Storytelling

Five Common Romance Mistakes

Quick, we need to escape before people realize we're not a good couple!

Romance is a difficult genre to write in. Audiences are very particular when it comes to romance, and it’s easy to fall afoul of their expectations. To make sure your story avoids this unenviable fate, beware of these common mistakes.

Spoilers for: The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Fantastic Beasts, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and Revenge of the Sith.

1. Overtelling the Romance

A woman with dark hair in profile, taken from the cover art of The Forest of Hands and Teeth

Romances should feel intense, so it’s important for authors to use strong language to describe them. Words like “burning” and “powerful” are common, along with phrases like “head over heels” and “filled with desire.” That’s fine, except when it’s used over and over again.

In The Forest of Hands and Teeth,* protagonist Mary falls hard for Travis, her childhood crush. The author pulls out all the stops, devoting considerable page time to telling us just how in love Mary is. Since love is a powerful emotion, a little of this is fine, but as the story continues, the telling doesn’t let up, and it becomes annoying. Whole chapters go by where a sentence can’t pass without reminding us that Mary is in all-consuming love.

When a story overtells a romance, the viewpoint character comes off as obsessed or stalker-ish. It seems like they have no other thoughts in their head except those of their beloved, which isn’t healthy. It’s particularly jarring in stories where the characters have some other pressing concern. Most spec-fic romances include an external threat that should occupy the characters’ thoughts. The Forest of Hands and Teeth has the constant threat of being eaten by zombies, yet that’s a distant second in Mary’s mind.

If audiences don’t write the character off as a stalker, an overabundance of telling can also destroy belief that the love is real. It feels like the author is trying too hard to convince the audience, like a sales rep talking up the selling points of a “gently used” car.

In order for a romance to feel genuine, it must be shown as well as told. “Show, don’t tell” is a well known saying, but showing is often more difficult, so inexperienced authors still resort to overtelling, especially in romance. That leaves the romance feeling unhealthy at best and insincere at worst.

2. Assuming Attraction Is Enough

Queenie and Jacob looking at each other in confusion from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Romances start with some kind of attraction. This attraction is sometimes physical, with characters admiring each other’s hot bods. Attraction can also come from a shared joke, enjoying an activity together, or the adrenaline of barely escaping danger. Any of these are valid options, but just like in real life, if there isn’t more to the relationship, it will be shallow indeed.

Both of the couples in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them fall victim to this mistake. Jacob initially likes Queenie because Queenie is hot. Queenie likes Jacob because… actually I’m not sure why. Maybe because he’s a baker and she also likes baking? Newt and Tina, the film’s other couple, are drawn together by shared danger. The film gets both romances started early, and then it doesn’t develop them any further.

Attraction opens a romantic door, but after that a story has to build a relationship. The audience must see how the lovebirds compliment each other, how they’re better together than apart. Otherwise the romance is just a passing infatuation, and there’s no reason for the audience to care if the lovebirds stick together.

Fantastic Beasts clearly wants its romances to be impactful because it uses them as resolution for the closing scenes. The audience is assured that Queenie and Jacob will be together despite Jacob’s being memory wiped,* while Newt and Tina finally admit they have feelings for each other. But these scenes are hollow at best since the film has never given any reason the audience should care about the relationships.

Often, the cause of this problem is that the storyteller doesn’t actually know why two characters are good for each other. I see this a lot when editing early novel drafts. I ask the author why two characters are in love, and in response I get a shrug. If a romance is important to the story, the storyteller must know why the characters are good together, and that must be shown to the audience.

3. Neglecting Buildup

The ship from A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet cover art.

A good romance doesn’t just pop into existence. First, there’s the initial attraction, and then the characters get to know each other and sparks fly. Then the story engages in a little “will they or won’t they” until the audience is begging for a passionate resolution. Or two characters could just start dating out of the blue, with little or no prior indication that they were into each other.

What, that doesn’t sound like as much fun? Because that’s exactly what happens in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Near the end of the book, Rosemary, ship’s clerk, shows up at the pilot Sissix’s quarters, armed with wine and a sexy outfit. Rosemary then goes on to talk about how she’s been attracted to Sissix for some time now, but she hasn’t had the courage to say anything, and that she’s confident they can make it work despite the difficulty of interspecies romance.*

That would be touching, except that Rosemary has never shown any attraction for Sissix. They’d been on the ship together for weeks, so the author had plenty of opportunities, but there was nothing. Or at least, any indications the author did include were too small to pick up on.

