#56: Showing, Telling, and Tension in Romance

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m doing Camp NaNo this month with a goal of 30K words which translate to about a thousand words a day. I’m writing a romance novel, but the problem is I’m having a hard time developing romantic tension. I’ve thrown my heroes in a perilous situation, so right now I’m filling the word count with them planning on their next move, and worrying about the situation back home. How do I develop the romantic angle when they have moments to breathe and aren’t running from danger?

To add a layer of complexity, Hero B has been badly burned in the past and is in denial about his growing feelings for Hero A because he doesn’t want to get hurt. How do I show rather than tell that?

Finally, do you know of any good examples of this romantic tension building that I can be inspired by?

Thank you for all you do!

—Hopefully Romantic (she/her)

Dear Hopefully Romantic,

I’m sorry I didn’t get to this letter during Camp NaNo, and I hope you found your way through and made your goal! But romantic tension is one of those things that’s often better managed during revisions, because it’s all about pacing, so I think this advice will still be relevant to you.

You’ve got a few questions here, so let’s address them individually.

I’ve thrown my heroes in a perilous situation, so right now I’m filling the word count with them planning on their next move, and worrying about the situation back home. How do I develop the romantic angle when they have moments to breathe and aren’t running from danger?

Romantic thrillers generally employ a seesaw of danger and safety. (This is a textbook example of the story momentum seesaw between novelty and familiarity.) It sounds like you’ve already built up a lot of that structure; all that remains is to have the romantic element arise naturally during times of safety in a way that’s influenced by the immediately preceding danger. Some examples:

  • The adrenaline rush of being in immediate peril leads to strong emotions afterward, perhaps involving shock, tears, or clinging to each other. One character might comfort the other, or they might bond over their shared feelings and experiences.
  • The desperate dash for a hiding place leads to the characters being stuck in a small or remote space where there’s not much to do but hook up or have intimate conversations. If sex is an element of this romance, bonus points for making the space so small that they’re physically pressed up against each other.
  • One character is injured, physically or mentally, and the other treats their injuries.
  • After one character rescues another from peril, they have an emotional reunion.
  • After the characters demonstrate their competence in a scary situation, their appreciation for each other increases.

You can also try to work in romantic development during scenes of danger, but readers do tend to complain about characters kissing while bullets fly overhead or being distracted by sexual urges when they’re fleeing for their lives. Try to keep it at least vaguely realistic.

You mention planning and worrying; that sounds awfully intellectual for an intense romantic story full of danger. Don’t let the characters live too much in their heads. Romantic suspense is very physical and emotional, and when the immediate danger lessens, that’s when all the feelings that couldn’t be expressed during the time of crisis come spilling out. Don’t mistake the periods of safety for periods of downtime. As the danger end of the seesaw goes down, the emotional end comes up.

To add a layer of complexity, Hero B has been badly burned in the past and is in denial about his growing feelings for Hero A because he doesn’t want to get hurt. How do I show rather than tell that?

In retrospect, I’m kind of surprised it’s taken me this long to get a letter asking this, because “show, don’t tell” is such pervasive advice. But that advice isn’t meant to be applied universally. It’s intended to counteract the tendency of novice writers, especially ones who were primarily raised on visual media, to say clunky things like “She looked at the bug and felt grossed out” or “They scratched at a mosquito bite because it itched.” It’s quite possible to write a story that’s 100% telling and have it work just fine (see Brooke Bolander’s “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” which tells in bullet points just to make it completely clear that it’s doing what it’s doing on purpose, and “A Cautionary Tale,” which also satirizes the many stories that think it’s interesting to open with a character in the bathroom).

Instead of stressing about not wanting to “tell” too much, let your characters actually talk about what’s bothering them. Imagine a conversation like this:

“You don’t understand,” B said. “I only do casual. I’ve only ever done casual. Except once.” He sighed. “And that once is why I only do casual.”

“You’re right,” A said, “I don’t understand.” He sat down and took B’s hand. B was refusing to look at him, but he didn’t pull away. “So help me understand. What happened? Who hurt you so badly that you can’t trust me even after all we’ve been through?”

