Monday, December 23, 2013

How to build a romance thread in your story, Tangled style

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

Couple quick notes:

1. This will be the last post until Wednesday, January 1st.

2. Go Teen Writers rewards will be closed between today and Monday, January 6th. You can still be earning points, but I won't be responding to rewards emails until Monday, January 6th. If you want to email me what you're doing just so you don't forget, that's fine. I just won't be responding until the 6th.

I love the movie Tangled, so it was very exciting to me when my daughterwho's very tenderhearted and gets a wee bit emotional about movieswas finally feeling brave enough to watch it. The result is I've now seen Tangled about five times in the last few months because it's become her favorite movie.

Something that story does incredibly well is develop the relationship between Rapunzel and Flynntwo characters who have never met. If you've ever tried to have two characters meet on the page and grow in their friendship or romantic interest of each other, you know the pacing is super tricky. Too slow and you bore the reader. Too fast and it feels unrealistic and forced.

So when we watched Tangled last week for McKenna's birthday, I tried to analyze how the writers built the relationship. (In Tangled, it's a romantic relationship, but this list could be adapted for a story of friendship as well.)

1. We see the characters in their comfortable home worlds.

Rapunzel is in her tower dreaming of seeing floating lanterns and Flynn is on the run from the law. (And loving it. "Oh, the things we've seen, and it's only eight in the morning!") We get a glimpse of who they are as individualstheir strengths, dreams, and needs.

The traditional romance has at least two point of view (POV) characters, the heroine and the hero. Some also have one or two other POVs sprinkled in. If you're only telling your story from one POV, you at least want to know about your other character's starting place or home world.

2. The characters' worlds collide.

Flynn stumbles upon Rapunzel's tower. Rapunzel smacks him in the face with a frying pan. 

If you have a story that involves two characters meeting on the page, you want to give a lot of thought to the when, how, where, and why of the scene where they meet.

In Me, Just Different, Skylar meets Connor right after she's had a traumatic experience that has left her mistrusting of guys. In This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen, Remy meets Dexter when she's up to her eyeballs in details for planning yet another wedding for her mother. We've just gotten a glimpse of Remy's skepticism that real love exists in the world when Dexter approaches her.

3. Their paths merge and they are forced to stick together.

In Tangled, Rapunzel formulates a plan to have Flynn take her to see the floating lanterns. The stakes are high for her because she has always wanted to see the lanterns and she literally knows nobody except her mother. The stakes are high for Flynn because Rapunzel has hidden the crown he stole. In his heart, he's a good guy, so rather than hurt or intimidate Rapunzel, he chooses to take 24 hours to help her on this adventure.

Those stakes are really important for a quest style novel. If you're not writing a quest novel, then the stakes don't need to be high like that, they just need to make sense. In Twilight, Bella and Edward are partnered in science class. In Me, Just Different Connor is dating Skylar's best friend, so the two of them are forced to spend time together. In 11/22/63 by Stephen King, Jake and Sadie are both teachers at the small town high school.

4. The pair is put through a test. 

They must stick together to survive it. During this test, information about the other comes out.

In Tangled, while at a pub, Flynn is recognized by the thugs and they want to turn him into the authorities. Rapunzel goes out on a limb and reveals her desperation and her dream to the group in an effort to save Flynn.

During this test, Flynn learns that Rapunzel has more strength than he thought and that she's dreamed of the lanterns her entire life. Rapunzel learns that Flynn is a wanted man and that he's driven by a desire for riches.

5. The action slows long enough for the pair to process what happened.

This is a really important step that I often forget in my first drafts. The reader needs to see that the pair has gelled, that they trust each other a bit deeper because of the test they just survived.

In Tangled, this moment comes in the tunnel after the pair has escaped the Snuggly Duckling. Flynn expresses admiration for how Rapunzel got them out of there. We also see that he is suddenly more interested in her story than he was before.

