[Book Talk] How to handle a romantic subplot (And accepting their cold, harsh realities)

I blog about YA novels.
I like to think I write YA novels.
Thus, I criticize novels of the same genre and enjoy writing about the writing process.

Perhaps the most widely accepted phenomenon on Young Adult culture is the Romantic subplot in novels, to the point I have witnessed many readers come to demand this when it comes to a criticizing point of a novel. The grand majority of author indulge us, after all, the majority of the YA audience and I are starry eyed teenagers who dream of their first kiss and desire enthralling romances to sweep us from our feet. Reaching out to books for that isn’t sinful, but the cheap way a lot of authors and big releases handle it nowadays very much is.

#1: Most dreaded common pitfalls (And the God forsaken Love triangle)

A book should be all about its twists and engaging the reader. If you write a book that is predictable from Chapter one or even its syponopsis, you are doing something very wrong and no amount of calling it “a guilty pleasure” will save you from a harsh reality: You’ve already failed in your job as an author.

Respect the art form. Don’t write cookie cutter novels.

One of the most common occurrence in Romance, and one that I was guilty of myself when I wrote as a teen, is trying to add an element of surprise into the novel when it comes to who the heroine is really going to end up with. This is the birth of the Second Romantic Interest™ and most of the times a driving force of the novel. Reality check? Just don’t do it, if it results obvious to you as an author who the main character is going to end up with, then it results just as obvious to the reader who this is as well. We know, and beating around the bush is only frustrating. Use the time you want to spend attempting to trick us into developing the couple and letting them spend more time together. It is easy to fall down into the pit fall of love triangles.

Here’s why they (most commonly) don’t work:

Love triangles aren’t very realistic to begin with. Most teenage girls don’t have two movie ready hot hunks fighting over her and at her disposition 24/7. There are plenty of fish out there in the sea.

Teenage guys don’t all have a catty psycho on-and-off ex girlfriend or a bitch following their trail thinking they have all the right in the world over them. Enough with the petty fights between women and catty comments back and forth.

Love triangles don’t equal to instant conflict. Because of the majority of love traingles inherently add nothing to the novel but instead only pads its lenght. In the majority of the instances, it only causes the main character to look shallow

➜ One of the parties will inevitably result evil. Because most of the times, the way authors intend to convince an audience they should not have any residual feelings for the Second Romantic Interest™ is by either making them screw up really bad, making the main character mad at them for barely any reason or by outright making them Evil All Along™. Because if you’re too busy loving another character, then how is the author going to make you go Swoony Swoon with the good, main romantic interest?

➜ Ask if your love triangle changes anything about the story. If the answer is no, it’s perhaps time to sit back and really consider if the Second Romantic Interest™  is really worth it. Most of the time, it only helps to frustrate the reader and take out spotlight from your main plot.

Other Pitfalls just as terrible:

Misunderstandings. Because everything could be solved if anyone just stopped back to take a moment to talk like human beings. Perhaps the worst, most overused trope and the least realistic as well. Human being communicate, that’s what makes them human.
Stupid Obstacles. Which the author is going to write in, when it is the job of the world and plot the author has created to keep them apart instead. Turns out distracting and only steals spotlight from the main plot instead of enhancing it even more.
➜ Underdeveloped romantic interest. Rendering him/her projectable, malleable and loose enough to become any sort of plot device needed ahead. Bonus points in men when this is just replaced by a “Bad boy” stereotype instead.
Dislike = Automatic Chemestry. While romance spurting from a bickering pair (Much in the style of Princess Leia and Han Solo) is one of my favorite tropes in romance, many novels like Beautiful Bastard have butchered the style by assuming that just because two characters dislike each other, chemistry and sexual tension is evident. The fact that characters dislike each other only means that you as an author have to work harder to develop their relationship. Not use it as an easy way out.
General Lack of chemistry. When authors don’t bother developing personalities that spark in the least anymore. Just because we are given moments made for us to go Swoony Swoon or the plot forces characters together doesn’t mean that they necessarily have personalities that work together. It’s both an emotional spark and a fluid dynamic.
Lust = Love. The common assumption that just because there is explicit or tangible sexual tension between two characters the step towards a couple is taken already. In the real world a lot of people have good, meaningless sex and still aren’t meant to be together. Be careful about always developing your characters properly without skipping the emotional steps.

