Romance: Formula & Fizz

I’m so grateful for my beta readers. By the time a manuscript is ready for eyes other than mine, I’ve sunk so many hours into the beast that total objectivity is no longer possible. This is the point where my test readers become my knights-in-shining; they tell me what’s working and what needs a tweak (or overhaul).

Recently, a reader for my young adult novel reported apathy regarding the book’s central romantic pair. For her, their tie to one another wasn’t compelling enough for it to seem justified when the heroine surrenders her dreams in order to remain with the hero.

Obviously, I would’ve preferred for her to gush over my love birds. But this kind of honest feedback is enormously helpful, indispensable… and a good reminder of the two elements essential for writing the kind of romantic relationships readers want to sink into:

  1. Puzzle-Piecing (Yup, this is a newly-coined term, à la yours truly.)
  2. Chemistry

What do I mean by “puzzle-piecing“? This is where the analytical half of the writer-brain comes into play. Every author has different methods for creating characters. Sometimes these figures spring up whole, obligingly popping from the imagination like tulips. Sometimes, they require more sculpting, necessitating tools of creation like those mentioned in my post on crafting characters.

But however you go about developing the characters that make up your romantic duo, by the end of the process, you must be able to quantify this one thing: why do they fit together? (Eh? Fit, like a puzzle? Get the metaphor?)

Maybe she’s a cynical misanthrope, bruised by life, and his irrepressible optimism kindles hope within her–hope she once thought dead. Maybe he’s been cautious all his life and her brave spontaneity calls to the repressed adventurer within. It can be anything–any part of him that calls to her, any part of her that fascinates him–but you must be able to put your finger on the pulse of it.You must be able to articulate where the hollow in this piece and the notch in this one fit together.

Then you have to go one step further and communicate it to your reader.

This is where that old rule kicks in: Show, don’t tell. It’s not enough to write, baldly, “Being a stagnating artist, Jim was attracted to Tina’s creativity.” Readers see straight through this. Instead, this allure must be unfolded in a tactile way, written so readers can experience it themselves: a scene where Jim marvels over the delicacy of Tina’s pottery, or where Tina constructively criticizes Jim’s painting, spurring him onto higher artistic heights. Readers must be wooed by the discovery of this love connection, even as love for Tina slowly unfurls in Jim.

Jane Austen is a master of this technique. Her story are elegant and subtle, with nary a romantic connection seeming heavy-handed. But by the close of her novels, you know exactly why the romantic characters snap together. If someone asks why Darcy and Elizabeth mesh, you say, “Why, her intelligent playfulness and his noble solidity, of course!” If they ask after Emma and Knightly’s suitability, you point to his good-hearted wisdom, her resilient vitality. The logic of these pairings points to truth, which resonates within the reader, making the romance resonate in its turn.

Although a more common concept, chemistry is the element that strikes me as trickier for the writer to create. No product of analysis and careful decision, chemistry is a feature of romantic writing that’s difficult to define. We know when chemistry between characters exists, and we really know when it doesn’t. But there isn’t a simple formula for conjuring it up. I can easily articulate reasons my husband and I work together–he has the steadiness I crave, I have the goofiness he needs. But I don’t have a tidy explanation for why electricity tripped down my fingers the first time he held my hand.

We’ve all read those books where everything between two characters makes logical sense–intellectually, we grasp the idea of their attraction–but the pop and fizz is missing. (I know it sounds like I’m describing soda here, but it’s this effervescent quality that makes romances alive.) I haven’t read or seen 5o Shades of Grey. But the most common complaint I’ve heard about the film is that it was utterly without chemistry between the central characters. So here you have a story ABOUT sex that somehow manages to lack sexual sizzle–which is one of the essential parts of chemistry.

Conversely, you have Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre where sex, if any occurs, never appears “on screen.” And yet there’s no denying the crackle between Jane and Rochester. When they’re portrayed as unable to resist the-opposites-attract-allure between them, we, as the reader, find it totally believable. Because we feel that powerful chemistry, too.

But as mystical a force as chemistry is–a thing that either rings true, or doesn’t (with variation for the individual reader)–there are perhaps a few methods that might help make sparks fly.

First, my husband’s probably right when he says there has to be some concurrence between what the reader understands romance to be and what the character finds romantic. If the reader doesn’t believe witty repartee can be alluring, he/she might not buy the heroine’s inability to resist a lover with whom she holds rousing debates. When cultivating a romance, try to identify a cord you believe will strike an echo within your readers.

Second, tension has a role. Maybe this is the battle of the wits aforementioned. Maybe it’s a case of opposites attracting. Maybe it’s a reason hero and heroine shouldn’t be united, resulting in an intrinsic push against the equally powerful pull of attraction. Regardless of how it manifests, this physics-based fact holds true in fiction: no sparks fly without friction coming first.

Third, physical touch plays a role. This may seem like a gimme, but the nature of this touch is what’s important. Incremental touch, inadvertent touch, aborted touch (like the suspended kiss, combining the above idea with this one)… these draw us slowly into a romantic pairing, serving to convince us that these characters can’t quite keep their hands off each other–a sure sign of chemistry.

Ultimately, there’s no definitive formula for writing good romance. As in so many other things, here writing-art imitates life. Logic certainly plays a part in successful pairings, but there’s a magic to love that can’t be fully excavated via language. But that doesn’t mean authors can’t utilize all the tools at our fingertips as we seek to weave the enchantment of a sigh-inducing love story.

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