Writing love stories can be lucrative. Publishing sensations such as Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts as well as literary romance authors have found legions of readers. Why? Because best-loved romantic stories have key ingredients of a good tale: character and plot, tension, suspense, and (often) wonder and surprise. Yet there are many pitfalls in romantic writing:
1: Uniting your lovers too early
This is a flaw in writing love stories you often see in romantic sitcoms.
In the first season of a rom-com, for example, two complete opposites might love to hate each other. Yet by the end of the season they’re in each other’s arms. If their rivalry is the story’s central tension, what tension remains for Season 2?
You could, of course, find other sources of tension and mystery. Perhaps your characters move in together, for example, and this creates new challenges. Yet when you answer the biggest question (whether or not two characters will unite) early, this often kills tension.
Many romance epics are lengthy because their authors tease out the obstacles preventing lovers from being together. This works because the main story resolution is postponed while other interesting subplots unfold.
2: Making a main character a Mary Sue
The fiction term ‘Mary Sue’, as Springhole defines it, means:
‘A character (male, female, or otherwise) who is given or is expected to be given unwarranted preferential treatment and unearned respect, thereby compromising the integrity and believability of the story and/or its characters.’
Mary Sues are a common pitfall in writing love stories. The author’s intent to make two characters romantic partners might lead them to give them unrealistic qualities to make romance happen.
For example, if a character has had a traumatic past but this trauma only serves to make their ‘other half’ more attracted to and protective of them, this could make the traumatized character seem like a cardboard cutout Mary Sue.
On the other hand, if the past trauma adds complications (for example hostility due to defensiveness), the character could seem less like a Mary Sue and more like a real person with a real past.
Essentially, avoid silencing cause and effect solely for the sake of two characters ending up in love. This will help you create a romantic duo who have personal histories independently of each other. [Create believable characters and balance plot and character with the help of our guide, ‘How to Write Real Characters’. Includes a workbook with exercises and extra videos when you create a Now Novel account.]
3: Creating a ‘Happy People in Happy Land’ scenario
One of the major pitfalls of writing love stories is making the warmth of care between two characters constant, to dulling effect. As a murder mystery needs the menace of the unknown killer, a great romance explores the unknowns of human desire, its ups and downs.
In love stories where the romantic leads never bicker, never feel unsure, there is insufficient tension. True, there are even, extremely stable relationships in real life. Yet the ‘blood and guts’ romances in particular (Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina) endure, in part, because dramatic elements add complexity, light and shade.
Story scenarios that foster intriguing character and plot development, as well as drama:
- Physical distance: E.g. Two characters are separated by a war (Nicolas Sparks uses this premise in his 1996 novel The Notebook)
- Competing wants: E.g. One character may want to have children while the other doesn’t
- Interfering third parties or rivals: This is a staple feature in many love stories. In The Notebook, main character Allie’s overbearing mother whisks her away. In Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (based loosely on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice), the characters Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy fight over the main love interest, the title character
Friction and tension arising from the above or other sources will help to give your love story the light and shade, rising and falling action, that makes a story engrossing.
4: Making characters stereotypical romantic ideals
When writing love stories it might be tempting to make main characters pure wish fulfillment. Whether you write m/f romance, m/m, f/f or write about other combination of non-binary genders or polyamorous relationships, real characters are the lifeblood of intriguing stories.
Nicholas Sparks, writing for Glamour magazine, puts it thus:
‘Do create ordinary characters that do extraordinary things: I try to create characters who are familiar enough to be relatable – but who are moved by the power of love to do extraordinary things.’
Sometimes romance writers do make their protagonists perfectly sculpted and manicured. Yet stories of ordinary characters transformed by love permit ordinary readers to join the fantasy. They avoid setting the romance in an alien world where everyone is gorgeous and no-one has problems or flaws.
Similarly, avoid simplistic, easy gender stereotypes. Romance is full of women waiting to be swept off their feet by men, or men who have no vulnerabilities. One of the founding figures of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud, wrote ‘anatomy is destiny’. Yet we now know sex, gender and psychology are far more complex. Environment (e.g. family and early childhood templates) and numerous other social factors all influence our psychology.
5: Writing love stories full of clichés
Clichés in fiction are something we covered here. When writing love stories, there are at least three types of clichés to avoid:
- Clichéd character archetypes: For example, what Springhole refers to as the ‘Woman of Ice’ (a character who is tough-as-all-hell until a foe makes them need a hero’s rescuing). Some would say Bella Swan from the Twilight series is a prime example.
- Clichéd plot elements: Many romances (especially TV romances) involve characters who hate each other and end up crazy in love. This is partly because the ‘hate’ phase makes for good TV, allowing plenty of quips, clapbacks and one-liners. This plot arc often seems forced if there is little chemistry or commonality between both from the start
- Clichéd settings: Chocolate box settings such as beaches at sunset are tropes (repeated, reproduced story elements) that lead some romances into Cheese-ville. Look for the romantic in unexpected situations and places if you’d prefer to keep things less predictable
Start brainstorming and developing more cohesive ideas (with feedback from other writers) to avoid common romance writing mistakes.
Cover image by Hanny Naibaho