How to Pace an Enticing Romantic Subplot
Who else is a sucker for slow-burn romances?
I don’t necessarily mean just in romance novels. Any fiction story with a love interest can benefit from an enticing, tension-filled romantic subplot. As with other types of subplots, cultivating a romantic subplot adds depth and emotional appeal to your story.
…that is, as long as you do it correctly!
Unless you’re writing some kind of soulmate story, you shouldn’t have your characters be strangers one page and madly in love the next. People change over time, and so do relationships. With the proper pacing, your romance will not only feel more realistic, but also invest your readers and make them beg for more.
**Side note: this advice can help you build up friendship and comradery between characters, too! It’s not exclusive to romance.**
The Roadmap to Write a Romantic Subplot
Since feelings and emotions can get complicated, I find that it helps to break things down step-by-step. For those of you who play video games, you’ll see this method used when it comes to wooing love interests.
How many of you have played Harvest Moon?
Give me a minute to explain…
In this game, your romantic interests have a “heart level.” Their heart level starts at black, which means they don’t know you at all. As you give them gifts, interact with them, go to events with them, buy from their store, etc., their heart level shifts through a rainbow of colors as their love for you grows.
Depending on their “heart level,” how that character speaks to you will change. At the black heart level, their lines are generic. They’ll mention something random, work-related, genetic—nothing with depth: “My mother minds the store, and my brother looks after the chickens!”
As the heart level increases, the things they say will be more specific to you. They aren’t things they would say to absolutely anyone. Like Gray (the boy I’ll be using as an example in my screenshots), at his green heart level: “You work so hard!”
Starting from black, their heart goes to purple, to blue, green, yellow, orange, and finally, red. When their heart is red, you can marry them. This sort of color-coded roadmap can be a straightforward way to pace a romantic subplot between two characters.
Along this road to winning them over, there are certain “heart events.” They’re basically scenes in the game storyline where you and your love interest have a special moment.
Sometimes the conversation is about the relationship, the love interest’s past, their passion, a secret—it really depends. But it’s a special, intimate moment that brings the two of you closer.
In the heart event, you’ll usually have dialogue options to pick from. The right choice will make them like you, and the wrong one will set you back!
Harvest Moon’s Heart Level Breakdown:
🖤 💜 💙 💚 💛 🧡 ❤
Black heart event 🖤
This introduces you, the player, to the love interest. It’s a first impression to who they are, their personality, their family, their role in the town, and so on.
Black heart 🖤
Your characters might start off with a black heart if they hardly know each other. Conversation is shallow, boring, and generic—more like small talk. In the picture, you can see that Gray even starts off a little rude.
Purple heart event 💜
In the purple heart event, the player will be typically be asked to choose a side. The love interest will ask you to agree with them over some trivial matter. It’s usually nothing serious!
For example, the love interest might say, “I want to send him roses, and my mom wants to send him daisies. Help us pick!”
Obviously, you need to pick your love interest’s side. This is probably when the love interest notices or recognizes the player as a friend.
Purple heart 💜
After siding with your love interest during the heart event, their conversation toward you will get a little friendlier. Not much in the way of flirting yet, but you’re now friendly acquaintances!
Blue heart event 💙
In the game, the love interest gives the player a special gift during the blue heart event. It’s a unique item that means something personal to the love interest.
Blue heart 💙
At the blue level, things are ever-so-slightly beyond the friend stage. Conversation is no longer generic—it’s tailored to you. There may be some minor flirting.
Green heart 💚
Flirting. All the flirting. They will compliment you and want to spend town events with you.
Yellow heart event 💛
The event is more serious than at the blue or purple level. The topic may be more solemn, such as their father leaving or angst in the family. At the end of the event, the love interest may admit they like the player (as a friend, or maybe more).
Yellow heart 💛
We’re starting to get sappy. Major flirting.
Orange heart 🧡
Conversation is romantic. Probably goopy. At this point, the love interest is definitely into you. They may start asking what your future plans are.
Red heart ❤️
At the red heart stage, they’ll marry you if you propose. I’m sure you can imagine what a game character madly in love with the player would talk like!
Apply this to your novel’s romantic subplot…
Obviously, you don’t need to follow the same roadmap as the Harvest Moon games. But you can tailor how your characters grow together using a similar roadmap of your own making!
When your characters first meet each other, the conversation is perhaps guarded, polite, or maybe even rude, depending on their personalities. The point is, they don’t know each other well enough to open up and really show themselves (In dialogue, your characters don’t always say what they mean).
Like Gray, at his green heart level, says, “Grandpa and I are very impressed by you!” We can assume that he really means “I’m impressed by you” and he’s using his grandpa as an excuse because he’s embarrassed by how much he likes you. At the middle green stage, he’s friendly and will compliment you, but he’s not confident enough to come out and say something that intimate!
Look at how shy this little dork is. And keep it in mind for your own characters. Even though they’re at a certain “heart level,” they won’t necessarily admit it out loud.
Throughout your main storyline, as your characters might make plot-related choices that the other approves or disapproves of. In the romantic subplot, their relationship will grow stronger or weaker accordingly.
Not all relationship growth has to take place with “events.” There will be passive growth (or erosion) in the romantic subplot as your characters spend time together. Your main character should interact with your love interest in minor ways over time, whether it’s chatting with them at the campsite or by the lockers. Maybe they do favors or give little gifts, but nothing big enough to constitute an “event.”
When you hit a certain relationship level with them, your characters should have a special moment together. AKA, “heart events.”
It could be a heart-to-heart conversation moment, or something more active like a chance to jump in and save the love interest from a bully or take the love interest’s side in an argument.
That special moment could even be a big argument! Unlike Harvest Moon, I’d say not all “heart events” need to be positive. How your couple deals with the aftermath could make their relationship stronger or destroy it forever. In any case, after that point, the relationship has changed. Something has shifted between them.
Of course, a relationship can have several of these special moments before they realize their emotions. Or maybe one realizes their feelings after the second special moment, and the other is still oblivious.
Your “heart level” roadmap may end up looking like this:
Of course, there are a billion ways to change it up. This sample line I created has more of a neutral start, but if your characters really get off on the wrong foot when they first meet, the line might plummet negative right at the beginning.
Alternatively, if they start at friends, they might already be at a purple or blue heart level.
As far as when they officially “get together,” that varies on the relationship. But having these stages of “heart levels” as a guide can help you keep in mind how to properly pace your romantic subplot.
Feeling attraction and admitting it can be two very different things! And a fun tension point to play with. 🙂