Guide To Writing Will-They-Won’t-They

– This subject has been highly requested and I get a lot of questions around it. Most romance writers have experience toying with this dynamic in character relationships, so I figured I’d create a guide for those who love the delicious tension of a will-they-won’t-they relationship, because they’re difficult to do correctly, and when they’re not done right, it can throw a whole story down the drain.

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When They Do End Up Together

Make sure it’s not too… convenient. It’s bad technique to build and build onto tension just to provide an easy, clean-wrapped resolution that makes the conflict seem insignificant. If people are hesitant to get together or stay together, there is a good reason, and that shouldn’t be glossed over by the ending.

When They Don’t End Up Together

Make your reader see that this isn’t a tragedy. If two people don’t end up together, there’s a reason, and it’s a valid one, and just because two couples really like each other or even love each other, doesn’t mean they’re right for each other, and at some point both of them will know that and let that stand. The message shouldn’t be “salvage every potential relationship because if you don’t your life is over”, it should be “some relationships just aren’t right, and love is a choice, not a feeling”.

When The Issue Is Constant Conflict

Constant conflict is a bad sign. Occasional disagreements and arguments are okay, and healthy in most cases, but they should always be resolved peacefully. If a couple can never seem to do that, and that’s the purpose for repetitive breaking up/getting back together, then they probably aren’t right for each other. Please don’t send a message to your readers that couples that constantly fight to the point of deciding they would rather be with someone else than work through it ever ends in a healthy and satisfying way for either party. 

When The Issue Is Lack of Communication

Lack of communication is applicable to most will-they-won’t-they relationships, and most relationship tension in general, but I want to specifically mention this because it’s not only lack of communication about initial feelings, but the lack of communication about how the relationship is going, what each partner wants out of the relationship, and what each partner does and does not enjoy in a relationship. These can all cause repetitive breakups because they seem more ambiguous a problem in the moment, and usually cause the “I just don’t think this relationship feels right”, which a character can forget easily once the relationship is over, making them return to their old partner immediately.

When The Issue Is An Existing Dynamic

(The specific request I’m addressing mentioned friends-with-benefits, but this is an SFW blog so I’ll be answering this generally; but yes that is what this section is.) If two characters have an unusual relationship, such as being best friends, which prevents them from trying to level up the relationship out of fear, this provides so many opportunities to build tension from the very beginning. Use this to your advantage, but be original with it. This is an extremely popular trope, and can put off an audience immediately if it shows signs of being completely cliche.

Pacing The Tension To Be Endearing Rather Than Stupid

The tension needs to be built up steadily, but it needs to be reasonable and each instance where the tension is demonstrated needs to be reasonable and fit into the context of each scene. If you avoid thinking about how your tension will come across, more likely than not, it will feel dumb and unnecessary rather than endearing.

Common Struggles

~ effectively writing moments of interrupted tension… Do it at the near-boiling point. This should be the climax of the tension, where they’re right near getting to the point of understanding each other, and they’re finally about to get together and someone or something, even themselves, gets in the way and brings them back to square one.

~ Balancing tension between characters… Moments of tension should be balanced with moments of genuine enjoyment of each other’s company. A lot of tension will be somewhat uncomfortable for the characters, and therefore uncomfortable for the reader, and you need to break that up with fluffy, romantic moments or it will be.. awkward.

~ At what point does tension become irritating rather than entertaining?… When the reasons for the tension become illogical or repetitive. If you’v written the same “we’re two loners at a party” scene three times with no variance in events, that’s irritating to the reader. New and unusual sources of tension through exciting instances of action and reaction between the characters that builds to a near boiling point where the reader and the characters share a longing for some resolution (due to genuine investment in the relationship growing) is entertaining. 

~ Avoiding predictability while keeping the trajectory… You can keep your story exciting and on the same track by using subplots to introduce conflicts that draw the reader’s attention away from the way the relationship is growing before delivering a major twist that affects, but doesn’t halt or change the way in which the relationship is growing.

~ Not making the characters’ reluctance unreasonable… Each character should have personal and logical reasons for avoiding addressing their feelings that the reader can empathize with and understand. It’s as simple as that.

~ Will-they-won’t they that spans large periods of time… If the will-they-won’t-they surrounds a relationship that spans huge amounts of time (such as one that is spanned over 50+ years) can be depicted very well as long as you choose the moments and events that you include in the actual storytelling very wisely, and sparingly. There should be a balance of events told from the present moment where the tension is at a near boiling point, and events that establish how the relationship has grown and continues to, and why it took so long to do so.

Resources

DISCLAIMER

I know that the primary audience of these articles write stories for young adults or a little bit older, and I don’t want to be preachy and tell you what you should and should not convey in your story. However, I want to remind all writers that no matter who your audience is, the manner in which you convey things does impact each individual readers’ mindset and views in some way.

Please be aware of the way your story frames things like potential abuse, unhealthy behavior, and toxic relationships, because it’s not the presence of these things that is harmful; it’s the way you frame them, glorify them, or romanticize them.


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