Love Potion Number 9: How to Create Romantic Chemistry in Your Novel
What’s the difference between a great love story and a so-so love story? Romantic chemistry, that’s what.
If you’ve ever read a romance novel or a book with a romantic subplot and found yourself not really caring about the relationship between the love interests, there’s a good chance the author missed out on building up that oh-so important chemistry.
But what is chemistry, exactly? It’s one of those things that’s a little hard to define. There really isn’t a quantifiable way to measure chemistry. It’s more about a feeling than anything. Which, honestly, isn’t that useful when you’re trying to create it in your novel.
Don’t worry—we’re going to give you some tips to help you develop the instincts needed to write great romantic chemistry.
Right off the bat, I’m going to tell you to start reading romance novels if you aren’t already. Take notes of which ones fall flat for you and which ones have you turning the pages, dying to know more. Which ones leave you cold and which ones have you screaming at the characters to just kiss already? Can you point to some trends you notice about these books? What makes one delicious and one just another brick for the DNF pile?
In this article, we’ll look at some of these things you might have noticed and dig a little deeper into those ideas. We’ll cover:
- What romantic chemistry is
- Chemistry and conflict
- The magic of good banter
- Creating dynamic characters
- Romantic chemistry and tropes
What is Romantic Chemistry?
Okay, so let’s start by defining romantic chemistry. It’s a spark or a feeling between two (or possibly more) characters that makes that other person noticeable to them.
Think about all the people you’ve met in your life. Some of them (whether you were interested in them romantically or not) just make you feel something that other people don’t.
You feel happier and lighter when they’re around. They get you and you get them. A conversation or day spent with that person makes you feel on top of the world and you always look forward to seeing them again. No one can point to why exactly we feel that way about certain people, other than you just know it when you feel it.
That’s the feeling you’re trying to create on the page when you’re writing romantic chemistry. What about that other person makes your character stop and go, “Hmm, that person is different from all the others I’ve met. That person is special.”
Chemistry and Conflict
One of the most important methods for building chemistry is through conflict. There are a few types of conflict you can include in your story.
- Internal conflict: This comes from your protagonist’s internal beliefs and preconceived notions. Your main characters might have difficulty trusting others or might believe true love doesn’t exist.
- External conflict: This is when outside forces drive the conflict in your story. In the case of a romance, this might be two people being kept apart because they belong to opposing factions or their families are at war with one another. It might be because their relationship is considered taboo by their society’s standards.
- Personal conflict: This is where existing relationships in a person’s life prevent them from finding the love they seek. For example, a single mother who needs to put her child’s needs before her own, or a man who’s trapped in a loveless marriage when he meets the love of his life.
And here are some more resources on conflict to check out:
One thing that all good romances have in common is banter. The push and pull between your main love interests is the heart of any strong romantic chemistry.
This is where you can really hone in on whatever conflict is keeping your lovebirds apart. Making use of dialogue interspersed with physical reactions and internal thoughts is one of the best ways to establish romantic chemistry.
Good banter is lively, witty, and fun—even when it’s focused on serious subjects. There needs to be a balance of power where both sides are giving as good as they’re getting. If one side of the romance always has the last word, then you don’t have great banter. If one side always trumps the other side, then you don’t have good banter.
Banter should progress throughout the novel and become more and more intense as time passes. Readers want to see the relationship progressing, bit by bit, and using banter to show your main characters getting more comfortable with one another while also learning more about each other is a great way to do so.
To get better at writing banter, I return to the idea of reading lots of books. Note conversations that have that extra sparkle. Ones that have a mix of humor and seriousness. Also, make note of how those bits of dialogue progress to reveal more about the characters and the relationship between them.
The only way to build good chemistry is to first start off with dynamic characters. Boring characters lead to boring relationships.
Both sides of your love story should start with complex, individual characters with their own goals, needs, motivations, hangups, false beliefs, and wants. They should both fulfill their own personal arcs in tandem with the romance arc.
Balancing these three (or more) different story progressions is one of the hardest things to do when writing romance.
For more about building great characters check out these resources:
- 14 character archetypes you should know
- What is a character arc?
- How to write compelling characters
- Creating character arcs
Why is this so important?
Because the romantic chemistry you’re building will rely on the push and pull of each character's motivations and beliefs. Sometimes the romance can’t progress until one character can break down the other character’s false belief.
If one character believes all relationships are destined to fail, the other character will need to do or say something to prove to them that isn’t true.
