Building Romantic Tension

3. November 2015 Schreiben lernen


Note: The following contains major spoilers for “You’ve Got Mail”. Also, for simplicity’s sake, I am going to be using heterosexual and cisgender terminology in my examples, but these tips can apply when writing any kind of romantic relationship.

I received an ask from someone about building romantic tension between two characters in a “love-hate” dynamic. Unfortunately, the question seems to have gotten swallowed by my ask box so I’m not sure whose question this was, but I’ll do my best to answer it.

Now, I have to preface this by saying that, other than having one poem and one short story published in anthologies in high school, I am not a published author. I’m definitely not a professional writer. I’m in the same boat as most of you: an aspiring writer.

Also, I tend to write tips about coming up with and filling prompts, so this is a bit of a departure for me. Please bear with me.

Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself:

1. If the protagonists don’t like each other – at least, at first – why are they forced in proximity with each other? Are they colleagues? Neighbours? Do they have mutual friends? Are they both zombie hunters trying to survive a post-apocalyptic world? Does their conflict itself force them to be around each other a lot, such as being on opposing sides of a major issue?

2. Why do they clash? This is the key to your tension. There needs to be a reason that they are butting heads all the time, and one that makes sense for the characters.

3. What do they have in common? Unless you’re intending to write about a destructive relationship, there needs to be common ground for your couple, something other than physical attraction that draws them together. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be a shared trait or interest – eg. Once your stuffy hero gets used to the eccentric heroine’s brash nature, he begins to admire her honesty and frankness; she, in return, after first thinking him a snob, admires his calm and gentle nature.

Once you know the answers to these questions, you can start building tension. When you have a love-hate dynamic, you’re working with two characters who not only have at least one point of contention with each other, but are also struggling with their attraction to each other. There lives would be much easier if they could just hate each other or not feel anything at all for each other but – dammit – they can’t help it.

You may be thinking : “ That’s all well and good, Daniella, but it’s also vague. How do I write that?”

Well again, I’m no expert. The following are just some suggestions:

1. If possible (if it works for your story), write their first meeting. Allow your readers to see that tension from the get-go. The characters don’t have to be attracted to each other, or know they’re attracted to each other, right away, but the best “Love-hate” relationships are filled with verbal sparring and witty banter. This is a great way to develop chemistry and conflict at the same time. However, they don’t necessarily need to have tension when they first meet. Think of Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox’s first face-to-face meeting in, “You’ve Got Mail” before she finds out that his family owns the huge conglomerate “Fox Books” that threatens the future of her family-owned bookstore. They get along, they joke around, they even like each other. She gets to see the way that he interacts with his much younger brother and aunt, he gets to see her passion for books and children, before they become enemies.

2. Establish your stakes. Both protagonists should have goals that are in direct conflict with one another. You have no doubt heard of, “ Show don’t tell” so you can convey this in conversations with friends, family or colleagues. Alternatively, you could save the revelations for later in the story and have the readers discover it the same time as they reveal it to each other. In Mills and Boons/Harlequin style romance novels, it’s ok to tell rather than just show by exploring your characters’ thoughts and memories in the moment, or through introspection.

3. As someone who writes romance myself, I believe the way that romance and love develops is a deeply personal thing to an author, and therefore there is no “formula” or “one size fits all” step-by-step procedure. How protagonists find common ground and become emotionally – as well as physically – drawn to one another depends greatly on the characters themselves, the setting, the plot, other characters and external conflicts. Maybe one character realises the effect their actions have on the other character and apologises, which therefore allows the other character to see the first character as more human than simply “the enemy”. Maybe the characters are forced into a reluctant alliance to overcome a common enemy and have to put their differences aside, which slowly builds into a friendship with the hint of something more. Maybe your characters are bickering in the car when a song comes on the radio and they both start singing along. Maybe it’s much more gradual than any of those examples. There are a myriad of other ways to do this. Again, it is up to you as the author to find something that works with your unique story and characters.

If you don’t mind being cliched and unoriginal, forcing your leads to get stuck in a confined space such as a lift (elevator), locked room, cellar, cave, space shuttle, etc, often works a treat to show the struggle of two people people trying not to directly confront their feelings of attraction with their enemy. Cliches are cliches for a reason: they’re usually effective. If, however, you want to try something a little different, there are alternatives that can work just as well, if not better:

Try giving one or both of your protagonists an out. Give them an opportunity to cut ties with each other just when they’re starting to realise they actually enjoy each others’ company.

Put a protagonist in a situation where they find themselves defending the other protagonist to a third character.

Use parallels and metaphors within your story to get your characters to indirectly discuss their growing attraction in subtextual conversations. Don’t be afraid to let your readers read between the lines sometimes.

These are just a few suggested techniques and are by no means exhaustive.

Well, I hope that was helpful. If anyone would like to add anything, feel free.