A fair number of romances start with the main characters not knowing one another. They can be insta-love, slow-burn, or gradual meeting of the minds and hearts, leading to romance. What happens when two characters have been in love for years, decades even, but the spark between them has faded?
Romances thrive on conflict. For a romance to rekindle (perhaps a second-chance trope, a loveless marriage trope that becomes a loving marriage trope, among other tropes), there needs to be conflict and change.
One or both characters need to experience an internal conflict that provokes a change in the relationship’s status quo. Let’s consider a second chance at love. This trope is often portrayed as two high school sweethearts reuniting after many years. Sometimes the couple dated through university, but their interests diverged, and they broke up. One wanted to pursue a career full-on, the other wanted to start a family or travel or some other interest that pitted them against their love interest. Many years later, they meet again, and things have changed. Perhaps the dream career turned out to be a nightmare, or years of travelling left a character feeling rootless. Whatever the circumstances, they are back together but so much has changed it’s unclear if their feelings are genuine or they remember the good old days.
Here are the beats that need to happen:
- they meet again by chance or through a special event (mutual friends’ marriage, high school reunion, etc.)
- a period of uncertainty as each character perceives the love interest as they were twenty years prior
- an outside event demonstrates a change in the love interest (they are no longer hot-heads, more considerate of others, etc.)
- the love interest notices the change but is unconvinced it is real or permanent
- there’s back and forth between the love interests as to what these changes mean
- an event triggers the love interest, and they revert in full or in part to their old selves
- the love interest experiences an internal conflict as to grow or revert
- a key decision is made to grow
- having embraced growth, both characters believe their relationship can work this time, and things go well
- a black moment that challenges personal growth and the ability of the couple to stay together
- each character leans and transforms into a better person
- the couple tackle the main issue and find their new happily ever after
What’s the spark in that? How is romance rekindled?
There are the superficial changes where one partner was turned off by the other’s weight gain or physical changes as they age. The partner matures and changes their perception of their love interest to appreciate that love isn’t just physical. It’s what the other person represents—kindness, love, good memories, shared values, building a future together, raising a family, etc.
However, the more profound the change in the character, the bigger the spark. A character that has pursued a dream so aggressively as to ignore everyone else in their life may wake up one day in the hospital having suffered a heart attack. That wake-up call provokes introspection and life changes.
The introspection and life changes provide the author ample opportunities to explore internal conflict (the struggle to eat healthier in a character’s mid-40s when they spent a lifetime on coffee and take-out). Internal conflicts also provide unique insights, a strong character voice, and enriching experiences for readers because the character arc is different.
To rekindle a romance, start with the conflict that tore them apart. Explore the conflict and figure out ways to make that conflict pop up again throughout the story until the characters resolve the issue behind the conflict. Determine ways the characters can grow out of the conflict, what they learn, what they experience, how their perceptions change, and what prompts the change. Play around with the push-pull of how the characters figure out their new selves and the new status of their relationship.
It’s romance. The advice is always the same: start with the conflict.
Which stories have you written that involve a rekindling of love? Let me know on Twitter @reneegendron. I’ve written one called the Long Wait for A Muse Bouche Review and you can read it here.
Thank you @SStaatz for the topic suggestion.
We’ve all heard of romances with dukes and ladies dancing in London ballrooms. Perhaps there’s a small town by the beach with an ice cream shop where a couple falls in love and shares their first kiss. There’s also the possibility of a ranch where a cowboy/cowgirl falls for a city slicker. These are all tried, and true settings of romances and romance readers eagerly wait for the next story.
What of other romance settings? What of unconventional places that offer unique constraints and obstacles to the main characters seek love? Let’s consider a chicken coop. (Thanks @DewayneKizzie) for the suggestion. There are all types of chicken coops. If you’re writing a historical, a chicken coop can contain a dozen hens. If you’re writing a contemporary on a large farm, a coop can contain tens of thousands of hens. What kinds of hazards does the romantic pair face in a coop? Perhaps a rabid fox or air quality issues? Perhaps there are challenges with collecting so many eggs in such a large facility. If it’s a modern facility, workers may resent working conditions, come from multiple nations, and experience communication issues, seek to form a union, or face health and safety hazards. (Chicken manure is considered hot because of the high concentration of ammonia).
