. But here's the heart of it, from a review of a romance novel: "The characters should allow each other to evolve in such a way that, without the other, each one would be less than when the book started. There’s a satisfaction in seeing attraction and love heal, grow, and develop people into even better versions of themselves".
Generally, a love story is supposed to fall on the flowery, rainbow-hued end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism. This doesn't have to be, but at the very least, The Reader expects a Happily Ever After. This is one of the places where writing a love subplot (as opposed to a Romance Novel) gives the arc more leeway; The Reader will hate you for it, but since saving the world doesn't neccesarily involve getting the girl... (Even better, sometimes involves sacrificing the girl.)
A quick word on love itself, particularly the "Triangular Theory of Love" developed by Robert Sternberg (link leads to The Other Wiki). Simply put, Sternberg believes that love can consist of any combination of the following three qualities: Intimacy, Passion and Commitment. With your friends you have intimacy—emotional intimacy, by the way, not physical—so that you feel you can tell them anything, and they will still stand by you; a very close friendship can also involve commitment as well. Having a crush is passion only. Commitment and Passion together result in fairly shallow relationships: yeah, you have great sex, and you're with them, but do you really know them? Get all three together, and you're in good shape... but, as any mother or father can tell you, then you have to work at maintaining it. Passion is generally the first to go in a marriage, resulting in Dead Sparks.
Choices, ChoicesGenerally, a love story requires a bare minimum of two characters—the ones who are going to fall in love. So you'll need your Love Interests first.
While most romances have focused on a man and a woman—say, today those rules are bending, and guy-on-guy and girl-on-girl is becoming more acceptable. Heck, today it doesn't even have to be only two people! Of course, there will be outcry from Moral Guardians if you choose to go in those directions; but there's No Such Thing as Bad Publicity, so maybe this is something you'll want to invoke. Having said that, remember that most readers treat the Romance Novel as comfort food: they want something reassuring and inoffensive, as opposed to being challenged to their core. There's a time and a place for everything, and a love story may not be the right place to try and make people re-evaluate themselves. (Feel free to take that as a challenge.)
Anyhow, you've got your two (or more) leads, Jordan and Kris. And the thing is, that can be all you need. Conflict in a romance typically comes in the flavor of Character vs. Character, but jJordan and Kris can totally be those characters. In fairy tales, the Official Couple never fights after they get together; in Real Life, they absolutely do. While couples in romantic relationships (are expected to) approach life as a team, helping each other out and picking each other up, there will always be times when they are set at odds, and you can mine that as a source of drama.
But let's say you decide to add in other characters — which is also realistic. Very few human beings live in total isolation; they have friends and/or family members. There may also be additional romantic attachments, because those too are good for drama: the Romantic False Lead, the Hopeless Suitor, the Jerkass, the Psycho Ex-Girlfriend, the Stalker with a Crush, the Wrong Guy First or the other girl in a First Girl Wins/Last Girl Wins scenario. The Love Triangle is Older Than Feudalism. How about the Betty and Veronica dichotomy? Love Dodecahedron?
Anyhow, you've now got Jordan, Kris and Dannie, plus whatever additional supporting cast you decide to put in. Now comes the hard part: making sure all three characters have personality. Who they are, after all, affects how they're going to relate to each other, and the romance (sub)plot is all about that relating. There are a gazillion different ways characters can relate to each other romantically, from Slap-Slap-Kiss to Sickeningly Sweethearts to Opposites Attract, but you should pick one (or several) and make them your focus. This, of course, requires a fairly thorough understanding of who Jordan, Kris and Dannie are before they meet and begin to variously fall in love with each other, so get cracking.
