Thea is an Editorial Intern for a US-based literary agency, and loves sharing insight from literary agents and seasoned writers.
Mistakes to Avoid While Writing Romance
First off, I want to be clear: I am no expert. Most of the information I have gathered has been through the knocks and blows of being an editorial intern, which basically means I read, read, read all the time. That reading includes submissions (partials and fulls) for the literary agent mentoring me, as well as projects that are set to be packaged for publishing.
In addition to that reading, I've also researched and asked around what things should be avoided when writing romance. A google search lends thousands of results, so I've compiled a list of biggies that I feel will help your writing seem more seasoned. This article covers the following important mistakes to avoid while writing romance:
- Using outdated descriptors
- Stop writing violent love scenes
- Dialogue needs a purpose
- Hold passion for the right moment
1. Using Outdated Descriptors
There was a time, maybe in 1982, when desirable men looked like Fabio. I think that thought makes us laugh at this point. There's no reason to talk about his four-foot-wide shoulders and pencil-thin hips because it's a trope based largely on late 20th-century soap operas that women devoured. It was a thing, but it's no longer a thing.
Having rock-hard, chiseled, (glistening?) abs is also not needed, because the thing about it––do you want your leading man spending the 3+ hours a day in a gym, away from you, to maintain that? Or do you want him at your house, fixing your furnace, and cooking you a pot of his grandma's favorite chili? That's what I thought.
Alternatively, there are so many types of bodies that can be spotlighted. Dad bods, shorter guys, and chubby actors can be attractive leading men (think Jack Black in The Holiday, or shorter height Jimmy O. Yang from Love Hard). We live in an age where focus on the ideal body is getting less and less important, which brings me to my next point.
2. Stop Writing Violent Love Scenes
Gone With The Wind is problematic. Fifty Shades of Grey is also (never read it––but I have read critiques). Consent is the name of the game these days thanks to the recent #MeToo movement, the essence of which was focused on hearing women speak of their assaults and uncomfortable situations with men.
Anytime your character isn't clear about their desire during a love scene, it's a problem. It's a huge turn-off for readers, not to mention a big trigger for women who may have been assaulted. Sometimes violence is entertainment, but violence paired with the downplaying of its emotional effects (i.e., describing a forceful encounter as something exciting) is not entertainment at all. It's problematic.
3. Dialogue Needs a Purpose
We get it. You love your characters. You love their relationship. You love it that they're falling in love. You live vicariously through their pursuits. You hang on every word they speak to each other...
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But the reader doesn't.
In fact, readers want the dialogue to have a purpose. If you're saying "hi" and "hey" and "how are you" and "what did you do today" and "I had a hard day. My boss said blah blah blah and then blah blah blah" and none of this has a purpose, the reader will completely zone out and may even stop reading altogether.
Make sure all the background info is given at opportune moments, and just the right amount. We don't need to know about Henry's entire tough childhood that makes him so likable and vulnerable.
All we need to know is that his grandpa, and his main source of fun, died when he was twelve, further cementing his suffering during his teenage years under the neglectful watch of his alcoholic mother.
And those things can be revealed through dialogue, certainly, but never in an info dump. Boil your backstories/info dumps down to find out what the key info is: the things that advance the story and go toward the whole point.
Stick to the pertinent information, and make sure everything that is said drives home the plot. There can be no small talk in books, or any other cutesy thing that you think is adorable if it serves no purpose of advancing the plot.
As Stephen King once said about beloved words we write: "Kill your little darlings, even if it breaks your little scribblers heart."
4. Hold Passion for the Right Moment
I can't tell you how many characters get physical too quickly. It's unrealistic, complicating, and distracting. I have to admit, I'm not a fan of sex scenes in books and usually skim or skip them. This is not entirely because I'm a prudish Victorian who prefers sweet/warm romance (though this is in part, true), but because it convolutes the storyline more than helps it, unless the author shows restraint and waits until the perfect moment.
Don't be afraid to hold out and let tension grow between characters. And don't feel like you have to tell the reader everything. Blank space for imagination is nice, sometimes.
And certainly don't drop the L word (love) too soon. That is a culmination. Choose your culmination (love, proposal, marriage, pregnancy, intimacy) or a combination, and hold out. Don't release that power too quickly. That needs to be the resolution of your conflict. The age-old Happily Ever After that everyone still loves.
Do you agree with these tips?
So there you have it, some tips for avoiding sounding like a total noob as you write romance. Admittedly, I'm no expert, but hopefully some of these things will help you come off as a more seasoned, less amateur writer.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know! I love talking to writers and getting polite feedback.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Thea Tsayt