Writing romance is perennially popular, and romance novels continue to sell in great numbers. Learn how to write a romance novel and avoid clichés in your love story ideas, themes and characters. Start with these 9 romance writing tips:
- Know the romance genre (and your own subgenre) inside out
- Choose love story ideas that allow character development
- Show how characters’ backstories and personalities affect their relationships
- Learn how to write a romance novel using flawed (rather than perfect) characters
- Make obstacles to your characters’ romance interesting but believable
- Avoid writing bad sex scenes (unless part of your story)
- Limit overused romance plot tropes
- Avoid clichéd romantic character descriptions
- Turf clichéd romance character types
Let’s examine each of these ideas closer:
1. Know the romance genre (and your subgenre) inside out
When you don’t read widely within the romance genre (or your own romantic subgenre), it’s easier to use worn-out plot or descriptive details without realising.
Clichés in the paranormal romance subgenre, for example, include:
- Mythical human hybrids as troubled, ‘bad boy’ romantic heroes. At the very least, give your shape-shifting bad boy a twist or invent your own, unfamiliar paranormal mythological hybrid
- The special, unique hero/heroine: The romantic protagonist is quirky or different and this point is driven home relentlessly
Reading widely within your genre gives you an overview of what stories, plots and character types the romance market is already saturated with. This will help you prioritise story ideas and arcs that offer newer angles on old themes.
2. Choose love story ideas and themes that allow character development
Character relationships that feel real foster readers’ investment in how stories unfold. Believable characters develop and change over the course of a novel. Some love story ideas allow more character development than others.
If you look at a classic, mainstream love story, for example The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, the story’s core events do plenty of groundwork for further character development:
- The romantic duo, Allie and Noah, are thwarted by the wealthy Allie’s disapproving family
- The pair meet while Allie is on holiday, but she returns to the family home in Charleston. Distance tests their commitment
- Noah enlists to fight in World War II while Allie volunteers at a hospital for the wounded
These are just some of the circumstances – distance, background conflicts, interfering relatives – that broaden the central story theme (‘forbidden love’).
Although forbidden love is a common romantic theme that could stray into cliché, Sparks includes external forces that develop his characters and test their commitment to each other. Not making the main characters the only agents of their entanglement (and separation) adds greater breadth and realism than if they were simply inseperable from first meeting. It also allows greater romantic tension and suspense.
3. Show how characters’ backstories and personalities affect their relationships
One of the reasons why instant attraction between romantic leads feels clichéd is that the connection doesn’t feel earned. In life it’s equally common for the beginning stages of a relationship to be full of uncertainty and confusion.
Romance characters’ personal histories shouldn’t be entirely absent from the story. To create a sense of how your characters’ pasts affect the present, think about:
- Templates: Parental relationships often shape people’s ideals (or, in the case of toxic relationships, fears) when seeking out a romantic partner. How might characters’ primary romantic fears and goals tie back to the templates they’ve been given?
- Past romantic relationships: A character recently out of a hurtful relationship could spring into a rebound relationship to forget, or might be closed to any new romance. Think about the motivations driving your characters’ romantic behaviour and create a visual diagram of the causes and effects that drive them
You don’t have to share each character’s romantic or family history with the reader explicitly. But ask these questions about your characters so your romantic scenes are built on foundations of believable character psychology.
4. Learn how to write a romance novel with flawed (not perfect) characters
Part of why believable character psychology and history makes characters more interesting is that the reader sees not only external conflicts influencing their behaviour (e.g. the interfering mother in The Notebook) but internal conflicts too.
While it’s feasible that two characters have no considerable baggage, conflict is a key ingredient for making a story dynamic and adding degrees of unpredictability and uncertainty.
Example character flaws that could create challenges in your fictional relationships include:
- Anger management issues
- Emotional frigidity
- Oversensitivity or its opposite, lack of sensitivity
- Hyper-critical or judgmental tendencies
- Jealousy and insecurity
- A dominant or submissive personality (if either cause frustration for a character’s other half)
- Narcissism or lack of confidence
Clichéd romance stories often show growing chemistry that is reduced down to repetitive physical gestures – blushing, tensing, gazing, touching. Yet an emphasis on embodied expressions of chemistry sometimes ignores the psychological and emotional strengths and shortcomings that shape how we relate to each other.
5. Make obstacles to your characters’ romance interesting but believable
Tension is a key ingredient of story. In a mystery novel, it’s often an unknown murderer’s identity. A romance novel (or movie or series) has ‘romantic tension’. The reader/viewer senses chemistry and attraction brewing, and the primary question is ‘when (will they be together)?’
