Creating Romantic Tension Revisited

One of the issues with writing a romance plot or sub-plot can be a sense that the characters have fallen in love ‘too soon’. Perhaps this phrasing is slightly misleading; we can have romantic tension where characters fall in love but don’t realise it or are kept apart, we might have the slowly growing romance, or we could have the ‘in and out’ of love where characters come together then break apart again and repeat. Romantic tension comes from the characters and the sense of the story being incomplete. We have to ask ourselves if ‘getting together’ is the primary goal of the story or is there is something else that creates the tension.

If we look at Jane Eyre, for example, Jane and Rochester come together quite a way before the end of the book. However, they break apart because Rochester is keeping secrets and Jane has a journey she needs to go on. Whatever we think of the completion of the story when they first come together there’s happiness but there’s still tension, the mysterious woman who tears Jane’s veil and the sense of Rochester’s secrets. We know their marriage isn’t going to happen before we get to the church because of these questions, despite the characters’ happiness. In this sense we’re using a mystery outside the relationship to create the will-they-won’t-they tension despite the narrator, Jane, being sure that they will marry.

The in and out of love angle is common in romantic comedies where the characters come together part way through, have a huge argument and break up before finally ending up together. Obviously this is just one example of a possible plot and you could do it anyway you wanted. This plot might also be applied to Jane Eyre as well where Jane and Rochester could have what Jane would consider an ‘immoral’ relationship or she can leave and she chooses to leave. In this case the reader/audience know the characters love each other and the tension comes out of discovering if characters can overcome their differences. We can also apply this sort of tension to the ‘regretted fling’ where the characters begin ‘happily’ married/together then a secret is revealed, usually an affair, and the story is the characters finding a way to ‘repair’ their relationship.

Finally there’s the slow growing love or in love without realising. Here the tension is interior to the relationship, often the only people who can’t see the inevitable of the characters while the reader is rooting for them. These plots can be particularly tricky because we have to find a balance between showing the relationship while keeping it believable that the characters either don’t realise or don’t get together for other reasons, such as the inability to confess these feelings for fear of rejection or ruining the relationship they already have. A good way to do this can be to show love without saying love, a classic example would be the characters who always have each other’s backs. This is a common one because it can be an element of a strong friendship, not only a romantic relationship, so the lines are easily blurred, even if we don’t intend them to be.

Another variation are the characters with romantic potential, sometimes pushed together by circumstance, but who need to change in some way before they can be together. Once again we can refer to Jane Eyre where Jane becomes an independent woman with her own fortune while Rochester loses not only aspects of his material wealth but his sight too. For all the metaphorical intent of the latter trying to ‘reduce’ a character by giving them a disability should not be an acceptable plot in the modern day. The conclusion of Jane Eyre would still have worked if Rochester still had his sight and was afraid Jane wouldn’t want him because he lied to her. Perhaps I should note at this point that were we to analyse Jane Eyre there are several problematic elements, though they would have been considered so at the time the novel was published.

Back on the subject of the article you can see one kind of tension arc can be applied to various different stories. This doesn’t mean we’re being unoriginal but there’s only so many ways events can play out. In the in and out of love arc we can adapt it to become in and out of old love and into new love, or in and out of love and into self-love, in which case the tension would be ‘will our protagonist find happiness?’

Now we had an idea of different ways tension can play out how do we build the relationships to create this tension?


Article Archive 1

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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