Attention! This is how to achieve romantic tension

Have you ever read or watched a romance that seemed to have all the right elements in place – the meet cute, the attraction, the conflict, the I love you’s and the happy ending – but it just felt…


Of course you have.

The problem with those stories is they lack romantic tension.

You know romantic tension, right?

It’s that feeling of being on the edge of your seat, itching, quaking, shaking while you wait for two characters to FINALLY get together.

As a romance writer, reader, and viewer, I’ve thought a lot about romantic tension over the years, and I still find it to be a nebulous concept. How exactly is it created in a story? Is it the characters? The plot? The conflict?

I still find the concept a bit hazy at times, but I have reached a few conclusions that I will now share.

Tension often arises from dramatic irony

Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something characters in the story don’t know.

I remember first hearing about dramatic irony in grade 10 English class, when we were studying figures of speech. And I remember thinking, okay. I get alliteration. I get metaphor. But what the heck is this? Some obscure thing only Shakespeare ever used?? 

And why should anyone care?

I now know why you should care: Because it is nothing short of the greatest figure of speech of them all! Especially where romance is concerned.

Think about hearing some big new gossip, something really sensational. Think about how it feels to hold on to that news, how you can’t wait to share.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m a terrible gossip, but I love to pass on interesting news.

But actually, I think that feeling is pretty universal. Even my husband, who pretends not to care about pop culture at all, still enjoys passing on celebrity gossip to me once in a while.

This human trait of revelling in the sharing of secrets is, I believe, the key to dramatic irony.

So if I, as a reader, see something hidden in a story, something maybe not everyone would notice, and something I know will at some point be revealed, I get a bit excited!

And if I can see that, in a romance, the heroine is really in love with the hero, even if she hasn’t realized that herself, or that the hero is actually pining for the heroine – even if he’s only shown that through his actions or furtive glances – I’ll be OVERJOYED, waiting eagerly on the edge of my seat for the truth to come out.

We don’t talk much about dramatic irony, I think because it’s implicit in a lot of romance strategies. But, I’d still recommend thinking about it if you’re trying to add tension to your story.

To create tension, you need to bring the couple together, not just pull them apart

The enemies to lovers (or hate to love) trope is a popular one, perhaps because it offers built-in conflict and (you’d think!) romantic tension.

But, I find that sometimes, writers using this trope think simply elevating the hate is sufficient to create tension.

It is not.

In fact, pulling the couple apart through conflict is only half the story; you have to also draw them together.

Think of an elastic. Tension results when it is pulled in two directions. But, there would be no tension if there was no elastic force acting in opposition to that pulling force.

What I mean is, you need two forces acting against each other, not just one, for tension to exist.

So if all you give the reader is a couple who fights all the time, and never show that these two are meant to be together, then you don’t have tension.

Readers and viewers have to care about the couple first.

So, yes, include a powerful conflict. Have your couple bicker and fight all the livelong day. But make sure you also show us why the pair belong together. If we don’t care about that happy ending, all the conflict in the world is wasted.

Tension requires show (vs tell)

I know you’ve heard about show vs tell in writing, and how important it is.

If you haven’t, it means instead of directly stating something – like, how a character feels (Joe was sad) – you show that he is sad by his actions (Joe fell to the ground and sobbed).

Showing is especially important if you’re trying to conjure romantic tension.

Think of a character jumping up and down saying ‘I’m in love!”. Like Tom Cruise on a couch.

Contrast that with a more subtle expression, like this moment in Clueless.

Which one is more romantic?

I’d say the latter, especially in the context of a story.

I think we find overt expressions of love to be… a bit off-putting.

Not to mention, they remove the conflict, and the anticipation of the grand love revelation we’re hoping to see later in the story.

Reading romance is a bit analogous to reading a mystery. 

In a mystery, we don’t want the identity of the murderer to be revealed too soon. We want to guess, predict, and anticipate the unmasking we’ll see at the end.

