Chemistry 101

by Jennifer Echols

I write YA love stories. Here are some things I think about when I’m creating romantic chemistry between my h/h (to me that means heroine and hero, but you can substitute heroine and heroine, hero and hero, whatever is going on in your story).

Do you really need chemistry?

Maybe not. Almost every YA story has a love interest, but usually–sometimes even if the story is billed as a romance–the love story is a minor subplot. If that’s the case in your story, experimenting with chemistry might be a waste of your time.

We’ve all seen James Bond movies, right? We know there will be a romantic subplot. In fact, among actresses, it’s a dubious honor to be called a “Bond girl.” Why dubious? Because Bond movies are action/adventure movies. We care whether Bond survives and saves the world. We know his new girlfriend will be beautiful. Perhaps she will be vapid; perhaps she will know karate. But she is not the point of this movie. Nobody cares whether Bond will form a lasting, healthy relationship with the chick holding the flame thrower. (Hint: he won’t.)

On the other hand, maybe the romantic relationship is very important to your story. Are the h/h together in almost every scene? When you write a scene in which one of them is missing, do you hurry through it so you can get back to writing those h/h scenes again? Do you have them hang on each other’s words and watch each other’s faces? Does your main character spend a lot of time puzzling over what the love interest meant by a comment he or she made several days ago? Will your very last scene show them together and happy? *sigh*

If it seems to you like I am writing in a foreign language, maybe your story isn’t a romance, and your h/h don’t need chemistry. But if you know exactly what I’m talking about and find yourself thinking “Oooh! oooh! that’s my story!” then yeah. You need it. Read on.

Normally I do not consider myself a violent person, but this is an exception.

To create chemistry between your h/h:

1. Dig a hole in your h/h. Make sure the love interest can fill it later.

2. Shove your h/h off balance.

Digging the hole and filling it up.

Action/adventure stories are about returning to the status quo. The main character’s life was lovely until something terrible happened. The character will spend the rest of the story trying to save the world from imminent disaster or, if the disaster has already happened, to return the world to the way it was at the beginning. The character may go through changes in this process, but often the character is well balanced to begin with–otherwise the character wouldn’t have the wherewithal to be a superhero.

Romances are about change. The h/h are both missing something in their lives at the beginning of the story. By the end of the story the h/h have given each other what they were missing.

When you are setting up these characters, your job as the author is to take something away from your main character. Give that character a huge problem. The character may have been living with this problem for a long time and has learned to compensate for it.

The love interest is the only person in the world who recognizes or cares about the main character’s problem. At first this creates tension because the main character doesn’t want to change and doesn’t want the problem recognized. But by the end of the story, the love interest has used that knowledge to heal the main character, to fill that hole.

So at the same time, the love interest is the worst person in the world for the main character to fall in love with, and the best person in the world. The push and pull between worst and best is the chemistry. And the main character’s journey from thinking the love interest is worst to knowing the love interest is best–well, that’s the love story…

Sometimes this is all a story has. The love interest fills the main character’s hole. But I think those stories are awfully one-sided. Imho the best romances also do exactly the same thing but in the opposite direction: the love interest has a problem. The main character recognizes the problem and can fill the hole. The main character and the love interest fit together like puzzle pieces.

Ditch digging and filling in FORGET YOU.

The first three chapters of my novel FORGET YOU are posted on Figment right now, so I’ll use my story as an example. The main character, Zoey, has parents who do not get along and are not well adjusted themselves. Her dad is absorbed in his business and considers Zoey a nuisance, so she has learned to be quiet and helpful. Her mom, who has been dancing on the edge of a nervous breakdown for a while, teaches Zoey that appearances are everything. If Zoey can look like she’s in control, she will be. So when Zoey’s dad has an affair with a much younger woman and leaves her mom, and then her mom attempts suicide, Zoey hides those problems as best she can. She continues to be a calm helper figure to her friends. She starts a sexual relationship with a male friend because she’s looking for the love and stability she lacks at home. Unfortunately she starts it with the wrong guy. And then of course she can’t admit that, even to herself, because then it would look like she’s out of control.

Who sees through this? Doug. The first three chapters are way early in the book and Doug isn’t in them much, but already you can tell. Doug knows Zoey’s secrets. He sees that she is putting a veneer over her problems, and that her problems will never get solved that way. So he starts poking at her. Poke! And Zoey says, “Stop poking me!” because she wants to pretend her problems don’t exist. Solving them is harder. And yet secretly she is drawn to this boy who sees through her. Which is good, because Doug will come back and poke at her again in chapter 4.

As for Doug, he went through a lot back in ninth grade. His mother died. Soon after that, he got sent to juvenile prison. Nobody at Doug and Zoey’s high school knows why, but they assume the worst. Doug also has an antagonistic relationship with his dad. Doug feels like he is a good person, but everyone assumes the worst about him. When he tries to open up to someone, he gets shut down. It’s easier to play up his bad boy image and withdraw from the world. He’s a terrific athlete, and he uses his athletic ability and physical threats to keep people from bringing him down.

Who sees through this? Zoey, who also happens to be Doug’s swim team captain. “What is your problem, Doug?” Poke. “Why are you always late to swim team practice on purpose?” Poke. “Obviously you want to be part of a team or you wouldn’t have joined, but you make sure you’re late so nobody will expect much from you.” Poke poke poke poke. And Doug says, “Stop poking me!” Yet secretly he is counting the hours until Zoey pokes at him some more.

