We read romance because we want the happy ending – we want the hero and heroine to end up together. But you can’t rush it, you can’t make the path too easy with shortcuts on craft. Damon Suede is here to talk to us about how to create a story that keeps your readers on the edge until the very last page. Welcome, Damon!
JUST DESSERT: why a whole book can’t be a happy ending
At the risk of a pile of gross massage parlor jokes flooding my inbox, I’d like to talk about happy endings.
The romance genre has only two requirements: a story that focuses on a central relationship and a positive outcome. Over and over readers cite the absolute a priori certainty of a happily-ever-after as the big draw in popular romance fiction. A great ending can bring your readers back to a personal favorite over and over, not because they expect the story to somehow change but because the final outcome is so satisfying that they love revisiting the same emotional landscape.
That’s pretty amazing. Legendary author Jude Devereaux often points out in interviews the near-impossible challenge of creating fresh suspense, excitement, and surprise in a genre for which the finale is an absolute given before the reader even picks up your book.
That can create a serious pitfall for anyone who writes romance: a joyous union that’s never in doubt, perfect sunsets that begin on page one, commonly referred to in the fandom as Insta-love. Popular tropes like “love at first sight” or “fated mates” play on themes of choice, duty, and romantic compulsion…but they also run the risk of giving readers too much of a good thing.
The trap is completely logical. If your HEA is a foregone conclusion, if everyone just wants the sweet stuff, why not cut to the chase? The purpose of escapism is, after all, escape. Why even bother with all those pesky setbacks, complications, or disappointment? Why should any character ever suffer or question themselves? Who needs waffles when what folks want is butter and syrup?
Answer: because those things make a character relatable. We expect pebbles in shoes, even glamorous, fictional ones.
For my money, the greatest trap with this “fated/mated” trope is the elimination of tension. If instantaneous love becomes a source of calm instead of friction, then how can you muster stakes or escalation? In a mating plot, I’m generally leery of phrases like “soon to be lover” or “lover-to-be” in which the character presupposes the entire book, lest anyone experience a moment of doubt or debate regarding the inevitable joy. Unfortunately, nobody wants to read about the thrills of climbing a molehill. Drama cannot exist without doubt.
For the record, I can totally get down with the notion of “fated love” or “love at first sight” or (paranormal) “mates” if they’re handled with flair and precision. I’d argue that using the soulmates tropes sets an extremely high bar from the first page of a book because of the immediate need for suitable challenges. Great writing can make me dig pretty much any romantic permutation; then again great writing would never let characters luxuriate in happily-ever-afters that begin the moment they meet…just desserts to people who don’t actually deserve anything.
Fated relationships can (and should) churn a story’s world into drama and pathos. There are incredibly sexy, subtle novels predicated on a rapid connection between characters who must then grapple with a meaningful shift in their weighting of the world. That’s awesome, but again, tough as hell! If the protagonists are pasteboard, if their relationship is doodled, if their conflicts are rote, if their journey towards each other doesn’t transform them and their world, you’re selling your characters short. When you hear fans grumbling about unbelievable “perfect” characters (beauty, brains, AND billions!) they’re reacting to the same absence of friction that stifle engagement and belief. Half-sketched soulmates can start to seem like slick dolls unless they RELATE to their world and vice versa.
Isn’t that the point of romance?: we feel something because the characters do and it’s the authors’ job to get us there. The story you tell provides the ingredients for the happy ending you’re able to whip up; plan accordingly. Different writers and stories (and tropes) will fit different readers…but at core, connection (aka friction) is the lifeblood of every love story.
Now, lest anyone think I’m slagging off “fluffy” books I want to make it clear: I’m all for gentle, positive romances as long as love transforms the characters. The primmest inspirationals and frothiest rom-coms can be harrowing if they evoke real emotions. With fluffy stories, it’s not that we don’t know an HEA is on the way, it’s that we need to care about the characters for that HEA to have any kind of impact on us (or them). Unless the story presents stakes and the characters earn their ending, the satisfaction is nil.
I think one of the great appeals of paranormal and historical is that they permit narrative rules to be rewritten on an operatic scale, for loves to be believably larger than life. Humans love gorgeous spectacle, and much spectacle in the natural world (flora and fauna) is predicated on mating. (Hmmm. There’s something to think about!) Beware of shortcuts in the rush to “get to the good stuff.” Don’t sacrifice steak for sizzle or you’ll end up serving a gallon of canned dessert-topping that leaves everyone queasy.
So… if you’re writing a book that features soulmates, make sure that they have souls and are actually mated.For realz. Put in the work. Characters with soul reveal complex interior lives, subtle contradiction, real pain, and relatable aspirations. The concept of “mating” presupposes a complicated worldview (that needs illumination) and a fundamental belief about the importance of relationships that you’ll want to establish with specificity and weight.
Love at first sight and mated pairs are perennially popular for a reason: they’re hard to do well and thrilling when they work. Everyone knows Romeo & Juliet, very few people remember the Ephesiaca or the other antecedents. Shakespeare had serious chops and he knew that there are no shortcuts in relationships, even cosmically fated, biologically compelling, star-carved ones. “Journeys end in lovers meeting…”
Caveat scriptor! Love at first sight doesn’t absolve you of your responsibilities as a romance author. Or to put it another way, writing escapist fiction doesn’t mean you can get away from basic craft. For me the challenge with any romance is the friction: how does the relationship between the main characters change them (and their world) meaningfully, and how are they better for it? Friction requires contact and texture…so any bromide that polishes away bumps and sharp edges, any shortcut that minimizes struggle is working directly AGAINST the romance you’re writing.
Great destined relationships need to be a source of tortuous transformation for everyone involved, not just your lovers, but their community, their cohorts, and their adversaries. If you want that love-at-first-sight to be powerful then let it command as much of the world as you dare. For best results, keep an eye on the souls and the mates, both. Pour divine fire into your people and make sure their connection throws cinders off the page. Give your readers a real meal before you serve up the sweet stuff.
Unforgettable fiction changes its readers, and that means characters have to take them in unexpected, difficult directions. In a way, fated mates must work harder to fall in love. If your goal is a book your readers can’t put down, remember to delay the dessert and give your characters the Happily Ever After they truly deserve.
What books have you read that are unforgettable? How do you make your fiction something that locks onto your reader and doesn’t let go?
Friday – Co-founder Kelsey Browning is back at RU!
BIO: Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him on Twitter, Facebook, or at DamonSuede.com.
- Add Verbs: Creating Characters that Pop Off the Page by Damon Suede
- Weekly Lecture Schedule – July 21st to July 25th
- Anna Campbell on the Lure of the Familiar
- Romantic Nature and Sub-genres by Damon Suede
- Loucinda McGary presents: The Basic Ingredients – The 4 elements you need in addition to the HEA to write good romance.