How to Write an Effective Romantic Subplot

The romantic subplot is a tricky thing. There are times when readers complain that it’s unnecessary and the author shouldn’t have bothered. There are also many authors who steer clear of it for fear of their readers coming to this conclusion.

While it’s true there are times where the romance is simply not necessary or productive, there are certainly times where it works well. When it’s productive to the plot, it becomes a key part of the story even if it’s not the main focus. Getting it right can be difficult, though. Here are some tips to help you write a romantic subplot that is effective and meaningful.

The Purpose Must Be Clear

Make sure you establish the purpose of the subplot early on and in a way that is clear and logical. If the reader doesn’t understand why romance is being showcased, they will be confused and uninterested.

The love interest of your protagonist needs to serve a purpose in the story. They need to have a place and their presence must drive the plot forward.

For example:

  • The love interest can be a loyal ally throughout the story, helping the protagonist defeat his obstacles.
  • She could act as a mirror character, who may at some point become his rival.
  • She could be the “reward” at the end of the journey.

It’s important that you’re not just writing a romance into your story for the sake of it. Yes, romance sells, but only if it’s meaningful. If the subplot is empty and meaningless, readers will see right through it.

Avoid Misdirection

The last thing you want to do is throw the romantic subplot in at the height of the action. Don’t start the romance in the middle of the story. Doing this will lead your readers to believe that your story is taking on a new meaning.

For example, say you’re writing fantasy. Your hero is on a long and difficult journey with many obstacles. His constant ally and helper is a young female. There may be an obvious attraction between the two, and you may have hinted at a possible romance. However, it would be a mistake to shift the focus of the story onto their relationship halfway through their mission.

Readers will lose interest in your main plot and the development will suffer. If you want to make this relationship a key part of your plot, turn it into a true subplot. If you want to focus on the mission, leave the romantic element to small hints and implications.

Respect Your Chosen Genre

Once your genre is established, you’re set. You’re committed to this genre. Anything else would be unfair and confusing to your readers. If the cover and blurb promise a magical fantasy adventure, you aren’t targeting romance readers.

If the avid, adoring fantasy die-hard picks up this book and all the focus ends up being on the relationship, he will be extremely disappointed. Not only that, but he is unlikely to ever read another one of your books.

If you’re writing a romantic subplot, keep it as a subplot and a subplot only. Keep your main plot and its development focused on its purpose and genre. Follow the rules and structures of that genre. Romance is secondary.

Make Sure it Develops Your Main Plot

What happens in your subplot – whether romance or otherwise – needs to contribute to the main plot. While it is a side-story of its own, it can’t be entirely removed from the main story. You can’t write a sub-plot with flashbacks or visions of the future. It must be happening alongside your main plot and should be connected to it.

For example, you can use it to reveal the character of your protagonist and/or the love interest. The romantic happenings of your subplot may be a much better way to show their kind heart or hidden compassion than the excitement of a space battle.

This is where a romantic subplot becomes extremely useful. For a love interest with a rough exterior, the subplot can serve to make them more appealing to readers as the main character’s life partner.

Make Sure it Has Development of its Own

Lastly, the subplot needs to have an arc of its own. It can’t simply be a list of random events that happen on the side of the main plot. It needs to have an introduction, build-up, conflict, low point, etc. All of this needs to lead up to a resolution of the subplot in addition to the main resolution.

Creating an arc for the subplot gives it depth and meaning. It keeps readers engaged and wanting to follow it.

Writing romance has its own set of rules, even within a subplot. Ensure you’re educated on the art of writing a good romance, and use the skills and knowledge to craft a well-developed, meaningful subplot.

Use the Subplot to Your Advantage

When done correctly and for the right reasons, a solid romantic subplot can be one of the most effective and useful things you can do for your novel. However, doing it wrong and making it meaningless will do a lot of harm to your novel.

Don’t let this scare you away from the idea of a romantic subplot. Rather, let it motivate you to learn the proper way to write one. These tips will point you in the right direction.