Original settings engage the reader because they can’t anticipate the hazards and obstacles. Romances are driven by internal, interpersonal, and environmental conflict. Let’s say there’s a plane crash in a swamp. Each romantic lead needs to address a particular fear or trauma. Each lead also needs to develop a relationship with their counterpart. Often the relationship-building is rocky, full of miscommunications, challenges, and baggage.
On top of that, they need to address environmental constraints. In a historical western, the leads might face foul weather. In a contemporary boardroom romance, they may face a tight deadline from an overbearing client. In a plane crash in a swamp, they may face venomous snakes, apex predators, and disease.
The more unique hurdles you can throw at your characters, the more challenging it will be for them to reach their happily-ever-after. Great work!
Let’s look at some unconventional settings for romances. Perhaps your MCs work at an airport. One works as a baggage clerk loading the planes, and the other works for an airline company at the front desk checking in customers. One obvious constraint is time. Both are likely to work opposite shifts and have unsocial schedules. The person at the counter may also have to work for some flights. Here are some additional stresses: working at an airport requires a security clearance. If one or both of the main characters engage in risky behaviour, they may lose their clearance and jobs. Depending on the clearance needed, if one romantic partner loses their security access, the other person’s access is also revoked—known associates and all. How would that impact the romantic relationship if both lost their jobs because one did something reckless like drunk driving and wounded someone?
I’ll take a stab at another unconventional romance setting to illustrate how much fun they can be. Let’s use the example of a food assembly line. Each day the romantic leads stand in front of a conveyor belt and examine canned or packaged goods for quality control. They have quotas, stand all day that might hurt their knees and lower back, the job isn’t all that interesting, and the pay might not be that great.
What kind of problems does this romantic pair face? All sorts from financial stress, to challenges in wanting to move up in the company, to stressing over being replaced by further automation and being uncertain which career paths to take after they are made redundant, to worries over having their work outsourced overseas, to wanting to develop their food product and starting their company.
Don’t be afraid to put your romance in new settings. It allows you to explore different social dynamics, different economic challenges, different ecological constraints, and most importantly, keeps your reader engaged.
Readers appreciate characters who have lives beyond the love interest. By that I mean, they can’t always drive across town to be with their live interest. Most people need to work for a living. Sure, you can take some time off or work flextime, but the time needs to be made up. Most towns have rush hours and road construction and detours that cause delays. There’s rotten weather that impedes the ability of a love interest from leaving their residence, reaching work, or going out after work. Quite a few people have children and need to take into consideration childcare responsibilities before accepting to go out for drinks after work. Most people must be careful with their money. They can afford to go to a restaurant that isn’t fast food every now and then but can’t afford to go every night.
When writing in a unique setting, be sure to:
-present the setting in a slow and gradual way to not provide an info-dump
-present unique obstacles to your romantic partners
-don’t skimp on character development. Excellent romances thrive on strong characters
-don’t neglect dialogue and banter
-get real about the setting and research it. The more authentic details you can provide, the more immersive of an experience you can provide your reader
-get creative in the roles and responsibilities your characters have in the setting
What kind of original settings do you place your characters in? Reach out to me on Twitter @reneegendron
Thank you, @Sstaatz and @DewayneKizzie, for the topic suggestion.
This post will be about the confessions of a fantasy romance author. At least, that’s how I first pegged my writing career to be ten years ago when I started writing again. One of the major issues I must fix in the fantasy series is world-building. There’s simply too much of it. Pages of it at a time. I became engrossed in explaining the world (a rather cool world) in detail that I lost the plot.
There are twenty-nine books (!) in that series, fully written but needing deep edits before I can publish them. That’s 2.5 million words to rewrite but rewrite I must because I botched the world-building.
