Writing romantic fiction can be tricky: there are obviously very successful models out there, and many find it all to easy to fall into the trap of following the formula rather than being ‘original’. But how original should you be? If writing models work and have proven successful, shouldn’t we use them?
The answer is that both ways are right: you should be original, but you should also be aware that models work for a reason.
There’s actually a balance between similarity to what everyone is expecting, so as not to disappoint, and differentiation, so as to make your writing stand out and have a style and method of its own.
Also note that romance as a thing most often occurs in either Adventure or Epic stories or in Comedies. Jane Austen’s novels, for example, mainly fit into the Comedy genre, even though we normally think of Comedy as just being something which makes us laugh. It’s rare to find a working romantic relationship in a Tragedy or an Irony, mainly because in these genres, romance would be doomed from the start.
Here are some points to watch for:
1. In Adventure stories, one of the hero’s companions is often a woman who becomes a love-interest in the course of the tale. Oddly enough, in these kinds of stories, she frequently turns out to be disloyal or confused (think of Guinevere in the legends of Arthur or Arwen in The Lord of the Rings). This kind of tale often leaves the hero celibate and virginal. The romantic angle in these stories possess a dynamic of its own, even when it isn’t the central thrust of the plot.
2. In Comedies, romances are quite often viewed the other way round: instead of seeing the scene through the male hero’s eyes, we see things from the woman’s point of view. To her, the male seems untrustworthy at first, but later proves himself deeply honourable. (Think of Pride and Prejudice, one of the model-setting Romance novels.)
3. Is too much emotion dramatised? Readers tend to prefer emotions being bottled up inside, rather than displayed. It’s all very well for the woman to feel torn apart with emotion, but she mustn’t say so openly until the key moment. Create a dramatic situation to show the inner feelings rather than speaking them. One of Austen’s strengths, for example, is to portray dialogue between characters that is so restrained that the emotion is ‘between the lines’, bursting to get out.
4. Is contact minimised? The two characters romantically linked should be kept apart as much as possible. Readers like tensions between separated poles: gestures across crowded rooms, whispered phrases, unexpected journeys which fling them apart - it all adds to the tension.
5. Does what is happening around the romance support the tension? In Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, for example, a world at war conspires to bring key characters together and keep them apart. If it’s too easy for lovers, readers will lose interest.
6. Is the love expressed through concrete imagery rather than just in words? Have things around the lovers reflect what is going on inside, rather than having them just repeat glib phrases of intense commitment or passion. Be specific, make it real.
7. Do the lovers have distinct ways of speaking? (Men in romances tend not to say much.)
There’s obviously a lot more which could be said-which will be said in the forthcoming book How Stories Really Work- but these few pointers might help in the meantime.