I don’t know what makes one person just . . . ‘click’ with another, do you? So think how hard it is to convey chemistry on the page.
It’s just that thing, that nameless, that nebulous, that . . . magical thing. Chemistry. When it happens to you, you can’t explain it, you can just feel it. It’s not always sexual, it’s sometimes remarkably asexual. I once made eye contact across a room with a man who became one of my closest friends ever. I felt like I knew him and he knew me; we recognized each other. And yet we had never met before that moment. He wasn’t into women, and I wasn’t into him like that either, but we had it. Chemistry. And now, though we see each other a lot less frequently, when we do, there’s a feeling of inexplicable closeness. All I need do is see his picture and my heart is surrounded by light.
That’s the best I can do to describe what we have.
So can you imagine the challenge, trying to make ‘chemistry’ happen in a novel? Making your reader feel and experience that connection, to explain the thing that defies explanation is for me the most significant challenge when writing relationship stories or romances (not the same thing!) I’m a baby-writer so I have no sage words of advice to offer on how to pull it off, but I can talk about my ‘process’. (You know how I love doing that, right?)
1. Figure out who your characters are, but also figure out WHY they are the way they are. It’s not enough for me to know that Tracy in Unsuitable Men was beautiful, guarded and insecure; and it wasn’t enough to know that Brendan was outgoing, engaging and confident. I had to know why they were that way, develop their back-stories, even if I never included them in the final novel. And then (and this is the important part) . . .
2. Decide what it is about the protagonists that would draw them to each other. In Unsuitable Men, I had to know what it was about a person like Tracy, with her life, her experiences that would be drawn to Brendan, and vice versa. In their case, it was that . . . oh, I’m not telling you. Read the book. But in any event, once I decided why they were drawn to each other, it wouldn’t be good to TELL the reader why they’re drawn to each other, I have to SHOW it. So that’s step three.
3. Place clues throughout your story that explain without telling what the attraction is. So in Commitment, we see Shawn puzzling over the fact that Riley never takes anything from him. He’s a superstar, people are always looking to take from him, but she doesn’t. He’s looking, without knowing that he is, for someone who sees him and not his image. Her refusal to take material things tells him that she does see him, and that what she gets from him is deeper than the material. But still he tries repeatedly to give her things, testing her, again without knowing that’s what he’s doing, to authenticate what he hopes she feels for him. And to make the chemistry between the characters more textured . . .
4. Include moments, scenes that are mundane expressions of their connection. I’m all for the overblown, dramatic display of affection that happens in romance novels. Hey, if he’s a multimillionaire, have your hero buy your heroine a car; nothing wrong with that. But for me, it’s the little things that show chemistry, the little moments in life that you don’t always remember or even realize when they’re happening. So, in Secret, Trey ties Shayla’s shoelaces for her before she goes for a run without even thinking about it; and she realizes that he likes when she runs her fingers through his hair, so she does so often to calm and soothe him. Little things. Mundane things.
And then finally . . .
5. Know when to leave it alone, and trust your reader. When I’m trying to convey a deep connection, or a great love between my characters, I’m often tempted to keep writing about it, adding ever more descriptors about how the characters make each other feel, using prettier language each time. And in my limited experience, that doesn’t work. At best it makes my work corny, and at worst, it becomes tedious to read. I can’t tell you how many ‘tingles’ ‘shivers’ and ‘shudders’ I’ve had to remove during my editing process. If you see a lot of those in my work, sorry to say, I was being lazy that day, overemphasizing with descriptors rather than letting well enough alone and trusting my reader. Sure, I leave some of that stuff in there but I try not to beat that dead horse and instead I have to choose to trust my reader before they start thinking, “yeah, yeah, they dig each other — I got it!”
So that’s my two cents on writing chemistry. If you’re a writer, what’s your formula? And readers, tell us what works for you . . .