Middle Grade Romance

Valentine’s Day is coming and love is in the air. Right?

Well, maybe not if you write middle grade.

Middle grade fiction is for kids 8-14. Let’s face it, they know about crushes. But not really romance. If you’re writing a crush into your MG novel, keep these things in mind.


Boys during the middle grade years are no Casanovas. In fact, they’re pretty much the opposite. They are squirrely, and awkward, and let’s face it, kind of weird. They are not sweet talking anyone and remain pretty clueless about things.

Boy-girl interactions at this age are just fraught with awkwardness but also butterflies. It’s all new and kind of exciting but kind of bewildering at the same time. I remember my first dance in sixth grade. A boy asked me to slow dance (oh my gosh!) and when he put his hands on my waist said, “Wow! You’re skinny.” That was it. There was no clue as to whether he was saying it as a negative or positive or if he meant anything by it or if he just hadn’t yet developed a filter between his brain and his mouth. (My money’s on that last guess.) But I still remember it to this day because of the mixture of so many thoughts and emotions it set off.

Does he like me? I don’t like him. What does that mean? Do I say thank you? A boy’s hands are on my waist!

You get the picture.

I’ve yet to see a middle grade where the MC has a boyfriend or girlfriend. Although in WONDER, there is a lot of talk about other people pairing up. But the narrators don’t really take part. This seems to be the unspoken rule of MG. Other people can have a boyfriend/girlfriend, but generally not the main character.

In MG, the crush is not the focus of the story. It’s usually a minor subplot, though in some books it is a larger subplot. Take for example, FORGET ME NOT by Ellie Terry, which releases this spring. The story revolves around a boy and a girl and their friendship. But there is definitely a little crush that develops through the story. To pull this off though, you really need the two characters to interact almost entirely just as friends. No lovey dovey stuff the whole way through.

Some people will tell you that physical affection is a big no in MG. But from my reading, that’s simply not true. A WRINKLE IN TIME has many moments of hand holding (admittedly not romantic, mostly because they’re scared but there are some FEELINGS that come with it) and one kiss. And that was published AGES ago. 😉 Likewise, WHEN YOU REACH ME also has a very sudden, kind of awkward kiss, and by the end the two characters are kind of going steady, but it doesn’t mean too much.

If you are going to put a crush, and especially a kiss, in your MG story, you have to earn it. I don’t mean that the same way romance writers mean it, with the right kind of build up. I mean that it should feel almost necessary to what you’re trying to show in your book. It should act as a marker on character arc, or an important illustration about your character growing up and becoming less of a child. It should have real, meaningful significance.

So, maybe romance isn’t blossoming in middle grade, but awkward crushes and tiny first kisses are.

How about you? Do you have any stories from your life that illustrate the awkward middle grade crush phase? Share in the comments.

Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

Tropes (in Romance): Are they Avoidable?

Trope.” Ever notice that when the word “trope” appears in writer or reader conversation (or reviews), it has negative connotations, akin to invoking an evil spell or committing a crime? While the definitions of “trope” have several variations in the English language, for writers and readers alike, the most common usage of this term is an “overused plot device.” Are tropes overused because they represent reality and common themes? Does the fact that they’re overused mean that it’s time to discard them like a threadbare dish towel? Do we love certain tropes? Hate all of them? Or, more moderately, should we simply accept that tropes are a fact of writing life, or are there some that we should perhaps be cautious about using?

When readers complain about tropes, it’s because they’ve seen those plot devices over and over in other stories and have a gut oh-no-not-this-again reaction. True, one could easily argue that every idea has been already written, and this may indeed be the case when you examine an isolated description of a trope. For instance, take the friends-to-lovers theme. There are lots of romances with a friend-to-lovers theme. If done well, a friends-to-lovers theme can generate deep emotions and positive responses. So what differs between a time-tested theme and a tired old trope, and is there anything we can do to avoid committing the latter? 

The following are just three short examples out of a list of many possible tropes. The broader principles I’ll discuss can apply to lots of different genres, but as I’m working on a romance right now, I’ll focus on romance.

The Massive Miscommunication

– A character acts unwisely because of a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of something that his/her love interest did or said. 
– A character acts unwisely because of a piece of misinformation from a secondary source (e.g., the BFF, an overheard conversation, or a fortune-teller).
– etc.
Red flag: A significant portion of your story carries on because of this miscommunication.