Here's a hint: if you're bad at characterization, you cannot write good romance. Period. Hell, one could make the argument that you can't write good anything. It may be an oversimplification to divide stories this way, but we're gonna do it anyway: fiction usually comes in only two parts: Characterization Tropes, and Necessary Weasels. What precisely that weasel is depends on your genre: in an action movie, it's explosions; in a science-fiction movie, it's Applied Phlebotinum; in a mainstream comic book, it's Stock Superpowers; in a love story, it's angst, Will They or Won't They?, Slap-Slap-Kiss, etc. But the point is that these are just props, just disguises, just the particular language the story uses to tell itself. If you strip away these weasels, you're left with characters standing naked and exposed, and they're either interesting or they're not. And if they aren't, no amount of gratuitous fanservice will make the story good. (Just ask Michael Bay.)
And here's the worst part: it's even more true for a love story. The Necessary Weasel is, again, romantic content... but, both in Real Life and in fiction, you can't fall in love unless both you and your Love Interest have personalities. (Falling in love is about personality.) As such, romance is an extension of character(ization). In other words, all your leads need to be strong enough, more or less, to hold down a story on their own, without the assistance of their romantic partners and/or any chemistry resulting thereof. (One hopes some Hollywood screenwriter will see this paragraph some day and get the hint. Or Stephenie Meyer.) So brush up on your Characterization Tropes, because if you only have a Satellite Love Interest, instead of an actual character, you have no love story.
To prove it, let's keep looking at Romance Novel Plots and the Romance Arc. In a typical Three Act Structure, the Relationship Upgrade occurs at the end of the first act, and the Inevitable Second-Act Breakup or Third-Act Misunderstanding setting up the final resolution. (The two twists seem similar, but the first is, "Jordan dumps Kris for something Jordan did" while the other is "Jordan dumps Kris because of something Kris thinks Jordan did, which is either totally false or only true From a Certain Point of View.") What's the break-up about? What causes it? What is the Thing Jordan Did? To answer that, you need to look at... Jordan's personality and Character Flaws. Is Jordan a cheater? A compulsive liar? An inveterate gambler? A lazy layabout who can't keep a job? Secretly an axe murderer? Because Kris' reactions to any of these things will also depend on what Kris wants. A Gold Digger will treat an unemployed thumb-twiddler differently than someone who is Secretly Wealthy.
So: required reading. So You Want To...
- Make Interesting Characters
- Develop Character Personality
- Write a Character of the Opposite Gender (this one is less necessary, but a lot of romance novels switch back and forth between the POVs of the leads, so you may be expected to have facility with characters who are not your gender)
Setting Up RomanceIt's possible to overdo a romance. The result, if it's a subplot, is a Romantic Plot Tumor. If it's a Romance Novel, the result is generally Glurge. Both outcomes are often delivered with a side of Purple Prose. Conversely, it's possible to underdo it. The result in that case is Strangled by the Red String or Designated Love Interest. Whatever relationship develops between the two characters, it needs to walk the line of believability between the two extremes.
You also, as mentioned, need to have characters with actual personalities. That may seem a lot of work, but the good news is, if you're writing or have ever written before, we'll be using a tool to set up these personalities which you are very familiar with: Chekhov's Gun.
There are two basic layers in any fictional, on-page relationship. In Real Life it might be different; a blogger named Kris Gage has identified emotional self-sufficiency, critical thinking and friendship as the three most important things she looks for in a partner, and she's made a good case for it; but writing such a character isn't particularly interesting. Pro Tip: True Love Is Boring. This is a fact that really, really cannot be overstated. But boring fiction doesn't sell well, so, as writers, we need to spice it up a little. And so let us consider the two basic layers to any fictional, on-page relationship:
- Chemistry. This oft-used word deals with with your desired traits. Ask yourself right now: what do you look for in a potential mate or significant-other? Troubled, but Cute? Adorkable? Cloud Cuckoo Lander? Eyes of gold, hair of blue? Well, those are your desired traits. If Quinn wants to be swept up into the arms of someone Tall, Dark, and Snarky, then when such a person walks into "Quinn's Books and Stationery" some time during the second page of the novel, The Reader expects them to end up together. Likewise, Robin is looking for someone feisty and independent who won't just play the fainting violet. Oh, and maybe Heroes Want Redheads. When Robin walks into that bookstore and sees the fiery-haired proprietor chewing someone out, The Reader expects Robin to be interested. Why? Because of desired traits; because of chemistry. That makes Quinn's presence in Robin's life (and vice versa) a Chekhov's Gun. This is how Love at First Sight justifies its existence, incidentally, and it's also where Opposites Attract comes into play; in general you don't want to date someone who's an exact clone of you. (Unless you do. If you do, please keep it to yourself.)
