Hearts Unbroken: Writing Teen Romance

Inspirational HS relationship.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

The fourth in a series of four posts celebrating the Oct. 9 release of my realistic contemporary YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick). Spoiler alert.

Let’s talk about teen love, romance, passion!

Which of course means talking about awkwardness, three-dimensionality, and emotional resonance.

My new YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, 2018), is partly a love story about two characters, Louise Wolfe and Joey Kairouz, who first connect as staff members of their high school newspaper.

The story is very loosely inspired by my own lived adolescent experiences. But, big picture, we’re talking straight-up fiction. Romantic fiction, though not genre romance per se.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore genre romance. I spent a year reading more than 300 genre romance novels in large part to study how the authors constructed central plots – middles, especially reversals. Nobody navigates reversals better than a genre romance novelist.

That said, while I’ve written YA novels with strong romantic elements, the main page-turning question isn’t: How will the romantic leads get together?

Sure, that plotline may hook certain readers. But some teens may be more interested in finding out who is behind the harassment of IPOC kids cast in the school musical, “The Wizard of Oz.” Some may wonder whether the protagonist’s little brother Hughie ever gets his moment in the spotlight. And I suspect many YA readers will be watching how my Native hero navigates daily life in a middle class suburban setting—both Indigenous readers who see themselves (to varying degrees) reflected and non-Indians newly considering that perspective through a first-person lens.

Regardless, my first chapter opens with a romantic conflict and the last chapter ends with an optimistic romantic reconciliation—form-wise, that’s pretty much textbook romance. Except that the protagonist has changed partners for the better.

Granted, early readers have categorized the novel as a “gender empowerment” or “culturally-driven” or even an “important” story. It takes on big themes like artistic speech and freedom of the press. But love stories can do all that. It’s all in how they’re framed.

Let’s reflect on writing romantic elements. Did every one of these considerations factor into Hearts Unbroken? No, but I’m a WCYA writing teacher and a big believer in the conversation of craft. Your manuscript may benefit from a strategy that didn’t apply to mine.

Teaching a writing workshop with Rita Williams-Garcia.

Does Your YA Novel Need Romance?

Not necessarily. If you are writing a YA mystery or fantastical quest or contemporary realism rooted in, say, family dynamics or a best friendship, please do not feel pressure to sprinkle, thread or shoehorn in romantic love. “YA lit” does not per se equal “romance.”

Honor what the individual story demands rather than compromising it to fit any misconception of market expectations. I personally would love to see more platonic friendship stories.

But if romance is right for your story….

Is It Love at First Sight?

Love at first sight also is known by informal critics as “instalove” and/or “instalust.” It’s sometimes dismissed as a trope, by folks who equate tropes with trite rather than tradition.

My theory is this: All storytelling builds on all previous storytelling. You can pull apart any story and trace the origins of its various components to previous stories. And a lot of them.

What matters is not whether love at first sight has been done before (or has been done frequently) but rather what you do with it and why.

Consider, for example, “Sleepless in Seattle,” a 1993 film, written by Nora Ephron. In the storyline, she introduces the idea of love at first touch.

Tom Hanks‘s character Sam Bloom says that, taking the hand of a woman to help her out of a car, he knew they were destined to be together. He calls it “magic.”

This concept, which is analogous to love at first sight, is reinforced throughout the story. The film concludes with Sam Bloom and Annie Reed, played by Meg Ryan, leaving the top of the Empire State Building, holding hands. First touch. Presumably happily ever after.

Granted, the audience is given sympathetic (in Sam’s case) and endearing (in Annie’s) glimpses into the daily lives of the romantic leads. We’re nudged to root for their destined connection.

Why does that work? Because the protagonist is Sam’s young son, Jonah (played by Ross Malinger), who’s been striving to bring his dad and Annie together. Jonah’s quest is to find a new wife for his widowed father and a new mom for himself. Jonah has driven the story arc and achieved his goal. We believe in his happy ending.

The pesky details of the grownups’ romantic dynamic are, at best, fodder for a sequel, though I wouldn’t have recommended one and Ephron chose not to write it.

“Love Takes Time” or Does It?

Since we’re already drawing on the pop-culture models of the 1990s, let’s consider the 1990 Mariah Carey song “Love Takes Time.” She’s singing about the end of a relationship, healing a broken heart, but she could just as easily be talking about the beginning.

A slow-building, romantic relationship between two characters gives readers more of a chance to invest, to get to know each of leads as individuals before buying into the idea of the couple.

This is the approach I took with Louise and Joey. Although she’s the first-person protagonist, he gets several chapters of shared screen time before assuming the mantle of love interest.

Yes, there’s an initial attraction, but it’s at various points stalled or derailed by ghosts of past relationships, family drama and trauma, the idiosyncratic foils inherent in daily life as well as the characters’ respective insecurities and competing interests.

What’s with All the Love Triangles?

The most common love triangles in YA literature involve two cis male characters and a cis female character.

As Carrie Ryan points out, “…a love triangle done right isn’t about a female character’s affections bouncing back and forth between two men, it’s about her internal struggle within herself as she figures out who she wants to be and what’s important to her.”

Most of the criticism of love triangles (and the typical less-than-compelling example of them) is rooted in a traditionally-gendered power dynamic.This concern comes from a long history of story in which girls and women are portrayed as prizes rather than people.

The key to transcending all that is to take Carrie’s advice and give the protagonist agency and three-dimensionality.

(In the eight years since Carrie’s post, the YA literature has begun opening up more to include a wider diversity of characters. We can extend her analysis of existing stories to apply to love triangles involving characters of all genders and orientations. That said, we need much more representation of terrific YA love stories reflecting the LGBTQIAP+ community.)

