Writing YA Romance: Crushes and Chemistry

On Monday, I talked about passion vs commercial fiction, and we’re going to continue the “love” theme today with a discussion about writing YA romance. There’s one crush/love/relationship-related pet peeve I have, and I think I share it with everyone that’s read contemporary YA romance or characters like Bella Swan (or the related Anastasia Steele from 50 Shades of Grey). It’s this: a total lack of chemistry and genuine attraction.

ya romance
You’re writing young adult romance and love is in the air. But are you creating genuine chemistry between your characters?

YA romance is ridiculously popular. If you’ve ever heard me speak or listened to a webinar of mine, you know it’s because I think that teens lack the real life experience of true romance (the daring, self-sacrificing, all-consuming kind) and so they strive to live vicariously. Fiction and movies often provide teens with much bigger love fantasies than their daily prospects do–that guy asking you over to play Xbox, that girl texting all through dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. So good news if you’re writing YA romance: a big, romantic read is incredibly attractive.

Writing YA Romance: Find the Chemistry

Speaking of which, most YA romance books are all about attraction. In other words, completely superficial. I can’t tell you the number of manuscripts (and, to a lesser extent, published books) that put two characters together whose only real reason for being in a “relationship” is that they find one another extremely hot. Hot is fine for an instant connection. Physical attraction makes us notice other people. But then the relationship has to evolve into something with a bit more substance. To make a believable love story, you need the initial spark, but also the moment when it turns into real emotions. You need those scenes where characters make true connections, where they dream up a future, where they live in the present (check out advice on romance tropes). And those become part of a relationship’s shared history as the story progresses.

Many people who are writing young adult romance stop at the initial attraction. Every time a girl looks at her newly minted boyfriend, she thinks about how utterly hot he is. Not about an inside joke. Not about the way his feet smell kinda funny but she manages to find it charming. Not about how he always picks out the green M&Ms and gives them to her because he knows she likes it. She instead goes on and on about his sculpted cheekbones and soulful eyes and all manner of other such drivel.

Relationships are Like Characters

Writing YA romance that’s complex and conveys chemistry that’s NOT about physical characteristics is extremely difficult. But if you do it well, you have a vast and hungry audience waiting for you, as demonstrated by the Twilight success and now the more mainstream adult presence of 50 Shades of Grey. (Which, yes, I did hear a lot about at Bologna and finally managed to read…I won’t write anything more about it than that because my grandmother once told me, “If you don’t have anything nice to say…”)

Go back to every scene where your romantic leads interact. For every physical description, insert a thought about the present or future or a characterizing detail for the other character. Give us a bit of playful dialogue that shows us, rather than tells us, how the characters get along as people who are creating a bond. Don’t settle for attraction in the physical sense. Give us the moment when they fall in love–truly in love–on the page. We all know this instant, when our entire thinking shifts and things become magic. The impossible seems possible. Those stinky feet suddenly don’t matter.

Include Actions and Reactions

Love and attraction are also about action (er, not that kind quite yet). We behave differently toward our beloveds than we do toward anyone else. Love makes us selfless, crazy, impulsive, brave, vulnerable. How do your character’s actions toward their crushes change as the relationship progresses? How do those actions change the characters? The relationship? Make sure that every plot point and action between your lovers resonates emotionally to either build or break down (the course of true love never did run smooth) your Romeo and Juliet as people. This is all part of building that common relationship history.

When you’re writing relationships between characters, especially in YA romance, here are some points to keep in mind: What plot point touches off the chemical reaction of love in your novel? What happens during? After? What does your character think about when they’re anywhere near their beloved? What do they do? This is the stuff you should be thinking about…not his sculpted cheekbones*.

* Though I just saw the Hunger Games movie** and…yeehaw! Check out the jawline on that Josh Hutcherson! (I feel a little old and cougar-y saying that about a 19-year-old.)

** With my mom, whose birthday is today. Happy Birthday, Mom!

Working on a young adult novel? YA is my favorite category and I’d love to be your young adult editor.

29 Replies to “Writing YA Romance: Crushes and Chemistry”

  1. Oh heck yes!! This is a HUGE problem I have with YA. I think books, when I was younger, completely left me unprepared for what real relationships are like: they are not that easy.

    Thanks for putting this out there.

  2. 100% on board with you there. Someone should write a book about this…oh wait.

    I believe this problem has some far reaching affects on teens today. This post just completely validated my current WIP where the heroine is physically handicapped. Whoever loves her, it will have to be for more than her perfect looks.

    Also, this is why I LOVE Shrek. In the end Fiona is a troll but Shrek still tells her she’s beautiful. Genius movie.

  3. Thank you for this post! I am just now coming to this part of my WIP and really needed an outside voice to speak about bringing real-world truth into a fictional YA relationship.

