The Beginner’s Guide to Romance (February Special #1)

This is a very difficult piece to write. Those of you who read this probably do so because you figure I can teach you the proper way to write a Romance story, but I can’t really do that. Romance (along with its darker sibling Tragedy, which I’ll get to later) is by far the hardest genre to write in, without exception. You may doubt that at first, if only because of how many genres there really are. But out of all those dozens of writing genres, Romance stands alone as the hardest of them all. What’s paradoxical about this is that at its core, Romance is a genre built on a few simple core tenets, none of which seem that hard to get right. At least, in theory. In practice, things tend to get a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult very very quickly, and only get more and more of a nightmare the harder you look.

At its core, Romance leans on the same element as every other kind of story ever made: character writing. However, Romance depends on its characters more than any other genre, except maybe Tragedy. See, the central purpose of a typical Romance is that the two main characters are trying to work through their interpersonal problems. Nobody cares about the personal issues of characters that don’t matter to them. As such, before you attempt to write a Romance story, you need to be absolutely certain that you’re capable of writing truly compelling and likable characters. Once I get around to my Beginner’s Guide to Character Development, I’ll go further into detail about how to do this. But making the leads likable is only half the battle. Just as important is to ensure that their personalities can work off of each other in a way that entertains the audience. There are two ways to do this. The first way is to make the two leads extremely similar, and build the relationship by emphasizing that similarity. This is kind of rare, but it does get used to great effect sometimes. A good way to do this is make both the leads play Straight Man to the unusual antics of other characters, and thereby bond by being the only two sane people in the room. The other way is to make the two leads extremely different, and have their personalities complement each other by making up for the other’s flaws. For instance, have a smart character who dislikes other people paired with a more bright (if less clever) character who convinces them to deal with people more. Or someone utterly devoted to their work to the point of being self-destructive paired with someone who holds literally no devotion to the idea of a job and helps them relax, which was used to excellent effect in I Can’t Understand What My Husband is Saying, a show I’ll get back to later. Anyway, you can choose whichever of these works better for your story, and so long as you reinforce them well through the classic rules of narrative building, you should be fine. But of course, the two leads aren’t the only major characters in a story, and you need to write the interactions with other characters well in order to succeed. A lot of different friendly interactions will do just fine, unless they involve a harem. I cannot stress this enough: there can be no harems of any kind. Ever. A harem is literally the worst genre ever and you should never touch it, because I doubt even Ryukishi07 can make it good, which should serve as the most damning condemnation for anyone who reads my stuff. So now that you’ve avoided that, what do you do with your supporting cast? There are a few things you can do that could be interesting. For instance, give one of them a friend who wants to match them up with the other and ends up making the two of them meet. Or a friend who helps one of them overcome the inhibitions they might have towards the relationship and convince them to get closer to their partner. Or maybe one of them could see the relationship as a bad thing and try to convince one of the leads why it isn’t good for them (particularly in relationships that are developed to be rather rocky and have problems that eventually have to be resolved). You could even have the supporting characters enter their own relationships and dedicate subplots to that. Now, not every story needs an antagonist, and Romance stands out as a genre where such a character is often unnecessary. However, I can think of one type who would actually be interesting. Though you typically get antagonists in the form of disapproving family members (which can be done very well if developed properly, like Eva Ushiromiya) or obnoxious suitors/arranged spouses (like Billy Zane in Titanic). What’s much more interesting is a spin on the latter, where you make them a genuinely compelling character who could feasibly be good for whichever lead they’re involved with just as much as the other lead can. An example of this done almost perfectly is Edgar from the Wuthering Heights. Though he ends up being a bit too snobbish and classist, he does prove a good match with Catherine, arguably more than Heathcliff does. If they’d made him a bit more likable, enough that the reader actually sees him as a viable match for Catherine, then it would be an interesting conflict to watch as she’s forced to choose between two different but equally good lovers. To anyone thinking of adding an antagonist, this is the way you should do it, because it’s a great way for conflict to arise. Of course, this doesn’t entirely apply to Romantic subplots in larger stories, where you can have external antagonists who want to tear the main lovers apart for other reasons, but I think that should speak for itself. Make that conflict largely unrelated to the main characters falling in love. Aside from that, characterization follows the same general rules as it does in other genres.

