| Don’t Write Alone
Notes on Craft The Art of Romantic Tension
For our Romance Week series, novelist LaQuette shares essential lessons on building narrative tension by manipulating your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts.
When we think of romance, we often think of chemistry. Do the characters make readers feel as if the love interests can be together? Do they make you want to root for them? If the answer to either of those questions is yes, then I’ve got news for you. It’s not the chemistry that’s making you want to cheer loud for these protagonists. Well, it’s not chemistry alone. What’s really making the reader cheer for the characters we write is chemistry, coupled with GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) and tension.
Tension is the emotional or situational pressure applied to the protagonist(s) that often forces them to confront their issues, heartaches, and perspectives. It comes in two varieties: external tension and internal tension. They both work hand in hand to raise the stakes where the characters’ emotions are involved, as well as helping to move the plot forward.
External tension focuses on the situation and helps to develop the story line. In romance, we often refer to external tension as the pinch points of the story, where the situations the characters find themselves in become markedly more uncomfortable.
For example: Protagonist 1 wants the promotion, but to get the promotion, they must work with their boss’s entitled offspring—whom they can’t stand—to be considered for the job. It’s a give-and-take situation that means the character must do something they hate to get the thing they want.
Internal tension makes characters emotionally uncomfortable. It’s what romance writers call “poking the wound.” Whatever their emotional wound is, you make the character confront it in order to make an emotional breakthrough. But before they can make that breakthrough, they must fight through their emotional darkness to get to the light at the end.
For instance, let’s say Protagonist 2 doesn’t trust people. As a result, they refuse to ask for help because they’ve been let down and left to feel abandoned by the people they love. However, to make the relationship in the story work, they must trust/lean/depend on their partner for the emotional well-being of the relationship. That emotional pull back and forth creates thick tension and angst. Tension and angst make readers turn the page.
How do you poke the emotional wound? The simplest way to do this is to create events and actions that consistently scrape at the things that hurt or bother the protagonists the most. This is how you force your characters to confront their emotional issues, and what increases the tension even more than making them confront their emotional issues is making them do it when they don’t want to.
Knowing what tension does is one thing. Knowing how to use it is something altogether different. You don’t want to seem like you’re throwing emotional or situational grenades at your characters just to create drama. If you do that, the tension and the emotional response will feel contrived, and readers will pull away from the story. It’s why some people hate soap operas: They feel the tension is manufactured and the story lines are repetitive.
Now, I love soap operas. But, after watching the Brooke Logan, Ridge Forrester, Taylor Hayes love triangle go on and on for over thirty years in The Bold and the Beautiful , I can also see why some viewers would feel soap story lines are contrived. The truth is, you can almost set a timer for when the story line will go into a new cycle: Ridge inevitably leaves Brooke for doing something he deems unethical and runs to Taylor to find his moral foundation again. Not that you asked me, but I’ve always been a Ridge/Taylor fan. They’re just a better fit, in my opinion. I will die on that hill.
So how do we intensify our tension, raising our stakes without creating unnecessary drama that will pull your reader out of the story? How do we create an interesting emotional arc that will keep our readers turning pages? We must understand and know how to use GMC.
GMC, defined as goal, motivation, and conflict, is absolutely necessary to increase the emotional and situational pressure on characters organically.
Goal: What the characters believe they want most in life.
Motivation: The reason they want to achieve the goal.
Conflict: Why they can’t have the thing they want. Or, in the case of a romance, why the love interests can’t be together.
GMC reveals the full emotional arc of the characters. It’s essentially a road map that helps authors figure out how to put their characters in emotionally triggering situations to help them grow and evolve emotionally so they can overcome their conflict. If chemistry is the feelings the characters share for one another, tension is the circumstances we put them in to raise the stakes and create pressure points. Raising the stakes is much more than putting them in uncomfortable situations or making things harder. To do so organically, the author must be keenly aware of each character’s goal, motivation, and conflict—and find out a way to leverage both a circumstantial and emotional consequence to the choices they are making, be they good, bad, or ugly.
The ultimate tension point in romance is “the black moment.” It’s the moment where everything falls apart, where the lovers are about to lose it all if they can’t figure out how to confront their emotional issues and move forward. At this point of the story, the black moment must reveal the character’s full emotional arc. It must show the reader not only how far the characters have come from the beginning but also how much more they still must give if they really want to find and keep love.
Let’s look at the character arcs from my book One Night Expectations .
Amara Devereaux-Rodriguez’s GMC
Internal Goal (emotions): to prove to her grandfather she’s as good an attorney as her mother.
External Goal (situations or behaviors exhibited): to be chosen by her grandfather as his successor as lead counsel for Devereaux Inc.
Internal Motivation (emotions): Her grandfather constantly compares her to her mother professionally, unknowingly making her feel less accomplished.
