Un-sappy Romance

On March 24, 2010, Marzo wrote, I’ve always wanted to try incorporating romance into my stories, but I’ve never really known how to write a romance well without it seeming, I don’t know, too sappy?  I don’t know if you’ve answered this in a different post, but do you have some tips for writing romance?
I’ve never written a book that was only a romance.  Most of mine are fantasy adventures with romance as one of the plot threads.

There must be many approaches to love and romance, and I hope other writers reading the blog will post theirs.

Even if you’ve never fallen in romantic love in real life, I’d guess you’ve fallen in like and in other sorts of love many times – with a new friend, a pet, a person you’ve known forever but have just come to appreciate.  How does it happen?  How did it happen to you?

Often it’s an accretion (if you don’t know the word, look it up!) of incidents and character traits that produces like and love.  Somebody says something that expresses exactly how you feel but have never been able to put into words, and you feel a deep connection.  This may be trite:  a smile that lights up a face can flip my heart.  Humor, as long as it’s not at someone’s expense, draws me in.  Maybe the smile is a tad sappy if all there is is a smile, but along with other details, the sappiness fades to unimportance.

Details count in writing love as in writing everything else.  The reader needs to know exactly what the heroine said that flew straight into the hero’s soul.  And the reader needs to be told enough about the hero to understand why he felt so touched.  For example, my late and much missed friend Nedda often told stories on herself and laughed uproariously.  I adored the stories and the loud belly laugh, but someone else might have been embarrassed by one or both.

When I want people to fall in love I think of them as jigsaw-puzzle pieces that need to fit together.  This bit of him has to satisfy that place in her that’s been starved, and vice versa.  Maybe I see it this way because of my parents, who remained in love for forty-nine years until my father’s death.  My mother finished college (at the age of sixteen); he didn’t complete high school.  He loved having a brilliant wife.  My father was smart, too, but very modest.  My mother loved my father’s innocence and sweetness.  She could be a wee bit tart.  He loved her complexity.  They argued sometimes, but fundamentally they filled the aspects of each other that needed filling.

So think about what your characters need and even crave.  In my Princess Tale, Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep, I echo my parents’ relationship.  Princess Sonora is the smartest person on earth by a factor of ten.  She’s eager to share her knowledge, but no one wants to listen.  Prince Christopher is curious about everything, and people tire of his endless questions.  They are made for each other.  In another Princess Tale, The Fairy’s Return, Robin makes up jokes for which he is scorned by his father and brothers.  Princess Lark thinks his jokes are hysterical.  Everyone treats her with kid gloves, which makes her feel stifled, but Robin doesn’t.  They are also primed for love.

Turning to pets:  Any domestic animal needs care and calls on us for protection.  Protectiveness is part of love, in my opinion, and a mutual part, too.  The boy isn’t the sole protector.  He’s watching out for her, and she’s got his back as well.  In Ella Enchanted, for example, Char arrives in time to keep Ella from being eaten, but she saves him and his knights by making the ogres docile.  A common enemy can help bring your characters together.

Pets again:  Puppies misbehave.  Our Baxter is nine, and he still misbehaves.  Animals can’t hide their feelings.  We know when they’re happy, frightened, stubborn, jealous.  We see them at their worst and love them anyway.  They’re naked literally (unless decked out in a vest or party hat) and figuratively.  Of course, they have no choice, but their freedom makes us free.  We tell our pets our secrets and let them see us cry and pound the pillow.  This kind of intimacy and acceptance is part of love.  In my novel, Fairest, Ijori is aware of Aza’s self-loathing and loves her anyway, and she forgives him and loves him even after he lets himself be convinced that she might be part ogre.  King Oscaro loves Queen Ivi, who is riddled with faults.  When we show characters fall in love despite their frailties, we create depth and move light years away from sappiness.

Another love and like-maker is admiration.  I usually – not always – respond in kind to being highly regarded.  I think better of the person who thinks well of me, and so can characters.  Being loved can be a turn-on.  In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland’s admiration sparks Henry Tilney’s love for her.

Fun can lead to love.  For this post, I looked at romantic moments in some of my books.  The heroes and heroines are having a terrific time together.  They thrive on being together.  Mutual admiration ricochets back and forth, and each feels at his and her best, wittiest, most interesting, handsomest-prettiest, most awake.

Underlying everything is the physical side of romance, the chemistry.  You can be subtle with this, too.  There is the heightened sense of being alive, which readers will recognize.  Pleasure in one another’s company has a physical aspect.  The two can simply stand near each other and feel the air shimmer between them.  Their eyes can meet.  Eye contact is powerful, can be hostile, can be romantic, especially if the gaze is soft.  In a romantic moment one character can notice his breathing become shallow, another can feel warm in a chilly room.  One or both can blush.  I just googled “signs of romantic attraction” and read that hair touching, licking lips (one’s own), dropping the gaze and then looking back, leaning toward the other person – all can be indicators that an author can use.