When a romance springs forth without any buildup, it leaves the audience wondering if they missed something. Surely there would have been earlier hints of such an important plot development. This is especially true in stories like Angry Planet, where the characters make a point of how they’ve been attracted to each other for a long time.

It’s bad enough to confuse the audience. Worse, a romance without buildup has no satisfaction. When characters confess their love, the audience should be thrilled. With Rosemary and Sissix, the reaction is more likely to be ambivalence. The audience had no idea such a relationship was in the works, so they aren’t invested in its outcome.

4. Ignoring Queer Implications

Albus (Left) played by Sam Clemmett and Scorpious (Right) played by Anthony Boyle.

Picture the scene: a woman and man are pressed close together on a crowded train. They stare deep into each other’s eyes. Their heartbeats quicken and color rushes to their cheeks. This is obviously romantic buildup, and most storytellers will recognize it as such. But make the scene about two men, two women, or two people of neither gender and suddenly storytellers aren’t so sure, even though audiences are getting the same message.

In Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, it could not be more clear that the two main characters are falling in love. Albus and Scorpius have a chemistry easily recognizable to romance fans. They constantly want to be in each other’s presence, even when they aren’t doing anything. They find excuses to be together, even when their parents forbid it. They literally blush when the other pays them attention. And yet, there is no kiss, no declaration of their feelings. The play* ends as if there was never any romance to conclude.

When done on purpose, this is called queer-baiting: intentionally stringing a queer audience along with promises the storyteller has no intention to deliver on. But today we’ll give storytellers the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s an innocent mistake. The consequences are the same, but a mistake can be rectified.

When queer implications are ignored, it’s the same as any time a story doesn’t follow up on its foreshadowing: irritation from the audience. When a story foreshadows something, the audience rightfully expects that thing to happen. When it doesn’t, they feel cheated. They stuck through the whole story, waiting for a payoff that never came. The irritation is worsened because queer audiences rarely get to see themselves represented in fictional romances, so their disappointment is felt more keenly.

The best way to avoid this problem is for storytellers to include queer romances, especially between main characters. If that’s the direction the story is going, the storyteller should explore it and see what happens. If there’s absolutely no room for a romance, then storytellers need to be mindful of the messages they’re sending. If the interaction would feel romantic between two straight characters of opposite gender, it will probably read the same way even if the genders change.

5. Building a Society That Hates Love

Anakin and Padme

Many great love stories feature some societal obstacle that keeps the lovebirds from getting together. This trope is wildly popular, which is why Romeo and Juliet keeps getting remade. A social obstacle gives the lovers something to fight against before their love can triumph. It’s a great way to provide conflict while avoiding the creepy trope of one character overcoming another’s resistance.

But it’s easy to take this trope too far and create a world where only the protagonists know what love is. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the Star Wars prequels. Anakin and Padme are in love, but they can’t be together because the Jedi Order literally forbids love. Why they do this is unclear. In real life, religious institutions often require oaths of celibacy, but there’s no indication that the Jedi have the sort of belief system that would necessitate such an oath.

Instead, the implication is that the Jedi hate love specifically. And since the Jedi represent the good side of the Force, their edict has supernatural backing. This is incredibly silly to say the least. Obi-Wan can kill Darth Maul in a fit of rage, no problem. But Anakin is forbidden from being with Padme? This casts the Jedi not as the guardians of peace and justice, but as an organization dedicated to stamping out joy whenever they find it. That would be cartoonish even for villains, and the Jedi are supposed to be the good guys.

Most obviously, this mistake will damage a story’s setting. It’s hard to take love-police seriously, no matter how many laser swords they have. Even worse, a society that hates love can make the story’s romance feel self-absorbed, as if the storyteller is saying that only their characters are capable of this beautiful thing. Everyone else is presumably living a half-existence in their loveless wasteland.

The desire for love is not universal, but it is very common. Chances are whoever is keeping the lovebirds apart will also have experienced love at some point in their lives, so they won’t be against it as a concept. Instead, characters should be kept apart for specific reasons. Political obstacles are easy to fabricate, with lovebirds hailing from two feuding families.* It’s also possible to have a world where certain kinds of love are considered wrong, though storytellers should be careful with this one so they don’t disrespect people who face such oppression in real life.

