Good love stories are universal yet unique. They tap into shared emotions with story-specific details of character, time, and place that transport us to the world created by the writer. A great romance novel makes us believe in love. Not just that love exists, but that this love between these two people is somehow going to last and endure.
How? By telling the truth. By combining those universal truths, emotional truth, with the thrill and struggle of two unique people falling in love and working their way toward commitment and their own happy ending.
There is no formula. But in my own writing, there are seven things I push for to make a convincing case for each couple's developing romance, for the "emotionally satisfying ending" that defines our genre - and that brings readers back for more.
1. Physical awareness or attraction
You don't need to consult scientific journals to know that men and women, regardless of culture, seem hardwired to find certain physical characteristics attractive. Just glance at People magazine's most recent "100 Sexiest" list.
In real life, biology drives desire. We are attracted to partners who smell "right" based on a complex chemistry of pheromones, fertility, and a sufficiently different immune system. We seek visual cues that our potential mates can bear children or protect them: full lips and a small waist-to-hip ratio in women; square jaw and a muscular build in men. Symmetry of face and body in both sexes is a desirable marker of health. There are even studies that define ideal male and female faces based on estrogen and testosterone levels.
What does this mean for us as writers? Must we use hormonal markers as a blueprint for describing characters? Well, you can, and you can make it great. Think of the heroine's first look at the hero in Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me: "Every woman in the room with a working ovary probably looked at him and thought, This one."
You can also cast your characters against type. The scarred hero and plain, passionate heroine have been around since Beauty and the Beast and Jane Eyre. Still, most romantic leads exhibit the markers of genetic health: shiny hair, good skin, bright eyes . . . a full set of teeth. Even pleasingly rounded heroines are rarely described as being shaped like beach balls. And I haven't yet read a romance in which the heroine says to the hero, "Oh, honey, I love your tiny package."
Universal hooks make it possible for your reader to find your hero and heroine attractive. But to make your stories and characters compelling, your hero and heroine need to find each other uniquely desirable. For that, you need more than symmetrical faces and a great waist-to-hip body ratio. Even if your characters feel love or lust at first sight (and that whole "I must make you my mate" imperative is a powerful fantasy), you can make their attraction more powerful and believable by motivating it with specific triggers. Use observation and characterization to move beyond cliche. Use significant details to capture the vision of the beloved in the eyes of the lover: Jane Eyre's "light fingers," Elizabeth Bennett's "fine eyes."
Your characters' level of physical awareness must be appropriate to
The subgenre (Are you writing sweet traditionals or out-there erotica?)
The characters themselves
The stage of the relationship
The level of action/external conflict.
In the following example from Sea Witch, notice how even at the moment of first attraction, the seeds of conflict-the tension between land and sea, between the mundane and the magic worlds-are present.
A woman shone at the water's edge, wrapped in twilight and a towel. The sea foamed around her bare, pale feet. Her long, dark hair lifted in the breeze. Her face was pale and perfect as the moon.
For one second, the sight caught him like a wave smack in the chest, robbing him of speech. Of breath. Yearning rushed through his soul like the wind over the water, stirring him to the depths. His hands curled into fists at his sides.
Not okay. He throttled back his roaring imagination. She was just a kid. A girl. An underage girl in an oversize sweatshirt with--his gaze dipped again, briefly--a really nice rack.
2. Emotional conflict
There are recognizable, universal barriers to love, staples of the romance genre: issues of fear, trust, conflicting loyalties and/or control. Frankly, I'm not a big fan of the one-woman-wronged-me-therefore-I'll-hate-all-women school of conflict. But psychologist Judith Viorst got it right when she wrote: even in the best of all worlds, a lasting love relationship encroaches on our personal control, demanding that we give in, give up, give over to another powers we might prefer to keep for ourselves. Even in the best of love relationships, we will struggle to balance power and surrender.
What habits, principles, or beliefs must your characters surrender before they can be together? How must they change or grow before they can commit to each other?
This is where your unique vision, your truth, and your characters' unique motivations come to life. There have to be clear and compelling reasons why the hero and heroine cannot just give up what they want to satisfy the other person. Why? Because to abandon their goals would threaten their very sense of self:
I am a man of honor; loving you would make me less honorable.
I am a responsible daughter; loving you would makes me less responsible.
I am struggling for independence; loving you would make me dependent.
