Love’s labor

On Feb 4, 2012, Clare wrote, Romance can be difficult for me to write variations of. My romance is generally all the same, with two people starting out as friends who tend to smack each other a lot and then they fall madly in love through a series of unfortunate events. I currently have an idea for a really good story, but the plot is going to need to be moved forward by unlikely romance.
    The relationship between hero and heroine starts out when they need to pretend to be engaged to save the hero from being embarrassed in front of his whole hometown. How could I painlessly move them into actual romance? Would a meddlesome minor character be a good idea?
    I really want it to be realistic, and not tacky. I guess it’s difficult when you’re young and inexperienced when it comes to romantic situations. It looks and sounds so good in my head, but I’m having trouble figuring out the execution.

The situation you describe sounds plausible. Van is vulnerable because he’s embarrassed that he doesn’t have a fiancee. We see that Nell is kind because she’s willing to help him out. Pretending to be in love leads naturally to thoughts of actually being in love. And if they’re pretending to be engaged, they would have to be physically close. Let’s imagine the event that occasioned the charade is a high school reunion. Van would probably put his arm around Nell’s shoulder. She might adjust his tie or dab chocolate sauce off his chin. If there’s any physical attraction, these little intimate act, will get the romantic wheels turning. If there’s no physical attraction, the whole thing is probably sunk, so you’re going to need to get into the physical side at least a little. Depending on the kind of story you’re writing, a few hints may be enough: a racing heart, trembling hands.

What’s set up so far may actually be too easy if this story is to be a happy-ever-after romance. If falling in love is just a prelude to separation – they’re divided by war, kidnaping, natural disaster, whatever – and the real story is the adventure that ultimately will end in tragedy or reunion, then you’re set. But if you’re writing romantic comedy or straight romance, then you need to create trouble between the two.

What are some of the possibilities?

A bad romantic history. Maybe the love of Van’s life broke up with him a month ago. Or Nell keeps falling disastrously in love with law school students, and Van is a law school student, so the red flags are up.

Unrealistic expectations. Van’s romantic ideal is an artist, and Nell is as practical and un-artistic as toothpaste. Nell wants her man to be athletic, and Van is gangly and apt to trip crossing a room.

Bad timing. Nell is leaving for two years studying agriculture in Siberia. Van thinks he won’t have time for romance until he finishes grad school.

Or something intrinsic to the situation. Nell helps Van, but she’s a tougher character than he is. She thinks he’s weird for needing to pretend to be engaged. Why can’t he just tell the truth? And he’s so embarrassed by his pathetic plight that he just goes through the motions and doesn’t focus on Nell at all.

The options are endless. Van might need Nell because an old girlfriend will be at the reunion. The girlfriend renews her interest in him, and he dumps Nell. Or another man at the reunion gets interested in Nell and she dumps Van or he behaves badly. It’s fun making these up! There are eggs in the canapes. Nell is allergic to them and breaks out in huge hives, and Van laughs. To make conversation, Van tells Nell about a constitutional case he’s studying, and she feels unintelligent. To combat the feeling, she spouts about agricultural practices in Siberia in the most technical terms.

It’s a juggling act, because, although matters aren’t going well, the mutual appeal has to remain. You need to keep the two apart until the climax when the misunderstandings are untangled or when some event causes the eureka moment that finally unites the two.

For romance to work, we (readers) have to enter the inner life of Van or Nell or both. We have to know their thoughts, feelings, physical responses, and the rationales for the irrational things they’re driven to do. For the POV character, if you’re writing in first person, you have direct access to all of these. For the non-POV character you have actions, dialogue, emails and text messages between the two and maybe Van can glimpse Nell’s diary or something she’s written.

The romance is likely to fall apart if we come to hate one of them. If Nell deliberately disregards Van’s feelings, we’re going to want him to get together with his old girlfriend or to turn into a frog. They can be foolish or awkward or misguided and we’ll probably go along, but hateful or obnoxious behavior may make us jump ship.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that we the readers upon encountering two single characters will speculate about, and most likely wish for, romance between them. A lot of your work is already done just by putting Van and Nell in the story. The suspension of disbelief writers work for is willingly bestowed by readers. When we pick up a book and start reading, we’re eager to enter a new world. If you’re inexperienced at real-life romance, you can lay that inexperience on your characters and we’ll buy it. Van or Nell or both can be doofuses about love.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write about Van and Nell. Use any of the scenarios that Clare and I laid out. Van doesn’t have to be a law student, and Nell doesn’t have to be an agricultural expert.

∙ Invent a romance between Gretel of “Hansel and Gretel” fame. She’s smart and fearless. He can spin straw and who-knows-what-else into gold.

∙ The craziest romance in all of fairy tales, I think, is in the traditional telling of “Snow White.” He falls in love with her although he thinks she’s dead. She wakes up madly in love with him. In Fairest, I gave them a back story to make it work, but in this case, just try writing their meeting when she wakes up.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that we the readers upon encountering two single characters will speculate about, and most likely wish for, romance between them.” That is so true! Actually, it brings to mind a question. In my sequel, there is a main character from the previous book who is tough and always concealing his emotions. There is a new character in this book that the same way except she’s a girl. I introduced her in this book to soften the main and finally give him a friend, but as they both notice themselves showing emotion around one another, getting embarrassed around each another, and actually liking each other, it’s looking as much like a romance as it is like a friendship, maybe more. And then there’s that “universal truth,” that makes everyone want it to be a romance. How can I make people see that it’s just a friendship? Or, do you think I should just let it turn into a romance after all?