Storytellers have many options for why their lovebirds must fight to be together, but if it feels like the other characters have declared war on happiness, something is wrong.


Romance is a difficult genre even when storytellers don’t make any mistakes. Audiences often have their own specific ideas of what love is, and it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. That’s why it’s so important to avoid mistakes: you’ll have a hard enough time even if you do everything right!

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Another way to get around #5 might be something like an arranged marriage for one of the two. In a society where they can’t just laugh it off, it’s an obstacle to overcome without saying ‘society hates love.’ It just doesn’t consider love as important as keeping a promise your parents made for you. After all, the concept of marrying out of love is relatively new in western society (just about 150 years or so).

  2. Kevin

    The jedi don’t hate love. They have forbid attachment, because loss of that attachment leads to dark feelings and when lightsabers hang on every tween’s belt then they don’t want emo fits of anger raging across the galaxy. It’s very Buddhist in that general love for everyone kind of way. George didn’t really portray them that way, and so we have the weirdness of episodes I through III. I would think they wouldn’t get lightsabers until AFTER they get a handle on their hormones, but aliens, amiright?

    • Cay Reet

      Training rather. Controlling a lightsaber isn’t easy and they’re supposed to start working when they reach adulthood. They need to train with the weapon before.

      Still, whether they forbid attachment or love, it both doesn’t work out. Attachment also exists between friends, yet I don’t see anyone forbidding Anakin and Obi-Wan from becoming friends. There are also lots of couples (with one or two Jedi in the relationship) in the now-extinct EU, especially in the Knights of the Old Republic comic series (not the great video games). There are a lot of attachments which could cause havoc, a lot of feelings which can lead to darkness. Forbidding them is not going to solve the problem. Learning to live with them, on the other hand, can reduce the chances of going dark afterwards.

      • Sam Beringer

        Hell, what about between master and apprentice? Obi-Wan’s reaction to Qui-Gon’s death is proof enough.

        I think it’s either A) Lucas needed a reason for Anakin to go dark side and this was the best he could think of (instead of, say, just being disillusioned with the Jedi and seeing more and more of their flaws) or romantic love is put on a pedestal so much that he didn’t consider that other connections would garner the same response. Probably a combination of the two.

        It also reminds me of a problem I have with Cassandra Clare’s “Dark Artifices” trilogy. The protagonists can’t be together because they have a magic parabatai bond and being in love would corrupt it somehow. Never mind that past characters with the same bond care deeply for each other (or are supposed to, at least) and never mind that a previous character who had a crush on the guy he was bonded with didn’t have this cross his mind instead focusing on “terrible things will happen if everyone finds out I’m gay” (which didn’t happen).

        Honestly, both could’ve worked if Lucas and Clare had focused on lust instead of love. Have it that the Jedi are allowed to have relationships, but lust is seen as a dark side thing and thus they need to be celibate. Likewise, since Clare’s Shadowhunters are supposed to be Christian-based, they could see lust as a corrupting emotion since it’s, you know, one of the seven deadly sins. And since the parabatai bond is supposed to be above such base emotions, it can’t withstand something like that.

        But no. We just get “romantic love is more than any love” bullshit.

  3. JXMcKie

    Hi Oren (and everybody else) ! I have been lurking on this great site for a long time ,and enjoyed its highly interesting articles on roleplaying and storytelling, from a “dark corner” ! However this take-on of Common Romance Mistakes, especially with reference to SW, prompted me for a response. The Jedi order seems to forbid its member to form emotional & sexual attachments for two main reasons (though neither of them are specifically stated in the movies) : 1) Love can (can ! Not does, but can) lead to the dark side, as can other powerful emotions and passions. 2) Emotional & sexual pairing (where the “lovebirds” are of same species, but different sexes and especially if both are jedi order members) will likely lead the Jedi order, to eventually becoming a hereditary aristocracy (and the Jedi orders Sith counterpart, has a tendency to go that way) ! So there might be a relatively good reason, aside those also mentioned by Kevin about emo fits of rage, but still you are right Oren, when arguing that the prequel SW takes the “forbidden love” story too far ! After all, through the long story of the Jedi-order, there MUST have been an enormous number of infractions from this rule. If breaking this rule was cause for expulsion from the Jedi-order, well…there hardly wouldn´t be any Jedi around at all. And its true that the prequel love-story between Anakin and Amidala, seems very self-absorbed (another ugly blight on it, beside its badly written dialogue) and far to much emphasis is placed on it !