Obstacles to your characters being together supply the bumps in the road that make your characters’ journey towards each other interesting and credible. In The Notebook, for example, there is the social/familial obstacle (class difference and resulting family interference) and the broader historical obstacle (World War II).
Avoid romantic obstacle clichés such as the go-to soap opera favourite: Random cases of amnesia. (On the other hand, Alice Munro’s fine story ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ subtly explores love and forgetting in the context of ageing and Alzheimer’s).
Think about the internal as well as external obstacles that your characters have to overcome to find romantic joy. Are there details of setting, for example, that might impede them (e.g. rising costs of housing in the inner city force a character to move far away from their love interest)?
6. Avoid writing bad sex scenes (unless part of your story)
Because sex and sexuality are such personal things, it’s hard to write sex scenes that translate, that readers from diverse walks of life will find erotic. What we find sexy is personal as well as cultural. Bad sex writing is often the least subtle. Avoid over-the-top similes and metaphors (unless you’re aiming for winning the ‘Bad Sex Award’). Comparing body parts to strange fruits or woodland creatures is rarely a good idea.
There are exceptions to every rule. Clichéd sex writing often tries too hard to titillate and excite readers. Attempts to be poetic using metaphorical language and euphemisms easily become purple prose.
Cautions aside, you might want to describe an awkward, uncomfortable sex scene using exactly this type of baroque language. Ultimately, the degree of eroticism should fit your story, your characters, and your genre.
One way to write good sex scenes is to leave more to the reader’s imagination. When in doubt, be direct. Call parts and actions by their names.
7. Limit overused romance plot tropes
A ‘trope’ in fiction is a significant or recurrent theme. The word’s often used to refer to a theme that is so common that it has become clichéd. Vaguely medieval settings and dragons, for example, are fantasy tropes.
There are countless romance plot tropes. For example, in YA and teen movies, there’s the plain girl who transforms, a la Cinderella, into a great beauty overnight, winning the attentions of the most handsome boy in school.
TV Tropes points out more problematic romance tropes, such as ‘But Not Too Foreign’. In this cliché, a romantic hero (usually the man) has some partial ‘Other’ ethnicity but is still sufficiently similar (visually or culturally) to not make his partner (and, by extension, the assumed audience) too uncomfortable about their own position, privilege or prejudice.
The problem with romance plot tropes is they often ring untrue. They indulge in wish fulfillment and fantasy that might repeat unimaginative or even damaging stereotypes (e.g. the notion a woman must change everything about herself to attract a self-centred, oblivious prince charming).
To write interesting and original love stories, familiarise yourself with the most common romance tropes and think of ways to subvert your readers’ expectations.
8. Avoid clichéd romantic character descriptions
Character description is where many authors dip into cliché. Beginners in all genres often reach for eye colour or the size of characters’ eyes in character description. Yet there are much more interesting (and telling) ways to describe characters, visually and otherwise.
Beware clichéd and dead metaphors for appearances and love. Describing characters by comparison to the planets, for example. In the episode of the sci-fi cartoon Futurama ‘I Dated a Robot’, the central character Fry starts dating a robotic clone of American actress Lucy Liu. Futurama satirises romance clichés (and the idea of dating what is ultimately a computer) when Lucy Liubot says in a monotone: ‘Oh, Fry, I love you more than the moon, the stars, the… POETIC IMAGE #36 NOT FOUND’.
Such is the deadening effect of cliché, the nondescript, comical error message, ‘poetic image #36’ is the most original and striking metaphor for an unimaginably big love in this sentence.
9. Turf clichéd romantic character types
Besides romantic plot clichés, romantic stories that lack imagination often feature clichéd character types. The brooding, sulky romantic hero is one. If you think about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, what makes Mr. Darcy an interesting character is not so much that he is brooding and sulky but the subtleties of how Austen changes this perception of Darcy’s nature over the course of the novel.
Other clichéd character types (as Anne Marble lists here), include the ‘Evil Other Woman’, the romantic hero’s conniving mistress (this category often includes the romantic lead’s ‘evil’ ex-wife). This is a character type authors sometimes use to explain why the romantic lead has a negative or even misogynistic view of women. This is the woman who has ‘ruined’ a romantic hero for other women. Yet each character should ideally have their own credible goals and motivations, and should not merely exist to push your primary romantic leads closer or supply their complications.
Work out your cast of romantic characters using Now Novel’s guided Idea Finder and get feedback on your romance writing from the Now Novel commmunity or a dedicated writing coach.