- Compatibility, the second layer. This one doesn't get as much press, partially because it's harder to explore in the time frame of a love story, and partially because a lot of Americans (the predominant consumers and producers of the Romance Novel) think "love" is some sort of magic black box which they have no hope of understanding. "Look! When Things Spin, Science Happens!" So here's the inside of that black box: shared values. If "chemistry" are what you look for in a partner, shared values are what you look for in a relationship. Ask yourself right now: now that you've met this person whom you have chemistry with, what are you going to do with them? Are you going to have mad hot sex? Are you going to recline upon a sun-drenched meadow and quote poetry to each other? Are you Going To Disney World? What kind of life do you want to live, and how is this potential mate going to help you live it? Because if we're talking about a relationship that's meant to go on indefinitely, then at some point they are going to have to become a part of this life you want to live, and that's easiest if they fit in.
This is one of the ways the Wrong Guy First plot or Betty and Veronica situation can get resolved: Quinn spends some time with both Robin and Tracey, and distinctly enjoys having a relationship with Robin because Tracey is The Nondescript in comparison, almost identical to Quinn in some respects. But Robin is living a life that goes in a different direction than Quinn's, and in a way unsuitable for long-term entanglement. True, Tracey is kind of boring, because they share so much in common... But Quinn wants to travel the world, and Robin hates airplanes. Quinn loves animals and wants a dog, but Robin is allergic to animal dander. Quinn wants to be a full-time doctor, and Tracey wants to have a fulfilling law career... and they both want their spouse to abandon their career, Stay in the Kitchen and have Babies Ever After. With this in mind, do Opposites Attract anymore? Do you really want to spend your life with someone who's going to be at cross-purposes to you, all the time?—whose happiness requires your misery, and vice versa? Or do you want Birds of a Feather, someone who dreams your dreams?
"True Love Is Boring" seems like a depressing, destructive trope, but it's Truth in Television, and this is exactly why. Whatever it is that you wanna do, well, eventually it's going to be your routine. Ideally, you want someone who fits into your routine. Ideally, you want someone who wants to be bored the exact same way you do.
(Pro tip: When you love someone, it's not just because you love them; it's also because you like who you are when you're with them.)
So, do you see what we're getting at here? In order for you to write this romance well, your characters need a fair bit of Character Depth: personality, Back Story, hopes and dreams, etc. You need to know each character's Chemistry and Compatibility desires. And you, The Writer, need to set all of them up as Chekhovs Guns, where the firing / pay-off / bang (ha-ha) is the blossoming of love. If you want to go even further, you'll need to start coming out with facets to each character. Remember, each of us acts differently depending on context: when you are in private with your spouse or significant other, you act differently than you do when alone with your parents (unless you don't. If you don't, please keep it to yourself). Likewise you act differently around your children, your friends, your coworkers, etc. News flash: well-realized characters have the same level of complexity.
(Pro tip: You know you've really achieved a Rounded Character when you can't decide how s/he should react to a situation because s/he gave you multiple options, and they're all in-character.)
Romance MisfiresMake sure the two characters bring out good things in each other. This was a major criticism leveled against the Official Couple in Harry Potter: that Ron and Hermione encourage each other to be flawed instead of virtuous. Well, maybe not Ron so much; but whenever Hermione goes around doing bad things, like punching idiots or breaking school rules, this raises Ron's opinion of her. (Add in the Harmonian faction and things get really heated.) Similar irritations have been leveled against the immortal Bella Swan: she's wangsty and self-absorbed before Edward comes along, and even more wangsty and self-absorbed after. He's not encouraging growth, he's enabling her dysfunctional behavior (to use the shrink terminology). Of course, that's a tricky line to walk; while there's clearly such thing as being too positive and supportive (and not calling someone on their baggage), there's such thing as being too negative as well. Besides, loving relationships aren't based on yelling at each other to improve; they're based on loving a person for who they are. But, conversely, a person who loves you no matter what is the only person it's worth improving yourself for. (This, incidentally, is where Quinn and Robin get off the love train; they are such different people that they can't encourage each other to become better.)