    • Chloe Jandsten

      Bite: Jedi aren’t celibate- that’s specifically stated. In the Clone Wars cartoon. They have sexual partners, but once it becomes more than that they typically disengage or leave the order.

      Also, the Clone Wars cartoon does a good job of showing how most Jedi respond the the deaths of those around them, they are willing to watch their masters/ apprentices pass when it is their time.

      Not particularly correcting anything, just pointing out that the current accepted canon does go out of it’s way to show what a life without attachment looks like.

      Obi-wan has a lady that he states he’d leave early the order for if she desired a relationship with him.

    • Cay Reet

      One of the most interesting stories of the far past of the Jedi, part of the Knights of the Old Republic comic series I mentioned above, is that of a woman who was rightfully married to a Jedi (they even had kids), took up his lightsaber when he was killed, trained to become a Jedi herself (it’s not explained why she didn’t do it before), and helped bring down the Sith Lord who had killed her husband. Not as a raging fury of revenge, though, but as part of a team. By now, of course, this story is no longer part of the SW universe, because of the purge of the extended universe by Disney.

      About the arguments, though:

      1) Love can lead to the dark side. So can anger, hate, or other strong feelings. However, an astonishing number of people in that galaxy far far away are human (or at least exceedingly humanoid) and it’s basically impossible to make a human being completely forego emotions. In other words: instead of making love a forbidden thing, you either have to outlaw all emotions and kick out whoever displays them (which would leave the Jedi order high and dry), or you would have to teach the members from an early age never to give in too much to their emotions (which is, essentially, part of the Jedi code). Trained like that, however, a Jedi can also love without risking any more than by having other feelings.

      2) Too many children born within the order would lead to some kind of hereditary aristocracy. How exactly would that happen? Do you inherit a job, just because both your parents worked in that company? Do you become nobility simply by being born in the same town as your family for twenty generations? Hardly. As long as there are rules in place which state that specific positions inside the Jedi order are not hereditary (such as being a member of the council, for instance), nothing of that kind will ever happen. Amongst the Sith with their Master/Student pairing (according to the prequels, there are only two Sith Lords at any given time, the Master and the Student), one could argue that a Master might raise a child to become their successor at some point, instead of finding a Student in other ways and train that one. Within the Jedi order with a completely different power structure, that is unlikely to happen.

      • VoidCaller

        Honestly, people demanding inheritance of notinheritable positions is a mayor reason why catholic priests have vow of celibacy. Sure, it should not happen, but it happened.

        There was also question of material inheritance, because people don’t accept easily that their fathers’ material wealth stays in Church and they get nothing.

      • JXMcKie

        Hey, I am not trying to defend George Lucas somewhat fumbling narration. I do agree with Oren in his critique of the love story between Anakin and Amidala, but I am also trying to offer some possible explanations, to why the Jedi order might frown upon romantic relationships between it members. I do agree with your point that it is impossible for the Jedi order, to purge its member off all emotions, and that…”would leave the Jedi order high and dry…” which might actually be a point that Lucas is deliberately making ? That the Jedi order in its attempts to purge its members of any kind of “passion” is actually flawed, as is the Sith order by encouraging its members, to indulge in excessive passion ? It seems at least that many members of the Jedi order, fear being drawn to the dark side, but fear itself leads…to the dark side !

        With regard to your objection to the hereditary aristocracy..”Do you inherit a job, just because both your parents worked in that company? Do you become nobility simply by being born in the same town as your family for twenty generations?”…Well, that´s actually the way hereditary aristocracies worked through most of history ! As one my favourite Sci-Fi authors, the late Frank Herbert, noted in many of his works : “All kinds of Government tends to aristocratic form over time” and I as noted, it seems from the expanded SW universe, that the Sith at least, are partially going that way (the rule of two was only instigated relatively late in Sith history…earlier in Sith history it didn´t exist)
        “As long as there are rules in place which state that specific positions inside the Jedi order are not hereditary”…exactly, and that might explain (again I am just offering some explanations for the rather strange celibacy polities of the Jedi order) why the orders officially tries to (tries to, not necessarily with must succes) enforce that no-romance rule. Again : I agree that it seems like a rather foolish rule, but as Oren notes : Lucas had to cook up some kind of explanation for why Anakin joins the dark side (they have chokolate cookies ?:) but that explanation could surely had been done in a better way !

