So you’ve started on the next great American novel ™, have your plots, characters and research primed and ready; there’s just one thing missing…

An epic romance!

But how do you write one?

Step 1 – NO SEX. No I’m not some prude. No, this also isn’t a long dissertation on the role of sex and biological urges in the role of cultures, rituals and more (there are three too many books on that already). My rule on this is for a simple reason: it’s a crutch. While cheating in your writing is ok (no, not talking about plagiarism), crutches are to be avoided at all cost as they will weaken you as a writer and cheapen your story. Too many use sheet wrestling as a way of saying “look these two are in love” without any further effort. A protagonist needs more motivation for journeys and sacrifices than just nookie. Keep the double-backed beast out of your story will force you to actually develop the relationship between the characters and build more between them than hormones.

Step 2 – RESEARCH. “But Nate” cried the Internet, “love is a universal human experience. Surely I don’t need to do research!” Gravity is a universal human experience too, but that doesn’t make you Newton. And while romances won’t be as difficult as physics, you still need to do some legwork. Here’s how:
• People watch. Find some place where crowds gather and study each stage of romance. Listen to your family and friends (for once). Each couple will have their own idiosyncrasies and patterns which will help you make your fictional couple more real. (note: this website is not responsible for any stalking charges)
• Read philosophy. Not hard to find good books on this subject. I highly recommend C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves, but make sure whatever you read you get an original source. These books lose their effect just reading synopsis.
• Read romances that you enjoy and want your couple to emulate. Try to see what makes these other romances work.
• Avoid Romeo & Juliet. This play is a tragedy, a cautionary tale, it is not a romance. Note how much of the couples’ problems could have been solved with 5 seconds of patience. What did they have in common? If they outlived the play, they’d have been divorced inside of three years. Poor Bill Shakespeare will never be able to stop haunting this world if people keep misusing this play.

Step 3 – Decide the STAGE the couple is in. Not all love is the same, in the manner that while all people have childhoods, a kid is not like an adult. Bad writers experience only the first, intense passions of a relationship and then assume that all stages of it must be like that. No! A couple on their three month anniversary is not going to be like the couple on their thirtieth anniversary. The former will be nervous, hesitant, constantly questioning what the other person is thinking. The latter will be comfortable, confident and be able to finish each other’s sentences. No stage is preferable or better than any other, just a part of the collage of life.

Repeat Step 2 – Your research has helped you get an idea where you want your couple’s relationship to be, after deciding where to begin the journey, return to step two and do deeper research on the stage you selected in three.

Step 4 – Give them something in COMMON. Opposites attract is an exception to the rule, and even if they attract, they don’t persevere. Your couple needs to have some common interests, personalities, and likes/dislikes. No, they shouldn’t be exact clones of each other (unless that’s the point of your story). Here’s where step one really comes into play. Humans have this annoying trait called intellect. Eventually, the sex of a relationship will pause at least (if not become boring) and couples have to resort to stimulating their minds as much (or more) as their genitals. If they don’t have something to talk about, the relationship will break apart. Of course, this step is a lot easier if you have fully developed and fleshed out characters. Relying on just a common situation and/or enemy to be the glue of a relationship will cause it to fail once the situation or enemy is resolved. These events are good for sparking a fire; the rest is fuel to keep it burn ing.

Step 5 – CHALLENGES. Probably the easiest step and one you had in mind before you begun step one. However, by now you should have the relationship fleshed out enough that that we can understand why one protagonist is willing to overcome every obstacle for the other. Example: “A girl that likes Transformers? Curse you Galbatorix! How am I ever going to find that again? I will defeat you!”

From step five onward is the icing of the romantic cake. The in-jokes, the dates, yes even the lust can slowly be layered into your story. But without the above foundation, your epic romance will instead be the punch-line.

Write well…

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  1. Rand on 7 January 2009, 12:57 said:

    Cool. Great tidbit about people watching.

  2. Addie on 7 January 2009, 16:25 said:

    Wow, very impressive, Nate. Very insightful. Thanks for writing this!

  3. Virgil on 7 January 2009, 16:27 said:

    Well written, just a few minor typo’s, but it’s all smoothed away.

  4. Snow White Queen on 7 January 2009, 21:43 said:


    Anyway, I’d just like to say, Nate, that I completely agree with what you’re saying. It just didn’t occur to me. sheepishly grins at own thickness

    Definitely something I’ll use if I’m going to be adding romance to my story.

  5. SlyShy on 7 January 2009, 22:46 said:

    Yup, there is no reason to have to write sex. Even without “fades to black” sex can be very easily implied, without any explicit demonstration of the fact. If you have a married couple in a story, the reader assumes they are getting it on, you don’t have to say it.

  6. Spanman on 7 January 2009, 22:56 said:

    Aw, you’re awesome.

    takes notes

    I had step one and part of step two down but nothing beyond that. Alas.

  7. Nate Winchester on 7 January 2009, 23:28 said:

    Curse you typos!

    And SlyShy, I would also say that any couple with children is… well you know.

  8. Corsair on 8 January 2009, 02:01 said:

    Very good article. I have to agree with every word of this, especially the sex part. My attention swings to ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ where the sex tends to be needless and rather disgusting. I can’t tell you the number of times I said ‘Ew.’

  9. Ty on 8 January 2009, 04:28 said:

    I always find it ten times easier to write about things I’ve experienced, so I’ve shied away from writing about romance — when I have tried, the results have been embarrassing, although following your rules would doubtlessly change that for the better.
    Because writing fiction requires us to write about things that haven’t actually occurred, and therefore forces us to run the risk of stepping too far from reality, I think that some true personal experience would be helpful here — perhaps more personal experience than one could gather from mere observation. After all, an epic romance will certainly play a large part if included in a novel, and a writer wants to know their subject as much as possible. Experience is as crucial to writing in fiction as research is to writing about history.
    My question is, do you think observation is enough, or do you think it’s better to hold off on epic romance — or any fictional romance — until you’ve experienced one yourself?

