Who doesn’t love a good romantic subplot? Okay, so maybe romance isn’t your thing. But as it so happens, the fiction world has decided that it is everybody’s thing, thus romantic subplots get shoehorned into just about every book, movie, and TV show.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a romantic subplot, but they can be done poorly–very poorly. However, when it’s woven into the narrative as part of the story, and the characters have actual chemistry, it can be a real highlight.
Of course, we all know the potential dangers of the Love Triangle and all that, but if you’re like me and find these sorts of romantic entanglements enjoyable, then it might help to know how to write one that won’t make your reader gag.
1. Develop your characters
I mean, you should be doing this anyway regardless of whether or not you have a romantic subplot. But it especially becomes pertinent when you have two characters who are going to form a strong emotional bond and fall in looooove through the course of the story.
I think most can agree that the “love at first sight” trope has long outworn its welcome. And though meet cutes can be fun, there has to be more than just one interaction between our two protagonists in order for the romance to be convincing.
That’s why you should make sure these characters actually get to know one another, and that the reader sees it happen: dialogue, getting thrown into situations together, working through the conflict of the story together. They don’t have to be together every second of the book, but if all the falling in love stuff happens off screen (or from afar) it’s not going to seem organic.
You should also make sure that you establish your characters’ personalities independent of their burgeoning relationship. What I mean by that is, make sure you establish character traits before boy meets girl. If you only ever see a character’s personality when they’re around The Love Interest, that’s going to feel off. Or if how they act around The Love Interest totally contradicts how they act around other people, that’s going to feel off, too.
Unless one of them is lying about who they are and trying to maintain a facade, which would be an interesting (albeit doomed, and perhaps a little cliche) dynamic.
Sure, people tend to act a little different around a crush, but part of the getting-to-know-someone process is learning what their salient features are. So say your male protagonist is a good guy but he’s got a bit of an ego. If The Love Interest never sees that, then the reader will either think that he’s just that suave and deceptive or that his ego isn’t really that big after all.
Same vice versa: if all The Love Interest sees is his ego but never his sweet side, then that’s not a very good incentive for her to fall in love with him, right?
I would hope.
2. Make both parties part of the plot
Now this really depends on the structure of your story, and it doesn’t mean that both parties have to be front-and-center in the action all the time. You can have one of them take more of a backseat, or be off doing something related to the plot but not always on screen. But in general, it’s better if both are active characters that are doing something.
They can be working together or against each other; they can have different skill sets or different goals. But they should both have a motivation, though that motivation can change as they get to know each other and fall in loooooove. The romantic subplot should serve the plot, not the other way around.
As the YouTube channel Terrible Writing Advice puts it (in much more eloquently sarcastic words), what you want to avoid is a Love Interest that is absent from the plot and really only serves as a MacGuffin. We’re talking damsel (or dude) in distress.
Unless you’re horsing around with the conventions of fairytales, putting your Love Interest off screen and in need of rescuing for the entirety of the plot isn’t going to do much for their chemistry.
Now, I don’t want to be a cynic about this, because this trope has been done well. But it is 2020, after all, and I don’t think the Arthurian ideals of chivalry really butter our egg rolls anymore. Not that you should aim to please the masses or be afraid to write a rescue plot if you really want to.
But if one of your characters is going to be captured for a majority of the book, 1. spend some time developing the dynamic between the protagonists before the capture and 2. maybe spend some time in the captured character’s POV, getting his or her take on things? Maybe they learn something about the villain that becomes pivotal to their rescue later on. Maybe they escape on their own and go find The Love Interest themselves! Who knows?
3. Don’t drag it on forever
“Just kiss already!” Sound familiar? Countless books, movies, and TV shows drag their romantic subplots on for eternity in the hopes of heightening the romantic tension and keeping the reader/viewer invested.