This scene is critical to the pacing of developing the relationship because it helps to reveal the change that is taking place inside the characters. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which is not a romance, but is also a quest style story with relationships that deepen) these scenes often take place when the group is making camp for the night or stopping for a meal. The story would lose relational depth if those moments had been left out.

6. The pair is put through another test, one that is more intense than the previous. This can be a "big middle scene" and involves some kind of turning point or revelation.

In the next test, Rapunzel and Flynn are trapped in a cave that's filling with water. Thinking they're about to die, Rapunzel and Flynn reveal secrets about themselves. Flynn shares his real name and Rapunzel admits that she has magic hair that glows when she sings.

7. Again, the action slows long enough for the pair to process the test they went through.

This allows for a moment of vulnerability. Rapunzel makes herself vulnerable by using her magic hair and saying she had never before left her tower. Flynn shares about his sad childhood and how he became who he is. And because of what they just went through together, we can understand why they're revealing these secrets to each other.

8. One of them is offered a chance to leave this path, but they choose to stay on it. This time for different reasons than originally.

Around this time Mother Gothel arrives and encourages Rapunzel to leave and come home with her. Originally when Rapunzel set out, all she cared about was seeing the floating lights. Flynn was to act as her guide—to take her to see the lights and to return her to her tower.

But now Rapunzel has been through a lot. She feels something for Flynn, and she's survived quite a bit since she started on her journey. Both these things give her the strength she needs to tell Mother Gothel that she won't be going back with her.

I like when characters are given a chance to undo a choice. When it's done well, it can really add to a story.

9. A glimpse of the happily ever after.

For a romance thread, this is a necessary building block for making your reader root for these two to be together. In Tangled, it's Flynn and Rapunzel enjoying the festivities and setting out on the boat to watch the lanterns. In The Hunger Games, it's Katniss and Peeta in the cave. In Pride and Prejudice (the movie version with Kiera Knightley) it's when Elizabeth and her Aunt and Uncle spend the day at Mr. Darcy's house, and we see them laughing together.

This scene is very effectively followed with:

10. The couple is ripped apart.

This is a third test, but this one they must go through as individuals. Often one of them doesn't have the whole story, and that's used against them. Sometimes neither person has the whole story.

In Tangled, the Stabbington brothers make it look like Flynn abandoned Rapunzel and she doubts that she knew him at all.

11. Each character is pushed back into their old world.

I really love this element of the Tangled story, and I've started noticing it in other stories as well. I think it makes the happy ending resonate stronger.

Rapunzel is taken back to the tower under the overbearing watch of Mother Gothel. Flynn is mixed up with the Stabbington brothers again and lands in jail. They each lived this life for years, but they've changed and now it chafes.

In the 2005 Pride and Prejudice adaptation, we have those lovely scenes where Elizabeth is back home and increasingly agitated with her family. She wants out of there—and she's pretty sure she threw away that opportunity months ago.

12. A rescue mission and final test.

I like how in Tangled, Rapunzel and Flynn take turns rescuing each other. He comes to her tower, but then he gets fatally wounded. She makes a deal to save him, and then he sacrifices himself to give her ultimate freedom.

Or in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy rescues the entire Bennett family by convincing Mr. Wickham to marry Lydia instead of just tarnishing her reputation and also by encouraging Mr. Bingley to try again with Jane.

13. The black moment.

This is where it looks like the odds might be too stacked against the couple for them to survive. Like when Flynn dies and Rapunzel's magic hair is gone. There's no chance now for them to have a happily ever after, is there?

Or in The Hunger Games, when it's announced that two people from the same district can't win, that there has to be one winner. Now to win, Katniss will have to kill Peeta. There's no possible way they can both survive this, is there?

14. Surprise!

And then we get that lovely, creative surprise of Rapunzel weeping magical tears. Hooray!

In The Hunger Games, Katniss beats the game by threatening to leave the Capitol with no winner. Quickly, the rule that was just reversed is now unreversed.