        • Cay Reet

          Hereditary aristocracy works, because the laws say so. The moment they don’t … because the order has others … it does no longer work. Then your members can have children, with a non-Jedi or a Jedi without instating any kind of aristocracy.

          Hereditary positions usually come into play when people want to. I don’t believe in the tendency towards hereditary aristocracies, which is probably where our complete point of view differs.

          @ VoidCaller: The Catholic church did indeed add celibacy because they feared having to pay money to the children of priests, but that was in medieval times where the chance to find a job and a life somewhere else was relatively small (very, very small, really) and many children relied on inheriting money from their parents (and, possibly, some means of income). And it had more to do with the church wanting to gain money and not to pay any. By today’s standards, the celibacy is long overdue for removal again. By the standards of a galaxy full of planets with chances for work, it would be even more overdue.

          • VoidCaller

            I understand, I just wanted to provide context But you have to agree on one thing. Prestige can pass from parents to children

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, prestige can pass from parents to children. It depends on society whether or not that translates into something like hereditary positions.

      • Dave L

        Since force-sensitivity runs in families, inheriting a Jedi position is quite likely. Having said that, I agree that Lucas could have thought out this part better.

        • Cay Reet

          It’s likely that a Jedi’s children are force sensitive, too, yes. Inheriting a position is, again, down to the rules of the order. A musician is likely to pass the talent on to his children, but they won’t automatically take their parent’s place in an orchestra. An athlete has a certain chance to have children with similar abilites, but they won’t automatically get the parent’s place in a team. I simply don’t see where having Jedi in a committed relationship will endanger the order, as long as things are done in a sensible way. (But then, due to the static nature of the order, sensibility isn’t always granted.)

          And the fact that two Jedi are likely to produce force-sensitive children is actually something the order should be grateful for, instead of avoiding it. Everyone, to go back to the church example, can study and become a priest. But it takes an inborn talent to make someone a Jedi.

  4. Elaine

    I saw the Rosemary / Sissix romance building most of the way through the book. In fact it was clearer to me and more satisfying than the pairing of Jenks and Lovey. I had no idea why those two should be together, except that we were told that they were and couldn’t be. There was no difference between how she treated him and how she was with the others, and she came across as an acquiescent innocent. On her part the attraction was undersold and on his it was oversold; there was no complexity to their relationship.

  5. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    Amazing post – especially with the queer implications one. Most of the time, authors just act like saying a character is straight (or implying it by having one of the characters in love with someone of the opposite sex [Scorpius and Rose]) is enough to discourage any romance. Those were my exact thoughts throughout The Cursed Child, and it annoyed me so much when the play ended with Scorpius chasing after Rose (for no reason – she treats him like crap).

  6. Currently Between Screen Names

    I agree with the points on No. 2, but not with the specific example, because I don’t think either couple was ever meant to be a passionate romance to the audience. Their relationships are written more realistically, at a more realistic pace, much like Harry/Ginny and (sort of) Ron/Hermione. There are more Fantastic Beast movies coming with more time to develop Newt & Tina’s love story, and, I hope, Jacob & Queenie’s.

    Of the two, I find Jacob and Queenie’s love story to be the most believable. Yes, Jacob was initially struck by Queenie’s looks, but this was almost immediately followed up by curiosity about… everything. For both of them. Every single tiny reveal of background or personality made the other light up and instantly try to learn more. That dinner scene is *my* idea of a perfect love story. Complete with the other two getting annoyed by their instant rapport.

    It’s true that Queenie was a bit sheltered, and maybe hadn’t seen enough of the world to make an informed decision, but, a.) love isn’t usually about making informed decisions, and b.) Jacob actually had some desirable qualities. He had a goal and the skills to make it work and was taking risks to make it happen. On top of that, he really appreciated Queenie’s other qualities, and she… ok, maybe she was more attracted to his neediness than to business management skills, but still. I wouldn’t ask for more than a romance like theirs, with the exception of my true love’s memory being wiped.

    • SunlessNick

      It’s true that Queenie was a bit sheltered, and maybe hadn’t seen enough of the world to make an informed decision

      A thing to note about Queenie is that she constantly sees into the head of everyone she meets. In some ways she might be sheltered, but in others she knows people like few others ever have or will.

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