I’m a sucker for a heart-thumping, palm-sweating romance. And regardless of what niche genre you write in, there’s often an acceptable place for a romantic subplot. Just as we love to plunge into quests and adventures, readers love to read about love because it opens a little window for the reader to feel and connect on an emotional level.
What is important is to write a romantic subplot that sings and sizzles. It should serve the plot and pulls at the heartstrings of the reader.
1. Give it purpose
This is a good rule of writing in general: if a story inclusion doesn’t add any value to the narrative, don’t include it.
A romantic subplot is like any other subplot, in that it should bolster the A-storyline, i.e. the main premise/goal of the protagonist.
I might be biased towards this topic because ALL of my books have very heavy romantic subplots, but we tend to try and find these relationships on our own. If you throw two characters together and give them a spoonful of chemistry, our human hormones will do the work to ‘ship’ them. But more on that later.
2. Show don’t tell
Yep, this shouldn’t be surprising. “Show, don’t tell” is pretty much the golden rule of fiction writing.
When it comes to romance, no one is going buy it if you tell them that two people are madly in love…you need to show why they love each other and usually that means illustrating the foundation on which that love was built. Otherwise, you have the “but daddy I love him” sort of moment (Ariel from the Little Mermaid, I’m looking at you!).
You can do this in a subplot by showing how the major events of the plot impact them AND their relationship.
3. Don’t forget about the chase
Falling in love is a process of ups and downs. If the two characters just bat their eyelashes and swoon, the reader will roll their eyes and insert whatever gagging noises deemed appropriate.
When you are writing a romantic subplot ask yourself: why can’t these two be together? It doesn’t always have to be an extreme forbidden romance. But the tension that keeps them apart will captivate the readers and get them to stand up and cheer when they inevitably work out their problems and get together.
It’s more impactful when the romantic beats align with the overarching plot tension. The protagonist might not be able to fall for the love interest in their starting state, but as they are both transformed by the journey that is your plot, they open themselves slowly to this love.
4. Sometimes subtlety is key
Consider actual dating. If someone slips out an “I love you” on a first or second date, it would most likely send you running for the hills. If the couple is too quick to relinquish the “I love you’s”, sacrifice themselves, or proclaim their undying fidelity, then your reader might find the relationship a touch unbelievable. That being said, it doesn’t take much to identify the love interest.
Revisiting the idea that our human hormones will ‘ship’ any two characters that have compatible orientations and a dose of chemistry, the issue generally isn’t establishing who the intended love interest will be. The challenge is fortifying why the two should fall in love.
This is when subtlety is usually the best policy. We love to see example after example of the two characters growing together. Whether these moments are flirtatious lines of dialogue, gestures of service or good faith, or long, pining inner-thoughts, having cascade of smaller instances will build a stronger foundation than singular grand gesture.
Save the grand gestures for somewhere near the protagonist’s breaking point if you wish to have the most dramatic flair… which brings us to structure.
5. Structure your romantic subplot
Some people shy away from the confines of narrative structure, but I embrace it. There’s a reason for structure, and that’s because our brains have had the same narrative expectations since the beginning of storytelling.
The same is true for romance and romantic subplots. Readers expect things like: an initial resistance, growing closer, conflict pulling them apart, a stumble/breakup, and a grand gesture/make-up.
I highly recommend: Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes to help set your romantic structure. Regardless if you plan out your novel in 7 parts, 3 acts, or by saving a handful of cats , there are key beats that all romances tend to hit and it will set you up for success to consider them.
I actually had done an overview of the romance beats when I first wrote this article, but due to length I am publishing it separately and using one of my favorites, Disney’s Tangled, as an example to illustrate each beat.
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