15. Togetherness achieved!

The reader (or viewer) need that glimpse of the happily ever after to leave them feeling like the journey was worth it. 

In a book that has a sequel, like The Hunger Games, that final scene between the couple can also set the mood for the next book.

In your stories, have you had two characters who meet on the page and become close? Do you have additional tips to share on what has worked for you?


  1. Wow! I have this love interest in my story and I couldnt' exactly find out why it wasn't working the way I wanted to. It felt forced. I like how you put this out there Stephanie and for sure I'll try and get some of this into my story to see if I can get a better build up for those two characters. Thank you!

    Also: Happy Holidays! I'll be looking forward to the return of GTW ^^

    1. Happy holidays to you too, Arlette! Glad you enjoyed the post :)

  2. Love it!:) tangled is such a great movie and you gave me some good things to think over.

  3. . . .
    My romantic relationships fail. Epically. Though I guess none of them have gone very far. Thanks for the interesting post! Merry Christmas!

  4. *applause* Thank you for this post, Stephanie. It was really good.

    I actually have a term for what happened in the end of Tangled with Flynn being dead. It's called Magic of Disney Death. It happens in so many Disney movies (especially the princess ones) where one of the couple is dead then is revived by a kiss or something from the other. I don't think we'd like Disney as much, though, if they didn't do this.

    ~Robyn Hoode

    1. Magic of Disney Death - I love it! I thought they got super creative with how Rapunzel revived Flynn, so kudos to them for that.

  5. I love Tangled! :-) This post was really good, thank you, Mrs. Morrill!
    I hope Connor is doing ok, and you'll have a peaceful Christmasz (or at least peaceful health-wise...)
    Yeah... I don't know if romance is exactly my thing... Or at least for this story, because my MMC dies not even halfway through it, and the girl won't realize she loved him until later, so... Haha.
    Merry Christmas!

    1. We haven't been to the ER for 2 1/2 days, so life is feeling pretty good right now ;) Thanks for thinking of him.

    2. From Amo Libros:
      Oh good! Well keep praying!

  6. I literally squealed when I saw the title of this post. Thanks so much!
    Tangled is definitely one of my favorite movies. I love how you laid this all out so clearly. It might be a bit tricky to work into my book, since I actually have three love interests, but I think I should probably apply this to only the one who she actually ends up with, right? The first one is only in the first five chapters and dies in the second book. The second is through the whole series, but he lives in a different time period and they can't be together; and the third is the apprentice of my antagonist who haunted her for years, and actually, who she ends up with. I didn't know it would end up that way myself when I was writing it. It was rather peculiar.
    Thanks again for this post. Merry Christmas!

    1. Yes, if you have a few potential matches, this could get tricky. I think it works well in Tangled because there's just one and they're on a literal journey together. But maybe brainstorming how to apply a couple of their techniques to your story could be a fun exercise?

  7. THIS IS SUCH A GOOD POST. I REALLY NEEDED THIS. I tried one romance and failed, but I couldn't figure out why. But I know now: I had them interested in one another too soon and fast. Thank you!

    1. A very common problem, Emma. Sometimes you have to figure out how to chuck a few more obstacles in their path!

  8. Thank you! This post is so helpful, and it really helps to have the Tangled examples. I'll be sure to use these steps while building my story's romance. Merry Christmas!

