Sustaining emotion in your romance novel
All writers are emotionally invested in their work – but perhaps none more so than the romance author.
Emotion is the bedrock of the romance genre.
Romance novels are by their very nature character driven. The reader races through the pages of a good story because she is vicariously living the heroine’s emotions; the reader absorbs the heroine’s life as her own, she absorbs all of her feelings. Her desire, her fear. Her happiness and her heartbreak. The reader wants to re-experience all the feelings of falling in love. She doesn’t just read a page of prose, she feels every word in the book.
The challenge facing the romance author is to generate these vicarious emotions in her narrative. No, perhaps that is too simplistic a statement; it’s more than that, for sure. The challenge is generating these emotions in a fresh and compelling way, paragraph for paragraph, page after page, chapter after chapter, until the book is completed. It’s not always easy to do this. Again, too simplistic. A lot of the time, it’s not easy. Nevertheless, you have to get it down, you have to nail it, master it, if you hope to make a sale, if you dream of getting your book published.
Perhaps when you start with a scene in your book, focus on the emotion you wish to give the most colour to. Is it a sense of sadness, regret? Is it a building sense of sexual tension, arousal? Is it frustration? Once you know what emotion you wish to focus on, you can build the scene with the right vocabulary, dialogue, sensations and responses in your character.
It’s also important to really know your characters inside and out; know what drives them, what motivates them; understand their dominant traits, be aware of their vulnerabilities. In this way, when you have them in a situation of conflict in the story, you will intuitively know how the character will react emotionally to the tensions and conflicts. Is Annie confident? Is Jake’s temper easily stirred? Does Ryan make impulsive decisions?
Trust your own instincts, not only as a writer, but a human being
Pause for a moment and think: How would I feel if this happened to me? What would I feel if my husband had just walked out on me? How would I react if my best friend was marrying my old high school flame? Tap into your emotions, exploit them on the page. Don’t be afraid of raw, honest descriptions. Remember, you want emotion that grabs the reader by the throat.
Match the emotions to the imprint you’re writing for.
This is very important and goes back to that hoary old chestnut: read as many of the type of novel you want to write. For example, a vampire / paranormal romance will focus on darker, edgier emotions, mixing dark sexuality with fear: the emotions will be more visceral. In a modern romance, descriptions will be more detailed, sensual, stronger: the emotion will be more intense. In a tender romance, the emotion becomes even more important, in terms of creating those lump-in-your-throat moments.
Use plot and setting to embellish emotion
You can use the plot of your novel and settings to enhance the emotion of your heroine. For example, say Victoria has been single for three years and she is lonely (the emotion). As an author, you may have Victoria sitting at a coffee shop with her latest magazine. Guess who sits at the table next to her? A couple of gorgeous teenagers that can’t keep their hands off each other; just another reminder of her solitary, cheerless status. She opens the magazine, there’s an ad for a jewellery store, a picture of handsome man slipping a ring on a glowingly happy female’s finger. Another blatant dig at her singledom. Her friend drags her to a speed dating event where she meets a conveyor belt of unsuitable and unsatisfying men, underscoring her fear that she won’t meet a man who satisfies her emotionally, intellectually and, yes, even sexually. Do you see by focusing on a primary emotion, you start to develop a character that we can empathise with?
“Mementoes” can also add emotional potency to a story.
Let’s say your heroine, Jo, has secretly been in love with her best male friend since university. They used to have spirited arguments about activism, human rights and feminism, and Jo used to use Jessica Mitford quotes in these sparring matches. As the story goes on, she doesn’t believe that the hero – let’s call him Harris – even remembers those days, or the one impassioned kiss they shared at an end-of-term party. On her twenty-seventh birthday, he gives her a gift. She opens it - the collected works of Jessica Mitford. In that one moment, Harris has delivered more emotion than 10 or 20 lines of dialogue or description could. Perhaps, further along in the novel, Jo and Harris have a fight and aren’t speaking to each other. While she’s leafing through her Jessica Mitford book, out falls a picture of them, taken at that fateful end-of-term party. It hits her – visually and emotionally – just how well she and Harris fit together.
Balance the emotional content
No matter what kind of romance you’re writing, you need to balance the emotion in the story. Make sure that after a really hard-hitting emotional scene, there is a scene with a touch of humour. In the most light-hearted book, you may want to add a scene that really goes for the gut, something that makes the character connect with something painful.
The most important thing to remember is that your characters are not static, cardboard cut-outs without blood in the vein. You must hold onto your characters as fully as you’re able.
Get a bit obsessive if you have to
Take the hero by the wrist and feel his steady pulse. Look into his eyes and know his secrets, recognise the intimate scent of his aftershave. Squeeze your feet into your heroine’s shoes for a day. Do you feel those Jimmy Choo’s pinch? Do you feel her frustration at constantly choosing the wrong lipsticks, careers, men?
Once you start seeing and feeling your characters as real, then these beautiful, complex creatures not only pulse with colour and emotion in your imagination, but live and breathe and talk and laugh and cry and make love and express themselves on the page. It’s characters like these that are sure to keep the reader enthralled – and keep her turning the page.
There is one last tip you may find helpful:
Print out your story – or possibly a chapter from your novel – and grab a highlighter and mark up the words that express emotion, whether it’s in your character’s inner thoughts, or the setting, or dialogue.
There should be emotion and conflict on every page. In fact, the page should be iridescent with colour, otherwise you have not delivered what readers expect: emotional intensity. Now, go back and rewrite those highlighted passions; try to infuse them with deeper emotions. Here’s where your Flip Dictionary or a good thesaurus will help, as you write out a list of synonyms for those emotions.