I will find the energy to do it because that series is near and dear to my heart. Somehow, I will find the energy. I promise.
Rishab (@elkloriaseries) asked me to go into detail into some of the cool worlds I’ve built. I won’t add any spoilers, but I’ll include some hodge-podge snippets in the different worlds I’ve created. I’ll lean more towards scenery as information on culture, economy, and social set-up for the romantic interactions tend to need more space than a paragraph or two.
Fantasy Series ~ The Nearer Realms (Book 1 publication date - unknown)
North of the settlement, Sanders stood on a boulder, his head angled towards the night sky. Thousands of fireflies blinked blue and purple in a vastness of sparkles. Transfixed on the inky blank above, the vastness of the night twinkled millions of points of golden light, but only one home of the true and proper gods. A planet, pink with rings, to the east was the eternal Home to those he knelt daily in prayers.
Cyberpunk series (series is yet unnamed (Book 1 publication summer 2022)
Hunched forward, João inspected a silver spoon. Two hundred years old with the mark of an unimportant silversmith, the spoon was tarnished and from the defunct kingdom of Britain. Its only value was for scrap to be repackaged into low-grade wiring.
The door to his shop opened, and silver chimes sounded a not-quite-welcoming sound.
Clad in black leather and a low-cut tank top, Angelo strutted towards him. He has his mother’s almond eyes, and his father’s means streak, and the same grit and edginess all Stranded had. Never at home in Nippon, but unable to return to Brazil. Stuck in a place that didn’t know what to do with them and unable to go to a place they’ve never seen.
Western historical (Mines and Metal series and Book 1 publication winter 2022)
At the edge of the unending Prairies was a series of rocky cliffs and land so inhospitable that the earth cracked open for miles, barring all travel. Pocked and scorched and ragged, the gouges on the ground were three-thousand-year-old scars that shied away from existence.
The wind didn’t howl, more of a low-grade eerie whistle that blew in the ear. Deep and powerful, the desolation of the end of all rolled up and down the mountains into a swirl of opportunities and hope. No sweet-nothings, but a low hum that was constant and rattled the bones to ensure the desolation that was outside reverberated and sunk into one’s marrow.
The end of pocked earth led to an abundance on the Prairie. The foot of the mountain that sprawled into an unending carpet of swaying grass that spanned all realm of possibility for those who had the backbone to withstand lung-seizing cold and endless calving season of labour that left insomniacs asleep for days on end.
Contemporary Romance (Book 1 of the Outdoorsmen Series release fall 2021)
James pumped his legs up the incline of the hill. The ground parched from three years of mild drought was loose and full of exposed roots. He pressed upwards. To his left, a bog with swaying cattails from the breeze blowing across the St Lawrence. A vast forest jutted out of rocking outcroppings, rolling hills, and ringing inlets and coves to his right.
A haze hung over the region, part smog blown out of the Ottawa Valley, part heat captured on the kilometres of the 401. Tractor-trailers leaving their marks on the region in an endless plume of belching smoke and cars zooming by farting out their exhaust, pretending no one noticed. The trees noticed.
On top of the incline, James stood, puffing air. The majesty of the landscape captured his imagination, touching on some past of ancestry, connecting him to them and the reasons they kept pushing west from Halifax until they reach this spot. This spot of contrasting greens and tall trees. This spot where forest sounds soothed and inspired. This spot in the middle of nowhere that offered enough abundance that if the farm failed, there would still be enough to provide for a wife and children, and parent, and grandchildren, and neighbours, and parishioners, and the occasional settler who wandered too far as to exhaust their funds.
This spot. Of beauty and abundance and history and future.
Contemporary sports romance (Novella 1 of the Heartened by Sport Series released in December 2021/January 2022)
Miranda hoisted a hip on a barstool with a broken leather cover. The entire place smelled of the 1960s—old pot, a house with a smoker in it twenty years ago, and stale beer. Yet the blue and white colours of the Toronto Maples above the bar were bright and modern. The patterns of the hockey jerseys lining the bar ranged from modern to when the Leaf’s were called the Toronto St. Patricks, were white on green still ruled.