  4. Hahaha! I feel the same way about thinking Josh Hutcherson is kinda hot. I feel like such a cougar…

    This is an excellent post, and as always very timely. I’ve been thinking about this very thing with my own WiP and wondering: What on earth does the love interest see in my MC? What is it that draws them to one another? I think it’s important to get this right, because otherwise the MC just comes off as blank and dull (*cough* Bella *cough*). I want there to be good valid reasons for not only the love interest to like my MC, but for the reader to like and relate to her as well. Thanks for writing this 🙂

  5. Hear, hear! I’m so tired of reading YA with shallow, physical-attraction-only “romances.” Just finished STARTERS…wasn’t even sure why those 2 characters were together, other than they were both rich and oh-so-hot (erm, maybe I shouldn’t list an example, but it fits what you’re saying). Same with most paranormal romances: Hot angels, hot faeries, hot werewolves, hot vampires, hot genies….gaaaah.

    Thanks for encouraging us as writers to go beyond the chemistry, and dig deeper!

  6. I love, love, LOVE this! (no pun intended, but it’s a very attractive post! 😉 Ok! I’ll stop with the reticulated puns, now). Sure, sex sells, esp. to middle-aged women and teen readers b/c their minds seem to revolve around ‘hot’ guys. Stories, however, were not made to be porn books. I think the most special romantic moments are between characters that hardly ever even touch or find each other physically attractive in the entire book, (eg. Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Little Women etc.). Not only is this so much more REALISTIC and ENJOYABLE to read, but it’s much less demeaning. I happen to know two amazing (and ‘hot’) brothers who are so much more than the skin deep girls take them for, and vice versa. I think it takes a female author like Austen (who had six brothers, no sisters!) to really appreciate how much more there is to a man than looks. Of course, same for girls; who would deliberately demean their own sex by categorizing them by looks, alone, as if that were the only thing that mattered!

    Ok, rant done. OBVS this is a pet peeve! ;D Thanks for this great, thoughtful article. Not a lot of people will speak out about Twilight because, ok, it’s good writing. But it’s also sensationalism, and although sex sells, it doesn’t always make for an honest to good story with realistic characters.

  7. This is a great and true post! I wonder, though, why there isn’t more of this on the market? Is it just not as saleable as the instant love at first sight type stories that rely on physical attraction?

  8. Melissa K says:

    Thanks for a great post, as usual, Mary!

    Last week I read Rachel Vail’s YOU, MAYBE, which plays with this problem in a smart and interesting way. The main character gets surprised into a superficial whirlwind romance with the hottest guy in school, and she spends their entire week-long relationship ineptly reinventing herself at the boy’s prompting. The characterization is great, which must have been tricky to write because the couple has zero actual connection–no inside jokes and no future and no learning to live with smelly feet. But that’s the whole point; it’s a book about a romance based solely on attraction that goes nowhere.

    Some of E. Lockhart’s books develop in similar ways, describing terrible high school romances that are more based on physicality and power posturing than on real emotional connection.

    These books are not at all what Mary is describing. But they’re good books to study if you’re genuinely interested in portraying a crappy physical romance that’s never going to work out–because crappy physical romances do happen, and they aren’t all awesomesauce like most writers make them out to be.

  9. I think the push beyond physical attraction is what makes Stephanie Perkins’ books stand out – so many facets of Cricket Bell (Lola & Boy Next Door) and St. Clair (Anna and the French Kiss) are explored, when the protag’s comment on their hotness, you also have a list of other thoughtful gestures the guys had made, said or remarked on to align it with.

    There’s so much pressure to get some commercial aspects out there to gain attention, I’m afraid we sometimes lose that edge as writers by creating more complex characters. A great reminder in this post to keep our characters engaging, not just sexy!

  10. Thanks, Mary, for this post. You give examples and tips what to do, which I find to be very useful.

  11. Excellent post! This is a great reminder of what to avoid and what to make sure you have ;o)

    Thank you!!

  12. I agree all the way.
    And this post made me remember a video Lisa Schroeder did for writeoncon, which also had pretty good points on that.


    (You can also spot Mary there in the suggested videos. ^^)

  13. I think the YA books The Scorpio Races and Flipped both did an awesome job of developing a meaningful, sigh-worthy, super romantic and/or adorable love story without depending upon the physical. There’s barely any physical love at all in either book, but both of those love story plot lines have still stuck with me long after I read them.

  14. Stephanie Garber says:

    Well said, Mary! You nailed this post!

  15. Heck to the yes. I have to listen to (and suffer through) too many books where the main character jabbers on and on and on about “soulful blue eyes” or “hair like a waterfall.” Believe me, I’m all for pretty eyes and hair, I am. But I watch teens I know well read these sorts of books and then go off and reenact the same scenes in real life, and it makes me want to pull my hair out.

    When I read, I just keep hearing Mulan in my head singing, “I want a girl who’s got a brain… and always speaks her mind?” The guys might have gone “Nah,” but that’s a much better goal to aspire to than creamy skin or long legs.

    P.S. Happy birthday to Mary’s mama!