As Overly Sarcastic Productions so poignantly addressed, this may have a lot to do with the fact that no one seems to know how to write healthy relationships. Everyone loves to watch two characters fall in love and finally admit it to each other, but a healthy couple in a committed relationship? Snoozefest! It’s like watching your parents! (Because it’s not like old married couples have any chemistry whatsoever!)
So how do you avoid this totally boring dynamic? Drag it out forever! Have them break up and get back together countless times, or never really muster the courage to confess their love until the very end even though it’s obvious to everyone but them, or have their romantic moments constantly interrupted by other characters! (Don’t be afraid to use this once or twice to build tension, but every single time? Just kiss already!)
Oh, another good point that I came across in my research: it doesn’t have to lead up to a kiss. Also, I know that even in today’s media a kiss is like the ultimate culmination of romantic intent, but in real life, a kiss can be just a kiss. They’re nice and they tend to really lock in the whole “I’m attracted to you thing,” but they’re not a declaration of love. People kiss people and then they don’t work out.
So, kissing doesn’t have to be the climax (no sexual pun intended *winky face*). And it doesn’t have to symbolize that the characters are now going to get married and be together forever. It can signal the start of something. Or the end of something.
Or, have your characters express their affection towards one another in other ways. No, I’m not talking about sex, though if your conscience (and intended audience) allow, then why not? People have sex. Often without being fully committed to that person. But can it lead to commitment? Sure. Depends on your values and the values of your characters, I suppose.
But what if there are other ways, specific to your characters, that they can express love towards each other? Maybe the protagonist finally lets his guard down and confides in The Love Interest. Or The Love Interest, who has a hard time showing affection to anyone, now trusts this person enough to hold his hand or hug him. And this doesn’t have to happen in the last paragraph of the book, either.
4. Conflict is okay
We’ve all seen the romantic comedy where the guy and girl have some big fight because plot and then realize what they’re missing and come back together in the end. That’s the romance genre for you. And it’s not always bad for what it is, just… not always realistic.
Now, in real life, everyone knows that couples mostly argue over little things. Of course, fiction has to truncate reality a little bit because you don’t have the time to detail every petty squabble your characters have. But you can be very nuanced and intentional with your characters’ interpersonal conflicts.
The main difference is, your characters will also have plot stuff to deal with, perhaps something otherworldly or fantastical. And that’s going to affect their burgeoning romance. Maybe they’ll disagree on some things. Maybe one will make a decision that hurts the other, or choose something over the other person.
This kind of goes back to making sure both characters are part of the plot. You can’t have plot stuff, then lovey-dovey, plot stuff, then lovey-dovey, with the one not affecting the other. If the stakes are high, then this will affect how these two characters interact with each other, too. And if they have to work through some stuff in order to be together, then that just strengthens the relationship. You don’t want it to be too easy–no relationship is perfect.
5. Do you need it?
Going back to what I said in the beginning, there’s a tendency for writers to think that you have to have a romantic subplot in your book, whether you like writing them or not. Whether it fits into your plot or not. If it doesn’t, if it’s going to feel too forced or too contrived, then leave it out. No romance is better than bad romance.
There are plenty of stories that explore different character non-romantic character dynamics: friends, brother/sister, mom or dad. So far, the poster boy of Disney+ (and, as you may know, a new favorite of mine), The Mandalorian, is about a father/son dynamic. One of my favorite animated movies, The Emperor’s New Groove, is about friendship. There’s tons of examples, but I digress.
The point is, don’t feel forced to include romance if it doesn’t feel right. Especially if you don’t like writing it. For me, I love a good romantic subplot. I love writing them. I love when I see them done well in books and movies. But that’s me. Once again: no romance is better than bad romance. (I’m looking at you, Rise of Skywalker.)
Also: don’t feel pressured to pair up the rest of your minor characters at the end of the story. Especially if those minor characters have had zero interaction up until that point. Not everyone has to kiss in the end.
I feel like there’s more I could say, or that I could say the same stuff but better. In any case, what are your thoughts on romantic subplots? You got any good examples? How about bad examples? Those are fun!