Hot Under the Collar: How to Hint at Love Between Characters
Showing how characters fall in love can be one of the most challenging things to write. It’s so easy to slide into something that feels forced or unnatural, because the pacing requires a delicate hand and impeccable timing to make it just so.
This is true whether you’re going for the thrill of an insta-love or digging into the agony of the slow burn. For the romance arc to feel appropriate, you’ll need a few ingredients to ensure it’s satisfying and will leave your readers fanning themselves rather than closing your book in frustration.
A couple of things to note:
- If you want to get better at writing romance, then read romance books. Whether you’re including a love story as a subplot or are writing an actual romance novel, there’s no better way to improve your craft and see how to get the timing right.
- If you’re writing a genre romance novel, then you need a happy ending or a happy for now (often referred to as an HEA or HFN). There are no exceptions to this rule. If you don’t have a happy ending, then you’re writing a different genre and your book just happens to have a romance subplot. Both are fine, but they’re not the same thing.
Now that we have that out of the way, here’s what we’re going to cover:
- Unrealistic romance
- Making your readers care
Okay, before we get too far, let’s talk about the complaint that romance in books is often “unrealistic.” That there’s no such thing as love at first sight. That romance tropes are toxic and nothing like real life and anyone who enjoys these morally questionable kinds of books are monsters.
Listen Carol, it’s called fiction for a reason. You know what else isn’t “realistic?” Mild-mannered reporters who landed here from a strange planet and are strong enough to lift a bus with one hand.
Your genre is one of the main things you need to consider when determining how “realistic” your romance is. If you’re writing a modern day romcom intended for a mainstream audience, then the way you portray your love arc is going to be very different than, say, a genre fiction dark romance set in an alternate fantasy world. These two kinds of stories are trying to achieve two entirely different things and imposing the views of one kind of romance on another isn’t going to work.
Romance tropes like insta-love, enemies to lovers, overly possessive heroes, and fated mates might not have much basis in reality, but that is entirely the point for the subset of readers who enjoy these things. Just because someone enjoys these elements in their fiction, doesn’t mean they endorse that behavior in real life.
Just like you are capable of understanding there aren’t really dragons living in those mountains, readers of romance don’t really expect to be kidnapped and fall in love with their captor a la Beauty and the Beast.
Having said all that, the romance doesn’t need to be realistic, it just needs to make sense. And while those might sound like the same thing, they’re not. As we’ll see.
So the first thing we tend to notice about someone we’ve just met is their outward physical appearance. We also really tend to pay attention if we find them attractive. Often, this physical attraction is the first step in hinting at a future romantic pairing between characters.
This is when your main characters might think to themselves, “Hmm, that person is cute,” even if they hate their guts (obviously this would be an enemies to lovers scenario).
But what if they already know one another? Maybe this is a friends-to-lovers romance, where attraction might come in the form of them finally noticing the other person has got that special something that makes their heart go pitter patter.
When writing attraction, remember the rule of showing, not telling. Instead of literally saying someone is good looking, use subtle cues to tell your reader that instead. Perhaps your character notices the color of their eyes or the way they smell.
Perhaps there’s a particular body part they notice–I’m talking about forearms… I have a thing for forearms–get your mind out of the gutter. (Or don’t. That depends on the kind of book you’re writing, of course.)
You can also tell us how your character’s heart beats a little faster every time they get near or if they accidentally touch, tell us what your character feels or notices. Short of saying it outright, there are lots of ways to denote attraction.
When in doubt, a good bout of prolonged eye contact is always a surefire way to kick everyone into the mood for romance.
Keep in mind that what everyone finds alluring is different. Your characters don’t have to be gorgeous, stunning creatures as defined by modern media for someone to find them attractive. They can be, but they don’t have to be.
Explore the idea of different body types, races, genders, disabilities, and physical flaws. There are plenty of readers out there who are actually tired of the Adonis-type love interests and seek out these kinds of stories.
But as the saying goes, “beauty is only skin deep,” and for characters to fall in love, there needs to be something a little more going on under the hood.
Being compatible with someone might not sound super sexy, but if you’re ever been in a successful relationship, you’ll understand that this is pretty important.
