My wife Lisa does not like to get red roses. I discovered this early in our relationship. “They’re so obvious,” she informed me, “Anyone can buy those.” Okay. I began to learn about hyacinths, freesia and bird—birds?—of paradise. And romance. Happily, my education is coming along. I’ve reached roughly third grade level, I’m told. Progress.
I mention this not only because Valentine’s Day is coming, but because many a novel would benefit from a touch of romance. It’s an element that contributes to the swept-away effect that we want our fiction to produce.
I’m not talking about writing category romance novels, a story form built on sustained romantic conflict, teasing and eroticism. Such novels are tightly focused on heroine and hero. Their push-pull attraction is the whole subject. Many how-to books address writing romantic fiction, including one by WU’s own Barbara O’Neal.
What I’m talking about today is a touch of romance, an element in a larger scheme, a surprise and heart delight that can warm any story. It’s a neglected factor that like food, unfolding secondary relationships and a sense of time that, when used, enlarges and enriches readers’ experience. Romance is a welcome and redeeming part of our world yet it is absent from many manuscripts.
To evoke a romantic feeling in readers requires understanding what evokes a romantic feeling in we humans. This is not a topic to which my gender, typically, gives a lot of thought. Male authors are not necessarily better at this than your typical guy. For instance, women readers’ number one, eye-rolling complaint about male-authored thrillers is their clumsy handling of female characters who are improbably ready to jump into bed.
Conversely, as a male reader my number one, eye-rolling complaint about romance protagonists is their improbable 720-minutes-a-day, 5040-minutes-a-week focus on the heroine. Romance heroes don’t have to stay late at the office, sit on committees or travel for work, especially if they are billionaires. They are hyper-focused in a way that in life would earn them a restraining order. We see only one dimension of them.
Still, we’re not talking about the fantasy fulfillment of romance fiction. A touch of romance is an add-on. It’s a surprise, most effective when it is unexpected. Like romantic gestures in life, romantic moments in manuscripts are personal, thoughtful, insightful, spontaneous, creative and send signals of interest. They tease. They hint. They’re a beginning, or maybe a renewal. They suggest not what is, but what might be. They cause us to hope.
That, in turn, depends on establishing a need for love and possibly, better still, a resistance to it. Bringing together two characters who are destined for each other is fine, no problem, but why not build a match that is unneeded, unlikely, forbidden or even impossible? It’s basic reader psychology. When love can’t happen, we anticipate that it will. When love is undesired, refused or rejected, we hope for it all the more. We hope for it not because one party isn’t interested but because the other has already given his or her heart.
Let’s make this practical:
- Who in your story is single? Who wants love? Who doesn’t need it? Who can begin to love that character? Who can love that character despite obstacles? Who can find those obstacles a welcome challenge?
- Focus on the one who is already beginning to love another…what does this character notice about the object of affection than no one else does? What does he or she find interesting? What insight does he or she have? What will break down the resistance of the opaque object of love?
- How can the pursuer give help, time or appreciation to the pursued? What is the best gift? What’s the most unexpected time to give it? What can the pursuer do that is spontaneous, playful or childlike? How can the pursuer make the pursued feel safe?
- What signal of interest would be the most personal, well timed, teasing or creative? What is the most original and symbolic way in which the pursued can accept the offer? What would be the most crushing rejection?
- What must the pursuer give up to win the heart of the pursued? How must the pursuer humble himself or herself?
- Reverse that: What must the pursued let go? What foundation of resistance must crumble? How? What it is the hidden source of resistance and what brings that to the surface? What confession must be made, what sorrow revealed, what fear finally expressed?
- Get sexy: What’s the most unique way in which one party can get the other in the mood? What is a safe and creative way to get the other alone? What would be heart-melting? What would be better than a massage or a puppy? (I know, I know, but think hard.)
A touch of romance reassures us that your story world is, after all, a good world. Despite the vicissitudes of your plot, human hearts can connect. There is hope. There is a future beyond the final page. We feel that in life, so why not provide that feeling for your readers? It’s your Valentine’s Day gift to them. It’s like giving your readers red roses. Or, you know, something better.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Can you add a touch of romance to your current manuscript? If it’s a romance story already, how will you surprise us with more?