    1. Glad it was helpful, Jillian. Merry Christmas to you too!

  9. This is a brilliant post! Whenever I *try* to write a romance, it's terrible. Thanks!

    Tabby (

    1. Hopefully this will help! Romances are certainly more complex than they appear to be at first glance.

  10. Cool. This is soooooo helpful, even though I don't really write romance. I have a teeny bit of a romantic relationship between two MCs though, and it's such a relief to see I'm doing something at right at least ;)

    I'll miss you, GTW...but have a nice holiday(s)! :)

    1. Hooray for doing something right! Always a good feeling :)

  11. Well this brought joy. And already I'm stealing it to plot out two romance threads... :D Spectacular, though.

  12. Excellent post!!
    I only put romance in my novels if necessary because romance can actually be a take away from a novel. I love how LOTR did it. Arwen and Aragorn did love and care for each other, but Tolkien didn't let it become overkill.
    For the most part, I don't read or write anything romantic because it is clear from the beginning whether or not they'll make it together or not (Of course, when I write I already know).
    And teen novels drive me nuts with romance!! There are way more interesting things to write about than dating.

    1. Hmm. I think it's best for writers to write about what interests them and that there's no such thing as superior genres. Even at 30, I really like YA novels with romance in them. I also like novels without. Mostly, I just like good stories :)

  13. Loved this post, Steph. I printed it out. :-)

  14. I love Tangled....
    This is a wonderful post and I'm so glad I've read it even though I don't write romance. ;)
    Has your daughter or you seen Frozen yet? Watch for Rapunzel and Flynn, they're in there. :)


  15. This was a spectacularly helpful post! Thank you so much!! And I hope both you and Jill have a blessed Christmas!!!

  16. My romance thread follows this EXACTLY.....except my story ends with the romance in the black moment. It doesn't end happily. But that's okay, I'm more of a fan of sad stories than sappy romances.

  17. Thank you so much for taking the time to make a post like this! I always seem to have problems when trying to establish a relationship between two characters, I seen now that it is because I was missing a few crucial steps.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Years to both of you! I hope you have a great time :)

  18. It's like story structure... but for friendship/romance! Thanks Stephanie!

    In terms of the forming of fictional friendships, I've always loved the scene were Harry, Ron, and Hermione become friends--the boys couldn't stand Hermione, until they save her from a troll, and they become inseparable. :D

    1. From Amo Libros: And Hermione bends a couple of rules so they don't get blamed - considering the fact the just saved her. I think that's part of what really clinches the friendship.

    2. Especially since this is Hermione we're talking about, who *hates* breaking rules!

  19. This is an awesome story structure! I can see some of these elements in my own stories, and I will work to add the others when possible. Great idea! Thank you!

  20. I actually think that I've done pretty well on these 15 steps. I could use improvement, but I'm amazed that my romance actually followed some sort of plan when I really had no idea there was a plan. . . .

  21. I LOVE this post. I'm bookmarking it for future reference. My romances that I write seem to suck. Usually, because the couple never get together, and I only ever hint that they could be together, but probably won't be because they're too busy fighting for world domination/curing illness/eating. I'm going to see if I can fill in all these steps for one of my books... Thank you!!

  22. Thanks for this post, I do have a lot of romance in my books, sometimes it comes as a surprise for me when all of a sudden two characters seem closer than I intended them to be. But, I love it anyway, the joy of writing is a gift I'm thankful for. : )
    Merry Christmas everyone and Happy New Year!!


  23. At first, I found it tricky to build up my characters' romantic relationships with one another. Once, I went too fast. Another time, I went too slow. I've noticed I never slowed the action down before(mainly because I write modern romances and there are no such things as white horses that know how to use swords and chameleons that stick their tongues in ears), but now that you mention it...
    Thanks for the advice!
    And about the Magic Disney Death: I agree, but Frozen is one of the few exceptions where it's done amazingly. (That's because Anna and Elsa's relationship is the center of the story)

  24. Nice article!
    P.S. I got the Go Teen Writers book for Christmas!!! :D

  25. :) I did too!! (well, the paper back one...) It is soo good you guys... ;)

  26. This is perfect. Really really perfect. This will help me so much. Thanks, Stephanie! Plus also Tangled is one of my favourite movies.