Speaking of Wish Fulfillment, it's quite easy to fall into a situation where just one of the two romantic leads is saddled with all the Character Development. He or she was Beautiful All Along, but they end up needing an external agent—the other romantic lead—to draw that out of them. The other lead, though? Invincible Hero. Static Character. Unequal Pairing, though a bit downplayed. And, by strange coincidence, often of the same gender as the author. Aside from how thoroughly The Reader can psychoanalyze you from such a character, it's good policy in general for both leads to have problems they must overcome. Not only does it make a better story, not only does it avoid creepy allegations of Wife Husbandry (or Distaff Counterpart of same), but the whole point of any social relationship is that it improves both parties somehow. That's difficult if one of those parties is in no need of improvement.
It's been iterated already, but let's continue to re-iterate: you must have characterization. Romance is incredibly vulnerable to the Eight Deadly Words ("I don't care what happens to these characters") because a romance arc is nothing but Things Happening To These Characters, with almost no chance for a Deus ex Machina like Chandler's Law. There must be characters and they must be likeable. What does it matter if two people you don't know, and don't care about, fall in love with each other? Because that's happening now, right this very minute, somewhere out in the wide world. Strangers are falling in love! Are you excited? No, of course not; you don't know them, they don't matter to you personally. There's no reason for you to be excited about this, beyond a vague sense of altruism. The same applies to characters. If The Reader doesn't know them, care about them, empathize with them, and root for them, your story has already failed.
Multiclassing into Not Safe for WorkRomance and relationships are intrinsically linked to sex; in fact, as Sternberg's Triangular Theory points out, you can have Commitment and (Emotional) Intimacy with friends and family, but typically only have Passion with your spouse, which would make sex (and its attendants) the defining element of a romantic relationship. With that in mind, it should not surprise you that romance novels typically focus on Passion, up to and including the decision to include Explicit Content. This doesn't help the romance genre escape its trashy reputation, but hey: Sex Sells. Whatever the case, you are not required to include sex in your story; you can go Sexy Discretion Shot, or have the characters stay chaste until the back cover has closed, or even just avoid the topic entirely, as Disney films do. But if you do want to include it, you can.
As a caveat: do not throw in a sex scene just because you can. Needless, gratuitous sex depiction is called Fanservice, Pandering to the Base, or—let's be frank—pornography. If you are going to include a sex scene, it should provide Character Development. Believe it or not, that's possible. In The Bible, the phrase "to know" is sometimes a euphemism for getting it on... and when you have sex with someone, you certainly do learn things about them that most everyone else on the planet will never learn. Voila, character development—particularly if the revelations are sexual in nature. But if you're not going to go for character development—if the only important fact is that your characters are having sex—don't rub The Reader's face in it. Use the discretion shot, or a Sexy Shirt Switch, or whatever. (Or do go for it, embrace the smutdom, and aim for the sex sites. There's a market for that too!)
If you have decided to go for it, you now skirt a whole new set of pitfalls: Erection Rejection, IKEA Erotica, Purple Prose and so forth. We do somehow have a So You Want To Write A Sex Scene? page that we slipped past 5P, and it's going to have most of your help; if you need more, actual NSFW sites like Literotica, and their So You Want To departments, will be your best bet.
The Happy EndingAs mentioned, most love stories have happy endings, or at least a Bittersweet Ending (Titanic and A Walk to Remember, for instance). Also, almost all love stories end with the romantic leads in a love relationship with each other, even if one or more of them does not necessarily remain alive much longer. Can you subvert this without The Reader hating your guts? Can you create a Happily Ever After that doesn't involve the two main leads together?