Why not try…
Ready for this one? How about some honesty? While your characters aren’t perfect and can have the occasional misunderstanding (because they are only human), the misunderstanding or miscommunication should not be the main source of conflict. When I was in college, my boyfriend behaved like a total jerk to me for the equivalent of 167 pages of my life. I later found out that it was because he was stressed out about the fact that we’d both be graduating at the end of the year, he really did love me but the future was uncertain, his parents were pressuring him to make a choice, etc. We would have had a much more interesting conflict if he had just been honest with me and if we’d had to deal with these multiple sources of conflict. 

The Love Triangle
– Two desirable characters vie for the attention of a single love interest.
– A character has deep feelings for two other people and just can’t decide.
– A character is expected to have deep feelings for one person (because of parental or social pressure) but really has feelings for someone who defies parental or social pressure #rebel
– etc.
Red flags:
– The entire plot revolves around this love triangle with no growth or change in the love interests.
– The rivals are both swoon-worthy and attractive, and their love interest is atypical (perhaps geeky or clumsy or unpopular)

Why not try…  
This is actually a fairly tough one because love triangles definitely walk that fine line between overdone and well-done (like when you’re cooking a steak). Characters have to make tough choices all the time, and love triangles, when done well, may be a powerful means to do so. However, when used solely as a plot device to create reader cheering sections, it can fail. If the love interests themselves do not change within the dynamic, it can fail as well. If you decide to write a love triangle, the key to avoiding disastrous effects of this trope will lie in the uniqueness of and dynamics among your characters. Be original in thinking about how the vertices of the triangle interact. Perhaps they aren’t fighting for your MC in a possessive “he’s/she’s mine” fashion but in a way where the three are walking in parallel.

The Morning-After Regret
– A character kisses (or does much more) with his/her love interest and wakes up with regret, guilt, and remorse.

Red flag: The morning-after regret creates the main conflict between the characters after “the morning.”

Why not try….
Sure, we’ve all done something like this at one point in our lives, but we move on. Try making your character more of an adult (unless you’re writing YA, and then, well… being more of a young adult) and waking up not with an oh, crap moment that lasts 167 pages but more of a Wow, okay, and now where do we go from this? moment. This can build sexual tension in a way that leaves us wanting to know the same question. Take a risk and try the “no-regrets” or the “fewer-regrets” approach. Who knows? It might be a better twist of this tired old trope, and your characters might like it better too.

What are some other examples of tropes in romance that you personally avoid? I’d love to hear from you!

* BookRiot has a great post with story trope BINGO cards, for several different genres. 

Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (coming soon). You can find out more about her at www.helenboswell.com.

How to Keep the Stakes High in Character-Driven Novels

Okay, so I write romance. There’s not generally a lot of good vs. evil in a romance. No wicked overlord trying to unseat a king. Very few daggers and swords and magical spells threatening to bring ruin to all in the land.

No, romance is a character-driven beast. And what a beast it is.

When I first started writing romance, it was really hard for me. You could find me moaning in the corner with an empty package of Girl Scout Cookies, mumbling, “But what’s supposed to happen?”

Things really took a turn for me when I attended a class somewhere (I can’t even remember where or when! I take a lot of classes) and someone said, “The romance is the main plot.”

It was like someone had ignited the sun over my head.

The romance IS the plot. Huh. Who knew?

Anyway, once I had that well in-mind, the next question came as to how to keep the stakes high in such a novel. If the romance is the plot, there must be highs and lows. There must be SOMETHING keeping people turning the pages.

Now, before you go there, remember that I write Christian western romances. There’s none of that going on.

So what does keep readers flipping pages when they read character-driven novels like a romance?

1. Thoughtful pacing. 

Things are happening, and you as the author need to make sure they happen at exactly the right time. I always put a kiss at the midpoint. Always. At exactly 50% of the book. Too soon, and I’ve rushed. Too late, and readers are frustrated.

I always think, “Ebb and flow. Come and go. Two steps forward, one back.” That’s my mantra when I’m writing a character-based novel. If you can keep that forward progression going, but constantly put obstacles in the way, you’ve got it.

What obstacles? you might ask. Internal obstacles. Emotional turmoil. Questioning beliefs. Taking emotional risks. In the character-driven novel, the character themselves is both hero and villain.

