The mechanics of the slow burn romance

When instalove is not on the menu

Last week, I read One Day in December by Josie Silver. In it, Laurie is on a bus one day, she spies a man, and she knows instantly he’s the one for her, and he sees her and she believes he feels the same. But then the bus drives away, and she spends a year looking for him…unsuccessfully.

When her best friend Sarah introduces Laurie to her new boyfriend, Jack, though, Laurie finally finds her mystery man again, and there’s not a chance in hell she can have him. Cue the slow burn romance.

I’ve loved me a good slow burn since pretty much, well, ever. The trope is often accompanied by other tropes. Friends to lovers…

Enemies to lovers…

Employer and employee to lovers…

A slow burn gives you plenty of time to develop the relationship between the characters. You get to see all the ways they fit together, all the things that make them just right for each other, the way the bond between them builds and is cemented through shared history and experience. And the unresolved sexual tension is dragged out until you need a chainsaw to cut through it, and you’re begging for the author to finally make them smush all their body parts together.

That is, of course, when the slow burn is done well.

The biggest challenge of the slow burn is that it can be hard to keep momentum over long periods of time, especially when, presumably, you’ve got big reasons to keep the characters apart. In One Day in December, Laurie and Jack initially can’t be together because Jack is with her best friends, and over the years, the reasons they’re kept apart change and evolve, a combination of both circumstance and a need for personal growth and maturity on the part of the characters. It takes nearly a decade for the two characters to find their way to each other.

In order to work, a slow burn has to give you a reason to believe the characters belong together in the beginning, then more reasons to keep you believing despite periods of separation.

One Day in December uses the love at first sight—instalove—trope to make us believe Laurie and Jack belong together. Then Laurie and Jack become friends…then not.

The trouble with this book is that over time, the author stops giving you new reasons to believe. Especially in the back half of the book, Laurie and Jack spend years and years apart, with no to minimal interaction. You see far more of their dysfunctional relationships with other people than you see of them together. By the time the characters make their way back to each other, you’ve lost the thread of what made them seem like a good idea in the first handful of chapters.

Always by Amanda Weaver is an example of the slow burn done exceedingly well. Set to the backdrop of a rockstar romance, it actually follows a pretty similar trajectory to One Day in December. The characters meet but for reasons can’t be together. Instead, they are friends, and end up going through a bunch of really tough stuff together. Their relationship falls apart for a long time, and their lives go in different directions. They’re with other people for a while.

But through it all, the author gives you reasons to believe in them. Over and over again. By the time Justine and Dillon finally get together, it feels inevitable. Right. A sigh of relief that they’ve finally grown enough to realize the potential you knew was there from the beginning.

In the best slow burns, the reasons to believe build and layer upon each other. No matter how bad things get in the moment of crisis, you believe the main characters belong together and will figure it out. They have to. They belong together.

And when they do,

What are some of your favorite slow burn romances? What made you believe in the characters, no matter what? Let me know over on Twitter.

- Cate

Romancetastica is where I talk about the books I’m reading, the tropes I love, and the things happening in the wider world of Romancelandia. If you like what you’ve read, forward to a friend. If you like what you’ve read and this landed in your inbox thanks to a friend…

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