How relationship-centered the conflict must be and how much time you can spend on the various elements of the plot will depend on your story, your word count, and your subgenre. Whatever the length and focus of your story, however, you can pull the romance back to the forefront by concentrating on
3. Scenes that foster emotional intimacy
The heroines of our books may be perfectly capable of kicking ass and putting food on the table. But the hero's ability to protect and provide is still attractive to our readers, another universal element that contributes to the romance.
A partner who is our heroine's equal, who can-if necessary-defend the young in the cave, is a desirable mate. Which no doubt explains the popularity of Navy SEALs, gun slingers, cops, and the Undead. Status and the ability to provide also encompass social power and monetary power, which why we have heroes who are dukes and billionaires. However, you cannot say your hero is the biggest, baddest alpha male in the star belt if every time the aliens show up, our boy winds up bleeding under the bulkhead. It's not enough to describe the hero as rich and powerful. We must see him putting his wealth and power at the service of the heroine: Mr. Darcy rushing off to London to save Lydia from Mr. Wickham.
We need to see the hero in action to believe in him. And our heroine needs to see him in action to love him.
This gender typing can go both ways. Just as our heroes need scenes that showcase their competence or status, our heroines benefit from scenes that show either their ability to nurture or their desire for connection-which explains why the exasperating grandmother, the unexpected child, and the rescued stray are staples of our genre. Even the kick-ass assassin heroine will generally have a high personal stake in her mission. This is not only good conflict development, but good character development.
These universal qualities help our reader fall in love with our hero and root for our heroine. But our stories demand that our characters fall in love with each other.
What are the qualities that make us believe that these two people-and no others-must be together? Because if this is all about her long legs and his smoldering eyes and proximity, you may make a nice case for a long weekend but you're not going to sell me on a lifetime love.
Try the following exercise:
It's the relationship, stupid.
He uncovers/appreciates her ______________________________.
(Something less obvious. Her true self.)
He's challenged by her __________________________________.
(What does she have or know that he lacks or must learn? Think Jerry Maguire: "You complete me.")
Now do the same for the heroine. This fill-in-the-blank exercise can help you identify what I like to call "the vision of the beloved in the eyes of the lover" that lies at the heart of romance.
Examine your own story. Where are the scenes that move the romance forward by showing this? Not him thinking, "I love her because she's kind," but scenes where he observes or experiences her kindness in action. The plot should force the hero and heroine to exhibit those qualities that compel them to fall in love.
4. Resting or courtship scenes
People who share moments of high action and intense emotion-lovers on the run, sports teams in the playoffs-frequently bond. Men may equate this closeness-that-springs-from-action with emotional intimacy. But women, and women readers, want more. We want courtship. We crave conversation. We believe in...dating.
The pacing of our novels rarely allows our characters the luxury of leisurely dating. If it did, our books would be pretty boring. However even in the most tautly plotted romantic suspense the characters need to eat and sleep. More importantly, resting or courtship scenes are necessary for us to believe that there will be a future for the couple outside of the story's time frame.
A change of setting and a pause in the action can give you scenes that mimic the familiar "date." Such scenes can either appeal to a conventional fantasy (ballroom, tropical garden, five-star restaurant) or mix it up (hayfield, ball game, family picnic) in a way which is
true to the situation
advances plot/shows conflict
reveals character/fosters intimacy
Even if your setting is unconventional or unique, you can engage your readers' emotions by engaging their senses with the familiar trappings of romance: wine, flowers, candles, firelight . . . food. I'm married to a man who can cook. Sooner or later in my books, the hero always feeds the heroine. Maybe this goes back to that atavistic "provider" thing, but sharing food is a universal courtship ritual.
There is a difference between universal and cliche. If your hero is not a red-roses-and-champagne kind of guy, if your heroine would prefer books or beer or Lakers tickets, if your setting is a castle off the coast of Scotland or a cave in the North Carolina mountains, then don't force your couple into unlikely getaways with meaningless props. Choose settings that are sensually evocative but also appropriate to your story and significant to your characters. The important thing is to get your lovers alone, away from the bad guys and the kids, in a setting which is conducive to dialogue.
And to sex.
5. Sex scenes
Sharing food and conversation frequently leads to lovemaking. In our genre, that can mean anything from a first kiss to a no-holds-barred sexual encounter. Not every reader or writer of romance will find the same words or acts appropriate or erotic. So how do we create the universal hooks that make our love scenes both sizzling and believable?
First, recognize that sex scenes are not about body parts. If you make them about body parts, you risk sounding cliched or offensive or silly. We need to reach beyond much of our genre for fresh, true language, whether it is stark or extravagant. Use words that come naturally to your characters, that spring from your own feelings and experience.
