It’s Valentine’s Day, a celebration of all things love and romantic. Which is why I’m taking the opportunity to touch on a topic that we all know: Romance as a plot. More specifically, romance as a subplot.
Romance itself is a fantastic plot and it’s a popular one. That’s largely because it follows a fairly simple path. Couple meets. Couple’s relationship is threatened. Couple gets a happy ending. The exact how, and why and where varies from story to story. That however, makes it a beautiful subplot, especially for character development. Why? Because the biggest part of a romance plot is character development.
So what makes a successful romance?
Balance is a huge thing. Whether it’s your main plot or a subplot, romance is based on the characters and how they work together. That means they both have to bring something to the relationship–maybe he’s calm where she’s hot-headed. Maybe she’s cheerful where her girlfriend is gloomy. They both bring something that the other one needs to the table.
They also, however, need something in common. Maybe their family values are the same, maybe they both want the same things in life. Commonality makes it easier for your couple to start looking at each other with any sort of affection.
Obstacles can make or break the romance. There has to be some reason why your characters don’t just get together right from the first meeting. If there wasn’t something in the way, there wouldn’t be a story there. They’d just be together. The reason they’re not getting together can be varied. Anything from forbidden love, to emotional trauma to prior circumstances is fair game.
A notation here: your obstacle needs to make sense. If it’s simply a case of misunderstanding that could be resolved in two lines of dialogue, it’s not making sense, it’s a poor plot device. If however, your misunderstanding is caused by one or both deliberately being lied to and kept from one another by outside parties, that makes sense. It might be painfully obvious that they deserve and belong together, but until that obstacle is resolved, they’re barred from each other, thus it needs to be able to hold weight on its own.
Change is the final element here. I mentioned that the biggest part of a romance plot is the character development, and this is where that comes in. Your obstacle should keep them from getting together right away, but it should also force them to change, and more importantly, to change in a way that makes the obstacle null and void. That often means one or both characters is willing to make a sacrifice to be with the other: Romeo and Juliet is an extreme example, but it is one: both of them were willing to run away from their families to be together.
Together, the balance, the obstacles and the change make a romance plot engaging, and because the core element of it is the change they make, it makes a fantastic subplot because it plays into character arcs. Because that obstacle keeps them apart initially, you can also use that obstacle as a complication for your main plot goal–or, alternatively, make the main goal part of the obstacle keeping them apart.
That doesn’t, however, mean your heroine automatically fits with the antagonist’s daughter just because they both have the same goal of taking down the antagonist and the antagonist will do anything to keep his daughter away from the heroine. It could very easily mean that your heroine’s plucky sidekick who gets both the antagonist’s daughter and the heroine to work together is the one that belongs with the antagonist’s daughter because she’s come from a similar background with a super-villain for a parent.
As a subplot, it helps to remember that the external conflicts your couple faces together will force them together. That might mean some of the complications they face in resolving the main plot are only properly resolved when the two of them have spent some time together on the solution.