How to set up a romantic subplot in an Epic Fantasy novel

In the last post I went over what romance looks like in an Epic Fantasy story, why you should consider including one, and if romance is even necessary at all.

In this post we get into the details of actually setting up a romantic subplot in your story!

Let’s talk tropes

Every genre has it’s ‘tropes’. Fantasy is full of them: the wise mentor, the young protagonist that comes of age, and the evil sorcerer who wants to rule the world—just to name a few. Romance also has its tried and true themes. However, romance tropes tend to focus on the type of relationship rather than character tropes. There are loads of them, which of course you should put a twist on (just like with Fantasy tropes—no one wants a LOTR rehash!).

Here are just a few romance tropes that can work well in Epic Fantasy. You might smile at some of them, but before you scoff remember they are popular for a reason:

  • Enemies to lovers
  • Friends to lovers
  • Protector/ savior
  • Woman in charge
  • Forced marriage
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Revenge
  • Redemption
  • Second chance
  • Love triangle
  • Abducted/Slave and master
  • Forbidden love
  • Unrequited love
  • Different worlds

Like I said above—and I’m going to repeat it because it’s so important—the trick is to put a TWIST on the trope (or tropes … you can use more than one), to make it fresh, exciting, and truly your own.

For example, your trope might be Protector/Savior. However, ‘what if’ your hero was actually sent to kill the heroine but pretends that he was sent to protect her instead? ‘What if’ she’s not the sort of woman who needs protecting, a trained killer herself. This was the premise behind my novel, The Lost Swallow. It provided plenty of conflict, both for the plot and the romance.

Don’t be afraid to play with the tropes a bit. Keep asking yourself ‘What if?” and try to mix a couple of tropes together to create something original.

Blending the romance trope with your main story

Of course, all of this is easier to do BEFORE you start writing. If you’ve decided you want a forced marriage subplot as part of your Epic Fantasy story you’ll find it easier to achieve if you incorporate this at the planning stage!

The marriage should be an integral part of the plot, not just a vehicle for romance (Grave Draven’s Radiance does this really well). Political intrigue, assassination attempts, royal advisers with their own agendas—let your imagination fly!

In The Lost Swallow, my hero is an enchanter, an expert in the healing arts. This makes him an unlikely choice of assassin. However, his superior wants rid of him as he’s a threat to her power. He naturally falls into the role of protector later in the story but he has huge hurdles to cross before he does. He’s been charged with killing a young woman and her female bodyguard … and of course things are complicated further when he falls for the bodyguard!

It’s a good idea to ‘echo’ the main themes of your story in both your romantic subplot as well as your main story. E.g., in The Lost Swallow, the theme was ‘the most important choices are the most difficult’. I made sure this theme resonated for both the romance and the main story.

Choosing your characters

Characters aren’t static. They develop and grow. They start of with things they need to learn and flaws they need to rid themselves of. Make the romance subplot part of that.

Think what finding love does to us. We become softer, wiser (or more foolish!), braver, more honest and self-sacrificing. Choose characters who need to learn these things.

Love makes us vulnerable, but we often resist that vulnerability. Show your characters resisting what’s happening to them. Maybe changing who they are puts their goals in jeopardy, which means at some point they are going to have to make a difficult choice

Speaking of goals…

Your characters have to have objectives. These will often change throughout the story. A character might shift the goal posts every few chapters, depending on what’s happening in the story, and that’s fine. But they always need to want something.

Make your hero and heroine’s goals opposing. He wants to kill the princess and she wants to protect her. He wants to escape and she wants to keep him prisoner. He wants peace and she wants war.

The more at odds you make the goals of your love interests the easier it will be for you to create chemistry, longing, and emotional intensity in your story. Contrary to what those who criticize romance often say, it’s these elements (not steamy sex scenes) that makes a romance a romance. These are the things that keep readers coming back for more. The longer you can keep the lovers apart, the more opposing their goals, and the more obstacles you throw in their way, the more epic the romance will be.

My next post, Blog #3, is all about how to build emotional intensity and how to approach sex scenes (if you decide to go there at all).

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. Please leave your comments below.

Why include a romantic subplot in your Epic Fantasy novel?

Romance adds emotional depth. It can allow Fantasy writers to make their books more character-driven. It can make the central conflict more intense, raise the stakes, and allow the readers to see your main characters as fully rounded characters.

Romance can also add a lighter element to your story – for although you might make your characters suffer for love and put them through the emotional wringer, you will need to give them a HEA (Happy Ever After) or at the very least a HFN (Happy for Now) ending. If you don’t, it isn’t a romance but a love story. Love stories often end tragically – thank Gone with the Wind and Titanic.

Do you actually need romance?

