First, as a disclaimer, let me say — I don’t read a ton of romances. So let’s get that out of the way from the beginning. The minute the guy is described as muscled, tattooed, and utterly handsome? Snooze. No, my preferred story is a cozy or a mystery or even a suspense with a romantic subplot. That way, I get an interesting story and — hopefully — a sweet secondary plot. But how do you keep it fresh when you’re working with a universal theme–perhaps the most common story in the world? Here are a few tips on how to write non-cliched romantic subplots:
Cut the Perfection
I confess that I have a few book peeves specific to romance. First, when the female protagonist eats burgers and fries and guzzles soda in every other chapter yet is described as “skinny as rail”. (Speaking of cliches … ) Now, I know perhaps one woman who eats that way without gaining weight, and you know what–it’s a thyroid problem, folks. This veers into fantasy territory. And it’s jarring enough to distract me and knock me out of the book.
On the other hand, pages describing her clean eating habits and devotion to organic produce can get tedious, too. It’s hard to relate to a nutritional idealist. But if you give me a character who orders the salad for lunch, then sneaks a cinnamon roll in a to-go box for her afternoon coffee, that’s my girl. Real life is a little more complicated than the extremes of a health nut vs. a junkaholic. Write some trade-offs for your protagonist!
Second big peeve: when too many paragraphs are devoted to describing a male character’s muscles. Yawn. We get it–he’s an Adonis. But isn’t it more interesting to show-not-tell how fit he is by writing some action? (Please, not catching the female lead as she faints/trips. Gag.) Is it sexier that a guy can lift weights or do work that requires some level of physical strength? I think most women will say yard work is a big romantic thrill. 😉
Give your male characters depth and vulnerability. If he is a muscle bound gym rat, allow him to admit that he thinks being ripped will keep people from noticing his receding hairline. Perfect characters end up being caricatures–suspicious and unrelatable.
What’s the Opposite?
Take a recent romance you read that was only so-so, and try this exercise: in several plot points, rewrite the scene so that the characters do the opposite of what actually happened. For example, in a classic meet-cute, two characters will meet in a charming, sometimes awkward way and seem destined for a relationship. Instead, what if they meet in less-than-charming circumstances, grab a coffee, but are bored to tears by one another’s company? What would have to occur to bring them back together?
Instead of being vulnerable from a past relationship, what if she’s healed, strong, and emotionally healthy? What kind of romance would appeal to her?
Instead of being the reformed bad boy, what if he is looking for family, a place to put down roots?
Just try this exercise with books you loved and books that felt flat, and see what new ideas you can generate.
Crank Up the Payoff
There’s one rule you should never break: don’t trick your readers! Even Romeo and Juliet got to be together in death; people do not like it when you keep the romantic players apart.
Last year I read a book in which a woman loses her husband in the first pages. I read … and read … and waited … and watched the page count for the next plot point … nothing. Some neighbor came around to try to court but she spatula-ed him off in order to — what? I never really figured it out. There was some shopping. And I guess that was the theme of the book: don’t fill your life up with what doesn’t matter much. But you know what? I didn’t appreciate spending three hundred pages to discover that theme. Boo.
If you’re planning a sequel, fine. Let there be one loose end. But make it clear that the unraveled thread will get tied up in the next book. And you’d better make sure there’s a monster payoff if your characters can’t be together at the ending.
We all know the story…
But that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Think of your own romance. What made it special? Chances are, you lived a series of quirky circumstances that might not mean much to others but when stacked up together, give you and your love a romance that’s unique, one that never gets old in the retelling.
NOW YOU: How do you keep it fresh and write non-cliched romantic subplots?
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