The Genders of the LeadsAs mentioned, a lot of love stories concern a guy and a girl. Can you subvert this in a way that sidesteps Moral Guardians? (Have you noticed that every "named" character in this document has had a Gender-Blender Name? That was deliberate.) Hint: treat the characters as though they were normal human beings. They are. Besides, people don't generally think of themselves as being depraved or screwed-up. ...Okay, sometimes they do—because the culture around them tells them that Different Is Bad. But, as you, Dear Reader, probably know from personal experience, one learns to make peace with that (since the alternative is to go mad). There's no reason being a member of an alternative sexuality would be any different. So a gay man (a lesbian) (a bisexual) (a transgender) (a transsexual) a isn't going to think of himself as weird because of such. As different, sure... But he's okay with that. Different isn't bad.
The Attractiveness of the LeadsA lot of romance stories, particularly movies, involve young unwed characters who are Hollywood Homely at worst, attractive fit types most of the time. Divorcees, widow/ers, the honestly unattractive and desperate Christmas Cake types don't get a whole lot of attention. And yet, with about one in four marriages in America ending in divorce, a significant portion of the dating pool is going to be "previously owned" or "past their sell-by dates". Want to tackle this? Because there is an obvious market for it. For that matter, how about a story about husband and wife putting the spark back into their marriage? This may sound boring, but you could end up with a huge readership: for all that romance novels offer escapism, there are readers who like to be able to take something useful out of their fiction, something they can actually apply to their own lives. If there weren't, we wouldn't need an "Unfortunate Implications" index.
ChronologyThere is room for a sort of "inside-out love story." Romances typically focus on Boy Meets Girl and what happens next. But for most people, meeting the wo/man of your dreams isn't the first act of the story, it's the last; and there's a great deal of set-up, Character Development and Foreshadowing leading up to it. So how about a story where the Last Girl Wins? How about, for that matter, a story that focuses on what happens before they meet, and on what makes the two characters compatible? If you think it's impossible, check out How I Met Your Mother. Ted doesn't meet The Mother until the series finale, and the prior nine years are spent setting up, in detail, his Chemistry and Compatibility needs. The story isn't about how Ted fell in love with her, but why. And it works, because—again—romance is all about personality. Since we've spent nine years learning why Ted and The Mother are perfect for each other, the Happily Ever After is a Foregone Conclusion. (Also, the title of the show is a Walking Spoiler). Additionally, while Ted spends a lot of time dating Wrong Girls First, the thing is that this is very much Truth in Television. When you get down to it, dating is all about dating the wrong people first, and figuring out why they are wrong for you, so that you can find your One True Love and/or recognize them as your One True Love when you find them. (Unless you live in a fairy tale where you can expect your soulmate to drop into your lap. Most people don't.) In fiction, most love stories have the leads meet at the beginning of the first chapter; in real life, they meet at the beginning of the last chapter.
For that matter, how about Anachronic Order? The story does not need to be told in the normal manner. Vienna Teng has a song called "Recessional" which tells the love story backwards. An insane composer of musical theater named Jason Robert Brown decided to do both orders at once, and penned The Last Five Years. It's about a man and a woman who fall in love, get married and eventually divorce, but the difference between them is that all of Cathy's scenes take place Back to Front, whereas Jamie's happen in the normal order. (Brown elaborated on this structure by making every single song a monologue, with the other character not present, or at least not allowed to respond. The only time their timelines cross is on their Wedding Day.) And finally there's (500) Days of Summer, which is roughly front-to-back but does a great deal of skipping around, its narrative sequence more shaken up than a salad.
CourtshipBecause most Romance Novels are written by Americans, the Arranged Marriage doesn't get touched upon much, and when it does it's inevitably a Perfectly Arranged Marriage. Why does this have to be so? A love story is about two characters discovering that they love each other, regardless of when (or if!) they get married. Western sensibilities declare this must happen before the wedding bells ring; Marriage Before Romance is basically unknown in those cultures. Simply put, this is Values Dissonance. It is entirely possible for a person in an arranged marriage to develop love for their spouse as time passes, and, in Real Life, many do. Besides, if networking can find you jobs and new friends, why not try it for finding a spouse? It might be more successful than doing it yourself (as some of those divorcees might remind you).
