Hello everyone! This is a different post than other things I’ve posted here normally, but I have been pondering this question a lot to myself as of late.
What makes a good romance in a story?
While I understand that this answer may also depend on each person’s preference for what they love about a romance in a story, I have considered this for some time based on my own likes and dislikes when it comes to the relationships and angst I find in a lot of the books I read.
And I have come to a couple of conclusions that have helped me understand why some books I feel like the relationship isn’t giving me all the feels or don’t feel as genuine to me because it’s so sudden.
Please feel free to give your thoughts in the comments below! I know this is based solely on what I love about romances and not at all a blanket description for everyone. But maybe you will find some clarity as to why certain books just feel like the characters come alive to you and their relationships (or relationship drama) keep us on our toes.
I don’t know if it’s all of us, but one thing I find that keeps romances entertaining is when there’s a challenge in being together. The angst is real when you want it to work, but there are obstacles to such love and/or relationship.
The first one up being…
Forbidden love (the whole world against you being together)
Who doesn’t think this is the trope that makes you want to scream for the love interest to get together with the protagonist? There is a deeper romantic sense to the relationship BECAUSE something and/or someone is keeping you apart.
This is a very common trope as old as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. When done well, it can be featured in some of the greatest love stories.
While this may be a controversial example, one of the most popular books of this century was Twilight. I absolutely adored it when I first read the book back in 2007 (before all the craziness that came with this series). In fact, I think it helped propel YA, particularly fantasy, to what it is now. And much of the craze came from the forbidden romance between a mortal girl and a vampire. I personally loved it back then because of the connection built between the characters but the knowledge that such a relationship would not work out even though I wanted it with my whole being. (Sorry, yes, I was Team Edward).
A more recent example would be Kerri Maniscalco’s Kingdom of the Wicked with a particularly devilish Prince of Hell and a good girl who was taught never to fall prey to their temptations. Yes, it doesn’t look like it would work at all in paper, but their fraught relationship bordering flirting and tolerating one another is THE perfect tension that gets to me.
Speaking of which, this trope can and does include the bad boy trope. There’s just something very alluring in a bad boy sometimes, hmm? I mean, might not be for everyone, but it definitely works for a number of people. Katie McGarry’s Walk the Edge is one such example of a bad boy in a bike gang interacting with a good girl in his high school. I personally loved how it built from a non-existent relationship into something that felt real as they got to know one another, even though people in their lives didn’t want them together.
But of course, there are other examples for relationships not immediately working out. Such as…
Unrequited love (including the best friends to lovers trope)
Did I mention this is one of my favourite romance tropes? There is just the right amount of heartache and angst, with the hope for a happily-ever-after in some way, that just gets to me. Most people can’t do this trope wrong for me – unless of course it ends badly and then I want to throw something…
It is no surprise then that some of my favourite books feature this trope.
Love, Life and the List was THE best friends to lovers book in my heart. What do you do when this might change absolutely everything, including your mutual friends’ dynamics? And when you’ve known someone for some time, would they even think of you differently if you suddenly develop different feelings? It’s a lot of what-ifs and potential hurts, risking heart and friendships along the way, that make for great relationship drama in a book.
But most of all, what I love about this trope is that it’s relatable. How many of us have ever liked someone but felt it was unrequited? How many of those people were someone we considered a friend, but we wanted something more? I personally have been in that situation many times. It feels realistic to me to see such developments in fiction, unlike insta-love and strong feelings that just seem to appear out of nowhere.
Likewise, Stephanie Perkins’ Isla and the Happily Ever After fits the same bill with our protagonist having liked the same guy throughout high school. But he had a girlfriend, until now. This particular example navigates the challenges of such a relationship realistically, including the baggage that sometimes comes from our previous relationships. The drama isn’t forced or unnecessary, and the way it is worked out makes for epic love stories.
