Romantic Subplots

Some books are straight up romances, some have no romantic dealings at all, but for everything in between, they’ve probably got a romantic sub-plot (or two) simmering in the background.

At WorldCon2019, PRK, Kate Johnson, Darlene Marshall, and Elliot Kay shared their tips for creating a successful romantic subplot.

The Rules Of Romance

Romance might get a bad rap in some circles, but romance is what keeps publishing in business, and it’s the mother of all genres when you look at sales.

Romance novels come in all stripes and colors, but they have two things that unify them:

  1. The love story is central to the plot – i.e. the plot doesn’t work without the romance
  2. An optimistic ending – these days, it doesn’t have to be happily ever after, but it needs to be happy-for-now, or at least romantically satisfying

The typical plot of a Romance novel is predictable

  1. The romantic partners come together
  2. Something separates them
  3. They come together again
  4. There’s a black moment when we think all is lost
  5. Then, there’s the optimistic/happy ending!

We know the plot of a romance novel, what makes them enjoyable is the journey.

Common Tropes

There are certain tropes that some people love to see over and over again. While other tropes are things that have been done to death — or are only enjoyable when there’s a fresh twist.

Our panelists shared a few of their favorites

  1. Enemies to lovers/Friends to lovers – i.e. Shards of Honor by Lois Bujold
  2. Alpha male – but easy to over do
  3. Flipping gendered expectations
    • Note: This includes romances that aren’t heterosexual, or cis-gendered, or have more than two partners. – i.e. Starless by Jacqueline Carey, and KJ Charles’s work.
  4. Both main characters are out to get the same things,\ and keep bumping into each other.
  5. When the love interest redeems THEMSELVES, after seeing their flaws reflected back at them. i.e. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre

And least favorites:

  1. No communication. The romance just happens!
    • This leads to readers forming unhealthy expectations about their relationships!
    • Also! If the plot hinges on a misunderstanding that could be fixed with 3 minutes of conversation (that would be normal to do in this situation), it’s a bad plot.
  2. They’re only mean because they likes you
  3. Redeeming everyone
  4. She’s here to redeem HIM
  5. Killing her to provide motivation for the main character to grow

Writing Good Chemistry!

They didn’t give us too many tips. Just: if it’s fun for you (as a writer) and it works emotionally for you… it should be fine!

Chemistry can be sexual and/or romantic. In real life, asexual (Ace) people sometimes are interested in romance, even when they’re not interested in the X-rated stuff. So, characters can be written to reflect reality.

Communication and consent are key! When both characters are eager to take the next step, the relationship should blossom.

Suggested reading:

  1. Claire O’Dell’s Janet Watson Chronicles
  2. JD Robb’s In Death series
  3. Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens
  4. Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart A Doorway

The Romantic Subplot Doesn’t Have To Work Out

Even in romance novels, there can be secondary romances that don’t work out.

  1. Short term relationships
  2. Breakups, where it just didn’t work

Chick-lit has tons of this. You’ll see the main character with tons of bad — or at least not right for her — partners.

Speaking of other genres, these days, it can be tricky to tell if you’re reading a romance or not — especially when you wade into the urban fantasy and paranormal romance corner. Kate Johnson shared her secret trick for determining, just by the cover, which is which. The paranormal romance has a topless guy on the cover, while the urban fantasy has a tattooed chick on the cover.

When she told us that, I closed my eyes and pictured the books on my shelves, and burst out laughing. She’s got it right.

Closing Thoughts

If you want to write more diverse characters, read #ownvoices works, research, talk to people who can share their lived experiences (don’t make assumptions), and pay sensitivity readers!

Write the book you want to write, your tropes will dictate the marketing.

2 thoughts on “Romantic Subplots

  1. WAY late to this party but I’m a fan of the romantic-subplot-among-supporting-characters device. It is a way to “get off the readers’ chest”/ease the tension of a thriller-type story. It is also a way to compensate for less-than-sypathetic main characters. Most importantly, it can soften a poignant ending. Great stuff, Sis. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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