Grace A. Johnson
Romance Q&A Pt. 1: Married Couples, Subtlety, & the Importance of Romance
WHOA. Y'all, it's only been about a week since I posted my romance Q&A form...and I've already got dozens of questions! I just picked out a few questions for this post, so expect three or four more in the coming weeks! And y'all keep in mind that, uh, my answers are insanely long. Let's just say I get my Rina ramble on. *winks* So I've summed up the answer to each question in the last paragraph of my answer to keep things concise, and I've bolded the most important parts to make things memorable. Hopefully that'll help.
(Oh, and I wrote my answers out of order, so if I repeat myself, that's why.)
Now, before we get into it, if you have any questions (or more), just hop on over to this here form!
Without further rambling (actually, we're about to get into the real rambling), my first question!
What are your best tips for writing romance that is more subtle (for example, small cues between the characters at the beginning of a romance)?
Gosh, I feel like the answer to every question could be (1) be balanced and authentic and (2) stay true to your characters and focus on them rather than the plot or romance criteria. *sighs* So to keep from repeating myself fifty times over, I’m gonna get really specific with this one!
First off, that answer-to-every-question still applies. One of my favorite romance-writing tips is to consider how your characters will express their attraction or love for another person! In the case of the first flush of romance, you’re going to be dealing more with attraction than love (most likely), so think of your character as having a crush. How would they communicate nonverbally to their crush that they like them? What behavior would they think is a sign their crush likes them back?
For example, a shy (or socially awkward) character wouldn’t bat her eyelashes or flirt with the hero…but she will follow him with her eyes (and immediately glance down as soon as he looks her way), defend him to her friends/family or comment about him seemingly at random, and sit close (or directly across) from him. But the outgoing hero will always be teasing her, flirting with her, brushing hands or bumping shoulders, and trying to keep her attention in every way he can!
When it comes to a subtle romance that’s already blossomed, you’ll need to figure out your characters’ love languages! You can’t confine your characters’ interactions to a strict criteria, no, but having an idea of what their love languages and expressions are will give you a foundation to begin with! If your heroine’s love language is quality time or acts of service, she’ll always be shuffling things around and sacrificing her time and energy for the hero (which could cause some friction, but I’ll save the love language analysis for another post *winks*). And if the hero’s is words of affirmation and physical touch, he’ll (you guessed it) still be brushing hands (or maybe holding hands) and flirting (and really meaning it when he says she’s the most beautiful girl he knows)! (Which, again, can cause conflict with our shy, awkward heroine who just wants to cook a nice meal and clean the kitchen with her busy boyfriend. …I should seriously write a whole post about all this.)
Second, language is key. There is literally a romance language (and I don’t mean French or Spanish), a way writers use simply their word choice to convey a myriad of emotions or foreshadow upcoming twists. In one of my side projects (which Vanessa got to read a few chapters of), I set up a love triangle within the first seven chapters, not because both heroes are flirting with the heroine or because the heroine is daydreaming about both…but because of my words and which ones I use. It’s that simple.
The first aspect of the romance language is what you write. Instead of skimming over your hero with a quick “he had brown hair and blue eyes,” you’re going to take the time to describe him in depth, because your heroine is taking note of exactly what he looks like. More than that, how you write it going to change; you’ll use more adjectives and adverbs (like “electrifying blue eyes” or “he winked teasingly”) and stronger nouns/verbs that add more definition (i.e., “he sauntered up to me” or “hazelnut curls that fell into his eyes”).
And you’ll dive deeper into actions, reactions, thoughts, and feelings than you would in any other character interaction. A conversation between the hero and his mother might look like this: She placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “I know you’ll do great, Brett. You always do.” He smiled. “Thanks.” But when the heroine says the same thing to the hero, it’ll look more like this: She gave him one of her signature crooked smiles and a cheeky wink., melting all the doubt away. “I know you’ll do great, Brett.” Her hand, small but strong, squeezed his shoulder, the touch seemingly friendly but secretly tantalizing. “You always do.” He grinned back, cupping her hand with his. “Thanks.”
See the difference? Just a couple extra sentences turn this from a quick “You go, son” to an intense, emotionally charged moment between two friends who are on the fast track to becoming lovers. You don’t have to be as wordy as me, of course, but try following the pattern of action, description, reaction/thought/feeling, and see how it spices your interactions up!
