I love a good love story. A well-written romance has the power to snare me as a lifelong fan of the author. As a writer, I find a romance the most rewarding part of a novel to craft.

For purposes of this post, by ‘romance’ I mean a love story of some significance in a novel of any genre – women’s fiction, historical fiction, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, literary fiction … Romance Writers of Australia classifies this type of book as a ‘novel with romantic elements’ to distinguish it from the various categories of genre romance.

I have a few favourite novels that I’ve found memorably romantic. What do they have in common? What are the magic ingredients that make them so compelling? Note, this is not a list of the best romances of all time, or the most representative, or those of greatest literary merit. It’s simply a list of my personal favourites. Your list will be different. I bet I hate some romances you love.  

For instance, I’ve never enjoyed Emily Brontë’s overwrought Wuthering Heights with its cast of easy-to-dislike characters. I haven’t included Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, because while I thought it a great read, I didn’t find it especially romantic, though many readers did. I’m hoping you will post your own top romances and explain why they work so well for you. Perhaps collectively we can pick up some tips for writing love stories that engage the heart, the intellect and the senses.  

Here’s my selection, in no particular order:

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

The concept: Plain, downtrodden governess meets brooding, mercurial lord of the manor in house full of dark secrets. Circumstances tear them apart; they are reunited largely through her strength of character. Classic gothic romance.

Why the love story works: The first person narrative gives us insight into the passionate soul beneath Jane’s mousy exterior. The central pair are polar opposites. Full of drama and surprises; both protagonists make a personal journey.

The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett

The concept: Charismatic anti-hero with a massive chip on his shoulder meets stubbornly straightforward heroine in book one, when he’s 20 and she’s 10. Their stories intertwine over the course of the next ten tumultuous years, taking the reader through dramatic events in sixteenth century Europe, Russia and the Middle East and finally reaching a conclusion at the end of book six, approximately 3,000 pages later.

Why the love story works: Dunnett’s mastery of understatement; the intense, simmering emotions; the very high stakes people are playing for throughout – the lives of children, the future of nations; unforgettable characters whose fates we really care about.

Strong Poison / Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

The concept: Nervy peer’s son and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey meets unconventional bluestocking Harriet Vane when she’s on trial for murdering her lover. He determines to prove her innocence and falls in love while doing so. But damaged, defensive Harriet continues to refuse him. We watch the development of this relationship over a number of years, in the background of several mystery novels.

Why the love story works: The romance between these two intense, intellectual characters is played out with excruciating slowness, but is always fascinating to watch as each gradually learns when to move forward and when to give ground. The relationship is woven into the independent plot of each novel.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago

The concept: scruffy middle-aged proof reader Raimundo meets glamorous new editor Maria, and they bond over a historical text when Raimundo discovers new ways of writing both past and present.

Why the love story works: Raimundo is the opposite of a classic romantic hero, but finds romance within his work and within himself. The relationship is drawn with delicacy; it’s both realistic and surprising.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

The concept: A slow-burn romance between a disillusioned journalist and a shy Guernsey farmer is one thread in a captivating story of a community’s response to German occupation. It’s a novel about the power of books and storytelling.

Why the love story works: A pair of immensely likeable characters who initially seem quite unsuited to each other; the  clever use of the letter format to build their relationship step by gradual step. Deft interweaving of love story with several other plot threads.

This is an eclectic group of books. What do their love stories have in common?

  1. Great CHARACTERS. Real individuals we care about, who learn and grow during the story; their romantic relationship is part of this learning process
  2. A JOURNEY for the characters (see above.)
  3. The element of SURPRISE, whether it’s a madwoman in the attic or the power of a throw-away remark to change everything in a heartbeat.
  4. UNDERSTATEMENT. Wit and subtlety enhance a romance. These writers guide us through the peaks and troughs of a relationship with some delicacy. Jane Eyre is at times emotive, but how cleverly character and relationship are developed through Jane’s and Rochester’s after-supper conversations.
  5. COHESION. The love story belongs to the fabric of the book; it is cleverly interwoven with other plot elements. The various strands complement each other.
  6. The all-important ingredient, TENSION. Sparks fly between the romantic couple; it’s on again, off again; they love, they hate, they infuriate each other on the rocky road to a happy ending. Or not, as the case may be.

Which novels have you found romantic, and why? How do you approach writing a love story?

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About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.