External Motivation (situations or behaviors exhibited): She’s worked harder than anyone else in the family business, and she wants her efforts rewarded.
Internal Conflict (emotions): Her grandfather believes she’s too impulsive and too easily motivated by making money to put the company in her hands, which reinforces her fears that she’s not good enough.
External Conflict (situations or behaviors exhibited): Because of a momentary lapse in judgment and by indulging in pettiness, she becomes inextricably involved with a man that can ruin her career.
Looking at Amara’s character arc, we can see that her emotional wound is feeling as if she doesn’t measure up to her mother’s accomplishments in the eyes of her grandfather. This wound causes her to act in certain ways to prove her worth. What are Amara’s tension triggers? They are shown in any situation where she feels like she needs to show her grandfather that she’s every bit, if not more, the lawyer that her mother was. How do we use this information to increase tension? We use GMC to organically force our characters to make decisions based on avoidance of their emotional wound. Then, once they make a decision, we put them in a situation that forces them to face the consequence of their decision.
Whenever Amara’s grandfather inadvertently does or says something that makes her question her worth, her response is to do something bold—which includes possibly risky business deals—to yield the most substantial results. That she cannot grasp the way she’s going about things because she’s so focused on the results is part of the reason her grandfather doubts her suitability for the leadership role in the company. What becomes her tension trigger? When her grandfather finally denies her the coveted promotion, she later engages in risky behavior. That risky behavior is a knee-jerk reaction to her grandfather’s lack of faith in her.
To make herself feel better and to get a bit of petty revenge, when an accidental meeting with Lennox Carlisle, the city councilman involved in the company’s development deal, presents itself, Amara doesn’t reveal her identity and engages in a one-night stand with him. She thinks nothing of it because her grandfather has already pulled her off the deal and made it clear she would have nothing to do with its execution. The problem, and therefore tension, arises when her grandfather later reconsiders and gives her a probationary run at the leadership role, which puts her smack dab in the middle of the deal with the councilman. She’s finally getting what she wants: the provisional promotion. But now she must deal with the fact that she’s possibly put the entire deal, and therefore her position, at risk because of her unwise actions. Here’s a look at Lennox’s character arc to see how we can use his GMC to increase tension for him and for the story line overall.
Lennox Carlisle’s GMC
Internal Goal (emotions): to become a leader in his community just like his dad.
External Goal (situations or behaviors exhibited): He’s running to become the next Mayor of NYC.
Internal Motivation (emotions): to connect with his late father and continue his dad’s legacy of being a voice for the voiceless in his community.
External Motivation (situations or behaviors exhibited): to stop gentrification while being an advocate for underrepresented groups in the city.
Internal Conflict (emotions): Afraid of reliving the pain of loss, he refuses to get close to anyone.
External Conflict (situations or behaviors exhibited): becoming romantically entangled with the person whose development company plays a large role in perpetuating the gentrification problem in his city during his election campaign.
Lennox is still grieving the loss of his beloved father. To feel closer to him, he carries on his father’s work of public service in their Brooklyn community by running for mayor of New York City. Lennox’s main issue is that he’s watched his mother crawl into a cocoon of despair after their family suffers this significant loss. As a result of watching her spirit die slowly from grief, he’s determined to never become so attached to someone that he can’t live without them.
So how do we poke Lennox’s emotional wound? I forced him to care about someone, even when he didn’t want to. Lennox’s emotional tension triggers are agitated when he discovers Amara’s identity—and then finds out their one-night stand led to an unplanned pregnancy. Knowing what a wonderful relationship he had with his own father, he can’t just ignore his believed responsibility to Amara and this child. Not to mention, he’s in the middle of an election campaign, and if the circumstances of Amara’s pregnancy become public knowledge, it could affect his candidacy, as well as spark a collusion scandal because of Amara’s position as head of the company his current office must do business with. If any of this happens, he’ll fail his father, fail his community, and lose both his current office and the election. The tension in this situation has become so elevated because it’s a direct result of manipulating Lennox’s GMC.
Good, compelling, organic tension in romantic fiction is only achieved when it’s attached to the character’s emotional arc. From the inciting incident to the black moment, using the character’s emotional wounds will escalate and complicate tension in a believable and organic way. By keeping up this intentional method of connecting tension to the characters’ GMCs, by the time you get to the black moment, you’ll end up creating a situation where the black moment brings the protagonist(s) full circle from their original emotional construction. If they were afraid of being abandoned, they must face possible abandonment again and fight through it to find their happiness.
Essentially, this will force the characters to make a choice between who they were at the beginning of the story, before encountering these increased tension pressure points, versus who they want to be now, after walking through the emotional fire the author has built by raising the stakes at every natural opportunity available.