And you can make up your own.  For example, suppose Maryanne has a scar next to her right eye.  It’s tiny, but it embarrasses her.  When she’s attracted to a boy, she puts her hand on the spot to cover it.  Then she thinks that may look silly, so she takes her hand away and extends her face a little.  You, the writer, put her through this quick sequence a couple of times at a party to introduce it.  (You don’t want to overdo.)  Then, two days later, she sits next to a particular boy at a school play and does it.  The reader understands instantly what’s going on.

Or Jeff becomes clumsy in the presence of someone who interests him.  Stuart pulls his shoulders back and widens his stance.  Sharyn rises on tiptoe.

I heart making people fall in love!

Here are some prompts:

•    Working from the fairytale “Beauty and the Beast,” write an early scene between the two.  The Beast, although severely handicapped, wants to win Beauty over.  What does he do?  Contrive the scene so that he has at least a little success.

•    One half of a romantic relationship has hurt the feelings of the other.  Show the offender winning back the affections of his beloved.

•    It is the night of July 4th.  The graduating seniors of the town high school have collected to watch the fireworks.  Penny and Nick flirted for the last four years, but nothing came of it.  The next morning Penny will leave for an out-of-town summer with relatives, and in the fall she goes to a distant college.  She wants Nick to remember her forever as his lost opportunity.  (Maybe she’s a little annoyed at him for never making a move.)  What does she do?  Write the scene.  She may succeed or not.  Go with what happens.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. Great post. I liked all the pointers, especially that example about Maryanne.
    Can I add that I love the romance you write in your books? It's not overdone, or sappy. Just sweet and just right. (Ella and Char = adorable). 🙂

  2. I don't usually set out to write romance in my stories – or, at least, no romance that the characters recognize as such. I find that if you make characters be friends, first, on the basis of interests or just being thrown together, it's easier to write in romance later.

  3. Very interesting and helpful post!
    I recently came across an insightful article about character relationships – it can be found here: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/04/john-green-and-dynamic-character.html
    Basically, the article talks about a book where the relationship between two characters switches back and forth between up and down moments, which gradually build in intensity. It's a method that helps build suspense and makes the reader wonder how everything is going to work out.
    My work-in-progress has only a touch of romance in it, but I still find myself using that method. Interesting.

  4. This post is really thought provoking and fun. I love the concept of balance and characters fitting together, and the examples of habits characters have when they like someone are funny and help give each romance an individual dynamic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and advice as always!

  5. I love this post. I have this same idea–I don't want sappiness–and I agree with what Rose said, that the romance can usually come on its own when the characters have been friends for a long time.

  6. Ms. Levine,
    You have answered my prayers! Thank you! This helps me immensely. My work is progress has much more romance in it than I ever dared to write before, and I found myself fumbling with it terribly; but no longer! My only question is: do readers always need to know why two people like each other or can the reasons be a mystery as long as the relationship works out? Like for instance if I'm writing in 1st person and a character notices her friend likes this boy and the two end up getting together(the friend and the boy), is that okay even though the main character never asked her friend what she sees in this boy? Or will the reader want to know what attracts the two of them?

  7. I wish more romances were written this way. Sweet and tender, with growing fondness.

    These days there's so much sex and other kinds of garbage that it all just ruins the experience—I can't enjoy the romance. Ick.

    Thank you for staying clean. It's really, really appreciated.

  8. @ Grace – I always find it more satisfying if I know why the characters are interested in each other. Otherwise it seems set-up just to keep them busy.
    On the other hand, if your main character isn't the sort to ask her friend about why she likes the boy, I can see why you wouldn't put it in. Perhaps your main character could observe actions or words between her friend and the boy, which make it clearer why they like each other?
    But this is a personal opinion. I can think of some stories where it would be quite all right to leave the reasons unsaid.
    Hope this helps.

  9. @Grace-To add on to what Rose said, you may even have the main character question why they like each other and decide that he or she just doesn't care. Clarifying that for the audience might help fill the "hole" some might find in a plot without you having to state a reason. A choice like that might also help readers understand your main character better.

  10. @April – Reading your comment has me wanting to jump up with my hands in the air, shouting 'Me too!' That's exactly how I feel. I immediately dislike any romance when it's not clean.

    That's the reason I love your books so much, Ms. Levine – and I'll just echo April's words, for she couldn't have said it better: Thank you for staying clean. It's really, really appreciated.

    (And here I've gone on a rant. Sorry!)

    But…what do you think of this? Recently, an author I know blogged about morality and the openness of books. She says

    (("I have claimed that as an author, I cannot be the bearer of morals, cannot create morals in my books but can only be true to the story and allow the reader to create her/his own morals…Many of my readers push back, parents who believe that children's and young adult writers have an obligation to have moral standards and create boundaries in their books so as not to expose children to issues/situations that are age inappropriate."))

    I would really love to know your opinion on this (If you would like me to include the link, I'll do so.)

