conflict · romance · romance novels · writers · writing · writing tips

How to make a sweet romance break bad (and how to raise the tension)

Sweet romances are easy to read, but far from easy to write.  Writing sweet romances has given me an addiction to tea, a forehead wrinkled before my time, and an ability to out-snarl my dog if someone interrupts me when I’m concentrating.  In fact, although I write sweet romance, I sometimes have all the appearance of someone who has seriously broken bad.

helena fairfax, sweet romance, conflict
My sweet dog has been known to break bad

One of the things that deepens my frown lines more than anything else is trying to create some tension or conflict in my characters.  If you’re a crime writer, it must surely be easier to get your readers interested in your main protagonists. There are a wealth of character traits open to you, from serial-killer to hardnosed cop to sidekick with a cocaine problem

Us sweet romance writers are hampered from the kick off.  We have to have a hero and heroine who are fundamentally decent, honest people that anyone would be happy to fall in love with and stay married to forever.  I’m yawning already!

Of course readers want to have their happy ending – and I’m as big a fan of the HEA as anyone – but they don’t want the journey there to be just a series of predictable dates.  So as a writer it’s my job to raise the stakes and tension with every chapter and make that happy ending seem ever more impossible, so that readers can’t put the book down.

I’ve written before about creating conflict in romantic fiction, but have to admit with my present WIP I’ve been struggling to make my heroine do anything other than be perfectly pleasant and willing to fall in love.  But then just last week I had a complete EUREKA! moment, and now I’ve managed to make my heroine’s life a nailbiting misery.  Hoorah!

This was my lightblub thought:  What if the very character trait that makes my heroine an admirable person is the one that leads her to act in totally the wrong way?

Of course, that’s it!

You might be wondering how this could possibly be.  How can a virtue turn into a vice?  Well, that’s what I wondered, until I thought about it.  Then I came up with LOADS of examples.

Take the book I mentioned last week, for example.  In Laura Kinsale’s Flowers From the Storm, the heroine Maddy is a Quaker and impelled to tell the truth.  So what’s wrong with that?  Well, what if your friend asks you round for dinner, and the food is terrible?  Do you tell her?  Of course not! There’s an incident in Kinsale’s novel where Maddy’s honesty comes across as self-righteous priggishness, and leads to a terrible argument with the hero.

Here are some more ways that a deeply held, unquestioned strength can become destructive:

A bold character who is self-confident and resilient can become reckless and callous, unable to empathise with others.

A character who is friendly and always has a cheerful word for everyone can become ingratiating and unable to tell when they are crossing the line

A character who is modest and unassuming can become insecure and timid.

These are just a few examples, and the more I thought along these lines, the more I realised that subconsicously I had already created self-destructive characters in my two published novels:helena fairfax, sweet romance, conflict

In The Antique Love, the qualities Kurt most admires in Penny are her passion and vision.  Yet these very qualities also make her overly-romantic and a dreamer.  And as for Penny, she admires Kurt’s loyalty and steadfastness, but these are the very qualities that cause him to be fatally stubborn.

In The Silk Romance, Penny is very protective of her family, but this leads to her fatal decision to abandon the hero in France, and her inability to let him offer assistance where it is sorely needed.  And for the hero’s part, Jean-Luc is strong and reliable, but his strength make him unwilling to give in to his emotions, and makes him appear cold to the heroine.

A  great sweet romance should be an unpredictable and emotional roller-coaster for the reader.  By allowing virtues to grow into vices the writer can create a situation where it’s impossible to foretell how the story can be resolved happily – and so keep the reader turning pages right until the final end!

And so what virtue did I reverse in my present WIP?  Well, I’m superstitious and don’t like to say too much until I’ve written The End.  But it’s a good one.  I like how bad my heroine has become.  And I feel for the hero!

Do you like to read sweet romances, or do you prefer something grittier?  And if you do read sweet romances, do you have any examples of where the conflict kept you guessing right until the end?  If so, I’d love to hear them – I’m always on the lookout for books to read!

4 thoughts on “How to make a sweet romance break bad (and how to raise the tension)

    1. Thanks, Heather! I thought to myself “What is the one thing this heroine has going for her?”, and then I realised how that virtue could be her downfall. A lot of the time writing can be a hard slog, but it’s great when you get the answer all of a sudden, like a puzzle falling into place. Thanks for your comment!


  1. Thanks for posting about this topic. It is timely for me as I am in the midst of penning a sweet romance/mystery. And yes, it is TOO easy to make the character too sweet…so sweet and patronizing you don’t even care about her and slam the book shut/or click off the e-reader! Adding the tension certainly will make the story more of a page-turner. Now you’ve teased us about your next book…anxious to discover more about it!


    1. Hi JQ, you’re right, someitmes the characters in sweet romances are just too good to be true! I think the term is a “Mary Sue” character :) Good to hear you’re writing another romance/mystery. Your last kept me guessing til the end. Looking forward to reading the next!


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