Some stories just don’t need luuve. 😉

If your novel features a really young protagonist who comes of age during the story, then the focus is more likely to be on their maturation and development. Romance would only muddy the waters. Seriously flawed protagonists can also make romance a challenge. If ‘love’ is part of their redemption then it can work, but if it isn’t then once again adding romance might just confuse or irritate your readers.

Of course, my personal opinion is that just about any story can be improved with a touch of romance. Before I started writing romance I noticed that the Epic Fantasy and Historical Adventure stories I liked to read all had a strong romantic element that enriched the plot for me. My first attempts at writing Epic Fantasy were very traditional, but somehow romance still crept it there.

My path to Epic Fantasy Romance

I’ve made my name as an author if Historical Romance set back in the mists of time. As a self-published author I was able to set my books in a non-traditional time period for Historical Romance: 7th Century Anglo-Saxon England, and 4th Century Scotland. Although I used what historical evidence I could find for my novels, writing this far back (especially for the Pictish novels) allows me to enter the realms of fantasy.

These books, especially The Warrior Brothers of Skye series, have done well for me, but my heart always returns to Epic Fantasy Romance. In my opinion, Fantasy is more difficult to right than Historical. You have to build an entirely new world rather than research an existing one, and the plot tends to be more complex.

The two novels I’ve published so far in the Light and Darkness series are both romances, although I approached each one differently. In the first, Ruled by Shadows, romance is a strong subplot, integral to the story but slightly overshadowed by the main action. In my second novel, The Lost Swallow, the romance holds equal weight to the action. Both are high-octane stories, but I handle the romance differently in each. I’m now 30% into Book #3 in the series and am letting the romance drive this story as well.

Final thoughts: confidence, respect, and a little knowledge

Handling romance well in a story requires confidence, respect for the genre – and a little knowledge. People who don’t read romance often think it’s formulaic and cheesy. If you believe this, you might find it hard to incorporate a successful romantic subplot into your story.

You can’t fake romance. You either feel it or you don’t.

I’ve been writing romance for the past seven years and with each passing year I love it more. I was never a ‘romance’ reader in the past but I love how romance allows a writer to add emotional depth and conflict to a story. Sure a good romance has to have certain elements to work properly but that doesn’t make it formulaic – and if you write from the heart your romantic subplot won’t be cheesy.

In the coming posts I’ll be covering how to set up your romantic subplot, how to approach emotion and sex scenes, how to structure the romance arc in your story, and how to achieve a satisfying emotional confusion to your romantic subplot.

In Blog #2, we’re going to dive into what makes romance work, and how to blend it with Epic Fantasy.

Any questions or comment about this post? Please feel free to comment below!

How to include a romantic subplot in an Epic Fantasy novel: blog series

I’ve embarked on this five-post blog series to help Epic Fantasy authors who are interested in adding a bit of romance into their stories, but aren’t sure how to approach it. This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, as I’ve had a few Epic Fantasy writers contact me via this blog asking for advice.

Anyone who has never written romance before and then tries to incorporate it in a story often gets a shock (as I did initially) about just how hard it is to get right. Actually … it’s only hard if you’re fumbling blindly ahead of you. Once you know how romance works, and what the key ingredients are to making it shine, it’s a lot easier.

Of course there are lots of sub-genres within Epic Fantasy (grim-dark, high, Arthurian, heroic, sword and sorcery just to name a few). Most of these can benefit from having a romantic subplot added to the story. The romance can be very slight, to the point where the attraction is barely hinted at and the characters don’t even kiss, to being a fully fleshed out romance that runs alongside (but is still secondary to) the main story.

So …. to start this series off let’s take a look at why you should include a romantic subplot at all? Do you actually need one.

Blog post #1: Why include a romantic subplot in your Epic Fantasy novel?

Blog post #2: How to set up a romantic subplot in your Epic Fantasy novel

Grace Draven’s new Fantasy Romance is coming

We’ll have to wait till September 2018 for it—but Penguin Random House have finally released the details about Grace Draven’s new romantic fantasy: PHOENIX UNBOUND.

It’s looks epic! Here’s the cover:


Here’s what the novel is about …

A woman with power over fire and illusion and an enslaved son of a chieftain battle a corrupt empire in this powerful and deeply emotional romantic fantasy from the USA Today bestselling author of Radiance.

Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire’s capital–her fate to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village’s tithe has been the same woman. Gilene’s sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.

But this year is different.

Azarion, the Empire’s most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion–and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.

To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire–and burn once more.

Preorder on Amazon!

As you might have guessed, I’ve already preordered my copy! I’m a huge Grace Draven fan—frankly there aren’t enough fantasy authors like her out there. Here’s why I feel her books are better than many other fantasy romance novels I’ve read.