  11. Thank you everyone, your advice helps, a lot.
    Joining in on the conversation a little late, but Amen to clean romances! I agree with April and F.

  12. April, F, Grace–I wrote about the question of morals in my post of September 2, 2009. I do like to write books readers can safely escape into, because those are the kinds of books I loved as a kid (except for my high school years) and they're the books I like now.
    F–Please include the link. I'm curious, and if I have anything to add, I will.

  13. Thank you so much, this helps a lot!

    My question is one geared more toward publishing. I finished my first book and I found an agent that I would like to submit to. Do you have any advice on query letters and submissions in general? I have read a few things, but I still feel somewhat in the dark on the subject. Thank you so much!

  14. I feel like whenever I try to write something serious it comes off sounding melodramatic, so I'm going to try some of your tips!

    And I've got another question for you. How do you cope with revision requests/suggestions, or did you never have a problem with them? Do you find that they were easier or harder to take after you got a contract or had a book published?

    @ April, F And Grace – Since Ms. Levine can't write enough books to fill all our reading hours, 🙂 have you read Janette Rallison's books? If you like fantasy, start with MY FAIR GODMOTHER. And you'll find a comment of hers on that blog F mentioned. 🙂 She comments further on it on her blog: http://janette-rallison.blogspot.com/2010/06/morals-and-values-in-ya-lit-or-janette.html

    Jessica – for query advice, I would recommend: http://www.querytracker.net/
    http://pubrants.blogspot.com/ – look in the right sidebar for query examples and advice
    http://blog.nathanbransford.com/ – look in the left sidebar
    Not that I've had success yet, but I'm still hopeful. 🙂

  15. Jessica–Erin Edwards' advice looks good, and I commented on this question after my May 19, 2010 post.
    Erin Edwards–What a great question! I don't have a quick answer, so I'm adding the question to my list.

  16. @Erin – Ah, no I haven't. I'm checking out her blog now.

    @Ms. Gail C. Levine – I posted the link! Above. 🙂 ((Sorry if that sounds pushy, I'm interested in your answer. It's kind of a different question than the one you addressed in your post…I think so.))

  17. Sorry for the double-comment-post, but I just read Janette's blog post.
    Holy cow…that was something. And I now recall hers was the only comment I agreed with when I read the blog post I linked to.

  18. Thanks, Mrs. Levine!
    I my next question was going to be on this very topic.
    As others have said, thanks for keeping your novels clean, as that seems to be a feature quickly fading from writing for teens. 😐

    Anywho, my question from the last post was along the lines of writing about an alter-ego.
    The character I'm writing about is the opposite of myself, so I get stuck on how to make the character "work" with the story. I keep adding elements of myself that don't fit the character, and am not sure how to fix what I've written.

    Thanks! 😀

  19. Learned a new word today: accretion. Thanks to you. 🙂 This is a post I'll likely be reading again and again as I have a bit of romance in my novel and you gave some great tips.

  20. F–I think it's possible to agree with Shannon Hale's post, as I do, and still write with an underlying awareness that seven-year olds and even a few genius-level six-year olds are going to read my books. I'm not sure if I've answered your question, though. Have I?

    EquusFerusCaballus–I doubt I could write from the point of view of someone completely unlike me. I think I'd have a hard time making the character real. No wonder bits of you creep in. You may want to consider approaching your story differently.

  21. Mmmm…I think you have, a bit. Do you think authors only have to write what would satisfy their internal reader, or that they have a duty to think of the actual readers as well?

    What I mean to say is, say, you think that it would be appropriate for the characters to curse in a given situation – I mean, this and that has just happened to them! But, the readers…they may dislike seeing the words actually in print. One can easily substitute writing the words with a 'He let out a stream of carefully chosen curses' or somesuch. We get to know the characters angry. We don't have to see the words.
    But to satisfy 'your internal reader', the author chose to print the words, rather than allude to them, choosing to ignore the fact that it might be inappropriate for a few readers. :/

    Does that make sense? What's your take on it?

  22. Thank you, I had actually been following Pub Rants and had used those, but wanted a few more to get a better idea.

    F- I would personally rather you just said he/she cursed than actually using the words simply because of where I stand on swearing and I think we get enough in real life, but I think it's a personal choice. If it's a children's book though, keeping it as clean as possible is always reccommended because they don't need to know colorful words.

  23. F – I think it depends a good deal on the tone of the book and the audience. Personally, I prefer a book that doesn't have strong language in it to one that does, all other things being equal. Even if some readers wouldn't mind, others might.

  24. @Jessica – agreed, completely.

    @Rose – True. I had forgotten to think about the tone and target audience. But I prefer those without strong language, too.

  25. Wow.

    Hello, I am the original person who asked this question. I know this is 5 YEARS ago, but I realized looking at the comments that I never actually thanked you for answering. This is a great post and I remember being absolutely ecstatic when you responded.

    Also, I just wanted to say that I'll be having my first short story published very soon–you were one of my biggest writing inspirations growing up, so thank you.

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