Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Writing Romance That Works a Guest Post by Hillary Manton Lodge

Jill here.

I usually work at writing conferences. Now, you're never too published to learn, and I'm often totally jealous of the conferees who get to go to all the workshops because I want to learn, too! I just get so busy talking to people that I never even look at the schedule unless I'm checking to make sure I'm not late for my next appointment.

Well, last conference I attended, my friend Dana happened by me in a moment of down time and said she was on her way to Hillary Manton Lodge's romance workshop. I gasped, jumped up, and followed her. I've known Hillary for some time now. She is a fabulous writer. Her books make me laugh. And she's funny in person too. Her workshop was titled Writing Romance That Works and she's given me permission to share some of the class with you all here on the blog. Get ready to take notes, those of you who need tips on writing romances. This is good stuff.

Hillary Manton Lodge is the author of five novels, including Together at the Table, Reservations for Two, and the INSPY Award-nominated A Table by the Window. A graduate of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism, Hillary discovered the world of cuisine during her internship at Northwest Palate Magazine. When not writing books, blogs, or Facebook posts, she enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, watching foreign films, attending indie concerts, and exploring her most recent hometown of Portland, Oregon. She shares her home with her husband, Danny, and their Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Shiloh and Sylvie. Visit her online at

It can be really difficult to get two characters to kiss sometimesand have it make sense in your book! So I had to really sit down and think deep thoughts about romance and plot and structure.

Romance hinges on character. Unless you have characters that your readers love and are are attached to, any romance between them will ring false. Readers won't care whether or not the characters fall in love.

Successful romance lives at the intersection of plot and character.

Here are four elements that I reach for when I am building a character. Your female and male characters BOTH need each of these elements, and they must match each other's well.

Altruism - This is a moment of selflessness or goodness that tells us this character is worth caring about. This is the Blake Snyder Save the Cat moment (for those of you familiar with that concept.) It's a moment within the first act where your character does something out of kindness or goodness that makes the viewer/reader like him. Let's look at Doctor Who. The most recent doctor played by Peter Capaldi didn't do very well with fans his first season out. Grouchy doctor just didn't appeal to viewers by itself. The writers neglected to give him a Save the Cat moment, and because of that, they had some of the lowest ratings ever that season. They course-corrected in the next season with a storyline that forced the Doctor to make a tough choice. Will he save a child who will grow up to be his enemy? He did. And for the rest of the season, he was known to say, "I'm the Doctor, and I save people." This gave him altruism, which also saved his character and increased the show's ratings!

Damage - This is the damage or hindrance that keeps the character from realizing her goals. This is not simply a flaw. This is deeper than a flaw.

Anne Shirley is an orphan. There is a stigma there that she strives to overcome. Orphans put strychnine in the well. You can't trust an orphan. They amount to no good, etc. Lizzie Bennett is a poor woman with an embarrassing family. She has no dowry. Her life situation causes her damage.

Goal - What your character wants. This may not be what your character needs. Think about the show Parks & Recreation. The show is all about a woman who wants to build a park. Leslie Knope wants to fill in the pit in front of her friend Anne's house and build a park. The show is about so much more than that, but building that park is Leslie's goal, and she keeps coming back to it again and again.

A Superpower - This is a thing for your character to be good at, a way for her to contribute. Creating active characters doesn't happen by accident. One great way to put your character in the center of the activity (the plot) is to give her something to be good at.

Katniss Everdeen is a great example with her hunting skills with a bow. She is skilled enough to succeed in the Hunger Games. Anne Shirley has her imagination, which helps her navigate her broken life. Lizzie Bennett has her wit, humor, cleverness, which makes her situation in life much more bearable.

So, if you combine Superpower + Damage = that will give you an INTERESTING character.

Add a character's Goals + Altruism = and that makes them WORTHY of reader's attention and the attention of the romantic interest.

Combine Interesting + Worthy + Active (the character being an active part of the plot and making choices that lead to a plot resolution) = a COMPELLING character

Breaking It Down
While You Were Sleeping

To show you how this looks, here is a breakdown of Lucy and Jack's four elements. If you haven't seen this movie, you must. It's a lot of fun. It's also one of my (Jill's) absolute favorite movies, ever. I just adore it. It's so well done.


Altruism - Lucy quit school to take care of her dad (who had cancer). She now works at the subway station, the result of having given up on school.

Damage - She lost her father and has been alone ever since. She has no family, except for a cat.