There can perfectly be a romance in YA books that develops the emotional click between characters without exploring their sexual compatibility. However, you can’t have a romance all about sexual compatibility and skipping the emotional click within a couple. It’s not a relationship.

#2: How to handle Romance within itself

When you begin a novel you should always remember the romance you are typing is a subplot. Never allow your relationship drama take main center stage when you have other elements to convey within your novel. Romance will keep readers hooked, but they probably picked up the book because of its hypnosis, not because of your to-die-for romantic interest.

Steps to create your ultimate romance (Not applicable as dating advice kiddos, I’m sweet 18 and never been kissed) :

Get to know your characters very well. In order to develop a proper dynamic, it’s important being completely familiar with the characters you’re writing, even in the silly details. My exercises of choice are simply couple memes, questionnaires and social media tags that are quickly found on the internet. Sometimes even roleplaying can be the most fun to get acquainted with your characters mannerisms. You want to have a solid base and personality to understand where your couple clashes and where they click. Exploiting the subtleties is key, but more on that below.

➜ Write respectable characters. This goes for both gender parties in the relationship. Clingy, desperate, and dependent characters are the last thing we want to read about when attempting to be put on by the romance in front of us. Jared from Unspoken is a great example of this.

Respectable doesn’t have to equal to empowered, kickass or badass but a person who still conserves their dignity. Dignity is the sense of self-respect and self-love that one holds for oneself. Remember that a common basis of healthy relationships is to love yourself before you attempt to love someone else. Don’t mindlessly follow the boy into an adventure, don’t base the entire attraction off pure looks, don’t fall in love over the course of an instant- Real, living people please.

➜ Predict the character relationship, not what happens with it. While the goal would be to be as unpredictable as you can, it’s important to know you can’t accomplish everything. It’s best to let it be clear who you’re character is going to end up with if you’re trying to establish a romance, but never allow it to be obvious where the relationship is going. Use your world to put obstacles in their path and play with their dynamic.

Remember, you want to surprise your readers, not confuse them.

Even characters who dislike each other are friends. Don’t fall into the miserable confusion that a relationship can be based on hatred. Hatred at the start is fine, but relationships must evolve to become one in the first place. The bickering, tension and firey dynamic can stay, but it’s important to remember relationships are based on friendship, respect and common interests of morals.

Love is awkward. Love isn’t as porn movie slash feature lenght film swift as they make you believe it is. The cute part of love is in the humanity, and remember people screw up, stumble and make mistakes. When it comes to New Adult novels, I’m not really interested in reading your steamy hot office sex that carries perfectly with nothing but dirty talk more than two times around. I’d rather be submitted to awkward, playful and fumbling sex where the parties talk like human beings. Fluff is as awkward as steamy scenes are. The awkwardness and humanity of them don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Remind us your main characters aren’t all Victoria secret & Calvin Klein supermodels poured into your verse from time to time.

Love is in the details. You don’t need to hammer it home every time the characters stare at each other for a moment too long, but instead let us discover it. Be thoughtful in the details, but always be subtle. Maggie Stiefvater does a great job at this when it comes to Ronan and Adam from The Raven Cycle with the subtle attention to detail and the extra attention she placed by crafting every interaction I.e.

“Adam finally sat down on one of the pews. Laying his cheek against the smooth back of it, he looked at Ronan. Strangely enough, Ronan belonged here, too, just as he had at the Barns. This noisy, lush religion had created him just as much as his father’s world of dreams; it seemed impossible for all of Ronan to exist in one person. Adam was beginning to realize that he hadn’t known Ronan at all. Or rather, he had known part of him and assumed it was all of him.

The scent of Cabeswater, all trees after rain, drifted past Adam, and he realized that while he’d been looking at Ronan, Ronan had been looking at him.”

Love should be the ultimate sacrifice, not the answer to everything.