This is how I managed a friends-to-lovers romance in my (very) short story, Daylight! A couple sentences established a colorful backstory for Sylvie and August (“I want to wait until he’s healed and home and we can watch Rambo in his next-door apartment while eating cold pizza and ice cream.”); a few well-placed words and extra descriptions give the illusion that Sylvie’s attracted to her best friend (“He just took my hand, squeezed it hard, and said in his low, sexy voice and raspy Bronx accent…”); and some deep, dark inner thoughts show the readers how Sylvie really does feel (“Gosh, I love it when he looks at me like that. Part teasing, part angry, part...almost hungry, really. As if he wants me as bad as I want him.”).
(Just a little personal plug here…if you wanna see that in action, you can find Daylight here!)
And there you have it, Vanessa! Two easy ways to hint at a romance are (1) to include your characters’ ways of showing attraction or expressing love, and (2) use language that shows the readers what the characters are thinking and how they feel! Of course, you can always find a list of generalized romance cues, but this way, you’ll stay more natural and authentic!
What are your best tips for writing romance between a married couple?
Ah, I LOVE this one! Most of y’all know that half of my romances are between married couples, as I write long series with the same characters, and I absolutely love developing my characters on into their married years! (It’s SO much more fun once they start having arguments and babies and really getting deep into their relationship!)
In my experience, I try not to think “Oh, these guys are married, so they’re going to act like XYZ.” I mean, these are my charries, my babies, my hardened female pirate and my gentle captain (or whichever characters I’m writing at the time), and that’s what I focus on. Their personalities and struggles and what they would say to their spouse and what conflict there would be between them and how they’d express their love and fun stuff like that.
So when it comes down to it, try not to go too far to the left or right – as in, don’t make the scene too argumentative (married couples don’t just argue, believe it or not) or too lovey-dovey. Balance it. Get deep. Like, scenes between the couple before they’re married will only go so far – and I mean emotionally, not just physically. With your husband and wife, get down to the nitty-gritty of their relationship, have them ask each other the hard questions, etc. But don’t be afraid to have a moment of just casual companionship. Everything doesn’t have to be climatic in their relationship – it can be just normal. Just a conversation. Just a kiss on the cheek.
Again, balance is key. *winks*
How does one write realistic romance without making it touchy-feely?
Simple. Don’t make it touchy-feely.
OKAY OKAY. I’ll be serious here.
FOCUS ON YOUR CHARACTERS. Yes, that’s me being serious. This is also me repeating what I say about prettyyyy much everything. Don’t focus on the moment or what you’re writing or what your book would be rated if it were a movie or if your grandma would approve. Focus on who your characters are, what their life experiences are, what their love language is, etc. In the end, realism is dependent upon how well you stick to your characters and how authentic their actions, reactions, etc. feel.
Because, guess what. If your character’s love language is physical touch, your romance is gonna hafta be touchy-feely. If your character has a past of being a player, your romance may have a few touchy-feely moments. If your characters are married, you must have touchy-feeliness.
BUT. There is good news. When your characters don’t like physical touch…or haven’t been in relationships before…or have anxiety…or don’t trust people…or haven’t had good examples of relationships in their lives (the list goes on)...their relationship might not be touchy-feely.
On a more technical level, if you wanna bypass lengthy kiss scenes, be simple. Say “He leaned in and kissed her gently” rather than going on a three-page exposition. Don’t be overly vague about it, especially if you just spent three pages describing a tree (stay consistent, people), but don’t feel obligated to get all detailed. (Newsflash: if a reader reads clean/Christian romances, chances are they’re just there for the sweet “I love yous,” not the touchy stuff.)
Another thing to do is focus on the emotional aspect rather than the physical one. Write “He kissed her, and her world tilted upside down as she experienced a sweet, gentle touch like nothing she’d ever felt. His kiss was like a warm blanket, making her feel safe and treasured” instead of “He leaned in, grazing her cheek with his nose, as his breath wafted over her face, sending pinpricks of pleasure down her spine.” Can you read the difference? One snippet focuses on how the heroine feels on the inside, while the other one describes exactly what the hero is doing and how it makes the heroine feel physically. I recommend a balance of both, but a lot of people prefer to read–and write–just the emotional side of things, and a lot of times, that works perfectly for the scene and characters!
Or, you could just have those moments happen off-page unless they’re central to the plot. Or, set your story in a bygone era where most people didn’t even hold hands until after they were married (or model your fantasy world after a time period/culture like that).