  10. Kevin on 8 January 2009, 10:25 said:

    Well done piece. I had actually considered writing a piece for II on this very subject… Yours is almost certainly better than mine would have been.

  11. Nate Winchester on 8 January 2009, 14:00 said:

    Ty wins “High Praise” for guessing what my next article will be about. (How does “Writing Tip Tuesdays” sound to everyone?)

    Anyway, to answer your question. Yes Ty, experience is a big help. There’s just a few issues.

    1) Some rely so much on their experience that they refuse to consider that there’s anything beyond it. Thus, all the best romances have to be exactly like theirs at all stages. Which is untrue.
    2) There is a factor of reality. Consider, what has to be a real life example of epic romances: the WW2 generation. My grandparents were separated for YEARS, remained faithful and remained married for 50 more years after that. Now, unless you’re going to sign up for a war and wait until you’re 70, you’re not quite going to be able to experience a truly EPIC romance are you?

    Thus, observing also expands and includes things like interviewing (or just plain discussion). Just because you haven’t experienced it, doesn’t mean you can’t experience it by proxy through someone else. Talk with friends and family who have experienced what you wish to convey and learn from their experience.

    After all, if you wrote ONLY about what you’ve experienced, then you’re not writing fiction, but an autobiography. ;-)

  12. Kitty on 8 January 2009, 19:16 said:

    Guess how many love stories I’ve written. Go on. Guess.

    Anyway, nice article. The biggest problem I have with most badfic I read is step four…oftentimes the pair have absolutely nothing in common, and fall in love because the plot requires it/the author wants Draco Malfoy to be her boyfriend.

    Twilight is a big offender there.

  13. SlyShy on 8 January 2009, 21:06 said:

    Kitty… none?

  14. Ty on 9 January 2009, 03:07 said:

    High Praise! Yay! Does this mean I’m automatically admitted to the writer’s workshop that you’ll surely be running in the future?

    And it’s nice to know that I don’t have to go grab a boyfriend from somewhere just so that I can write a romance. I have a feeling that relationship wouldn’t last too long.

    Looking forward to the next article!

  15. DrAlligator on 9 January 2009, 07:35 said:

    Great article and looking forward to the next one. :D

    I think having experienced romance yourself definitely helps – a lot. Love isn’t as common in life as other emotions. Sure, we love our family & friends, but I think it’s difficult to understand it without having experienced it yourself. Love is one of those things, I think, that must be experienced before writing about. I don’t think that a little over a year ago I would’ve been able to write any sort of credible romance, but now with my own experience? I think I could take it on.

    As a matter of fact, my current focus is a romance set in a school setting with the purpose of poking fun at crushes and the like, so after reading your article, I can safely throw most of your advice out the window, because it’s all about baseless romance.

  16. Nate Winchester on 9 January 2009, 08:36 said:

    That’s why they’re called Tips and not rules DrAlligator. ;-)

    I should add a caveat that this only really works with serious romances. Obviously if you’re doing fun, silly, or spoofy relationships, research and realism isn’t that needed.

    And I’d like to see that story someday…

  17. Will of the Wheel on 9 January 2009, 18:35 said:

    Great article!

    I never thought about how romance contributes to a story much. This made me realize one of the faults of Twilight. Bella is so obsessed (she mentions it ALL the time) with having sex with Edward, and all of the cream counts in it, its a little like choking. If she would have relented on Bella’s constant comments on Edward’s sexiness, she could have developed the rest of the story much better.

  18. Amelie on 18 January 2009, 23:34 said:

    Will of the Wheel, I heartily agree, about Twilight— plus, Bella is so obsessed with Edward that she has no other dimension to her character. Anyone who wants epic romance should watch Avatar the Last Airbender and pay close attention to the relationship between Aang and Katara… one of the best (and cutest) examples of an epic romance, ever.

  19. Mumbling Sage on 24 February 2009, 21:30 said:

    Eagerly waves *NO SEX sign*

    That suddenly made me understand why so many romantic relationships, even those written by authors I like, feel…flat. Because they’re really just two people sleeping with each other.

    And I suddenly have a reason to back up my general prudishness in writing. Oh, joy!

  20. Nate Winchester on 24 February 2009, 21:43 said:

    Furious D I think offered a great explanation as well.

    “I suspect that back in the old days, when they couldn’t just rely on sex appeal, the filmmaker’s were forced to make their female characters interesting. And having strong independent personalities created the conflict necessary to keep the movie chugging along.”

    (slyshy, the blockquoting isn’t working, what am I doing wrong?)

  21. SlyShy on 24 February 2009, 22:31 said:

    It’s not?

    The notation is “bq.”, without the quotation marks. And leave a space between that and the paragraph you wish to quote.

  22. Nate Winchester on 24 February 2009, 22:34 said:


    Oh, in all the possible combanations I tried, somehow I skipped over that one.

  23. Deborah on 4 November 2010, 10:58 said:

    Eagerly waves NO SEX sign

    Me too! I’m so glad someone has finally said this.

  24. Steph (what is left) on 23 September 2011, 04:42 said:

    “I suspect that back in the old days, when they couldn’t just rely on sex appeal, the filmmaker’s were forced to make their female characters interesting. And having strong independent personalities created the conflict necessary to keep the movie chugging along.”

    AWESOME. I agree.

    Me too! I’m so glad someone has finally said this.

    Me three.

    Also, hello from the future, Nate. Great article!