  1. Her writing is beautiful: she has a lyrical almost fairy-tale style, and creates a magical sense of place.
  2. Her books are truly character-driven: even if an epic fantasy novel has great characters, few of them are really ‘character-driven’. By its nature, fantasy tends to be plot driven, as forces outside our characters control throw them into adventures. However, Grace Draven manages to rein in the scope and approaches fantasy through the way romance authors approach storytelling. Her novels have epic qualities but what matters most is the internal journey of the characters.
  3. Her books are emotional: she really knows how to create deeply emotional stories that hook readers in. We really care about what happens to her characters.
  4. Her books are about great love: yes, they’re steamy, but Grace Draven’s books focus on the developing romance between two characters, and a deep and enduring love. She uses classic romance tropes in her works but subverts them beautifully, giving us a unique story.

Have you found another author that writes in a similar vein to Grace Draven—please let me know if you have. I love this type of fantasy, so I’d be keen to read their books too! 🙂

How to manage story arc in Epic Fantasy

Just had a revelation about plotting Epic Fantasy novels that I had to share with you!

Writing a fantasy novel is hard work! It took me around 8 months to get the 130,000 words of the first draft of RULED BY SHADOWS written — and after a brutal structural edit I’m now over half-way through the rewrite.

I’ve changed a lot of things during the second draft—but one of the biggest discoveries for me is in how to manage the story arc.

Epic Fantasies are big, complex books. Add some romance to it and you have a lot to balance.

One of the things that has struck me during this rewrite is that Epic Fantasy novels are like matryoshka dolls (those little Russian dolls that nest inside each other) — there are stories within stories. Arcs within arcs.

What do I mean by this?

Think of the classic story arc:

  1. Set up
  2. Crisis
  3. Resolution

This is the traditional three-act structure, which of course most stories will have. The problem for me is that in a long story, these three are too over-arching, too generic.

Here’s an example of the three act structure for Star Wars (from William Coleman, Flickr):

3 act structure

That’s great — and it’s important to be able to break your story up into these three steps — but it doesn’t take into account that each section of your story needs to have it’s own arc and flow.

So, instead of just focusing on these three over-arching plot points, I’ve broken down my novel into sub-sections, and then focused on each section having it’s own arc. This process is massively important to Epic Fantasy, because these stories usually head toward some epic battle, or climatic show-down. It can be tempting to focus too much on the destination and not on the journey. Yet Fantasy is a slow-build, it’s all about world-building, character development, and creating a net of subplots that all come together in the end.

The reader should feel that each section of the novel has a sense of completion.

To do this, I broke my current work-in-progress, RULED BY SHADOWS, into sub-sections. Here they are:

  1. Set up on The Isle of Orin
  2. The First Journey (from Orin to The Royal City of Rithmar)
  3. The House of Light and Darkness
  4. The Second Journey (from the Royal City of Rithmar to the Shadefell Mountains)
  5. The Epic battle at the Shadefells and the grande finale

Not all of these sections will be the same size. Some will be six chapters, long, some nine, other’s twelve.

Once you’ve split your story up into sub-sections, decide on how long each one is going to be. This is an important step — it’s easy to let sections drag on too long, or rush them. To avoid this, figure out how many chapters you’re going to need for each stage: SET UP, CRISIS and RESOLUTION.

Let’s take section 2 of RULED BY SHADOWS as an example: The First Journey

I decided that since this journey takes place in the first third of the novel, it shouldn’t drag on too long. Not only that, but it has to move the story forward as well, not just be an entertaining diversion with my main characters travelling and encountering danger along the way.

The First Journey: 9 chapters

  1. SET UP: goal is to show that something is wrong with the world while allowing the readers to get to know the main characters.
    Ch 1: characters leave the port city of Idriss, encounter a shadow creature on the way out of town and barely escape with their lives. Very strange event as these creatures don’t usually go anywhere near towns. Not only that but the weather has gone gloomy and cold — even though its the middle of summer
    Ch 2: characters reach first town and discover that there shadow creatures have been attacking settlements after dark. There’s unrest and fear. Weather is still grey — they haven’t seen the sun in days.
    Ch 3: characters reach a village on the edge of the highlands, half-way through their journey, and discover the locals have gone rogue with fear. Our heroine saves a mother and son who are about to be sacrificed to the shadows.
  2. CRISIS: goal is to show the background menace on the journey exploding into real danger — our four companions must depend on each other for survival
    Ch 4: Rough night in the village in which shadow creatures attack and cause a lot of damage — our heroes wisely stay indoors although they see the devastation the following morning
    Ch 5: They make camp on the road and are attacked by shadow creatures during the night. Barely escape with their lives and manage to hide under a boulder until dawn. The days are still dark—no sign of the sun.
    Ch 6: They hide-out in a cave the following night but witness a bloody attack on The Brotherhood (the group of assassins who’ve been tracking them since Orin), in which all of their pursuers are butchered.
  3. RESOLUTION: goal is to bring our characters closer together as it becomes a fight for survival. Will they actually reach the capital?
    Ch 7: The companions stop for a much needed rest and our hero and heroine share a first kiss  (it’s also a romance, after all!). A much needed drawing of breath after three action-packed chapters
    Ch 8: Problems start again at dusk when they can’t find anywhere safe to hide out for the night. They’re still three days from their destination and will never make it in time. Shadow creatures close in and it seems they’ve finally been caught.
    Ch 9: A patrol of enchanters — the very people they are travelling to see at the capital — come across them, just before the shadow creatures do, and protect them just in time. The next day they safely escort them the rest of the way to their destination.