Pretty sure this sums it up: focus on your characters and who they are. They will guide your romance and keep you straight on what their relationship will look like. Limit your detail and page-time. AND ALWAYS REMEMBER…just one kiss scene is plenty. In most romances, after the first kiss, the subsequent ones will be just a quick “He kissed her.” Or there won’t even be anymore. Don’t force yourself to throw in a bunch of smooching if that (1) is not what your characters would do and (2) isn’t necessary for the course of the story.
Why is romance important to those who are not ready for those kinds of thoughts?
Guess what. Romance has absolutely nothing to do with ”those kinds of thoughts.”
You don’t believe me.
Allow me to direct you to the infamous hand flex that the entire world has been going gaga over since 2005. Yes, a hand. Flexing. Just…flexing. In the air. By its owner’s side. So…boring.
And yet, for years, women have been fangirling over how blasted sweet and adorable and precious it was that Mr. Darcy was so affected by the touch of Elizabeth’s hand as he helped her out of a carriage. WOW.
And that’s not even romance. That is just an example of how something as simple as a necessary let-me-help-you hand touch could mean the world. As my friend Brooklyn O’Brennan put it, “love is the little things.” So is romance.
Romance is helping someone down from a carriage and savoring the feeling of their hand in yours. Romance is choosing to watch clouds with someone instead of playing ball with your buddies. Romance is longing to see someone, even though they just walked away a minute ago. Romance is bringing ice cream to cheer someone up. Romance is waiting in the car so that someone can open the door for you, because you know it makes him feel like a gallant knight. Romance is also opening the door for someone and helping her out of the car, because you’d rather help her out than have her trip and stub her toe. Romance is seeing the good in someone and helping bring it out. Romance is admiring someone even when they think they stink. Romance is just being calm and quiet...and soaking in someone’s presence…because you’d rather be in the middle of nowhere with them than on top of the world without them.
Does that make sense?
Romance is not “oh, he’s so cute, I love the way he makes me feel.” Romane is not “oh, let’s go out on Saturday night.” Romance is not “lemme buy them a bunch of fancy stuff so they’ll like me.”
Love is part of romance. Love, that beautiful thing that is not proud or unkind or impatient or selfish. Love, that outpouring of God’s heart among us. Love, that power that triumphs over death.
That’s part of romance, so you can’t tell me romance isn’t something amazing. It’s something God created and gave us, something He placed in our hearts to go hand-in-hand with some of His other lovely creations: marriage, sex, and, of course, love.
Case in point, romance matters to people who aren’t ready for mushy-gushy feelings and touchy-feely moments because it goes beyond that. Because God thought it was important enough to create. Because it’s a reflection of God’s feelings for us. Because it brings a little light and life into this world. Because it’s life-changing and powerful and beautiful and exciting and absolutely lovely. Because, without it, there are a lot of things that would be pretty darn boring. *winks*
And romance novels matter because they give us examples of relationships and people in those relationships. Some show us what not to do…others show us what to do. Either way, we can learn from them and be inspired by them to be the kind of spouse we’d want someday, to be the kind of person someone would daydream about and desire to be with, to be the kind of person worthy of a beautiful love story, to be the kind of person God has called us to be. We can strengthen our convictions through them, learn not to settle through them, and enhance our common sense with them.
But I digress. (Forgive my rant, Joelle.) Long story short, romance is important because it’s an amazing thing that goes beyond icky thoughts in its true state, because God created it and gave it to us, and because it is a small reflection of what Christ feels for His bride. Romance novels are important because they should go beyond ickiness to something real and meaningful, because they give us examples to learn from, and because they too are a reflection of God’s love–just like the Song of Solomon is!
HOW IN THE WORLD DO YOU WRITE IT WITHOUT CRINGING AT YOURSELF?
*snorts* That’s easy. I treat it just like any other relationship. (That, and I ADORE romance and fangirl over my characters and ships ALL. THE. TIME.) Instead of trying to write the romance like a script for a Hallmark movie, keep things natural and authentic, and focus on developing their relationship just like you would a friendship or siblings. Of course, it’s not going to look the same, and you aren’t going to write the same interactions, but don’t overthink it or stress over it just because it’s a romance. And don’t make a checklist of romantic elements (like five kisses, three hugs, four “I love yous,” and one long mushy speech) to include in your story or feel like you have to meet a certain criteria–just let your characters lead the way, and let their romance play out how it will, in a natural and authentic way!