In romance, even though we know what the ending will be, we still want to be a participant in the process – guessing and detecting how the couple feels about each other, even if they’re not yet admitting their feelings openly.

After all, when you already know the ending, getting there is what matters most.

So show readers how your characters feel, instead of telling them, and let the audience do some work.

Note: While longing glances work well in movies, you may be wondering how to ‘show’ love in a book. The answer is with subtle dialogue and the things your characters do for each other’. See the discussion of The Hating Game below for a bit more on this.

Status disparity and other personality differences can create tension

My friend told me she’s so bored of all the ‘opposites’ pairing up in romance novels, she’s considering ditching the genre altogether.

I see her point. It does seem like these kinds of couplings are everywhere – laid back vs high strung, popular vs nerdy, rich vs poor, etc.

I think these types of pairings are popular because they’re an easy way to create tension.

Just think of the rich high school football star falling for that nerdy artist with the difficult home life. There’s something implicitly interesting about two people from different worlds finding love.

I do think this is often just another example of dramatic irony, though. The reader gets to witness the unexpected connection, and anticipate the big reveal when everybody finds out.

When creating tension, don’t ignore POV

My most popular blog post to date is about POV, and the advantages and disadvantages of using dual vs single character POV in a romance.

One of my conclusions: Using a single character POV can create more tension, since it keeps the thoughts of the other character (usually the male in a M/F romance) completely hidden.

When we don’t know what a character is thinking, we’re totally dependent on his (or her) actions to show us how they feel.

This means more opportunities for dramatic irony and show (vs tell). 

A very good example of this is in The Hating Game novel…

Case study: How romantic tension is generated in The Hating Game novel

I’ve made no secret of my love for The Hating Game novel (not the movie) by Sally Thorne. It’s not a perfect book, but I still love it because of the level of romantic tension it manages to sustain.

The Hating Game is the simple story of Lucy and Josh, two executive assistants at a book publishing company who are up for the same promotion.

This is why it works so well:

There’s a pulling together alongside the surface conflict – This book has ‘Hating’ in the title, and would definitely be classified as a Hate-to-Love romance. There is conflict. These two argue. But, even from the very first scene, we can see an attraction underlying that… Like, when Josh suggests Lucy shouldn’t put up with disrespect from a coworker, which she views as a put-down, but is actually Josh trying to help her out. There is a definite drawing together beneath their arguing.

Dramatic irony – What really really works here is, we see Josh doing nice things for Lucy, but Lucy is oblivious. She is the ultimate unreliable narrator, and doesn’t understand what she’s feeling. But we as readers can see how she feels and how he feels. We can see it all. This is powerful for readers, as we enjoy that tension while anticipating its resolution.

Show don’t tell – This story only really works because we never get inside Josh’s head – we readers have to infer everything he’s feeling based on his actions. And Thorne does a masterful job of showing how he feels, without ever being blatant or obvious about it.

Personality differences – Lucy is sensitive and caring (and collects Smurfs), while Josh is a cool, uncaring bastard who laid off her friends. (Of course, we come to learn Josh isn’t actually a bastard.) As readers we’re excited to see them realize the truth about each other, then come together and overcome their differences. 


I’m not trying to offer a formula for creating romantic tension. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not sure formulas really work in romance.

So what do you do instead?

Pay attention when you’re writing. Can you feel the tension in your story? If you can’t feel it, it’s unlikely that your readers will.

If you’re just throwing things out there, using tired tropes and cliches, and you’re not feeling them, well, that’s just guesswork. And it might work, but it probably won’t. You’ll have a better chance of success if you actually pay attention to your own emotions.

It may be the one advantage we have over AI, so embrace it!

It also makes writing a whole lot more fun.

Note: I have a few other examples of stories with good romantic tension. But, I realized when I started writing them up that they’re far too long! (Like, really long). So, over the next few months, I’m going to post a little series of articles featuring those examples. And I’ll include a link to each right here.

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