Pre-Existing EntanglementsInfidelity is another issue you could approach. Obviously, you need to be very careful with this one, because it could easily devolve into a Family-Unfriendly Aesop. But the simple fact is that people become unhappy in their relationships sometimes, and begin to look outside that relationship for emotional and/or sexual satisfaction... and, perhaps more worryingly, sometimes this can be a reasonable response. Consider what happened just before the camera started rolling on the Sitcom Friends. Ross Geller learns that Carol (née Wittick), his spouse of several years, has just had her Closet Key turned, and is a confirmed lesbian. They divorce, and Ross's introduction in the pilot episode is moping over the end of his marriage. What did Ross do wrong? Nothing—aside from marry a lesbian; but, in both his and Carol's defense, neither of them knew she was a lesbian at the time, and you can't really avoid something you don't know about. The thing about long-term relationships is that people have Character Development. They change job, change wardrobe, pick up new hobbies, start drinking like a fish (or stop), discover a new angle on their sexuality, etc. (It doesn't even have to be sexual orientation; maybe, in another version of the story, Carol gets really into a particular kink, while Ross doesn't.) Suddenly, Carol wants to live a completely new life... and, through no fault of their own, Ross and Carol are married to the wrong people.
Now, the traditional marriage vows address this: when you say, "For better or for worse," what you're saying is, "I promise to not only love the person you are today, but the stranger you will be tomorrow." And generally, one should keep one's promises. But the fact is that a spouse can become a stranger... and, like it or not, love is completely voluntary. It's something you choose to do. Push comes to shove, you can probably learn to love anyone... but should you have to? But then what about your vow? You could write some very interesting stories about the Gray and Grey Morality of this situation: the need to balance Honor Before Reason, the Happy Marriage Charade, and the very human and normal desires to participate in love and sex. (And notice that we haven't even added a third party into the fray yet; we're still talking about why someone might want to cheat in the first place.)
Gender RolesFinally, there are a vast number of tropes that are Always Male, Always Female, or related to the Double Standards we use to judge both men and women. Many of those tropes relate to this genre. How many of them can you invert, subvert, Gender Flip or flat-out avert? (Have you noticed that this article has never once used a gender pronoun for any of its "named" characters? Again, that was deliberate. What if you were to read them again, but this time reversing all the sex assumptions you made? Which read was more interesting?)
Suggested Themes and Aesops
Love Redeems. Love Makes You Evil. Love Hurts. Love Makes You Dumb. Love Makes You Crazy. We could go on about The Power of Love. Alternately, you could eschew all forms of Anvilicious and just write about The Power of Love. It's good stuff. It can change a life. (Heck, according to one prominent book, it changed the world.)
The Red String of Fate is a visual motif that has long been associated with love in Asian cultures. The heart symbol is a good one. There's flower motifs, for there is a language of flowers. Supposedly, giving a woman daisies means something else than giving her roses. You could play with Western Zodiac or Eastern Zodiac themes. And there's always The Rule of Symbolism, which works on anything. You could make a peach mean sex. You could also make it mean "Invisible Pink Unicorn." It's Up to You.
Having said that, it was mentioned earlier but can be mentioned again: a romance arc is very easy to thatch into just about any other plot, genre or ouevre. People have mated it to epic fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, comedy, drama, tragedy, Westerns, historicals... Hell, one madman put it on a sinking boat. And, in that movie, the romance arc shared top billing with the whole sinking-boat part. You can make a romance arc equal partners with any other genre, not just a subplot.
Set Designer / Location Scout
You can set a love story anywhere. A Token Romance is not defined by setting, but rather by the tone and focus of the story. Does your romance integrate smoothly into the rest of the story? If it doesn't, can you change the story to make it fit? If you decide to do this, make sure you get it right; The Reader will call foul if you don't. A romance novel revolves around a love story but the Reader can tell if you have too much hand in moving events.