From poke to shove.

Your h/h have big problems and they have learned to compensate for them. If it weren’t for their opposing love interests, they might go through the rest of their lives without solving their problems. And in normal circumstances, they might even resist the poking and prodding and questioning of the love interests.

As the author, it’s your responsibility to get this story going. So creep up behind your h/h and give them a huge shove that knocks them off balance. Now they’re reeling. Now they’re grasping for anything to keep themselves from falling. What do they grab? The love interest.

The big shove makes your h/h vulnerable, and that’s what allows this love story to happen.

Shoving Doug and Zoey.

We already know Zoey is compensating for her problems by giving everyone the appearance of being organized, happy, and perfect. How can we shove her to make it impossible for her to keep up this façade?

I know. Put her in a car wreck. Give her amnesia. And hint to her that whatever happened on the night she can’t remember is very, very important, and has to do with Doug, who has just been poking at her!

Doug compensates for his problems by acting like a bad boy who doesn’t need anybody. He’s the star of the swim team, so he doesn’t need team spirit. He can threaten to punch boys who dare to insult him. How can we shove him?

I know. And the more I think about this, the worse I feel, because I really did a lot of bad things to Doug in this book. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so mean to a character before, but here it is. Let’s put him in a car wreck too, and break his leg, and put him on crutches for the rest of the book. Now he’s not the star of the swim team because he can’t swim. He can’t defend himself because he’s lost his athletic prowess. And he can’t be a bad boy because he needs other people to get around.

Wow, that’s really devastating. Doug is not going to be happy. *evil laugh*

Do I really have to do all my chemistry homework?

I have been writing novels for a long time. I wrote them for many years before I finally got one published. For most of that period, there was no internet to speak of and there were no sites like Figment, but there were books on how to write a novel.

I read all of them.

And here is what I took away from all that homework. You can read articles like this one, but you can’t take them too seriously. Use the parts that work for you and leave the rest.

It would break my heart if, after reading this, some of you created a spreadsheet to work out the puzzle of your characters’ chemistry, and you got so caught up in your homework that you never got around to writing the book. So let me say this. Some people are actually helped by making a spreadsheet. They plan everything out before they start writing. Those people are called Plotters. Some people are allergic to planning. What I’ve written about chemistry may ring true to them, but they’re going to work all of that out subconsciously as they write. If they had to put it on a spreadsheet, the story would die for them. Those people are called Pantsers because they write by the seat of their pants.

I am somewhere in between. I start with spreadsheets because I need to know where I’m going. At some point I get impatient and start writing. After about 150 pages of random scenes from the beginning, the middle, and the end of the novel, I can’t find anything anymore and I get confused and frustrated, so I do some more spreadsheets and rethink the whole novel. Then I write the rest.

I can tell you about Zoey and Doug’s chemistry in retrospect. But I did not know all this about them when I started writing FORGET YOU. I started with a boy on crutches. I thought it would be interesting to have a hero on crutches for an entire novel. What kind of hero would be really bothered by that? An athletic boy who did not want help from anybody. What kind of girl would get under his skin? One who saw how much help he needed, not just physically but emotionally.

It’s okay to write backward. Or forward! Everybody is different, and part of learning to write is learning how YOU write.

Okay, are we ready? Put on those safety glasses, light those Bunsen burners, and let the chemical reactions begin…

Find Jennifer on her website, on Figment, or on Twitter @JenniferEchols. You can read an excerpt of FORGET YOU on Figment here.

6 thoughts on “Chemistry 101

  1. Thanks so much for this. It was all very interesting. “Going to far” is my favorite romance and the first ebook I ever bought.

    • This was very interesting. Not something I had actually thought about a lot before, so very thought provoking. I enjoyed the first few chapters of Forget Me and look forward to getting the book!

  2. This really helped a lot. Thank you! Whenever I started to write a book before, I would start with a plan in my head, and then I would just write. I usually got most of my ideas as I was starting to fall asleep. I never made a plan or anything. But I was always taught to make an outline of what I was going to write. Doing this made me so stressed out, and it totally killed whatever ideas I’d had. When I’m writing, I’ll jot down little notes and ideas and quotes, just so I don’t forget them, but other than that I just write. And writing freely with no boundaries, such as an outline, feels so good. But because I was always taught to make an outline, I felt almost guilty not doing this. But when I read this, where you said that everyone is different and writes in their own way, it really helped. Thank you!
    By the way I read Forget You, and was totally in love with it.:)

  3. I love all of your romantic-dramas and am really excited about your upcoming novel! The chemistry between your characters makes me wonder which guy I’d bag for myself…if, of course, your awesome female leads weren’t in the picture. I wouldn’t steal from either of them. Pinky promise.
    – Fingers crossed. –

  4. Keh…panster. Oh, mental images, how you entertain me. Anyway, thank you so much for writing this and keeping it short enough that I didn’t get bored and quit reading in the middle. I can read a book the size of Harry Potter Book 7 and remember every minute plot point, but articles? Ugh. I feel like this is one of the few references that I will ever really benefit from in the long term, and I may even be able to go back to it in the future.


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