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Romantic Tension

With examples ranging from Mo Dao Zu Shi
to North & South and Saga

Writing romance, I realised that the main stakes/tension come from knowing that the two main characters will get together, but not knowing how. The harder it is for the characters to get together, the stronger the dramatic tension.

Unfortunately, romance often has the obstacle between two characters getting together being poor communication. But if the two love interests are terrible at communicating, so much so that a minor hiccup completely derails their whole relationship, then how on earth will the couple deal with real issues that are bound to happen further down the line? That’s usually my biggest problem with the romance genre. I find it hard to root for two people to get together if I have a sense that they’re creating their own problems, or that they’re such poor communicators that they’ll never be able to have a healthy relationship, even once this particular misunderstanding is cleared.

So I thought I’d have a look at what other elements can drive romantic tension and which ones I feel work best, so we have a few tools in hand to write narratively satisfying romances.

(I will not explore how romance and gender interact in this piece. I do have some comments on how romance, especially mainstream heterosexual romance, furthers gender roles in sometimes toxic ways, but that would require a separate article.)


North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell (in the BBC mini-series adaptation of the novel) has the main character meeting her love interest when he’s hitting one of his factory workers. To me, that was a really interesting meet-cute, because how on earth do you move on from such a terrible first impression, even if he is charming and you have no communication troubles? Can he still persuade her he is a good person? What’s his story, excuses, explanations, and can he be forgiven enough to become a love interest? Sometimes, the worse the meet-cute, the better the love-story.

Saga, a graphic novel that plays with the romance/erotica genre (and with space opera, and a couple of other ideas, in very interesting ways) has a similar meet-cute. The couple meets when one is a prisoner of war, the other the prison guard. In a tongue-in-cheek scene, the moment when the female guard hits the male prisoner in the face with the butt of her gun has the caption “this is generally called the meet-cute”. Hard to see how they moved on from that, but we know they did, and we’re eager to learn more.

So terrible meet-cutes can drive the tension. It’s the same reason why ‘enemies to lovers’ is a popular romance trope – because it naturally drives the tension. We’re starting from a place where it’s hard to see the characters end up together. My ‘rivals to lovers’ arc in Belle-de-Nuit was, to me, the most fun relationship to write for that reason as well – because there was the added challenge of moving past the rivalry and first bad impressions into the romance.


Another option is to have external obstacles to the romance, rather than internal ones. The traditional example for this is Romeo & Juliet. What gets in the way of them being together isn’t that Romeo can’t communicate with Juliet (although, arguably, that is what kills them), but the fact that their families hate each other. Another very powerful story is If you could be mine by Sara Farizan, where two women – for whom it’s illegal to be together in Iran – have to face one of them being married off to a man. It’s heartbreaking in places, and terribly tense. I don’t want to spoil the end, but I’ll say that it's bittersweet, not the ‘happy ever after’ of traditional romances – but that’s what makes it a great book. It explores love, the obstacles to love, and how we may go beyond them, and when we cannot.


Sometimes stories have a mix of these elements, blending internal and external obstacles: in Mo Dao Zu Shi, the main couple can’t get together because the plot keeps getting in the way. One love interest practises demonic cultivation (aka necromancy), and the other is very strait-laced in his magic usage, and this drives them apart. But they also suffer some communication failures, around recognising their emotions before it’s too late, or just getting a chance to talk about them.


Although the story is rich with deeply detailed intrigue, the main arc of the series is a love story: when the external obstacles have been set aside, the two main characters get their happy end together. The tension of whether they’ll end up on the same side – or be forced to fight each other – drives most of the story.

I find that in my own writing, I like to explore mixed-race couples: how they overcome cultural differences, how those impact the relationship, what sort of compromises they find. Cultural barriers are both internal and external obstacles: external because they are imposed by a culture, internal because they often make up who the character is as a person. For example, with the relation between Tatters and Arushi in Tales of the Edge, I was interested in how Arushi’s culture and her people’s magic affected her view of sex and a romantic relationship. Some of their miscommunication is purely a cultural misunderstanding, where the characters are unaware that they aren’t working within the same assumptions. I find it especially interesting to think about how sex can go wrong, and how couples can negotiate it, despite it being such a charged emotional moment.


These cultural barriers can be rich to explore, and the more alien they are to us, the more the reader is challenged about their own assumptions about sex and intimacy. Xenogenesis by Octavia Butler is such a wonderful example, with many of the themes I strive to explore in my own writing. What happens if the aliens have sex differently, don’t understand gender in the same way, put humans ill-at-ease, talk at cross-purposes due to a lack of common ground? We’re not so much talking about romance now than relationships, how that affects not only lovers, but also parents, families, children.

To summarise, romance is driven by the tension between two characters. The readers are rooting for them to get together, but obstacles – either internal, external, or cultural – get in the way. The stories I like best, or that I find the most successful, go beyond the ‘happy end’ and explore the relationship further down the line, after the kiss/get-together scene. I want to see more romances where the obstacles to the love story are tangible, not just poor communication. And I want to see the couple overcome new obstacles further down the road, how they deal with trials and tribulations together, as an item.

18 Nov. 23

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