True love’s kiss shouldn’t be the answer, it should be the price to pay for the hero’s journey.

#3: How to handle Romance within the plot

A) Mistakes

Your characters are human, (or at least as humanoid as they get) and remember that throughout their journey they will be faced with a couple of snap decisions that they will mostly likely judge incorrectly. Make some bad calls. Romance doesn’t have to be about petty misunderstandings that could be easily solved by communicating. Sometimes humans screw up, and sometimes humans have to apologize and redeem themselves, earning other’s trusts. It’s much more convincing and certainly more relatable.

B) An External Obstacle

The external obstacle goes past your character’s morals that keep them apart, or simply their personalities clashing. The external obstacle has to developed organically into your plot and can’t appear out of nowhere. As a writer, this should be explored from the beggining to your novel, a reason why these two characters can’t just fall in love and get married with ease from the get go. In the words of Mette Ivie Harrison. “The whole world may have to change for them to have a Happily Ever After.”

C) An Equal Sacrifice

While sacrificing the character’s romantic discovery in exchange of the climax of their hero’s journey isn’t something that has or should be included in any novel per se (As cheap revivals or happily ever afters are provided in the immediate anyway), an equal sacrifice for each other from both parties is always a huge recommended added bonus.

After all, these characters are surely already working through the hospitals thrown in their way for each other, but make sure the romantic interest is also making their own shares of sacrifices. Otherwise, the relationship feels extremely unsatisfying and can be easily de-solified if a few weeks you’re MC has to be stuck wondering if it was really wondering.

But anyways ! That is it for now ! Just a few of my OTPs I’ve noted when reading YA as of lately.

And you? What would you say would make a romance good? Have you ever read a book where you believe the Love Triangle was done correctly? Leave your thoughts bellow !


7 thoughts on “[Book Talk] How to handle a romantic subplot (And accepting their cold, harsh realities)

  1. kdsuomi says:

    Love triangles in book are often done very, very poorly. I like them in Asian dramas, but that’s just because that’s what they are. You always want the girl to choose the second male lead but she always goes with the jerk main male character.

    Especially for the young adult category, I like when romances are done how real teens experience them. I don’t want to hear about a teen hooking up with multiple people, too much detail about any sexual endeavors (I’d prefer no endeavors), or the character choosing a real douchebag.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hime says:

      It’s just not realistic at all- I’m sorry, but if in real life you’re juggling between two sexual partners or move from one to the other in the span of a week or less you’re a terrible person, not some dreamy teenage heroine. It’d odd the types of things that are being idealized, and while I understand its fiction, it’s just handled so poorly….


  2. Almanzapedia says:

    Perfectly written, as always, inspirational food for thought for a starving writer. I also have to confess that the excerpt you quoted from The Raven Cycle about Ronan and Adam made me fall in love with those characters instantly and I became a convert

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hime says:

      AH ! That means a great deal to me, thank you so much ❤ I try my best to not only rant but also provide food for thought and solutions. I am infinitely grateful I could help.

      I often find myself quoting Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Cycle series because of her high quality standards despite her YA genre. Maybe it's just my own standards that have risen, given Stiefvater is my favorite author, but I have a lot of respect for writing and specially the YA genre when done right. I want thoughtful, creative novels, not cookie cutter bestsellers, you know? I really recommend reading the Raven Cycle ❤


  3. tornpagesandroses says:

    I am not an aspiring writer but as a reader I agree wholeheartedly on all of these points. There’s nothing more infuriating nowadays than overly used tropes and plot twists especially on the romance side of novels because honestly, there’s plenty of stuff to read and for anyone who wants their work to have an edge the need to be unique is greater now than ever. You’re an awesome writer, so I’m gonna do some backreading on this blog 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hime says:

      Me too ! I’ve long paused writing in favor of blogging, but even as a reader I simply wish for some quality books? I wholeheartedly agree ! The industry is just so crowded nowadays that readers should be demanding something different? With more effort? We keep being fed the same romantic tropes and we happily take it. Sigh.

      On a brighter note, thank you so much dude ❤ it means a lot, hope you enjoy my content.

      Liked by 1 person

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