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Taking the Cheesy out of Romance

January 6, 2012 by Kiersi

Taking the Cheesy out of Romance

I’ve probably already lost half my readers with this title (and matching picture), but I want to assure you that today’s how-to is anything but a tutorial on writing romance novels. Instead, it’s a tutorial about writing real life without scaring off fifty percent of your audience with hack vocabulary like “beautiful” and “kissing.”

Regardless of whether you have romance in your life or not, every person at some point will feel an attraction towards another, and being able to write these kinds of relationships without coming off like Nora Roberts or Danielle Steele is essential. Even if your book is a middle-grade action thriller, your young hero will undoubtedly interact with a cute girl during his journey. Today I want to give you the tools you need to write that encounter without making anyone blush.

Rule #1: Let the description tell the story. Avoid words like “pretty” and “handsome.” Let’s say our thirteen-year-old protagonist meets a girl that strikes his fancy. Calling her “pretty” comes off sounding cheesy and frankly, also kind of lame. Instead, try showing me why¬†she’s pretty. Here’s an example:

I first saw the General’s daughter when I was snooping around a cocktail party for clues. I’d disguised myself as a waiter, and I was eavesdropping on two society women when I saw a flash of red in my peripheral vision. Her hair was like fire burning its way down her shoulders, and when she looked at me, I saw that same fire reflected in sharp, blue-green eyes. The General quickly discovered I wasn’t a real waiter when I tripped over my own feet and spilled a platter of champagne all over his two most prominent guests.

He doesn’t tell us she’s pretty, or really anything about his feelings for her; he tells us instead about his reaction to her, and we’re left to play out the romance for ourselves. And trust me, my imagination is far more vivid than anything you could put down on paper.

Rule #2: Less is more. This rule is not easy to follow. As writers, we always feel the allure of telling our reader everything: what the room looks like, how the people gaze longingly at one another, and so on.

Instead, try focusing on key details, and let those details speak for themselves. Think about your own life, and your own romantic experiences: what do you remember most about your last romantic encounter? For me, it’s smell. I get a rush whenever I smell my boyfriend’s cologne on something. Other times, it’s touch. Sometimes a tiny gesture can make a big impact.

Always remember that you do not have to illustrate everything in painstaking detail. A sex scene can be reduced to a single line: “The rest is a warm, sweating 8mm film tape, running around and around, showing a bright orange image of two human silhouettes moving in continuous loop.” This both eliminates the blushing, and lets the reader’s imagination run wild.

Rule #3: Get creative with your descriptions. Ever heard the phrase, “Kissing is boring”? There’s so much more to romance than just kissing, I can’t even begin to describe it. Give your readers meaningful details, details that aren’t obvious. We all know what a French kiss is, so don’t bother describing it; instead, tell us why that kiss stands out among the rest. Remember that everything has been done before, so you’ll have to really work at it to come up with something original.

Dominic was a good kisser, as kissing went. He had good lips–full ones, that ate food carefully, so they were always clean and rarely chapped.

Rule #4: Don’t stray too far from reality. Let’s face it: nobody’s life is a Disney movie. The story doesn’t stop when vows are spoken, the white veil is pulled back, and the bride and groom go in for the kiss. That’s just when life begins!

Use this to your advantage. Find meaning in the mundane. Love isn’t an epic journey across Middle Earth; it’s tolerating (and even coming to appreciate) the other person’s strange tics and odd habits. It’s small gestures, common interests, and obviously, physical attraction.

So don’t sell your work short and call your heroine beautiful. Instead, tell us about her fierceness, or the curve of her neck as it becomes her collar bone, or how her voice is tough but cracks when she gets angry. These are what real life is made of.

Good luck!


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