Then there is the flip side to this when…
Falling in love with the person who’s always loved you
This is more unusual and I haven’t seen it featured much, but I personally enjoy this take on romance. The book generally sets up this one love interest that the protagonist really wants to get together with. However, through the course of the story, you realize they’re not a good fit and maybe the reasons were always more superficial than love.
Then of course, you turn around and realize someone has always loved YOU and you never noticed. And this is the perfect person for you instead all along. There is still drama but it too feels realistic because these are people in their lives and it takes a bad relationship to realize what (and who) you’re really looking for.
The only examples I have for this reverse unrequited love trope is Hot British Boyfriend and The Best Laid Plans. Both I really adored and I could feel that the “main” love interest wasn’t right for the protagonist. It made it more enjoyable to see how the right person was there all along, if only she noticed. (P.S. if you know a better way of calling this trope, please let me know).
Enemies to lovers (will they turn hate to love?)
I had to touch on this trope because it seems to be one of the most popular romance tropes out there, and for good reason. Personally, I think some books can be great but there is a fine balance where hate just doesn’t realistically turn into love.
Both of these titles feature protagonists who have some reason (may not be the best reason) for not getting along, but circumstances throw them together that allows them to understand each other in a new way. This trope brings some of the highest romantic tensions because, well, there’s a lot of fighting and snarkiness and general tension going around. But when it does turn romantic, and one can definitely feel it because these people don’t hate each other for real for the right reasons, it’s just amazing!
And this trope isn’t just limited to contemporaries to be done well. Fantasies have definitely featured great romances too, hence the popularity.
Serpent & Dove and Ruined are such examples. I’m sure I don’t have to go too in-depth with these as people love these romances for a reason.
I personally think they can be great if written well, but sometimes, the balance between love and hate just is crossed and it definitely seems more like real hate that can’t so easily jump to love.
One such example is What’s Not to Love. I mean, there is a lot not to love about the way the two protagonists went at each other all the time. It went beyond high school rivalry to literally sabotaging each other or rearranging your schedule so you don’t have to interact. It just doesn’t seem believable for such people to not only suddenly get along with one another, but to fall in love? I don’t know about you, but I can’t root for that. There are some deep-seated issues that need to be dealt with (like communication!) before non-toxic love can come into the picture.
And the last trope is also controversial but I thought should be added…
Love triangles (you either hate ‘em or love ‘em)
I personally can’t stand this trope (sorry, authors who love this), but I always end up falling so hard for the person that the protagonist may not choose in the end. I rather save all the heartache and just know who she ends up with earlier.
Plus, some of the greatest amount of drama occurs in such books BECAUSE there is more than one person someone is attracted to at the same time. I used to think this was not realistic, but I suppose it can be true for some people.
But whether you hate them or adore them, it clearly works as it makes for good misunderstanding stages of a love story. It seems miscommunication or love triangles are the way to go in the predictable romance story formula.
There are so many books out there that fit this trope (I will post something later down the road featuring books that have this), but for now, some of the greatest examples include Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices series and Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ The Inheritance Games series. (Just going to note: Team Will, Team Grayson. In case that’s of interest).
I think this trope works because people cheer for the one they like more, or some just love seeing the drama unfold as inevitably someone will get hurt when they are not chosen by the one they love. Sometimes it’s used badly when it is portrayed, particularly in the middle book, to add drama in the main relationship that was established in the previous book (I’m looking at you P.S. I Still Love You).
All in all, these are the things I’ve observed in romances. And these are what I found I like in the books and series I have adored over the years. I don’t know if it’s the books I’ve been reading lately that just don’t write romance the way I want or there isn’t enough (realistic) drama to get me invested in the relationship. But these ARE the things I do love and I wanted to throw that out there in case I’m not alone in such feelings.
If you have any thoughts about what makes a good romance, please comment below! I love to hear from you and this topic is clearly something I’ve dwelled on for a while.
Thanks for reading! xx