Props DepartmentThe gifts people give, and how they are received, can say a lot. Whether it's a fancy diamond necklace, a pretty shell, or a tool for the mechanic, things are expressed—and, furthermore, things are perceived.
This might be a good time to mention another bit of Real Life techology: the "Five Love Languages" developed by marriage counselor Dr. Gary Chapman. Simply put, Chapman asserts that there are five main ways a person can express love or affection: Words of Praise (saying nice things), Receiving Gifts, spending Quality Time together, Physical Touch, and "Acts Of Service" (the only of the five that doesn't have its own article on The Other Wiki, but basically starts with the words, "Here, let me do that for you"). While all human beings are fluent in all five languages, people tend to specialize in one or two. For instance, All Men Are Perverts, so Physical Touch would be a big deal for just about any male character (or male actual-person). Vice versa, a Hollywood Homely woman (or actual-homely woman) might put a lot of importance being told she's beautiful, because so few people ever say that to her, and even fewer mean it. But what if your characters don't speak the same language? Devin loves giving gifts, but to Haley gift-giving is the least important of the five languages; Haley's very touchy-feely, but that just gets Devin's back up because the Ice Monarch isn't Defrosted yet.
Because here's the thing: When you do something, it's not what you intended that matters; it's how it's perceived that matters. Devin could spend five hours hand-crafting something for Haley... and if Haley just doesn't care, then Devin wasted all that time. Haley (on the other hand) loves to give back-rubs and massages, which Devin maybe could use because of the amount of stress Sam picks up over the course of life, job and etc... and which Devin doesn't care about, because "physical comfort" is way low down on Devin's list of priorities. "Why are you offering me this worthless thing?" Well, it's not worthless to the giver... But it's not the giver's opinion that matters. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. (Which is where you learn to share the giver's opinion; this is called Empathy. But that's another "So You Want To" article.)
Casting DirectorIn general, romance stories star attractive people, for the same reason porn movies tend to star attractive people: it's escapism, and we all want to think of ourselves as attractive. The good news is, in stories, you can make anyone attractive.
Here's another bit of advice, proved perfectly by Patrick Rothfuss' debut novel The Name of the Wind: don't make the character attractive, make the character lovable. A lot of beginning writers (especially in NSFW and/or Lemon fics) fall into this trap: they go into excruciating detail about Heather's blonde hair that flows in a shining river to just past her 16th vertebra, blue eyes that stretch precisely 4/5ths of the way towards her temples, perfect 34DD breasts, and so on and so forth. They are trying to create a "perfect woman," someone The Reader will inevitably find attractive. Well, they've already failed, because any reader who prefers Petite Pride and Raven Hair, Ivory Skin may—well, they may not be turned off by Heather, they're not exactly panting like a dog either. (Plus, all this detail about Heather's looks is often boring... which is the last thing you want, especially in the opening paragraphs of your story, which is where it's most likely to appear.) We have a trope on this very phenomenon, called "Informed Attractiveness," but no real sense of how to avert it. At least, before Patrick Rothfuss.
Rothfuss avoids this whole mess with Denna, his female lead. Instead of spending any amount of time on her appearance, Rothfuss makes it clear that his narrator is absolutely smitten. He lampshades the whole process via a wonderful interlude where the First-Person Smartass is reduced to spluttering when he tries to describe Denna's appearance, knowing there is no way he can do it correctly. In the end, he just admits straight out that he never saw her with eyes of flesh; he always looked upon her with eyes of love. "She was beautiful, to Kvothe at least. At least? To Kvothe, she was most beautiful." Even better, Rothfuss makes Denna interesting as a character, one that The Reader respects and cares about, even if they aren't necessarily head-over-heels with her the way our poor besotted narrator is. And now we're solidly on Denna's side, so that we (to quote Nick Carraway) "concentrate[d] on [her] with an irresistible prejudice in [her] favor." Now it doesn't matter what she looks like, because our regard for her is based on something far deeper than the shallow accidents of appearance.
