Does your story contain a romantic subplot? They can be tricky to write well while not allowing them to take over the main plot line. Savannah Cordova is back with some tips on how to whip them into shape.
As a reader and writer, one of my favorite story elements is the romantic subplot: a blossoming romance between two characters that, while not integral to the main plot, often makes it more intriguing and enjoyable. Indeed, weaving romance into your story is an excellent way to develop your characters, heighten the emotional stakes, and recapture romance-inclined readers whose interest in the A-plot may be waning.
Of course, romantic subplots can only do all that when written well. A poorly constructed romance is merely a distraction that dilutes the plot, and should be avoided at all costs! That’s why I’m here to share my best tips on how to write stellar romantic subplots — in any genre, between any sort of characters — just in time for Valentine’s Day.
1. Know the Character Dynamics Going In
One of the biggest issues I see in romantic subplots is inconsistent character dynamics. This is jarring in any story, but especially when romance is involved: one moment the characters are ready to rip each others’ throats out, the next they simply can’t live without each other.
To avoid situations like this, develop your key characters’ dynamics before you begin writing your story. Having a strong sense of their defining traits and how these traits might mesh (and clash, for that matter) is crucial to creating a satisfying romance! That’s not to say your couple’s dynamics can’t evolve; on the contrary, they absolutely should. But for every shift in their behavior toward each other, there must be a reason — one that makes sense given their personalities and circumstances.
For example, in a classic enemies-to-lovers romance, you might have two characters whose worldviews seem totally at odds, which causes conflict at first. Yet as they spend more time together, they find they have more in common than they thought — say, their natural intelligence and joy in deep discussions, with the added bonus of witty banter — thereby realizing they’re actually perfect for each other. (Am I just describing When Harry Met Sally? Who’s to say.)
Speaking of enemies-to-lovers, if you’re stuck on the dynamics of your characters, it may be useful to think about romance tropes. Tropes can provide a great jumping-off point if you know you want a romantic subplot, but don’t know how to implement it; just be sure to add unique details, maybe even a twist or two, to make it your own.
2. Introduce Romantic Subtext Early
As you start writing, try to hint at the chemistry between your characters fairly early. Why so early, you ask? Well, because a subplot that fits seamlessly with the main plot needs to be built carefully and gradually, brick by brick. If the first stirrings of a romantic subplot arrive too late, it can come across as haphazard or forced.
On that note, you’ll also want to be subtle about it from the get-go. In my opinion, the best romantic subplots begin with such a light touch, the reader may not even register it — but later, when they realize that a romance is happening, they’ll delight in flipping back to previous romantic beats to see how you’ve paved the way.
The good news is that it’s easy to throw in a romantically charged moment early in your story! It takes no more than a few sentences, and can happen any time your characters interact. Maybe one person offhandedly notices how attractive the other one looks in a certain light, or becomes flustered by something the other says or does. (My favorite is the “lady doth protest too much” where one character insists they’re not attracted to the other, even though they clearly are.)
For concrete examples of this, I’d recommend any book by Leigh Bardugo, who’s truly mastered the art of the romantic subplot. Here’s a passage from Six of Crows, with the barest hint at the eventual romance between Kaz and Inej:
Despite everything she’d been through, Inej still believed her saints were watching over her. Kaz knew it, and for some reason he loved to rile her. He wished he could read her expression now. There was always something so satisfying about the little furrow between her black brows.
A character who enjoys teasing another, finding something “satisfying” about their face. Small details like these are all you need to drop a romantic hint and, again, to give readers something to look back on and think, “ohhh.”
3. Give the Characters Something in Common
As your characters’ relationship progresses, they’ll need something to bond over emotionally. Otherwise their attraction will be based on nothing but appearance, which doesn’t make for the most compelling romantic subplot.
The best way to foster this bond is by giving them something in common. This could be anything from a mutual friend or favorite TV show, to the same place of work. If you really want to solidify their emotional connection, make it a shared motivation or a dramatic event they go through together. Even if your characters are a case of “opposites attract”, you should be able to find some thing for them to have in common.
Jodi Picoult, another author who excels at romantic subplots, is especially skilled at this. In many of her novels, the couple has some sort of history — having been childhood best friends, college exes, or people who worked together previously — and kindle (or rekindle) a romantic flame as they grow closer over the story. This dynamic works well if there’d been a possibility of romance in the past, but something like timing or another relationship got in the way.
That said, characters don’t need history to bond. In fact, another interesting approach is to have two characters who hardly know each other, and may even harbor mutual dislike… until they discover the critical thing they have in common. This will cast them both in a new light and get them just a little closer to seeing what a good match they are.
4. Bring Them Together in a Vulnerable Moment
When it’s time to kick your romance into high gear, you can’t go wrong with a dash of vulnerability. Whether physical, emotional, or both, having one character experience a vulnerable moment in front of the other — or having both be vulnerable together! — is often the perfect catalyst for characters who need to confront their feelings.
Indeed, this technique crops up in just about every romantic subplot ever written. Let’s return to one of my earlier titles: in Six of Crows, Kaz’s longtime haphephobia causes him to faint in front of Inej, but he begrudgingly admits that he trusts her to keep his condition a secret. Another one of my favorite vulnerable scenes comes from the first Hunger Games book, in which Katniss takes care of Peeta after she finds him terribly ill. (To be sure, well-plotted YA books like these are a hotbed for romantic subplot ideas.)
Of course, whether your characters act on their feelings at this juncture depends on their individual personalities and character arcs. Maybe they fall into each others’ arms immediately, or maybe it’s a wake-up call that isn’t quite big enough for them to get together. If one character is particularly stubborn, they might even push the other person away in the aftermath, determined not to rely on anyone.
But whatever follows, there should be no doubt in the reader’s mind that this is a significant scene — and that these two characters, no matter how much they deny it (or how busy they are with everything else in the story), are meant to help each other through tough times.
5. Don’t Overshadow the Main Plot
While most of the tips here could apply to writing romance in general, this one is specifically for subplots: don’t get so carried away that the romance takes up more space than the main story. I speak from experience when I say it’s all too easy for romantic subplots to spiral out of control! After all, it’s much more fun to write scenes where your characters shamelessly flirt with each other than it is to progress the actual plot.
However, unless you want to turn your story into a bona fide romance, you’ll have to keep the banter to a minimum. Too much romance in a book that’s not actually a romance can throw off the pacing and distract readers — and besides, as noted above, less really is more when it comes to how you present it. When in doubt about whether you’re over-romancing the sauce, simply consider your ratios: if more than a third of what you’re writing is solely in service of a romantic subplot, you probably need to pull it back.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t have fun with it — quite the opposite! The more you, the author, enjoy writing a romantic subplot, the more that joy will shine through to create the same effect for your readers. And if you find that weaving such subplots is right up your alley, maybe you should try writing a romance novel of your own. Having taken this advice to heart (pun fully intended), you’ll be more than prepared to try.
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories (and occasionally terrible novels).
The Bookshelf Muse is a hub for writers, educators and anyone with a love for the written word. Featuring Thesaurus Collections that encourage stronger descriptive skills, this award-winning blog will help writers hone their craft and take their writing to the next level.
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