Saturday, February 18, 2012

Romantic Subplots Part 4

You and me--all that lights upon us though
Brings us together
Like a fiddle-bow
Drawing one voice from two strings, it glides along
Across what instrument have we been spanned?
And what violinist holds us in his hand?
Ah, sweetest song.
--Ranier Maria Rilke

Rule #4: Create romantic tension.

I bet this is the rule you've been expecting since the beginning. It's the one I've been dreading. 

I am not a romance writer. I almost never even read romances. I'm not trying to diss an entire genre--it's just not what I'm looking for in a book. However, I love romance in other kinds of stories, and romantic tension is great fun to read. But it's not a lot of fun to research. Do you have any idea what kinds of things come up when you google romantic tension? Don't try it. You don't want to know. (And heaven help anyone trying to research sexual tension. Yikes.)

What Is Romantic Tension?

Romance: The feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love.
Tension: The state of being stretched tight or a pulling force.

Imagine the relationships between your characters as a web. The threads connecting some of your characters are probably loose and easily broken. But romance causes the thread between characters to be pulled tight. This causes heightened awareness of sensory input traveling along that thread. It causes your characters to perseverate on sensory input traveling along that thread. Your job, as a writer, is to communicate that heightened awareness to your readers.

It doesn't sound very romantic when I put it that way, does it? Ah--but it is! Let me show you some of the ways it can manifest itself:


I could watch that all day long. Do you see how difficult all that sensory input is making it to even have a conversation? Good stuff.

Frustration and Jealousy

Click here to see another great example of romantic tension.

From: Trickster's Choice by Tamora Pierce
(Nawat is a crow who has recently turned into a man)
Nawat looked up at her with a smile that lit his eyes. “You are beautiful in the new light,” he told her. “If I were the Dawn Crow, I would bring you the sun to hatch as our first nestling.” 
Aly blinked at him. Her heart felt strangely squeezed by some powerful emotion. She bit her lip to distract herself from a feeling that made her horribly unsure. “Have you been kissing anybody?” she asked without meaning to, and gasped. She had let words out of her mouth without thinking, which was not like her! Worse, they were such personal words, ones he might feel meant personal feelings she did not have!

This was the kind of thing that other girls said, those girls who were not bored by all the young men who had courted them. How many handsome fellows had sighed compliments to Aly while, unconcerned, she had mentally wrestled with breaking a new code? At home she never cared about her suitors enough to worry if they kissed other girls.

She scrambled to blot out what she’d said. “Not that it’s any of my business, but you should understand, people have a way of kissing for fun, without it meaning anything serious, and I’d hate for you to think someone wanted you to mate-feed them just because they’re kissing—” Stop babbling, her mind ordered. Aly stopped. 
Nawat’s smile broadened. That disturbing light in his eyes deepened. “I have kissed no one but you, Aly,” he assured her, serious. “Why should I kiss anyone else?”

An Old-Fashioned Girl by: Louisa May Alcott:
"Don't shut your eyes, Polly; they are so full of mischief tonight, I like to see them," said Tom, after idly wondering for a minute if she knew how long and curly her lashes were.

Plain old sweetness
Jane Eyre by: Charlotte Bronte 
"Are you anything akin to me, do you think, Jane?" 
I could risk no sort of answer by this time: my heart was still. 
"Because," he said, "I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you - especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land should come between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I've a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, - you'd forget me.” 
Only one more rule to go. Just to make sure I'm not missing anything, what do YOU think the last rule should be??? 

Links to previous posts:


  1. Fun post! I like the idea of heightened awareness of sensory inputs. I've never thought of it in those terms but it makes sense. Every new way of describing romantic tension gives me another angle to pursue when I try to write it.

    I think a lot of what you're describing can be boiled down to subtext. Neither character ever fully knows what the other is feeling or what his or her intentions are, and so there's always going to be some confusion that can be exploited romantically. David Baboulene has a fantastic book about subtext called "The Story Book." His blog post explains much better than I can:

    I love this series, Melanie!

  2. Sarah, That was a very deep blog post. I've never even considered the subtext of my story before. The more I know, the less educated I feel.

  3. Excellent post as always. I agree with Sarah that this boils down to subtext. Showing that the two characters are into each other, but are unsure of the other person or in denial or too scared to put themselves out there.

    Romantic tension in real life is hoping or suspecting someone might feel for you what you feel for them, but not sure enough to admit how you feel. That analyzing their every word, every look, every movement and trying to piece it all together while at the same time trying to be encouraging, but not too encouraging back just in case they aren't into you.

    Or maybe that is just me and my craziness. :)

  4. I like how you describe tension according to its physical definition, and then apply it to writing. I also want to make the point that romance plots and subplots are very much like mysteries, where the characters accrue all the sensory details and conversations and everything they know about a person and must put the pieces together to solve the mystery of their relationship to that person.

  5. I like your analogy, Carl. I've been thinking lately that almost all plots are fundamentally mysteries. How will they solve the problem, what does the antagonist really want, what final trick does he have up his sleeve, will they or won't they, etc.

    I think one of the things that makes romantic subplots great - and sometimes more rewarding than "traditional" romance - is that the answer to the mystery of their relationship is a moving target. There may be only a HFN (happy for now) as a resolution, which allows room for a relationship to grow and change.


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