She bit into her gourmet burger, ignoring the outdated paper placemat under the plate.
The flat-screen televisions above the bar were muted but displayed sportscasters adamant in their views on who would win this game or that. Politicians debating the merits of going to war never had such fervour.
A drop of warm grease trickled out of the corner of her mouth. She dabbed it with a paper serviette, uncertain if she caught it all, indifferent if she had.
Somewhere behind her, a pair of men shouted at the television screen. The Blue Jays gave up three runs on a single play, and the patrons had lost their reasons to live.
I have 16 worlds in the works (no word of a lie!) I hope you appreciated snippets into the worlds I’m building.
Thank you for reading. Please note that I have a newsletter you can sign up to to receive updates, advance snippets, and writing advice. You’re welcome to reach out to me on Twitter @reneegendron to continue the conversation
Thank you, @elkloriaseries, for the post suggestion.
When most people think of romance, they think of people in their early twenties to mid-thirties finding the love of their lives. However, romances also happen between older couples.
Let’s start with the basic structure of a romance. Both love interests have internal conflicts that prevent them from entering a romantic relationship. Internal conflicts cause external conflicts (conflict between the love interests). For the love interests to have their happily ever after, they must first resolve internal matters and focus on external issues by working out their differences.
There are two types of setups in a romance. The first is the love interests don’t know each other at the beginning of the story, get to know one another, and resolve their matters by the end of the book. The second is the love interests are in an existing relationship that is on the rocks. The love interests need to work to maintain and strengthen the relationship.
Whether you write younger characters or older ones, those structures remain the same. I’ll let you in on a secret about writing romances with older characters—there’s a lot of emotional depth to mine. I’m certain you’ll find emotionally mature nineteen-year-olds who have been through a lot and conduct themselves with poise and grace. Let’s not forget different historical times when most women were raised to marry by the age of twenty. That’s a different mindset than the way most people raise their children in Canada in 2021.
When you write older characters, especially characters with a lot of history between them, there’s a tremendous opportunity to explore emotion, resiliency, pain, loss, and triumph. Romances work because of emotional payoffs. Every romance reader knows there will be a happily ever after, but they don’t know how the characters will get there.
A forty-year-old who is divorced and has one child has different emotional baggage than a twenty-year-old who has never been in love. The constraints on the forty-year-old’s life are different than those of the unattached, non-parent, twenty-year-old. Making time to date when raising a child, working full-time, dealing with an ex who does all they can to make your life miserable while dealing with all of the other bumps and hiccups life throws at you is difficult.
Romances explore choices and how they relate to conflict. Let’s take that forty-year-old single parent and call him Léonard. He works full time, and he has to pay alimony to the ex. His commute is extended because he has to swing by the daycare/babysitter to pick up his daughter Claudette. He has to clean and cook and help Claudette with her homework. A fellow like that is going to be more practical in his approach to finding a romantic partner. Léonard isn’t likely to hang out in pubs and clubs, he’s unlikely to have a lot of time for hobby groups, and he probably won’t take a four-day vacation to a resort because he had a good deal (Claudette has school, after all).
Léonard is more likely to meet a potential love interest at one of Claudette’s after school activities, or through a neighbour, or a friend. When Léonard meets the potential love interest, he has to evaluate the potential not only through his lenses (do they get along, is he attracted to her, do they share similar interests, and so on), but also through Claudette’s perspective. Any love interest that isn’t interested in being with a man with a child, well, for responsible fathers, that’s a non-starter.
Let’s take a moment to consider some of the emotional issues Léonard faces when considering dating. He was married for six years and dated his ex for an additional two years. Prior to that relationship, he had two other serious, long-term relationships. Each relationship was different, but each relationship also left him with unique scars. One woman wanted children right away when he wasn’t ready. One woman wanted to travel the world working gig to gig, while he had to stay in one place to develop his career. And his marriage, while things were good at first when Léonard and his ex were aligned with interests, hobbies, wanting to start a family, the toll of running a family tore them apart.
