Romance is difficult.
In life and in writing, romance is a difficult and yet extremely enticing subject. Even in books outside the highly popular romance genre, romantic subplots are immensely popular. But romance is not an easy thing to write, because readers want more than just a straight-up kiss-and-get-married.
A romance on a curved, nuanced road, where your characters have to fight to get to their happily ever after, makes for a much better story. The best way to achieve this is through romantic tension.
3 Ways to Create Romantic Tension in Your Love Story
Tension is created when your characters have an object of desire but there are obstacles preventing them from reaching it. The obstacles cause frustration, anger, and fear. And from there, a story is born.
In the case of romance, “happily ever after” is almost always the object of desire, and there are endless ways to keep your characters from reaching that goal. Let’s take a look at three ways to create romantic tension.
1. The Rival
A rival can mean a lot of things.
That is something many writers struggle to grasp. The most obvious rival is another lover, a third person who threatens to divide and steal the affection of person B from person A.
A love story generally does include a triangle, another rival lover. But that’s not the only form of rivalry at play. Other rivals are anyone and anything that divides the affection or resources of one or both persons. For example:
- Person B’s child from a previous relationship, who does not get along with person A
- Person A’s drinking or drug problem, which they frequently turn to for comfort over Person B
- Person B’s hobby, such as a sport or an expensive car, which they spend more time and energy on than they do on Person A
- Person A’s lifelong ambition to achieve some very ambitious career or personal goal, which they spend more time thinking while forgetting all birthdays and anniversaries
- A extra tricky one—a new baby or dire financial situation or budding business, which saps the love and energy of both partners, leading them struggling to find time and affection for each other
Editor’s note: We considered more than a dozen love stories to see how rivals, both rival lovers and rival forces, add tension, and we found that each one does include a rival lover. The rival forces listed above can create conflict in addition to the rival lover. Use both in your story for the greatest impact!
2. The Situation
The situation your lovers are in play a big part in their romance. You could think of it as “when the stars align.” Well, when they don’t align, your lovers can’t be together, and those stars may or may not be movable by them.
Romeo and Juliet’s stars did not align on the family front. Elizabeth and Darcy’s stars did not align on the social class front. Obviously these two couples had very different outcomes, but the outcome is not the important thing—it’s their obstacles. Situational obstacles tend to be farther out of the control of the characters than the rival obstacle.
Here are some ways your characters’ stars may not align:
- Person A and Person B are competing against each other in a tense, life-and-death situation where only one can win (Peeta and Katniss)
- Person A and Person B are in love in a way that does not meet the approval of society (Brokeback Mountain)
- Person A and Person B are some manner of professional rivals that would make a relationship between them too complicated (Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler)
- Person A and Person B must focus on a greater goal or quest that is beyond the realm of their love
- Person A and Person B fight/compete for opposing sides
- Person A and Person B have some sort of great difference, such as age, social class, appearance, popularity, etc.
3. The Misunderstanding
The misunderstanding is a very effective but often overlooked method to create tension between two lovers. This is that moment in romantic comedies where the viewer screams at the screen, “just talk to each other!!” But if your couple just opened up and communicated, where’s the fun in that?
Essentially, a rival is an outside factor your couple has some control over, a situation is an outside factor your couple has no control over, and a misunderstanding is completely internal, that the couple has control over, but fails to control. It’s easiest to think of a misunderstanding as this:
Person A says thing A.
Person B hears thing B.
Person A does not explain.
Person B does not ask questions.
It’s important to note that it does not matter who is right or wrong, or if there even is a right or wrong. It can be about anything and anyone—all that’s required is for one person to hear something different than what the other person is saying. Consider again, Elizabeth and Darcy:
Darcy: I love you despite your poor family and your social class.
Elizabeth: You’re insulting my family and your social class does not make you better than me.
What happened here? Darcy wanted to focus on the fact that he loved Elizabeth, but what she hears is the other part—that he thinks her and her whole family are beneath him. They’re on the same topic yet talking about two separate things.
Sometimes all it takes is focusing on different aspects of the same conversation to drive that romantic tension.
Greater Tension, Greater Reward
Romantic tension makes your love story much more exciting, inviting, and eventful. It wants the readers to root for your couple and follow them to the end. So don’t hesitate to throw those obstacles in their way and make your character work for their love.
Are there examples of romantic tension in your favorite books that really hooked you in? Share in the comments!
Write a short scene of dialogue that shows a couple having a misunderstanding between them. Remember that a misunderstanding can also involve a rival or a situational factor. Some examples include:
- Person A had a totally harmless lunch with an ex, but Person B is taking it out of context
- Person A has to spend a lot of time to train and win a great competition, but Person B feels it is an excuse to get out of spending time as a couple
- Person A cannot commit to the relationship because of a reason, but it’s a completely different reason than Person B thinks it is