  16. Thank you for this. It really speaks to something I’ve been looking at a lot recently myself.

    I, like some other posters, am deeply concerned about the effect that this has on readers. Not only is it not genuine (and is boring to read), but I think it sets up all the wrong expectations in the minds of people who grow up reading these books and then expect the world to function in a similar way. Of course, fiction isn’t real life…but some things run so deep and are so ingrained in you as “normal” that once you figure out it’s not…well, it can be heart-shattering.

    I make a sick sort of game sometimes of watching my younger relatives post on Facebook about their relationships — up and down like a yoyo. Sometimes the things they say really frighten me because they genuinely seem to expect their lives to work like a romance novel.

    Anyway. For my money, the best and most delicious chemistry between two characters was Jane Eyre & Mr. Rochester. Mmmmm. Rochester is at the #1 position in my “fictional guys I would have my way with” list (yes, there’s a list). And all because the relationship develops at a realistic pace and feels authentic and genuine.

  17. christine tripp says:

    Melissa, thanks for mentioning the book “You Maybe”. Must get/read it. Certainly sounds like a realistic example of teen love. In my experience and with that of my 3 daughters, it was all about physical attraction and what that then said about YOU. Hey look, the hot guy thinks I’m hot, so I must be! I am certain the boys thought the hot girl validated them as well.
    It didn’t take long to realize that a “hot” 12 to 15 year old boy most often has little else to be attracted to, unless you liked watching him skateboard (with his friends), watching him play video games (with his friends) or listening to him talk (with his friends)
    I knew of only a few serious romances among my girlfriends in high school that were actually based on more then looks and/or popularity and were, truly love. All of these were with older boys. These romances did last, at least until graduation, and were good and kind. Mine, meeting my 19 year old boyfriend at 14, lasted a little longer and after 38 plus years of marriage, he is still hot, middle age spread, wrinkles and all (can’t say I find the smelly feet endearing though:)

    Mary, (and others) could you perhaps mention some titles (have Melissa’s examples) that you feel are good examples of less superficial teen love.

  18. This must be why I hate love stories, because of all the points you make in this post.

    While I was reading, though, I thought this also could be used for other relationships in a story. Like mine, where the girl is living with a guardian and calls her by her first name instead of Mom. At what point does my protag realize her guardian is her mother and they are a family. What do they do for each other that proves love? Yeah, great post.

    Have a wonderful day with your mom. I never get to spend b’day’s with mine. We live to far apart.

  19. This post and the comments provide a lot of food for thought.

    I had a sort of epiphany when I put my query letter up for critique at WriteOnCon and several posters questioned why I used the word “beautiful” to describe my MC’s date. I realized, suddenly, that what was important to convey wasn’t how she looked, but how he (the MC) felt about her. I changed “beautiful date” to “first love” which made the query stronger. I also realized that I had done this in my manuscript at times–used the LI’s physical appearance as a substitute or shortcut for the MC’s feelings about her. Now my hero continues to think his LI is beautiful even though her appearance deteriorates until she looks like the living dead. He doesn’t love her because she is beautiful; she is beautiful because he loves her. It is something that I will continue to be aware of and work on.

    A teen romance that I think does a wonderful job of conveying chemistry, love ,and feelings that have little to do with physical appearance is ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS. At one point, if I remember correctly, the MC thinks to herself that her LI and another boy are physically quite similar, but her feelings make them appear completely different to her.

  20. Great post – I agree with this on so many levels. In some YA (particularly paranormal) the boy is always perfect, eye-wateringly gorgeous, got an IQ of about 70000, and the girl ‘falls in love’ with him within a matter of days – but they spend so much time delcaring their love for each other and arguing that he fails to develop any personality, and they fail to develop any chemistry as a couple. In my MS, I’ve tried to show the romance as a friendship first, and them slowly getting to know each other.

    One book I thought did the romance well was CROSSING THE LINE by Gillian Phillip – and the protag is one of my faves, too.


  21. Thanks for the post. This is something I’ve been thinking about with my Main Characters. Sure, they have that physical attraction, but I’ve been inserting more personality traits, things from their past, etc, that help them relate to each other. And of course, there’s angst. I love how, for example, Janette Rallison does her romances. They start off with problems, really get under each others skin, and not until the end are they really in love. Real love, not lust. It’s the best way to go. Give too much gooey yuck to your readers and there’s nothing more to hope for.

  22. This was a great post. I’ve noticed in my own writing that the physical attraction moments tend to overshadow the other moments in a relationship, but I’ve been struggling with how to convey the rest of the relationship effectively. You give some good advice here that I will be implementing!

  23. Fantastic! Thanks for posting this. You’ve given me a serious revelation: I hadn’t really considered before that romance elements are frequently over-visualized. I feel like that’s super obvious and I should have noticed that! Maybe that’s why I find writing romance more fun than reading it much of the time. Huh! I struggle to visualize anyone I write about at the best of times, which I’ve always considered a serious handicap, but I take it it might be helping me out a bit when writing romance. Thank you for all your fantastic posts, they are always so insightful and challenging.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com