How does this relate to casting? Simple: by using this technique—by getting The Reader to empathize with your lead you can then make them look like anything you damn well please, and still have The Reader love them. Your male lead could be the ugliest man on Earth. His love interest could have features all out of proportion, saggy wide flap-boobs and a nose that's too large. Heck, you don't have to describe them at all! Just give glimpses, flashes, capsule images. A tall lean man with an arrogant bearing, all cropped dark hair and brooding eyes—even if that's all you give, that's enough. Because that leaves The Reader's imagination free to fill in their own personal details about your hero... And tell me this: who's going to be better at inventing The Reader's perfect man? The Reader? Or you?
Invoke this. Exploit this. Give The Reader just enough of a coat-hanger that they can create their version of your character, and then leave it at that. Stories are always better when The Reader is the Casting Director.
Stunt DepartmentIn love, there are no stunt doubles. (As many a man Exiled to the Couch has learned.)
The GreatsWell, there's Romeo and Juliet, but take it with a grain of salt: the Alternative Character Interpretation, that the title characters were naive children who rushed into an infatuation (or just morons), is starting to become the Standard Character Interpretation. The epic of the early 20th century is probably Titanic (1997), or perhaps Brokeback Mountain. In between is a wide variety of authors and stories, some of which are good, some of which are Romance Novels, some of which is hidden at the porn sites and at least one of which got somewhat derailed because the male lead got bitten by a radioactive spider.
Two honorable mentions:
- The film Paris, je t'aime, a collection of 20 short films about love set in the most romanticized city of all time, Paris. This superb collection runs the gamut, from Love at First Sight, to Love At First Bite, to Love At First Punch, Unrequited Love, to relationship retrospectives, to falling out of love, falling back in love, keeping yourself in love, and the eulogy to a dead love affair - as well as a woman's brief love story with Paris itself.
- The films TRON: Legacy and Pacific Rim, which handle the love story via the almost-unseen Implied Love Interest trope. You could do worse than study these films' handling of romance as a subplot, one that (realistically) takes a back seat to the Action Movie foreplot of people fighting for their lives.
The Epic FailsThere are far too many to list here. Basically, this is anything that gets listed under Token Romance, Strangled by the Red String, Shipping Bed Death or similar tropes. Avoid anything you see on those pages like the plague, unless you're really eager to find out how not to do it.
Directed ReadingOne of your first stops is Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, the Zero Punctuation or Cracked Dot Com of the romance genre. A small cadre of smart bitches review trashy books, pointing out not just what works and what doesn't, but why the work or not-work happened. As a writer, that's worth its weight in gold to you (or it should be). And hey: at least one review was written by a troper!
Another good place to look is Limyaael's Fantasy Rants, particularly the Rants on Romance. Limyaael specializes in fantasy, but she has branched out enough that you'll find critiques that are applicable to just about any genre or topic. Romance is only one of them. There isn't necessarily much on What to Do, but there's a lot on What Not to Do, and hey, that ought to help narrow it down some.
And finally, just about any real-world romantic-advice column will have something you'll find useful. You can't be a good writer if you aren't a student of human nature. You're not playing in a world of abstract fantasy; you're trying to create characters who fall in love the same way real people do. So why not just study how real people fall in love and apply it to your characters? Just as one example, John Cheese of Cracked also wrote a column, Five Ways You Know It's Time To Get Married, which does an excellent job of describing what it's like to be inside a working, functional relationship—something Cheese would know, having been in a crap-ton of dysfunctional ones before. (It also doubled as a Wacky Marriage Proposal.) Another is Tim Urban of Waitbutwhy, who wrote a double article on "How To Pick Your Life Partner" — one part focusing on all the things people get wrong, and the other on what to do instead. And there's always Mark Manson, an extraordinarily talented columnist who has written extensively on dating and relationships. Just as one example, he polled 1,500 people who had been married for at least 10 years and found the list of 10 things all those couples do.