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!