by Amy Maida Wadsworth
Remember the opening scene in the film version of The Princess Bride? If you don’t, go refresh your memory, because it’s a great movie. (And if you haven’t seen the movie at all, warning: spoiler alert!) We’re going to analyze this fantastic little film in honor of Romance Writers of America, since this week is the Utah chapter conference. So for all you romance writers, let’s dive into a favorite love story.
It goes something like this. A sick young boy is sitting on his bed playing video games when his grandfather comes to read him a book. The young boy hesitates, pauses his video game, and looks at his grandfather like he’s hopeless.
Grandad persists and begins reading about young Wesley and fair Buttercup. He reads how Buttercup realizes that when Wesley says, “As you wish,” he really means, “I love you.”
It doesn’t take long for the boy to interrupt with, “Wait. Is this a kissing book?”
Of course, he comes to find out that the story is much more than a kissing book, just as true romances are more than erotica. The relationship between Wesley and Buttercup is at the center of adventures with pirates, kidnappers, miracle workers, an evil prince, a wicked sadist, and torture.
The kissing isn’t half as important as the people who own the locked lips.
As a result, The Princess Bride is the kind of romance that can win over a ten-year-old boy—and become one of the most quotable movies of all time.
Leigh Michaels, author of On Writing Romance, spells out how the character-driven romance hooks the broadest audience in fiction readership, with interests varying from realism to westerns to fantasy. The common thread in every romance, regardless of how it is dressed, is the relationship between the hero and the heroine.
That relationship depends on two key elements—the characters’ personalities and the choices they make. Both characters must be interesting, sympathetic, strong, and attractive (physically and personally). This doesn’t mean that they need to be supermodels, but they need to grab each other’s attention as well as ours.
The best way to establish their interesting personalities is to show them in action—preferably in a situation that puts them in conflict with each other. This conflict is, of course, alive with physical attraction. Still, the choices the characters make will continue to cause conflict and threaten the uniqueness of this attraction, the underlying sense that the two of them have something very rare between them—the once-in-a-lifetime love.
If your characters continuously have to make choices that legitimately keep them apart (not simply failed communication that seems the obvious solution to the reader), the romance becomes more interesting, more realistic. And the kisses—when they finally come—mean more. Romances that sizzle are about two characters who push through conflict to be together. Then, when they finally are together, the union is satisfying, deserved, magical. When written well after all this effort, it’s hard for a well-earned kiss to be sappy or saccharine. And equally hard to write the long-anticipated “I love you” and have it feel hollow or trite. But if you get the lead-up wrong, sappy and trite are all you’ve got.
So, how do you do it right? Here are three tricks to help you.
- Put your characters on opposing sides of the same issue. This could involve business, politics, a hobby, or a passion. If she’s a die-hard, blue-blooded Duke fan because three generations of her family have graduated from Duke and he attends Kentucky, you’ve got some ingrained conflict going.
- Give your characters important moral dilemmas that force them to make tough choices. If she’s attracted to him but will lose her humanitarian grant if she refuses to work with his organization’s rival, she’s got to get the humanitarian grant. If he is attracted to her but she happens to be his brother’s ex, he’s got to choose to ignore his attraction. They are good people caught in circumstances that make their relationship seem impossible.
- Delay gratification at least until mid-story, then rip them apart again and rebuild the climax. In act one, they realize they’re attracted even though it’s unlikely they can ever be together. In act two, they take that chance to be together, experience bliss, and realize this is a once-in-a-lifetime love; then they see that they’ve ruined the very moral decision that kept them separated in act one. Finally, in act three, they struggle until they figure out a way to make things work and they come together with a bright future. It seems formulaic, but if your characters are interesting and their choices are strong and meaningful, then it won’t feel formulaic. It will feel natural and as meant-to-be as their relationship.
Things You Can Do Now
- Make sure the issue between your characters has important consequences. This will usually mean that it has to do with other people—not just money, products, or hobbies. Strengthen conflict by attaching secondary characters to the issue.
- Read your favorite romance (again) and see how the author implemented these ideas. This critical thinking will help you as you plan your own romance.
- Remember that it’s about choice. Go through your manuscript and underline every choice your characters make—their choices should be active and have consequences that affect the relationship. If they don’t, then revise until they do. This will give your story more of a shot in the arm than you think.
If you follow these guidelines, every touch will be earned and every kiss will be satisfying. No more sap or saccharine. No more hollow or trite. Your romance will be more than a kissing book, and your readers will sigh when they read, “As you wish.”
Your turn: What’s your favorite romance, and how does it fulfill some of these requirements?
Great post, Amy!
Thanks for the article. I love a good romance! I agree that making the issues between your characters have important consequences is a great way to really pull on the readers heartstrings. Going back through my manuscript now to make sure I’ve done that!
Amy, loved the article, especially the reminder of what a great story The Princess Bride is. I must have read/seen it 20 times back in the day. Think I’m going to pull it out and enjoy it again. Your tips are right on, including the point about delayed gratification — that can really hook the reader in the story by drawing out the tension. I’m definitely keeping it mind the next time I’m working on a love story!
Hooray for character-driven tension! This is a great post to help us realize why we like a good romance and why we yawn or groan at one that is transparently formulaic– and feels that way because we don’t dig the characters.