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.
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.