  27. i just have to say... i got the go teen writers book for christmas.. and i am sooooo impressed!!!! i just love the feeling when you put down a writing book like this one, and you feel so inspired, like you could write anything you wanted...and you know how to do it! It has answered soooo many of my questions already! :)

  28. Thanks so much for this post! I've noticed that my WIP is set up to include many of these elements, without me being aware of it. I've always been scared of really getting into writing a romance, because I didn't think I could do it right/make it convincing. This post will really help. Thanks!

  29. Thank you so much for this post! It was exactly what I needed! I just started to introduce my love interest, but I didn't exactly know how to write out the relationship. Oh, and I was wondering, How do you make the personal pictures for your blog post? A friend and I just started a blog, so I thought I ought to ask!
    Emily Kap.

  30. This is just what I needed!
    My book is romance and one thing I found helped me is making the characters different from each other and also making them enemies. I find it helps to show the change in the characters. In my story, it's an FBI Agent who falls in love with an assassin who killed his brother. Through the story he learns to forgive and she takes the step to walk away from her past.
    Thanks again, Stephanie!

  31. Hey Stephanie, just so you know, the "Search this Blog" widget isn't working. I had the same problem and had to use outside HTML instead of the standard blogger widget.
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    1. Thank you! I couldn't figure out how to fix it. I've been using the one in the top left, but I'll look at replacing it.

  32. This is so lovely and helpful, thank you!

  33. What really surprised me about this article is that I realized that I had all this perfectly planned in my WIP up to step 9 before reading this post. o.o

    Anyway I have a question, say I'm writing a trilogy should I space this 15 steps trough the 3 books? Because I have the first book fully planned and the other two are just loosely planned at the moment and it struck me that after step 9 I froze like: wait... I have not planed this yet. What happens after that? How should I separate them? I also tough that if all 15 steps happened in the very first book then how could I possibly write the other two? o.o

    Now that I am thinking about it... In Twilight the first book goes up to step 9 and then in the second book step 10 happens, so I am guessing spacing up the 15 steps across all books is alright.

    Anyways, this post was awesome!! It help me see what parts of the relationship development I was missing, thank you very much!!

  34. I love analyzing other stories to see what works and applying those "rules" into my own writing. Excellent choice with Tangled, it is a fantastic example!

  35. I'm rewriting a (horror) novel, and I'm looking to build up the romance between two of the three main characters. I want to make sure the romance angle successful, because it's a huge part of the story. I was pleased to see that I already had each of your steps in my first version of my story. So maybe the romance is working and just needs a little tweaking. I've got girls who are now teenagers, and they both liked Tangled a few years ago, so I'm familiar with the story, and it was pretty effective. Thanks for analyzing it. I found this to be a really useful article!

  36. I just found this and I cannot thank you enough! I'm a few hundred words from finishing my first contemporary romance (adult, but I think the same rules apply). The heroine has just found out that her fiance's been cheating on her for months, and the love interest is also the villain. I needed to figure out how to 1) suggest their potential as a couple without it being unrealistic, since the book only covers 2 months and she's just gotten out of an 8-year relationship, 2) keep him true to his goal without being completely irredeemable, and 3) make people root for them, since it's the first book in a series of 5 and we'll be seeing them again. I think this is really going to help me through editing to make sure the romance is as strong as can be. Thank you!

  37. This helped me so much! Now I have a process to follow, I reall liked the examples s well.

  38. Thank you for this! I writing a story that mostly about the guy but halfway through he realizes he's in love with the girl, but he won't take action until the sequel.

  39. Thank you thank you thank you!

    I'm in the middle of my first NaNoWriMo and I've been wondering on how to incorporate my love interest into everything that's going on with my protagonist, and this helped A TON.

    I love Tangled and have constantly wondered how it is possible anyone can create such a wonderful and amazing movie, with the plot and characters and relationships, and they way you put it through step by step... thank you Ms. Morrill! I'm feeling a lot more confident for what I'm going to do with my characters.

    (And yes, I may have squealed after reading this post because I was so excited. Thank you for that.)