And, seriously. Don’t stress over it! Don’t read over your interactions and think “Oh, my gosh, this is so cringey!!” Just do your best, trust your gut, observe movies and other books and real-life couples, and have readers give their feedback! And even if your fictional relationship looks different than your parents’, friends’, or OTP’s (one true pairing) doesn’t mean it’s not realistic! Everyone’s romance is gonna be totally unique to them–even in books!
How do you write a romance that shows both characters truly trying to honor God and each other in that romance, and what are some of your favorite books that have this aspect?
Honestly, there’s nothing that works better in this regard than a challenge. After all, you can never see growth unless you see a trial or challenge, refining fire, if you will.
So to really highlight characters seeking God and following His precepts, throw in some temptation and challenges. Whether that’s something as simple as them being made fun of for not laughing at a crude joke about their relationship…or it’s as serious as them making a conscious effort to wait for marriage, even when they wonder if their partner is pulling away from them. (If you get what I mean…)
Don’t force it, though. Don’t make every single romance story about a guy and girl fighting sexual temptation. Your couple’s struggles should be tailored to their characters, not to whatever message or ideal you want to enforce. If your character sinned in their past and still struggles, then please don’t leave that out! But if your characters have overcome or never dealt with certain temptations, don’t drag them into the story just to prove a point. That is preachiness.
Maybe one couple will struggle with communication, another with honesty. Another with respect. And even in struggles that aren’t of a sexual natural, your characters will need to rely on God to get them through and help them grow…and your readers will see not only how your characters’ faith is proven, but how they too can have the strength to stand firm in their beliefs and follow God’s precepts!
In summary: Provide temptation and challenges for your characters…but be focused on them, not the point you’re trying to make. Let their struggles flow naturally from them, not your plot, and have them make conscious efforts to choose God above all else.
As for books that showcase this…ANYTHING by Julie Lessman. I’m serious. She has a lot of stories that tackle purity and the importance of it, but they’re all genuine, real, and heartfelt–not forced or over-hyped. Basically, they feel authentic, not like a 2000s purity culture sermon. And she also weaves in tons of other elements–like honesty, respect, loyalty, etc.–to create a story that’s full of conflict…but also full of Christ!
What is your ideal romantic date night? 😂
*facepalm* I knew I had it coming… LOL! Two words: bookstores and coffee. Seriously. Just me, my cute guy who is eerily similar to Mr. Darcy, and a huge bookstore/coffee shop aaaallll to ourselves. *sighs* (Okay, maybe a chaperone. And a barista. And a store clerk. ANYWAY.)
I for one would be curious about what instantly makes you 'love' certain romance stories more than others. What takes it from being just another...bleh...romance story to something worthy of notice?
This is being asked by both a writer and an avid reader, and having an answer for both angles would be nice.
This question is GOLD. I could spend a whole post on just this one! (Who am I kidding? I’ll say that about all the others too!)
The simple answer is shippability. If you’ve hung around the book world for a while, you’ll know what “shipping” means: wanting a relationship to develop between two characters. (Simple concept. Can’t believe it took this long for a word to be coined for it.) So from a surface level, the shippability of the characters/relationship itself is one of the most important elements. I have got to want the characters to get together, and I need a valid reason for that! Even if it’s just “they’re cute together,” when I have a reason to want the hero and heroine to become love interests, I’ll be investing a lot more into their romance.
On a deeper, more tangible level, I require three things: (1) a unique dynamic between the hero and heroine, (2) for the hero and heroine to have a positive impact on each other, and (3) for both (or one, if we’ve got a redemption arc going on) of the characters to bring God into the relationship.
Most Hallmark (or Hallmark-style) movies fall so short because every. single. one. is. exactly. the. same. You can literally boil every story down to “high-powered, dyed-hair executive moves back home and falls in love with an old flame/rugged man with a closely-trimmed beard and flannel who can’t really do much beyond chop fake wood with a prop ax while in a very thin shirt.” *coughs* The worst part about this overused trope is not that there’s always a businesswoman or always a rugged dude with an ax…it’s that the dynamic between the characters is always the same. They have a shared past, but they’ve been burned before, and they’re not ready to open back up to each other again, so they stay closed-off and defensive…but slowly they begin to realize that they were meant for each other all this time, and that there’s more to the other than meets the eye, and love is worth sacrificing their job/home…yadda, yadda, yadda.
It could be a surfer and a celebrity, a personal trainer and dog groomer, or photographer and chef. It could be set in a small town in the Midwest, on a ranch in Montana, or in Ireland. It could have all the disability rep and diversity you could ask for, but guess what? The dynamic follows the same pattern, and in the end, regardless of every other unique element, the story still gives off the same vibe as the executive and ax dude at Christmastime.