These different decisions have impacted him and alter the way he views a potential love interest. Léonard needs to weigh his past hurts versus a stable life for his daughter versus his current reality of being a single parent (time constraints, resource constraints, the messiness of coordinating schedules when a love interest also has split-time with their children) versus his interest in dating.
These constraints and conflicts are interesting to explore. How each person and romantic couple addresses these constraints allow for an enriching experience for the reader.
Some questions to ask when developing romances between people who are divorced with children still at home
- How much does the ex still loom in the picture?
- What are realistic expectations as to how much time the couple can spend alone versus childcare responsibilities?
- How do complicated family arrangements (blended families with different parental structures) impact the ability of the couple to act in the best interest of the couple?
- What are the sleeping arrangements? (This is particularly relevant if you’re writing a high heat romance and are writing sex scenes. What are realistic conditions in which the couple can have a sleepover?)
Let’s age the characters up a bit. Let’s say you’re writing a romance in which the romantic leaders are sixty years old. Let’s say you’re writing Céline, and she’s sixty-two years old. Her first husband died of a heart attack ten years ago. They were married twenty-eight years. It took her years to overcome the grief, and last year she met Pierre.
Céline has three adult children and four grandchildren. She may or may not work full-time. In the years since her husband’s death, she’s taken up new hobbies and has reinvigorated her social life because her husband wasn’t the type to go out. She’s sixty-one. She’s likely to have health issues, and she’s likely to be the primary care provider for her parents or aunt and the emergency babysitter for her grandchildren. There are a lot of pulls on her time.
She’s also likely been through a lot of emotional pain (given that she’s lived longer than a twenty-year-old). She might be more set in her ways for some things, behind the times on many other things, and wise in some areas.
If you write Céline the way you would a twenty-year-old, you’re cheating the character and the reader. You’re depriving the reader of an emotional experience gained for the school of hard knocks, and you’re depriving Céline of the ability to apply all of her knowledge and insight to resolving the issue that needs to be resolved. Remember, Céline’s been around sixty-one years. Maybe there’s a pattern or a similar situation that keeps popping up in her life that she has to learn to move past it. Maybe now, after decades of failing, she has the self-confidence to do something she’s always wanted to do. Maybe she can guide her grandchildren in a way she wished she could have with her children.
Questions to ask when writing older characters:
- Have they grown more patient or impatient with age?
- Are they more vocal about pointing out issues and problems than they were when they were twenty?
- How have they stayed the same since they were a child?
- How have they changed?
- What are three major events that have changed how they behave, act, and feel?
In what way does their health impact their daily life? If you write high heat romances, you’ll need to incorporate some aspects of health and perhaps the need for pharmaceutical supports.
The structure of a romance between twenty-year-olds is the same as writing one between sixty-year-olds. What changes are the emotional depth, the amount of baggage each character has to resolve, and the tools each character brings to the table to address their issues.
Writing romances between older couples can be richly rewarding. Don’t be afraid to stack the conflicts and constraints each character faces. Explore realistic meet-cutes and flesh out each character’s world. Romance is romance.
Keep an eye out of James' and Mirabelle's story. He's fifty years old with four adult children and she's forty five. I'm in the last stages of editing it and will release it in fall 2021. If you liked the excerpt (still in draft) and/or this blog post, please consider chipping in one dollar towards a professional cover for their book.
Thank you to @SStaatz for the topic suggestion.
Let's keep the conversation going on Twitter. Reach out to me @reneegendron and let me know how you write romances with older characters.
Most people think of romances as an enemy to lovers story. The characters start not liking one another, but there is so much sexual attraction and tension between them, they are compelled to stick around one another. Throughout the book, they get to know and love one another. Writing this trope is popular because it is a high-conflict scenario, and in romances, it’s conflict that drives the plot.
What happens if your characters have been together for a long time or are married and they have a reasonably comfortable relationship? How do you write a book when they know each other so well?