Goal - She might sit in a subway booth every day, taking tokens, but she dreams of going to Florence, Italy someday and even has a passport in her pocket, just in case. She also dreams of Peter.

A Superpower - From the outside, it looks as though she has nothing, but the loss of her father made her empathetic. She is kind to all people, even annoying people. She works holidays. She even puts up with Joe Jr. Her superpower is her kind heart. It also gets her into trouble later.


Altruism - Jack is the good son. While his brother Peter went off to college and became a rich and successful lawyer, Jack stayed in the family business of buying furniture from dead people.

Damage - He has lived his whole life in his brother's shadow and has allowed his loyalty to stop him from pursuing his life goals.

Goal - He wants to build rocking chairs and go into business on his own.

A Superpower - Jack is steady and capable. He takes care of his family and still attends mass with them. He is always there. He is loyal. And when he meets Lucy, he starts trying to take care of her too.

This works great in the movie because their needs fit what the other person has to offer. Jack has a large family that Lucy so desperately wants. Lucy is the nice girl that Jack has always looked for. She encourages him in his dreams. The only problem is, he thinks she's engaged to his brother (who is in a coma)! So typical for Jack. Only, Lucy has a secret! She's not engaged to Peter. A nurse was mistaken when she told the family that news, and Lucy was too nice to set everyone straight.

Romance Rules

Here is a list of romance rules to help keep your fictional romance on track so that readers will be rooting for that happy ending.

Romance Rule #1: The two love interests must deserve each other.

Romance Rule #2: The romance much benefit both characters. Each one has something the other needs.

Romance Rule #3: We must believe the love interests want each other. Give us some mushy, gooey chemistry. Readers need to see interest spark from the start.

Romance Rule #4: The romance must have believable obstacles. Take Pride and Prejudice for example. Some obstacles to Darcy and Lizzie's love are: Darcy's attitude, the Bennett family's financial state, Lizzie's crazy family, Caroline Bingley's interference, Mr. Collins, Darcy being sort-of promised to Lady Anne de Bourgh, and of course Wickham's machinations.

Romance Rule #5: The romance must be paced with care. Make sure something is happening throughout the story. Don't just have two characters randomly falling in love at the end.

Romance Rule #6: At some point, the reader must lose hope in a happy ending. This is to set up the emotional payoff at the end.

Romance Rule #7: For an emotionally satisfying ending, the end must make up for the pain.

Remember: Readers Want To See . . .

Characters they love, who fall for each other, who almost don't make it, but come out on the other side stronger and more together.

To thank Hillary for sharing her wisdom with us, we're giving away a copy of her book A Table by the Window. Enter on the Rafflecopter form below. This giveaway is open to anyone in the world, but only entrants in the USA are eligible to win a print copy while an international winner would receive a digital copy due to shipping costs.

Heirloom recipes, family secrets…and a chance for love 

The youngest heir to a French-Italian restaurant dynasty, food writer Juliette D’Alisa has spent her life negotiating her skill with words and her restaurant aspirations. When her brother Nico offers her a chance to open a restaurant together, she feels torn—does she really have what it takes? Should she risk leaving her journalism career?

After the death of her grandmother, Juliette discovers an antique photograph of a man who looks strikingly like her brother. As the truth behind the picture reveals romance and dark secrets, Juliette struggles to keep the mystery away from her nosy family until she can uncover the whole story.

Inspired by her grandmother’s evolving story, Juliette resolves to explore the world of online dating. To her surprise, she finds a kindred spirit in Neil McLaren, a handsome immunologist based in Memphis, Tennessee. With a long-distance relationship simmering, Juliette faces life-shifting decisions. How can she possibly choose between a promising culinary life and Neil, a man a world away in more ways than one? And is it possible her Grandmother’s story can help show the way?

What's your favorite recipe that you cook on your own? Any kind of food counts. Answer in the comments.


  1. Could you elaborate on Romance Rule #1, please?

    1. Sure. This doesn't mean that the characters are the same. It's that the pieces of them match up well. They are fulfilling each other's needs. You can tell they're a good fit. This is about those books you read where you just hate one of the romantic characters. And the reader keeps saying, "WHY? Why would he/she want to be in a relationship with this person? There is nothing likable about him or her." They might be whiny or lazy or cowardly or completely annoying. The romance being written is not satisfying to the reader because the author hasn't done the right work to make this couple deserving of each other. One side is majorly skewed.