Or this:

“You don’t understand,” B said. “I only do casual. I’ve only ever done casual. Except once.” He sighed. “And that once is why I only do casual.”

“Come on, dude,” A snapped. “I saved your life and you still think this is something you could call ‘casual’? It’s a little late for that.”

Or this:

“You don’t understand,” B said. “I only do casual. I’ve only ever done casual. Except once.” He sighed. “And that once is why I only do casual.”

“Well, I don’t,” A said. He stood up and grabbed his jacket. “So give me a call when you decide you’re over your ex and ready for something real. I can’t promise I’ll wait around, though.”

Or even this:

“So has B given you the ‘we need to keep it casual’ talk yet?” C swigged the last of her beer. “Because it’s bullshit.”

“It sure sounded like bullshit,” A said. “The other day, he kissed me like… like I don’t even know what. Like it was the end of the world and all he wanted to do with the last five minutes of his life was kiss me. That ain’t casual.”

“Yeah, no,” C said. “He does this with everyone, breaks their hearts because he can’t deal with the idea someone might break his.”

That’s all telling, but it doesn’t lose the reader’s interest, because it sets the stage for serious emotional confrontation and character development. As always in a romance, the question is what happens at the intersection of A’s baggage and B’s baggage, A’s needs and B’s needs. None of this is ever going to be just about B. It’s about how B and A are together.

Also, denial isn’t a thing you can tell or show. It’s a thing that doesn’t exist. I see a lot of romance authors try to depict it and I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen it work out well. I think it’s much more interesting and powerful to show a character being aware but unable to act on their awareness, because that happens to all of us. We know we should confess our feelings, or go to the gym, or get our work done, or whatever it is we need to do in order to achieve our goals, but instead we… don’t. We might make up stories about why we don’t, but at heart we know it’s because we made other choices for emotional reasons. What a rich trove of relatability that is for a character! Empower B in his struggle with himself, rather than leaving him implausibly ignorant that such a struggle is even happening in his own mind.

Finally, do you know of any good examples of this romantic tension building that I can be inspired by?

No one’s ever been better at this than Jane Austen. It’s what makes Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, in particular, such classics of the genre. If you find her prose a struggle, watch an adaptation; the 1995 P&P miniseries and the 1995 film of Persuasion are both superb, and really capture the romantic tension element.

What makes the tension work in both those stories, I think, is that it’s not a matter of “will they or won’t they”—a story structure that usually leads to a fair amount of uninteresting dithering—but “how can they”. The increasing tension comes from their increasing interest in each other coupled with increasing or additional obstacles, both internal and external, to their eventual union and happiness. Austen was a brilliant engineer of story, and she understood how to keep those scales tipped just barely to the side of the characters’ emotional connection, which gives them the willpower and desire to push through, over, and past whatever is in their way.

Austen, not incidentally, tells and tells and tells! “Three girls, the two eldest sixteen and fourteen, was an awful legacy for a mother to bequeath, an awful charge rather, to confide to the authority and guidance of a conceited, silly father. She had, however, one very intimate friend, a sensible, deserving woman…” No dithering around with trying to show us that Sir Walter is conceited and silly and Lady Russell is sensible and deserving. She just straight-up says it so we can absorb that information and move on to the real story. And in the moment of Elizabeth finally telling Darcy she loves him—the height of dramatic tension, the money shot of a romance novel—Austen dispenses with her already tell-heavy dialogue (” ‘When I wrote that letter,’ replied Darcy, ‘I believed myself perfectly calm and cool, but I am since convinced that it was written in a dreadful bitterness of spirit’ “) and simply summarizes the feelings that the two of them express:

Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.

So please be inspired by this to write exactly the way you want to write, showing and telling and all.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “#56: Showing, Telling, and Tension in Romance

  1. The movie “Dead Again” with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson has a commentary track that I highly recommend. That’s where I learned how to structure certain aspects of romantic tension versus danger plot.

    Like

  2. “Also, denial isn’t a thing you can tell or show. It’s a thing that doesn’t exist. I see a lot of romance authors try to depict it and I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen it work out well.”

    While Lois McMaster Bujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance isn’t a traditional romance novel, it does this beautifully.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s