(Please keep in mind that there are about three other dynamic tropes that most romances follow; the example given is just the most, most common.)
And most historical romances I’ve read are still stuck in the “boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl get back together and live happily ever after” cycle. (Or girl meets boy, etc.)
Naturally, it gets boring, so when I find a romance that has a unique dynamic between the characters that flows from them and their personalities, experiences, backstories, etc., rather than a plot or relationship trope, I’m much more invested and excited about their relationship!
This is why slow-burn romances succeed. Think about your favorite TV show (yes, even that old Disney Channel show from your childhood *coughs* Kickin’ It *coughs*), where two of the characters were just perfect for each other, but the series stretched on and on and they never got together (except until, like, the veryyyyy end). Instead of relying on how the characters met and how their relationship was established, the screenwriters relied on the progression of their platonic relationship and their growth as characters to influence how viewers saw them and their potential romance. (Please tell me that makes sense.) It’s not about plot devices anymore. It’s about who the characters are and what the viewers see. Same goes for long book or film series.
Rant aside, focus on creating a genuine dynamic that is unique to your characters…because they are unique individuals, not tools in a trope that can be twisted whatever way. They are their own person, and just like their personal arc is unique to them, so is their romantic relationship! Just like *gasp* in real life!
My next point…positive impacts. Something that’s become a hot topic in the romance world (and other realms) is toxic relationships. Most people seem to think that they’re defined by how loud the man yells or how hard he may grab the girl’s arm before she stomps away…or if he kisses her without her written consent…or really whatever way the dude messes up and behaves in a politically incorrect manner. That is a toxic relationship…
A toxic relationship of any kind is when the two parties don’t have a positive impact on each other; in fact, it’s entirely negative. If the characters don’t build each other up, inspire the other to do better, motivate them to choose right, and promote selflessness…then they shouldn’t be together. They can make a myriad of other mistakes, but in the end, the characters should have been positively impacted and changed for the better by their relationship…and that should continue throughout the rest of their lives!
My favorite relationships are the ones where, yes, the heroine is manipulative and the hero doesn’t take her crap, but they also are the ones that stay when no one else does…who sees good in the other that they don’t even see in themselves…who motivates them to make the right choice next time. Whether it’s Charity and Mitch in A Passion Redeemed by Julie Lessman or a knight and his lovely lady, when I can see the positive impact the characters have on each other, I’ll be rooting for them to stick it out ‘til the end! After all, I wouldn’t want my precious characters saddled with someone who’ll make them miserable!
Lastly, they must bring God into the relationship. This goes hand-in-hand with having a positive impact. The characters have got to drag God into the relationship. Not just invite Him in and say, “Hey, God, come do Your thing,” but pick Him up and deposit Him in the middle of their relationship–not forcing, but making a conscious decision to choose God in everything they do, especially in regards to their romantic relationship. Even if it’s a one-sided deal (no, especially if it is), where only one character is a believer and the other has a redemption arc (or doesn’t...if your story’s a tragedy), that one Christian character has GOT to make an effort to bring God into their relationship, to seek Him and His will, to stand on His word, to follow His direction and precepts, to listen to Him and their convictions. THAT is what will make or break a relationship, especially a romantic one.
And that is what I want to see most. I want a relationship I can admire and appreciate. One, yes, that’s shippable and cutesy and full of GET TOGETHER ALREADY tension…but mostly one that inspires me not to settle, to seek after God and wait for a man who will challenge me and support me, a man who will inspire me to become more like Christ and to make wise decisions, a man who will love me like Christ loves the Church, even through our mistakes. A man who will bring God in and constantly choose Him, especially if that means choosing God over me.
That is what takes a romance over the top, leaving “bleh” in the dust.
If you made it through all this...God bless you! I'm so proud. *beams* Seriously. I know I went on and on (and probably stepped on some toes), but romance is SUPER important to me and something I feel called to talk about, so this was just perfect, and I had a ton of fun! (I actually don't have many romance posts on this blog, so this was loooong overdue!)
So, do you have any follow-up questions? Any recommendations that fit my criteria? Any other tips you'd like to add? Just leave 'em all in the comments, and let me know...what takes a romance from eh to AH! for you? Why is romance important to you? What's your OTP?
yours in spirit and script,
#romance #qanda #romancewriting #christianromance #passion #authenticity #characterization #development #writingtips #writingadvice #writing