Have you ever noticed how different you feel and act when you are in love? The whole world opens up, flowers bloom like the first day of spring after a long winter, and you notice things that have always been there but suddenly appear like they are in technocolor after having watched black-and-white TV your whole life. Such is the heart inflame with love. When a romance writer’s characters are in love, the reader absolutely must feel it. For the reader to live vicariously through our characters, there must be a sense that life for our character in love is completely different in every way. In some ways, it’s like the difference between a junior high school dance and the senior high school prom.
Romance, whatever that word meant to a thirteen year old, was best expressed on a date to the junior high dance in my generation. For me, a date to the junior high dance typically went as follows. First, I would throw on a clean shirt, at least one that was nicer than what I had usually worn, and probably the same style of jeans and sneakers that I had worn in class. Then I would leave empty-handed. There was no gift for my date, just a nice demeanor. As I didn’t drive yet, my date and I decided to meet at the front door of the school, having gotten dropped off by our parents. We’d meet at the door with a “hey” and then go inside together, sometimes hand-in-hand, but very rarely. Once inside, we would usually talk together with our friends and then with each other, drink some punch, and then dance together. The slow dance was always the most anticipated, finally having the rare opportunity to lean close to each other. Certainly, there was some measure of excitement before that day, but it was fleeting, usually lasting until the time came to see her again after the dance.
As if that were a great date in and of itself, the better and far greater date – in fact, the ultimate dating experience for teens – came merely three years later in senior high school: the prom.
The senior high school prom stands in bold contrast to the meager junior high dance. Unlike the junior high dance where I would throw on a clean shirt and the same style of clothing that I had typically worn in class, the prom required formal dress, and for me, that meant a tuxedo. There was no simply throwing on clothes. This was a full ritual in the mirror, including straightening the bow tie and polishing the black shoes to the point of being able to see my own reflection, in anticipation of impressing the girl I had been too afraid to ask to the dance only several weeks earlier. For girls, this experience of getting ready for the prom could only be likened to her own future wedding preparation. Indeed, the prom catapulted the level of romance above and beyond the junior high dance. There was no getting dropped off by parents and meeting my date at the door. There was renting a sleek, stretched limousine, picking her up at her house by chauffeur, and seeing her for the first time in a formal dress and hairstyle that would never be seen in regular school hours. I would slide the perfect corsage to match her dress onto her wrist, and when we arrived at the prom, we would walk hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm into the dance, have our photo taken together, and smile like it was the greatest moment of our lives.
Regardless of whether you have had a positive or negative prom experience in high school, you may be able to relate. The difference between the junior high dance and the senior high prom is the same difference the romance reader must discover when he or she feels our character in love. Just as our character’s heart does, our writing must jump to an entirely new level in order for the reader to experience the elation of being in love.
The first technique that can be used to make this happen effectively is by using vivid, lively, dynamic descriptions that come from the heart. Imagine walking through a field on a spring afternoon. Are you walking or meandering? Are you strolling or moving your feet as if you are floating through blades of grass up to your knees? And what kind of field is it? A corn field that stretches green across the horizon as far as the eye can see, or is it a field of flowers with scents that would make perfumes jealous? And how do you feel? Does the very thought of him make butterflies in your stomach as real butterflies grace the blue sky in front of you, one of them landing on your finger, fluttering its wings like the sensation in your heart? It’s easy to make a few descriptive sentences of walking through a field. That’s the junior high dance. But the senior prom is to add bold visual images and emotions that the reader can experience and feel.
The second way in which the romance writer can make his or her reader feel that the characters are in love is to express that love through dialogue. How does your character sound when she is in love? Is she nervous and jittery? Is her voice hopeful, upbeat, alive? It may depend on how your character should react given her unique personality and how that emotion fits into the plot of your story at the time. Remember that words combined with actions make dialogue dynamic and expressive. She doesn’t have to use exaggerated hand gestures if it doesn’t fit her character, but she should act and move in ways that express her heart. To write lines of dialogue in quotes without actions may be fine with some authors, a technique of which Hemingway was a master, to leave the actions of the characters up to the imagination of the reader. But the romance writer seems to have a unique responsibility to express emotions through his or her characters. Have you ever muted a romantic movie that you really enjoyed and watched more than five minutes? Sure, it’s possible to read the subtitles and get the idea of the character’s emotions through body language, but turn on the sound and the viewer gets an entirely different experience all together. The soundtrack and score seek to add the feelings and emotions that can touch the viewer’s heart. Even the “silent” movies included music! Their intention was always to add emotion to what was happening in the story. For writers of romance, the “music” of our writing is the emotion of our characters expressed through their feelings and actions, not only the words they speak.
The final technique that a writer can use in order to make the reader feel that the main character is in love is by stepping into that character’s world of discovery. When our character is in love, she doesn’t just walk down a crowded city street. She notices things. She stops to watch the pink rose that has mysteriously bloomed out of an iron gate and stoops down to scoop it delicately in her hand and whiff its fragrance. Time has seemed to slow down for her in a way that makes her appreciate beauty all around her. A male character doesn’t just drive down the street in his dilapidated old clunker. Because his heart is alive with love, the old clunker becomes his dream car. He also hears things out the window that would go unnoticed to others. Children laughing and playing in the schoolyard, a dog barking and playing Frisbee in a nearby park, water sprinklers spraying the freshly mowed lawns. Details of the discovery only enhance what they are feeling and help the reader see that love opens our eyes to things that have always been there but we miss due to all of life’s distractions. Let your reader discover new possibilities because of love in his or her heart.
To recap, three ways that can catapult the reader’s experience from a good read to a sky’s-the-limit emotional ride is to include using dynamic descriptions that come from the heart, expressing the character’s love through a combination of dialogue and motion, and letting our characters discover new possibilities all around them. Obviously, everyone reacts differently when they are in love. Some characters do quirky things, which may help define who they are. However you decide to make your characters react, remember to keep in mind the guiding principle that love changes the way we perceive the world. The reader is affected when we are affected, but more specifically, when our characters are affected. One of my students once wrote that the most wonderful experience in the world is relaxing on a quiet afternoon, sipping tea, nibbling on a strawberry tart, and reading a romance novel. Why not make that experience for your readers touching and impressive, way beyond the mediocrity of the junior high dance? Why not take them to the prom?
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