The notes above are very sketchy, and I deliberately kept them so. I like to have a bit of mystery when I write. If I plan everything out in minute detail I lose interest — there’s nothing left to discover! However, this type of planning really helps me create a strong skeleton to hang my story on.

I’ve actually just rewritten this section — here are my chapter titles:

Chapter Seventeen: The Encounter
Chapter Eighteen: By the Fireside
Chapter Nineteen: Sacrifice to the Shadows

Chapter Twenty: A Sleepless Night in Hillbrook
Chapter Twenty-one: Flight in the Dark
Chapter Twenty-two: The Valley

Chapter Twenty-three: Collecting Firewood
Chapter Twenty-four: The Net Tightens
Chapter Twenty-five: The Enchanters of the Light

My original journey was long-winded and a huge digression from the main storyline. This one develops the characters and adds to the central conflict. The journey makes the stakes higher. Not only are our characters are on the run pursued by assassins, and taking a precious talisman to safety, but even though it’s mid-summer, the days have grown dark and cold, and shadow creatures — servants of a past dictator — are now attacking towns with increasing viciousness. Everything seems to be going wrong.

When should you plan out these story arcs?

First draft would be ideal! However, second drafts are also are good place to start. By this stage you have a strong idea of your world and characters and have a greater sense of what you want to achieve.

Hopefully, you find my advice on creating multiple story arcs within your novel useful—this discovery was definitely a ‘lightbulb moment’ for me. 🙂

What makes a great Fantasy Romance?

While planning my next book, I’ve been doing some research about what others like, or don’t like, about the Fantasy Romances they read and review on Goodreads.

Of course, there are many types of Fantasy Romance – including paranormal, steampunk and dystopian – but since I’m blending epic fantasy with romance, I looked at some popular novels in the genre, and compiled a list of what people thought of them on Goodreads.

If you’re in the planning stages of a novel (like me) this step is a ‘must’. Before putting all the work in, you want to ensure you are writing to an audience that actually exists!

After reading lots of reviews of my favourite Fantasy Romances, I came up with quite a list about what a fan of this genre expects… and here they are:

  • Great action-packed sequences with some high adventure
  • An epic romance with tear-jerking emotion
  • A bit of humour
  • Realistic, believable relationships – for example, friendships that build – rather than stereotypical romance tropes
  • Strong world building, with deep descriptions of the world: journeys, surroundings, settings
  • Classic fantasy elements since warring kingdoms, magic etc.
  • Intelligent story
  • Witty, alive dialogue
  • Great lead characters and strong character-building
  • Natural writing voice
  • Creativity
  • A strong underlying theme that brings the whole story together

I’ve written quite a few historical romances, and I can see immediately how this list differs from what readers of historical romance expect. There’s a far greater emphasis on realism, world-building and adventure in Fantasy Romance. Many lovers of this genre also read mainstream fantasy, so they expect all the fantasy tropes, even if it’s romance.

Hmm, this may be why my historical romances – which are realistic love stories set in 7th Century Anglo-Saxon England – have never appeal to those who go for the classic ‘bodice ripper’ or ‘swooning heroine’ type of historical romance. There’s too much action and world-building in my stories for them to appeal to readers who like their historical romance traditional.

What’s the purpose of this exercise?

It’s about doing your homework first. I’m by nature an impatient person – but experience has taught me it’s much harder to go back and change things after you’ve written a manuscript. It’s wiser to take a bit of extra time in the planning stage.

I’m all for writing what you love – and in fact that’s how I’ve managed to write and self-publish ten of them – but it really pays to think about who you’re writing to before you throw yourself in. Is there actually a market for what you’re about to invest hundreds of hours in?

I also run a copy writing business, so I thought it was time I started applying some of the principles I use every day to my creative writing.

One of the most important rules of copy writing is: write for your target audience. 

So, this time around… that’s exactly what I’m going to do!