  2. Clare's scenario totally reminds me of the movie "A Walk in the Clouds" such a good story. Thank you Gail for sharing such grand advice with us wanna-be-writers! -Hannah

  3. From the website:

    In my romance, things work out a bit differently and I'm not sure how to pull my characters through it together by the end.
    In the beginning, they've been best friends for years. He is a typical scienctist who can't stay in a room for an entire conversation but will act like he's at Coney Island examining something under his microscope. She's a wealthy heiress, who enjoys things like flirting, expensive vacations, and dresses. When she feels he isn't paying enough attention to her she manipulates him with jealousy. Neither of them have said anything, ever, about romance (to each other).
    In the book, where there is a lot of action and fighting, the woman gets badly hurt and the man decides that he should give up violence. He does, and later goes through something similar to Post Tramatic Stress Disorder or schizophrenia and adopts a new name and personality.
    I'm not sure how to end this so that he's himself by the end of the book. Thoughts?
    Lydia S

  4. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that we the readers upon encountering two single characters will speculate about, and most likely wish for, romance between them." BRILLIANT. That defines me reading any book EVER. I sometimes annoy myself with that tendency, too, but hey.

    That was a great post, Mrs Levine! 😀 I felt like I learnt quite a bit. I have an idea sitting on the backburner too, about a romance, and I think I have a better idea of how to go about it, now!

  5. Thank you for all your post, they have really made be a better writer, or at least way better from where I started from. I had started a short novel a bunch of months back off of an idea that I couldn't keep in my head any longer. For the first couple days I wrote like a mad women, trying to get down all the ideas flowing through my head. Many pages later I slowed down and finally I stopped. I had come to a 'dead end.' I wasn't out of ideas but the current idea I lead off from made me realize something when I came to the 'dead end,' I had no idea where the story was leading off to! When I started writing I had a couple of ideas to some events which I wanted to happen but then I realized that I hadn't really thought of any 'main problem' or climax, no real moral, and or no ending. It has been months since I have touched the story and I really want to get back into it. Should I edit up what I have, start anew or continue where I left? Have any advice?

  6. Lydia, neither PTSD nor schizophrenia would be likely to make someone adopt a new name and personality. Some sort of dissociative disorder might, but it's very rare. Might he do it voluntarily, to reject his past?

  7. Gail, this is my first time commenting but I wanted to thank you so much for this blog! I love writing and, though I'm 21, I still love your books (I recently reread Ella Enchanted for the first time in a while and had such a blast), so this blog has been a gold mine find.

    I find your advice here good, but had a kind of off-topic question. I've been reading through your other blog entries, and I notice that you mention how it often takes writing a few hundred pages before you realise a point of view is not the best one to use, and then you switch. In my case, I'm writing a novel in first person POV and present tense, as opposed to my usual tendency to write third person omniscient and past tense. So far, it's been working (I'm about eight chapters in, though I couldn't tell you exactly how many pages because it's interspersed throughout my paper journal), but I've always imagined that I would go back and write it in third person omniscient and past tense in the end, just because there are some scenes I'd like to include which I want the reader but not necessarily the first person POV character to be privy to.

    In this case, do you think it makes sense to just keep writing and do these kinds of edits once I have a full first draft, or is this a major enough change that I should stop now, edit, and then continue? So far first person POV/present tense is working fine, but there are some scenes I'd love to put in, that I think could be very instrumental for the character development, that I'd need a third-person omniscient narrator for.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts! Thank you for everything you do.

  8. Ideas, anyone, on this from the website:

    One of my sub anti-romances (the story is about superheroes) is between a very forceful, protective, untrusting etc. man and a quiet, shy, timid woman. Both are one the 'good' side but the guy is a jerk.

    How can I make the readers think 'Wow, that guy's a jerk' but not think 'He's going to become evil.'

  9. Making him act like a jerk is the easy part, although I assume you've got that part down.
    To show that he's not completely evil, it seems like it might help if he's constantly reminding his friends what's best for the good guys, or you reminding the readers (if you're writing in third person omniscient or switching POV's in first) that he's always thinking of the good guy cause. As long as he's an inconsiderate jerk to all other people, then giving him one good quality, loyalty to what he believes in, would probably keep the readers trusting him as a good guy while still hating him. Granted, that may not work depending on your situation. Just a suggestion.

  10. Thanks for the advice Gail! You have no idea how stuck I get on this topic! I've always wanted to write a romance and now that I'm finally doing it I realized I had NO idea what i was doing. This helps me out LOADS!

  11. Oh my goodness…the funniest thing happened to me when I read this. My eyes were being a little lazy and jumped right to the italicized words at the beginning of the post, and I read the question and got so upset. I thought, "Oh my gosh, someone ELSE took that idea of mine!" And in an instant, I knew it wasn't creative and I had to drop it. Than I kept reading, and you said 'Clare'. So I scrolled back up, saw it was indeed the question I had asked back in February, and was completely relieved.
    Thanks so much for your feedback; I appreciate it, because I hadn't touched that story since then.
    I will let you know how it goes 🙂

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