Love scenes need to engage your characters' brains and hearts. All the threads, all the unique components, we've talked about so far come into play:
Specific triggers of physical desire
Emotional conflict, with whatever issues of trust or control your characters are dealing with
The vision of the beloved in the eyes of the lover: why this man with this woman?
Something should be at stake with each kiss and encounter. The physical action should reflect or impact, complicate or resolve the emotional conflict.
While there is no formula for love scenes, there should be a progression to the scenes themselves. Each time, your lovers bring something new to their relationship-greater intimacy, higher stakes. The physical action may express the characters' growing emotional involvement, or it may subvert it. While delaying sex can increase tension, having sex, especially having sex too soon, can increase the emotional conflict. (Sea Fever starts with a drunken hook-up at a wedding reception.) Making love should generally make things worse, so that each advance is followed by a subsequent falling back.
One way to make things worse is to thrust your lovers back into society.
6. Lovers in society
We have all heard the expression, "No man is an island." Well, no couple can live on one forever. Eventually, they must reenter society like one of Christopher Vogler's heroes returning from a journey with the magic elixir of love.
The society our characters inhabit encompasses both work and family. Sometimes the two are combined, like Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Stars football team or Suzanne Brockmann's Navy SEALs. Now it may be that duty or careers or heavy-handed parents have actually contributed to the couple's conflict. Think of Prince Charming, who must marry for dynastic reasons, or Mr. & Mrs. Smith, assigned to assassinate each other. How your couple resolves their conflict will be a function not only of their characters, but of your values, gender politics, and genre expectations. There is no universal solution to reintegrating the lovers into society.
However, to satisfy the reader's expectation of a happily-ever-after, the couple must negotiate a settlement which satisfies each of them. How will they cope with long hours and missed dinners, with the demands of children and friends? It's not enough for the hero to assure the single mother that he will love her son without scenes of him helping with homework or childcare or catch-love in action. You also need scenes which show the couple's integration into the existing family-and-friends structure: the heroine holding her own with her lover's brothers or the hero defending his beloved against her parents' criticism.
All these scenes reinforce the formation of the pair bond . This is part of the payoff, the commitment, in which hero and heroine demonstrate that their primary bond and loyalty is now to each other.
Which brings us, finally, to
7. Payoff scenes
Why do we read romance novels? Why do we write them? Because we want the "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending" that they promise. We want all those other things, too, the sizzle of sexual attraction, emotional struggle and intimacy, courtship, great sex, and a couple capable of functioning within society. But we really want our happy endings.
Of course, our characters have to earn their happiness. They must defeat or at least contain the threat posed by the antagonist. And the romantic resolution can't spring out of nowhere. In real life, you wouldn't trust in a marriage proposal on the first date, would you? Same thing in fiction. There are stages in developing the romance, and each stage has its own payoff or reward.
The "duh" moment. Acknowledgement of feelings for the beloved. Maybe the heroine doesn't identify those feelings as love, maybe the hero doesn't know what he's going to do about them, but the emotions are there and they're real. The "duh" moment can and should result in more conflict and complications.
The "yes" moment. Declaration of surrender. His and hers. By making the declaration of love unequal, by having the hero and heroine admit their love at different times, you can increase emotional tension. But for the payoff, there must be some degree of reciprocity, even if it is unspoken.
The "aww" moment. The first two stages can lead to further conflict and complications. But this third moment should leave your protagonists and your reader with hope and confidence. For that reason, the final emotional payoff usually takes place after the bad guys have been defeated and the lovers have re-entered their ordinary world. Now is the time to pull out all the stops, to affirm the universal lessons learned with those unique, specific details that will give the scene emotional weight and significance.
How much time you need to convince your reader that everything will work out depends, again, on your subgenre and your story. The reason epilogues are so popular in romantic suspense is that it's difficult to jump from an action-packed and bloody climax into a satisfying romantic resolution without either sacrificing the story's pacing or straining the reader's credibility. In Sea Witch, because of its huge internal, emotional conflict, I had to write an entire final chapter to get to that "aww" resolution.
Romance begins with "Once upon a time" and ends with "Happily ever after." One way to create that sense of completion, of coming full circle, is to set up a similarity between the language and imagery at the beginning of the book and the language and imagery at the end-a kind of verbal echo which creates an emotional resonance.
RWA National defines a romance novel as "a central love story" with "an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending." Let critics scoff at our books' happy endings. As long as our stories are grounded in our experience, in our emotional truth, and supported by small, honest details, we can write stories that are believable, memorable . . . and satisfying!