It’s a problem I faced in my fantasy series, the 29-book series I keep going on about. The first book has the foundational couple in an enemies to lovers trope. There are other books in the series in which Calanthe and Sanders are the main characters. I used different tropes such as second chance at love and my big messed up family to keep the characters engaged.
Your characters can know each other very well and still have differences. It’s those differences that can be a source of conflict. A couple that’s been married a long time might have differences of opinions on how to raise their children, how to handle their finances, sex (or lack of, or lack of adventure in the bedroom, etc.), career paths (one works too much or not enough), hobbies, and how much time they spend (or not) with family.
Couples grow together as much as they grow apart. Perhaps once the children have left the house, the couple finds themselves with a lot more free time they don’t know how to fill. One takes up an expensive hobby that consumes most of their free time, and the other feels left out or ignored.
People’s bodies change. Perhaps one partner isn’t as attracted to the other after they put on thirty pounds. Perhaps one develops an illness, and one perhaps can’t cycle or hike or engage in the same activities they once did as a couple.
It doesn’t matter what the conflict is, so long as the conflict is deep enough to drive the plot for the entire story. There’s a fundamental formula in romances: internal conflict + interpersonal conflict with romance interest = romance. Each character must face internal conflict that drives personal conflict. In addition, each character must face an interpersonal conflict with the romantic interest which prevents them from having a happy for now or a happily ever after.
Throughout the story, the characters engage in a series of try/fail cycles until they learn and grow as individuals. Once they are in the right headspace, they turn their attention to improving their relationship, and by the end of the book, they’ve found a new equilibrium.
I might have taken the fun out of romances with that analysis. Hmm.
There’s a bonus to writing romances with characters who have been together for a long time. They know each other very well, and it forces the author to deepen the emotional connection between them. When you’ve been with someone for twenty years, there’s a lot of hurt and happiness that can be brought up during an argument. A couple might be arguing over how to parent a child when the child is injured playing in another room. The couple drops the argument and rushes to tend to the child. The matter’s not resolved, but the action shows the reader that both love the child, even if each parent has a different parenting style.
Authors have a lot more history to mine for deep hurts, character flaws, lulls in a long-term relationship, and unresolved personal and relational issues. There’s also the potential for deeper emotional intimacy because the characters know each other so well. There’s knowing a certain slump in his shoulder or look in his eye or her eating triple-chocolate mint ice cream with extra-large chocolate chips, fudge sauce and white chocolate flakes that now is not the time to start an argument. The other person already had a bad day, and while the matter is pressing for the love interest, the fundamental care they have for the other person suspends the discussion.
Exploring the nuances of emotional intimacy enhances character development and enriches the reader’s experience.
Another thing to consider is the three following scales. The first, sexual tension. That is the degree to which the love interests are sexually aware of the other. The number of times they check one another out, the explicitness in which the sexual awareness is described.
The second is heat level. Heat level refers to how sex scenes are described. In a low heat book, sex scenes are non-existent or fade to black. In a medium-heat book, a paragraph or two describe sex. In a high-heat book, sex is explicit, described in detail sometimes over pages, and likely happens multiple times throughout the book.
The third is how much space is given to the non-romance and romance plots. If you play around with the plot ratios, you alter the dynamics between the characters. If a romance arc takes up 90% of a character’s time, it says something about the character. Whereas, if the love interest spends 90% of their time at work or with friends, but their major pain point is the love interest and the struggling romantic relationship, that says something completely different about the character.
How do you keep the spark alive between characters that have been together for a long time?
What do you think of the three scales? You can see the proposed scales here. Would such scales help you select a romance novel? Let me know on Twitter or through this survey. I’d like to thank @BurrisKirk for having brought up the issue of better classifying romances to help readers select an appropriate book.
Reach out to me on Twitter @reneegendron. I’d love to hear your thoughts and insights.
I’d like to thank @merelecroix for the topic suggestion of how to keep the spark going when writing couples who have been together for a long time.