By Paula Berinstein
In every romance novel or film, there’s an early moment when something special happens between the potential lovers—something that changes their relationship and sets the story in motion. It’s a make-or-break event, not only for the characters, but also for us. This is the time when we engage or tune out, so it has to be perfect.
Unfortunately, many writers get it wrong. When the would-be lovers meet, they behave as we do in real life, attempting to find mutual interests and opinions, or giving each other hot looks.
This approach may seem logical, but it doesn’t work. The characters may be thrilled to discover that they both love White Snake, mountain climbing, or opera, but unless we share those interests, we probably won’t care. (Ever watched two people on a first date? Was it good for you? Ouch!) And even though sexy moves can capture our attention for a while, we need more to keep us interested in the pair after their first night together.
More than any other genre except perhaps horror, romance stories are all about us. Their objective is to evoke strong emotions in us, like longing and sexual tension, which we desperately want to feel. That’s why we read and watch romance. Of course the characters have to find love, but your job as a romance writer is to make sure that we do too. But how?
Believe it or not, the key to creating longing in your audience is to frustrate us. Entice us with the possibility of love, but don’t let us have it until we’ve stuck with you through thick and thin. You can do that—and tell a rollicking good story at the same time—by giving the characters something to do as soon as they meet—something that interferes with their ability to live happily ever after, and doing it fast and often. If you do, we’ll stay engaged because we want them to be together and they can’t be. The more we can’t have what we want, the more delicious longing we’ll feel, and that will keep us reading or watching.
Here are three techniques guaranteed to make us pine:
- The Quest. In this case, events keep the lovers apart. Give them an external problem to face together–a mission or a threat. People bond when they have to rely on each other in a dangerous situation, as in the movie “Romancing the Stone” or the TV show “Chuck.”
- Love/hate. In a love/hate relationship, the characters’ own stubbornness keeps them apart. Give your characters conflicting agendas. This is a standard romantic comedy technique; the two characters meet and can’t stand each other until one magic moment when they see something in each other they’ve never seen before, as in the movies “When Harry Met Sally” and “Bringing Up Baby.”
- Star-crossed Lovers. In this case, other people, society, or logistics are keeping the lovers apart. They are crazy about each other, but people, laws, culture, and just plain reality gets in their way so they can’t be together, as in Romeo and Juliet.
Compare these ho-hum and hot scenarios:
Ho-hum: Two characters eye each other at a bar and fantasize about having sex. (Fine, but what happens in the rest of the story?)
Hot: Give them a quest, and be sure it’s dangerous. Two characters meet in a bar and are forced together when a gunman comes in and takes them hostage.
Ho-hum: Two characters find that they like the same bands, so they start a relationship. (Mutual interests, no tension.)
Hot: Put them in a love/hate situation; give them conflicting agendas. Two characters meet when one answers an ad for a band seeking a lead singer. Sparks fly after he hears her sing: he thinks she’s terrible, but the rest of the band wants to hire her.
Ho-hum: Two characters who have resisted being fixed up go out and hit it off. They start a relationship. (Great, but where is the story going to go now?)
Hot: Turn them into star-crossed lovers; throw reality at them. Two lonely characters meet and hit it off. However, one of them is about to relocate because she’s just bought a business in another city and the other has just accepted his dream job elsewhere. (Spoiler alert: this happened at the end of the sitcom “Frasier.”)
Romance novels and films are not supposed to mimic real life. Forget small talk about movies and music. Instead, give your characters something to do that pits them against each other or gets in their way.
Your objective as a romance writer is to create obsession in your audience. Keep your lovers apart, put them in danger, get their agendas to clash, and we’ll be riveted to their every move.
Paula Berinstein (Paula B) is the author of seven geeky nonfiction books, including Making Space Happen and Business Statistics on the Web, and numerous magazine articles. She is also host of The Writing Show, a podcast series is designed to help you practice capturing readers’ attention. Inspired by literary agent Kristin Nelson’s two-page pitch sessions, Paula plays agent and comments on anonymous submissions on the show.