2. Likeable characters a reader can cheer for. 

These are essential in any novel, but especially important for novels that are so character-focused. Ask yourself, “Why would someone want to spend the next 60,000 words with this person?”

Do they have relatable flaws? Realistic strengths? Compelling reasons to STAY AS THEY ARE? Because if they’re ready and rearin’ for change, the emotional pay-off for readers isn’t as high. It’s better to take a likeable character with Six Things That Need Fixing, and really have them buck against fixing those things.

3. Realistic and cruel obstacles. 

I know that sounds terrible! But if your story features a heroine who’s previous husband died in a fire, the best thing to do is give her a hero who fights fires for a living. She really needs to face her demons to go through the emotional transformation you want her to.

Likewise, your hero needs real and relatable problems too. There’s nothing that drives me more batty than the “perfect man.” True, that’s what most readers want — in the end. Not on page one. So the hero in a romance also needs his insecurities and shortcomings, and he should have to face his personal demons as he falls in love too.

This is where you can play with the plot a little too. These obstacles — what’s keeping the main character from getting what they want? — can be internal and external. It’s almost always the internal obstacles that must be overcome in the end, but external obstacles can force characters to examine themselves internally. So that’s where I throw in bad weather, or a fall from a horse, or a sick kid.

Or hey, that fire that just might be the end of a relationship. 🙂

How do you keep the tension high in a character-driven novel? 

Liz Isaacson writes inspirational romance, usually set in Texas, or Wyoming, or anywhere else horses and cowboys exist. Her Western inspirational romances, SECOND CHANCE RANCHTHIRD TIME’S THE CHARM, and FOURTH AND LONG are Amazon #1 bestsellers and are available now.

She lives in Utah, where she teaches elementary school, taxis her daughter to dance several times a week, and serves on her community’s library board. Liz is represented by Marisa Corvisiero of the Corvisiero Agency. Find her on Facebooktwitter, and her blog.

Writers are Readers: Best Lessons from New Adult Books

Read, read, read. And read some more.

We here at Thinking Through Our Fingers are strong proponents of the idea that writers must be avid and analytical readers in order to learn the craft. By reading in our genre especially, we can learn much from the example of others.

In this “Writers are Readers” series, several of our blog contributors will be sharing some of the best reads within the genre that we write along with the lessons learned from these gorgeous reads. I write both Young Adult and New Adult, and my spotlight will be on New Adult books. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this genre, these are stories that feature characters between the ages of 18-24. This is a time of newfound independence and freedom, of self-discovery and exploration, of trying out new and often risky things, of testing the waters of adult relationships, of incurring emotional hardship and damage, and perhaps most of all, of the tumultuous emotional development that brings us into adulthood and makes us who we are. Particularly popular within this genre is contemporary romance, likely because this age represents a time when we can explore and experiment with those adult relationships for the very first time.

As such, the following book picks are some of the New Adult contemporary romances that drove a lesson home…and in a few cases, a stake through my heart. ❤

Note: Due to the nature of the genre, all of the contemporary romances in this list contain mature subject material, including varying degrees of sexual content associated with emotional progression of characters (some more on the sweeter side, others definitely steamy). Everyone has different tastes, so you may want to check out non-spoilery book reviews or preview a sample of a book if you think this may be an issue for you.

For a lesson in realistic romance: Flat-Out Love by Jessica Park, Deep Blue by Jules Barnard

For a lesson in humor and voice: Imperfect Chemistry by Mary Frame, Imperfectly Criminal by Mary Frame, With a Twist by Staci Hart

For a lesson in building sexual tension: A Little Too Hot by Lisa Desrochers, Obsession by Jennifer L. Armentrout

For a lesson in emotional development: Wait for You by J. Lynn, Charade by Nyrae Dawn

For a lesson in damaged characters: Tragic by J.A. Huss, Unbreak Me by Lexi Ryan, Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire

For a lesson in external conflict/suspense: The Untamed Series by Jen Meyers and Victoria Green, The Chicago Underground Series (1-3) by Skye Warren (note: this is a dark romance)

For a lesson in romance that will break your heart into a million pieces: Maybe Someday by Colleen Hoover

If you want to catch any of the other posts in Thinking Through Our Fingers’ “Writers are Readers” feature, here they are! 🙂


Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both YA urban fantasy and NA contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. Find out more about Helen at www.helenboswell.com.