When writing your romance arc, think about how your characters will be compatible with each other. How do they complement one another? Is one the loud, brash extrovert who needs someone quieter to help level out their energy? Or are they both powerhouses of industry who push each other to achieve greater heights?
This is where your characters are going to fall in love with the more intangible aspects of their personalities. Things like their intellect and their sense of humor. Here’s a list of traits to consider when building your characters. How will they differ and how will they complement each other?
- Interests and hobbies
- Social beliefs
- Energy level
- Emotional intelligence
- Emotional capacity
- Shared past experiences
- Childhood experiences and upbringing
- Socioeconomic class
Give them personality
Speaking of all those things listed above, one of the key factors in creating a believable romance is ensuring your characters are their own people, too. To make your reader care about the romance, they need to care about the characters as well.
So, in addition to giving them all those lovely personality traits, they’ll also need their own set of goals and motivations. Sometimes these are related to the romantic arc and sometimes they aren’t.
Sometimes the last thing your character is looking for is love when it comes along and smacks them in the face. What they thought they wanted was that promotion or to break that curse and maybe they realize, in the end, it wasn’t what they wanted or needed at all.
If you’re writing romance as a subplot of a different genre, then it’s likely their individual goals aren’t related to the relationship itself compared to writing a category romance book. So ask yourself why you’re adding this subplot. What does it add to the story and how does it tie into your overall plot? And how do your characters’ individual motivations and goals work with that romance arc?
One of the trickiest things to get right is the pacing of a romance. Move too fast and it might feel forced. Move too slowly and you might lose your audience. With a good romance, there’s often a lot of push and pull, a lot of will they or won’t they, and sometimes a lot of back and forth. (Seriously, my personal kryptonite is during a slow burn when they alllllllmost kiss and then get interrupted.)
That’s where using romance beats comes in handy. Regardless of whether your romance is a subplot or the main event, hitting these beats can help ensure you’ve got your pacing right. Below are the highlights of the romance beats, but if you want to dig deeper into this topic and download our handy template, click here.
Who is your protagonist?
Who is their love interest?
How do they meet or how does their relationship shift into a potentially romantic one?
The No Way
What's going to keep these lovebirds apart?
What's the point where there's no turning back from this?
Raising the Stakes
How are you going to make them sweat? What can you do to increase the tension?
Really No Way
How are they going to continue to fight this?
Turning Point II
Let's raise the stakes one more time.
Everything is lost. Your lovebirds just couldn't be sadder right now.
HEA or HFN
They've figured it out and everyone lives happily ever after (or for now)!
There you go. See how easy that was? I’m kidding. Writing a satisfying romance can be a tricky thing to master, but with practice, it’s something anyone can learn. Once you’ve devoured some juicy romance novels, get started with Dabble.
If you’re writing a book with a romance subplot, you can use the beats above in the plot grid and line them up alongside your main plot to see how you can weave them together. If you’re writing a romance novel, then let these beats be your guide.
Not using Dabble yet? What are you waiting for? Try it free for 14 days and see how it can help you write that novel swimming around in your head.
The Chosen One. It’s a trope that many people love to hate despite its pervasiveness across popular culture. If you’re unfamiliar with the Chosen One, it’s a popular trope or narrative device used across books, TV shows, and movies where a character is destined to fulfill a certain role or mission, often because they have unique abilities or traits. These traits are frequently tied to magic, meaning you’ll see this trope a lot in fantasy and other types of speculative fiction, especially those with a young adult audience.
So how do you write well then? Realistically, there are a few things universally considered “good” writing. The story should follow a logical plot where one action feeds into another. The characters should behave in ways that align with their established personalities. There should be some high points and low points and stuff in between. Generally, good writing is also well edited and follows most of the conventions for grammar and punctuation. While you can write well with typos and mistakes, you run the risk of distracting the reader to a point where that good story becomes not so good because it’s unreadable. Ultimately, the success of things like your voice and your characters are going to be up to your reader and you’ll never please everyone. But we can take some steps to ensure we please more people than not.
That’s great—our fiction should reflect the world as it is and that means including people of various ethnic backgrounds and skin tones. But the history of writing about people of color is kind of… awful and it’s important to remember that you can’t just throw in a BIPOC character without giving some serious thought to how you represent and describe that character.