What Do They See in Each Other? Besides Looks.

I’m not suggesting that physical attributes are totally irrelevant to your writing. Describing them can help jump-start the reader’s theater of the mind. Depending on the conventionality of a given character’s attractiveness, we can often begin to extrapolate how the world responds to them, which in turn will impact their experiences and perspectives.

Moreover, a brushstroke or two detailing appearance—build, coloring, makeup, dress—can contribute to conveying a character’s personality, culture, heritage, race, etc.

But unless your story arc is centered on a character’s superficiality or bowing to peer expectations, simply categorizing a potential love interest as “hot” and then piling on the physical description isn’t likely to engage the reader’s heart.

In Hearts Unbroken, Louise is attracted to Joey’s raw energy, his focus on his photography and videography, his sense of humor, their shared rapport, and his devotion to his pet hedgehog. She empathizes with his marginalized identity, his struggle over his parents’ recent divorce, the fact that his ex-girlfriend cheated on him and that he’s the new kid in school. Does she find him physically attractive? Sure, but there’s more to it than that.

Are They Irresistibly Imperfect?

Renée Zellweger and Colin Firth

In the immortal words of Lady Gaga, “I love imperfections.”

The argument could be made that loving someone’s flaws proves the love is real. We understand, for better and worse, who someone is and we love them anyway.

Consider “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (2001). After a series of interpersonal misfires, in a pivotal scene, stuffy Mark Darcy lists Bridget’s endearing “faults” and then firmly declares that he likes her, just the way she is. There’s power in that. Staying power.

How Far Will They Go?

From holding hands to full-on sex time, there’s a wide range in the sensual and sexual nature of literary teen romances.

You can look at writing those scenes as a matter of conscience or a matter of craft.

We’ll consider both.

The key is to stay specific. What rings true to these particular characters, their relationship arc, situation and setting? (The more generic your scene is, the more likely it is to read clichéd and fall flat.) Frame the characters as complex people, not stereotypes rooted in gender or orientation.

Watch out for your own biases, avoid double standards, and be wary of judgmentalness.

Consider the moral center. How will you frame the dynamic around consent? Will faith-based beliefs play a role in decision making? On a practical level, how will the text address the questions of birth control and protection from sexually-transmitted diseases?

How will the awkwardness manifest itself? Because awkwardness is a given. You’re working with inexperienced characters impacted by personal stakes. Weigh each participant’s emotional maturity.

How About the Whole Heart?

Yes, love matters…as does romance. For many teens, these are rites of passage, partially defining experiences. And for many, they’re not. That may be a matter of timing and/or orientation.

According to a CDC survey, the percentage of high-school students who say they’ve had sex has declined from 47.8% in 2007 to 39.5% in 2017. But those YA readers who don’t engage “all the way” may still experience desire and/or kissing and/or petting and/or be otherwise socially or emotionally affected by their peers’ sexual relationships and related expectations.

At the same time, sex is only one aspect of life and, again, it’s not for everyone. If you’re writing a love story, that overarching romantic arc probably can’t sustain the entire book all by itself.

You should probably ask yourself:

  1. What else is going on?
  2. What’s happening with your protagonist’s and love interest’s family, friends, community?
  3. What’s happening within their heart that’s not about their significant other?
  4. How do they feel about themselves?

Happily Ever After?

Consider the possibility that one’s first love usually isn’t one’s last.

YA writers, I’m looking at you. And in the mirror, too.

I fret that in our quest to frame the highest possible stakes we’ve massively oversold first-love, wish-fulfillment stories to the point that teens have gotten the message that they should stay in relationships well past their expiration date.

Even in cases where there are abusive or other unhealthy dynamics in play.

What’s more, there’s something more layered and compelling about risking one’s heart after having to first mend it.

Here’s to more stories of second loves (and beyond) in YA literature.

Are You a Romantic?

Yes or no, I hope these questions and reflections help you craft that novel.

In “Josh Has No Idea Where I Am!” from season one of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Rebecca’s therapist, Doctor Akopian, says to her that great, defining love can be a passion rather than a person.

As for me, I often think that writing is the great love of my life.

Cynsational Notes

★ “Absorbing….Blending teen romance with complex questions of identity, equality, and censorship, this is an excellent choice…”
— School Library Journal, starred review (see also Teen Librarian Toolbox: “a must-have for all collections.”) (see also Teen Librarian Toolbox: “a must-have for all collections.”)

“Highly recommended! There’s so much love and warmth and reality all through Hearts Unbroken. And so much hope! And some absolutely terrific ground-breaking moves!” — Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature (read the whole review)

Q&A with Cynthia Leitich Smith from Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb. Peek: “The time wasn’t right for a story so unabashedly Native in politic or sensibility, and I wasn’t ready emotionally to write it yet either.”

Interview: Cynthia Leitich Smith by Crystal from Rich In Color. Peek: “As I drafted scenes, I was aware of exactly how they’d resonate with many Native teens and, to varying degrees, alienate many influential, non-Indian adults. I kept typing anyway.”

The Heart of Cynthia Leitich Smith by Amanda West Lewis from Wild Things: VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Blog. Peek: “I crafted a love story juxtaposed against microaggressions and their escalation. A story that’s infused with humor and community and lived experience as a middle class Native teen.”

Let’s Indigenize Our Bookshelves and Fully Welcome Native Kids as Readers by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “I understood from a very young age that the Native part of myself didn’t seem to belong in the world of readers. (Did we send that message to all Native kids? Do we still? At what cost to them and to their non-Indian friends…).”

In addition to the release of Hearts Unbroken, Cynthia is celebrating the new paperback edition of Feral Pride, the third book in the Feral trilogy and the final book set in the Tantalize series and Feral series universe.