    2. Thank you for explaining :)

    3. I thought about The Tale of Two Cities and a few other stories when I read this. Because here and there, you find a heart-tugging romance been some angelically good character and the no-good tramp. But, even in those stories, this romance rule holds true. Because there is SOMETHING redeeming...some shred of humanity left or some spark of potential in a dark life... That makes the reader deem that character worthy. Nobody looks at Mrs Elton (in the book Emma) and feels a warm fuzzy romantic feeling about her, even though her marriage occurs within the timeline of the book. Why? Because she isn't a likeable character.

    4. Wisdomcreates - exactly! That little shred of humanity/likability is super important. The Eltons are a great example.

  2. Ok... so I stay clear of romance for the most part, unless I totally change it. Lol... I like twists. Especially in romance. So, if I do it, I put some unique twist on it... when you have the trio... either all three get different people than you would have suspected... or something drastic and unexpected happens. Or in my Cinderella story.. the MC thinks she loves someone else. So, I'm totally destroying that thought of "love at first sight", but that one must "choose to love". Haha... anyways... this post had some extremely helpful points :)

    1. That's fun, Keturah. I am not a fan of the love at first sight situations, either.

  3. Helpful post!! :)

    My favorite recipe to make is probably boiled/no-bake cookies. Yum!!

  4. What a wonderfully helpful post! Thanks so much for sharing, Jill, and for creating, Hillary!

    Oh, sheesh, favorite recipe? Probably chocolate-chip cookies or fudge. We have a super simple fudge recipe that is like the most addicting thing I have ever tasted! :D Thanks for the giveaway!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Rachelle! Now I'm craving fudge, haha.

  5. Ooh, my favorite recipe is either snickerdoodles, soft pretzels or lemon sour cream pound cake!!

  6. Oh wow! This was very helpful! I recently finished a story that was supposed to be a romance, but I really wasn't sure how to do it. It kind of fell flat. Now I can go back and make good changes. I don't typically read or write romance so it needs a lot of help.
    I do have one question though. I know in the future I'm going to be trying out unique romance. The kind with arranged marriages and people getting married without really knowing each other. Some of that isn't going to fit the rules very well, especially #1 and #2. Is there a way to get around that or should it still be implemented somewhat?

    1. You can have unlikely romances. People can learn to love one another. They're going to have to learn numbers 1 and 2. This would be the kind of story that is a romance after marriage. One example I am thinking of now is the historical romance by Janette Oke called Love Comes Softly. It's about a woman who was pregnant with her first child while she and her husband were on the Oregon Trail, looking to start a new life. But her husband unexpectedly died, so she is deserted. A man comes along (who is a widower with a little kid) and he offers to marry her if she will cook, keep his house, and help raise his child. So she marries him out of desperation. But by the end of the story, they come to love each other. It's not a typical romance, yet it still follows most the ingredients above, they just come after the marriage. I think that is what you will need to do--at least for the situations in which you want your couple to fall in love.

    2. What the arranged marriage/loveless marriage trope really does is shifts the stakes a bit, and also creates more intimacy earlier in a relationship - even if they're not "intimate" they're still sharing a life. Love Comes Softly is a great example. Lori Wick's The Princess is another one - she marries the prince out of a sense of affection and duty, and not love, and the prince is still grieving his wife. But there are still qualities that make them a good match and worthy of each other, and reasons why they need each other - though in this setup, I think he needs her more than she needs him.

      Thanks for stopping by!


    I've heard over and over again that in romance, the two characters have to end up together. So what do you guys think of an Eleanor and Park type ending?

    1. I liked Eleanor and Park. The ending worked because Park's helping her was out of his love for her. He wanted her to be safe. And that meant giving her up. It's not typical for the genre.

  8. Wow! This post was so informative. I learned a lot, and much of this applies not just to romance, I feel. Thank you for sharing this with us, Jill, and thank you so much for letting her share your insights, Hillary!
    My favorite recipe to MAKE on my own is Strawberry Pretzel Salad. It's a three layer dish of strawberry jello, cream and a pretzel crust that is a holiday tradition in my family. :)

    1. I think my mom has a very similar recipe! Glad you enjoyed the post, Georgina. And you're right - a lot of it is structural character building, worked more specifically into romance building.

      Thanks for commenting!

  9. Thanks for the character breakdown!
    My favorite recipe to make is probably a grilled Nutella sandwich. Grilled cheese sandwich with Nutella instead of cheese.