Tips on Writing Romance Plots and Subplots from a Demisexual
It’s amazing how romantic views can change over time. When I was a teenager, I used to read chick lit and the occasional romance novel. In college and throughout my 20s, Hallmark Channel Original movies were a comforting tradition every holiday season.
But I’m 30 years old now. And a working adult. Recently, I found myself becoming very picky about what I like in romantic comedies, rom-coms, and adult romance stories. Aside from the fact that I work for a living and got introduced to a lot of stuff that comes with adulting, the biggest disclaimer I have is that I am demisexual. Demisexuality is a type of asexuality. The basic definition is that I only develop an intense attraction/desire through strong, emotional connections. I can literally count the number of guys I consider myself in love with on one hand. And they’re all fictional.
Don’t get me wrong. I do find some guys aesthetically pleasing, but the guys I’m attracted to usually have a personality behind them. I feel like I’m the only woman in the entire world who doesn’t feel any attraction to Brad Pitt or George Clooney. Instead, I swoon over Chris Evans, Tom Holland, Matt Ryan from Constantine…you get the idea.
I think my demisexuality combined with a life of actual adulting changed my views on romantic comedies and romance stories as a whole. So with all that out of the way, here are my 5 tips for writing romance stories and romantic subplots, whether you’re writing a romance novel, a contemporary romcom, or a screenplay for a romantic movie/romcom.
1. Make sure the premise and conflict makes sense, plausibly.
There’s only so much suspension of disbelief can allow for, even by guilty pleasure rom-com standards. One of my favorite “guilty pleasure” romcoms had a lot of over-the-top stuff that didn’t make sense, but the premise was grounded on fairy tale archetypes and tropes (true love breaking a spell). So in spite of how ridiculous some of the characters are and some bad editing, I enjoy watching it because the movie still feels like a modern fairy tale.
In contrast, there was this movie that I used to like where the main characters frequented a dog park, but the problem of the conflict was that apparently the dog park would be closing down to break ground for a day spa. One of the characters said that dog parks don’t pay rent, but I immediately thought “Aren’t parks government funded, even dog parks?”
Basically, make sure that the premise and the conflicts of your novel have some semblance of plausibility. This also applies to the interpersonal conflict in the next tip.
2. Hating a person and finding them hot are majorly unmixy things
I literally cannot comprehend how you can intensely hate a person and find them hotter than Hades. There has to be something endearing about the love interest for both the reader and the love interest.
This is coming from the lady who swoons over Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but toxic issues regarding Season 6 aside, I mostly loved Spike from the start. If there’s something I loved about Spike as a whole, it’s that he owns up to what he is and what he does for better or for worse. He’s reckless and impulsive, but there isn’t any pretense to him. He’s a romantic and he’s a bad boy and while he hates his past as William the Bloody Awful Poet, his romantic tendencies still show. He clearly cares for Drusilla and in later seasons, we see him caring for Dawn and for Buffy as much as he is capable of doing without a soul.
What I can’t comprehend is when there’s a standard romance or rom-com and the two protagonists simultaneously hate each other while also wanting to jump each other’s bones. There has to be some kind of common ground here. If you’re gonna do enemies to lovers or some variation on hate-to-love, they need to respect each other about something. I recently read this short romance novella between a writer and a book critic and while it’s hard for me to buy the premise of a critic who’s so scathing over the romance novel genre, I could get behind the idea of the writer using that criticism to fuel her into doing better in her writing.
If the enemies have this sense of challenging each other, if they start out as something along the lines of rivals or frenemies, the hate-to-love becomes a lot more believable because they have something in common aside from being physically attractive.
3. Pretense can only go so far.
This isn’t a criticism against fake dating. When done well, fake dating can make for amazing stories. I literally reviewed a book centered on the premise of fake dating, for crying out loud. What I liked about that book in particular was the two of them finding the truth within the lie of their relationship.
What I mean by pretense is more along the lines of either party in a romantic plot or subplot pretending to be someone they’re not for a long term relationship. I get the initial first date awkwardness, trying to seem cool. But there’s only so long a person can go faking emotions. Unless you’re writing a romance story that involves a genuine sociopath, at some point, the mask is gonna come off, metaphorically.
I am a firm believer in authenticity when it comes to a lot of different things in life. As I have mentioned before, I loved Spike because he owned up to who he was and he was never pretentious about how he felt about anything. I think I developed a bias against men who do nothing but brood and feel guilty all the time because 1) I’m Catholic and I do enough self-guilting already and 2) guys who brood all the time don’t really change and I don’t feel like they’re owning up to whatever conflicting emotions they have.
Pride and Prejudice, one of my favorite novels, has this reputation of being the archetypical hate-to-love story, but in reality, Elizabeth doesn’t really fall for Darcy until she actually sees him for who he really is, where he is most comfortable. And Darcy isn’t worthy of Elizabeth’s love until he comes to terms with his flaws and makes an effort to be a better person, even if it means not having Elizabeth in his life. She doesn’t magically fix him. He changes because of her influence in his life. There’s a huge difference!
Long story short, your characters have to acknowledge the hurt in their hearts, acknowledge their issues, then figure out how to work on healing those wounds. Which leads me to my next tip.
4. Love develops through emotional connection and shared experiences
I love slow burn romances. I love friends-to-lovers. Instalove is a hard sell for me because real love based on big gestures and intense attraction doesn’t really last long in the real world.
There’s a fine line between “shared experiences” and “trauma bonding,” so I advise against putting characters through something that would emotionally scar them for life unless you’re writing dystopia/sci-fi/fantasy, but even then, I advise to proceed with caution and not build the foundation of the romance on something that keeps them in the negative. The kinds of shared experiences I like is when the two people are working together on a project or share in holiday traditions or they go places together.
There also needs to be genuine emotional connection and understanding between the parties involved. By that, I mean that your characters need to be open and vulnerable and genuinely loving to each other at some point. While I realize that it takes time to get to that point, I have seen or heard of way too many “romance” stories where the characters don’t really communicate with each other and spend more time making out and fighting and playing manipulative mind games. (Points to the entire After series.)
Which leads me to the next tip.
5. Manipulation, Mind Games, and Stalking Aren’t Love
While there’s an initial emotional rush towards relationships that are, to quote Taylor Swift “screaming and crying and kissing in the rain,” relationships where people try to manipulate each other and play mind games or do something to trigger some kind of emotional reaction from their partner have major consequences that usually end up with people going to therapy.
There’s no genuine emotional connection when people are playing power games. Love isn’t about dominating or possessing some other person. Why do authors in the YA genre and writers of Netflix romance dramas find that concept so hard to believe?!
Long story short: Writers, stop writing stalking and romances that are founded on emotional abuse. Watch these videos.
When you’re writing a romance, a rom com, or a romantic subplot, the key theme that ties all my tips together is authenticity. The premise of your story needs to feel real, even when you’re writing outside of the contemporary genre. The people in the story have to own up to who they are and overcome their pretenses.
Authentic love isn’t grounded in manipulation, mind games, or stalking. Real love is about the parties involved being genuinely happy with each other, even if they live in a dystopia. If the parties involved in a relationship of any kind can understand each other and talk their issues out, the relationship becomes all the more endearing because of the vulnerability.
I hope y’all liked these tips. And don’t let me stop you from enjoying your holiday romcoms!