Romantic Chemistry and Tropes
Popular romance tropes go hand-in-hand with creating chemistry. In fact, you can use these tropes to help ensure your characters have chemistry. They’re basically a blueprint for building the conflict and tension you need for a strong love story. How handy is that?
Enemies to Lovers
There’s a reason “enemies to lovers” is such a popular romance trope. These are two people who hate each other. They’re people standing on opposite sides of a conflict. They’re people who don’t see eye to eye on anything. They’re constantly butting heads, but we just know that sooner or later, they’re going to break.
Sometimes they already know they’re attracted to the other person and sometimes it catches them completely off guard. Whatever the case, every exchange is filled with scrumptious angst and tension.
Friends to Lovers
But enemies to lovers isn’t the only trope that can build tension. Friends to lovers is a common one, too. In this case, the tension comes from the idea of moving past the established relationship and overcoming the potential pitfalls of turning from friends to lovers.
Maybe one side has been in love with the other all along. Maybe they’ve both been in love all this time but have been too scared to say it. Or maybe neither of them had any idea there was potential for more until something big and life altering happens.
Again, whatever it is, there is angst. There is chest-beating. There is tension.
Wow, can you say tension? You’ve got your main characters and they’ve got their pick of two ideal love interests? There’s just something about each of them that creates that spark for your protagonist. There are boatloads of opportunities for banter, tension, and conflict when there’s a third wheel and, inevitably, someone will lose out in the end. Cue sad tear.
Most people understand there’s a difference between lust and love. Lust is fueled primarily by intense physical attraction to another person. It doesn’t normally go much deeper than the heart-pounding, palm-sweating need for one another just because the other person is really, really hot.
Hey, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
You can build all sorts of conflict and tension between two people who get physical before they get intimate. Maybe they regret that one-night stand but still can’t seem to get the person out of their head. Maybe they’re “friends with benefits” and start to realize they want something more. Or maybe their intense physical desires are a shield for their true feelings and their need to overcome their fear of relationships.
Take your pick. It’s all good.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is slow burn romance. This is definitely one of my personal favorites and is basically the gold standard for creating intense conflict and tension.
The basis of the slow burn relies on the idea that one or both sides are slowly becoming aware of their feelings or they’re already aware and doing everything they can to fight it. Whether that’s due to internal or external conflicts—or a little of both—is entirely up to you.
If you can get your readers to throw the book across the room because of another “almost kiss” then you’ve done your job building up that romantic tension.
The one bed trope is more of a mini trope used within a larger trope like those mentioned above, but the principle behind it works to help drive tension and conflict.
If you’re not sure what it is, basically one bed is when a scene requires the love interests to share a bed (or horse, or seat, or whatever you like) due to circumstances outside their control. Think two people traveling during a snowstorm who finally manage to find a motel but, oops, there’s only one room left, and it only has one bed.
The reason this trope is so popular is because it’s just rife with the opportunity to build tension. The accidental touches. The wildly intimate nature of sleeping next to someone who you either are pretending you don’t have feelings for or you do have feelings for but have no idea if the other person feels the same or if you should act on them.
While romantic chemistry can be hard to quantify, it’s not impossible to learn how to create it. As I hope you’ve seen from this article, there are lots of ways to help create the tension that results in a great romance that will keep your readers turning the pages.
For more on writing romance and love, check out these resources:
- How to write a romance novel
- Romance tropes
- Romance novel beat sheet
- Hinting at love between characters
- How to write about love
If you’re drafting a romance, it can be useful to help plot those character and romance arcs in a visual way. Thankfully, Dabble Writer is just the tool to help you. With its handy Plot Grid, you can pinpoint those moments of conflict and tension and how they progress to result in that heart-stopping romance that makes your readers beg for more.
And you can even try it free for 14 days. No credit card required.
Do you have a story in you? Of course you do! Come write with us for the Dabble Writing Challenge.
Essentially, a beta reader is an (hopefully) objective third party who will read your novel or story and provide (hopefully) constructive feedback. A beta reader is not an editor, and often they’re not writers either, though there’s a good chance a lot of your beta readers are going to be authors as well.
If you’re a regular writer of romance or are looking to dive into this popular genre, you might be on the lookout for some stellar plot ideas. Spend any time reading and exploring the genre and you’ll know that romance is just one word for dozens of different subgenres all with their own tone and style.