Surprisingly, narrative in Romance stories is a lot more complicated than one would think. Making a story that’s solely about the relationship between the leads forming, while certainly not impossible, often runs the risk of becoming stale, overstretching its premise, or otherwise falling apart as it progresses, especially if the series continues on for a long time. So if you want your premise to be so simple, you had better be dead certain that everything else is completely on point. The characters need to be absolutely remarkable to hold people’s investment even harder than they would need to otherwise. The pacing needs to be laid out absolutely perfectly, because it’s the only way to stop people from getting bored with how little is really happening in the story. A huge victim of this is Kimi Ni Todoke Season 2, which eliminates all other dilemmas from the first season aside from the two leads eventually hooking up, and then it utterly destroys its pacing by introducing a bunch of terrible filler conflicts that all center around getting in the way of the main characters getting into a relationship. It ends up being really boring and it wrecks any good will that the vastly superior first season may have earned. So learn from its mistake, and make sure you keep your pacing extremely smooth and progressing at good speed. If you have a story with focus beyond the romance plot, then you can get away with pacing the romance slower because the audience can focus on other things that keep something happening at all times.

Aside from that, I haven’t got all that much to talk about. Romance is not a demanding genre from a technical perspective, and it doesn’t take very much to be good. Being truly great does take some genius, with the opening scene of Clannad remaining one of my favorite scenes ever because of how brilliantly it portrays one lead bringing meaning into the life of the other. So if you think you have a genius inspiration for a scene that really develops the emotional connection of the main characters, then go for it.

Finally, I’ll explain some really awful tropes that any self-respecting writer should avoid. First off, I must reiterate: NO HAREMS OF ANY KIND. EVER. It always leads to awful stories, it inevitably kills at least one of the main characters (figuratively), and it just results in an inferior final story. Next, never use the “Love at First Sight” trope. I delved into this a little bit more in my Romeo and Juliet piece, but that trope is absolute garbage. It reclassifies all the romantic connection in the story as just being sexual attraction, and thereby kills the possibility of emotional investment from an audience member. Next, when referring to a romance subplot within a larger narrative, never have one of the villains kidnap one of the main characters. It’s overused and boring by now. Next, try and avoid “unusual” romances as much as possible, including but not limited to incest, those involving paranormal entities, polyamory, or things of that nature (note- this does NOT extend to homosexuality. You can do as much of that as you want). They require so much additional work to even hope to be competent that more often than not, it’s just not worth it. Now obviously, exceptions to the rule can exist, but they’re so rare that it’s statistically impossible for anyone reading this guide to ever make one of them.

And one last thing to cap it off. Should you desire to play the author, you cannot be a cynic about it. You cannot forget the heart, you cannot just play along the lines of other, more famous stories. Make the story unique to you, put yourself to the page. If you have a personal story to use as a basis, then by all means do it, changing small parts of it if you feel they’re awkward or would make for a poorer narrative. But you will always get the best story if it comes from the heart, and Romance is the epitome of that. So if you want to try your hand at the hardest genre, you need to put all efforts into it. You need to come at it smartly, using your head to the fullest extent of its capability, yet you must also write from the heart, thereby using both in tandem. You need to do the best job possible, and is you manage to pull it off, you can have something beautiful. But be wary, for it’s inordinately easy to fail at, and those failures can easily cause a disaster. The margin of error is close to zero, and it’s a risk you must think about heavily before taking. If you take that gamble, then use everything here to maximize your chances of success. The most I can offer other than that is a wish for good luck. The more good stories, the better, right?


Author: WhenSomethingCriesAgain

Several years ago, I found myself positively brimming with opinions and insight, with no way to express them, so I began writing, and found that I liked it. I decided to start a page to keep records of my writing, and hopefully convince a few people to agree with my ideas.

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