YA fans are some of the most dedicated readers on the planet: they buy tons of books, tear through them voraciously, and worship the couples that earn their adoration. But write flat, stereotypical, or hackneyed, and these readers will not be pleased. The good news is, with a little smart revision (and not too much revision), you can make sparks fly. Whether you’re writing a fairy tale retelling, fantasy, or contemporary, here are some strategies for writing a romance that’s truly one in a million.
Cool it with all the physical description.
Do we need to know that your heroine has auburn hair, full lips, a sprinkling of freckles, and long eyelashes? Writing extensive paragraphs describing your characters is—no pun intended—a turn-off. It means you’re not trusting the reader to picture the characters herself, it slows down the action, and it weakens the writing overall. Use description as a springboard to establish the voice of the POV character, but don’t overdo it.
Avoid the oh-so-quirky factor.
There’s nothing wrong with the adorkable character: it works for Zooey Deschanel, and it works for many stories on the page. But there are some too-precious elements that can be huge turnoffs, not just to readers, but to agents, editors, and other industry pros, too. These include, but are not limited to: wearing Chuck Taylors, “half-smiling,” green eyes, curly hair, and anything that makes a heroine “not like other girls.” These things may seem original, but in fact, they’re tired and insufferable. Instead, branch out by writing heroes and heroines who don’t fit in the conventional modes of “beauty” and would normally be overlooked; that’s a real opportunity for nonconformism.
Make your characters imperfect.
This does not mean giving them small but forgivable charming qualities (see above), but instead, really digging deep and making them human. Write characters that are occasionally sloppy, mean, selfish, lazy, or rude. They need to feel like people—and teenage people at that. It’s okay to let them be cranky once in a while. Just so long as they don’t become unredeemable misanthropes, readers will appreciate the candor and authenticity of characters that gripe and flounder—rather than sail effortlessly—through life.
Dial back the physical beauty.
Similarly, don’t make your characters paragons of physical attractiveness. Not only does it reinforce cultural stereotypes of what’s “beautiful” and “acceptable” (e.g., girls who are white, thin, and able-bodied), but it makes your characters’ personalities worth less. If the love interest only likes your character for their looks, why should the reader assume there’s anything more to him or her?
It’s what it sounds like: two characters that fall, well, instantly in love. Attraction takes time, and is confusing, and is often hidden under layers of competing feelings like envy, anxiety, or dislike. Don’t have your characters lay their feelings bare too early—it robs your story of momentum, and gives reviewers an easy slip-up to pounce on.
Cut out the tired phrasing.
“I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.” “I melted at his touch.” “I shattered into a thousand pieces.” This bordering-on-purple prose will irk a reader at best, and at worst, make her throw the book across the room. Find unique ways to express your character’s inner monologue, and don’t rely on what YA is “supposed to sound like.” Some of the most romantic, unexpectedly sexy moments in romance use words and phrases that aren’t anywhere near the stock vocabulary of love and romance. Be creative.
Make it awkward.
Do you remember your first teenage kiss? Yeah, hardly a world-ending act of timeless romance. Let your characters miss, clack teeth, elbow each other in the ribs, and not know how to take off a bra. It’s not only genuine; it’s adorable.
Hold back on the HEA.
Many real-life lifelong romances blossom in high school, which is fantastic, adorable, and enviable! But let’s be real: most teen couples are not destined to be together forever and ever. And that’s okay! That doesn’t make the relationship any less powerful—in fact, it increases the intensity because the experience will end up being so formative for the characters. Don’t feel that you need to tack on some hint (or explicit epilogue—looking at you, JKR) that the characters all end up coupled forever until the end of time. Unlike adult romance, where a happily-ever-after is de rigueur, it’s okay to end a YA romance on a note of “happy for now,” or even of total uncertainty.
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