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A story I'm working on features a "slow burn" type romance with a long build-up. The arc begins with (what's mean to be) obvious attraction, and proceeds through a long period in which the female protagonist is strongly opposed to starting a relationship. Meanwhile the male love interest is persistently flirtatious.

From experience, I know that romances that start from more-or-less antagonistic relationships can work very well, or they can work very poorly. I'm just having a hard time pinning down the tipping point between good and bad.

At what point does a reader start thinking the love interest is a nuisance, or the heroine is annoyingly indecisive? Will my readers lose respect for the heroine if she "gives in" and initiates a relationship? Or will they be annoyed by how long she was holding out?

What are the signs that the characters engaging in playfully antagonistic flirting aren't being very playful?

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I'm speaking for myself, but I can say that if you drag out the period when the relationship doesn't evolve in any visible way (even if the negative resolve is being eroded invisibly) I'll quickly get bored with it, unless you introduce an interesting parallel plot line, which will keep me occupied while the tense romance is put on the back burner to simmer and soften. Otherwise, drag it out as long as you desire, have it weathered and turn it at a good pivotal moment, but only providing you give the reader a good, active thread in the foreground. –  SF. Jul 20 at 23:58

2 Answers 2

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Another way to add interest is to create a situation in which the heroine's reasons for refusing to consider the hero are tied to her own personal issues. For instance, in Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the protagonist (a lowly concierge) hides her brilliant mind from her upper-class employers because of deep-seated fears that are based on childhood experiences in which the lowly get hurt when they mix with the elevated. Because of this, she is very skittish of a friendship-maybe-something-more that a wealthy man is trying to offer. Or, for another instance, Dorothy Sayers has several mysteries in which Harriet Vane (although attracted to Lord Peter Wimsey, whose detective work saved her from the hangman's noose) continues to reject him, in part because she doesn't want to be saved and swept off her feat by a man, and in part because she fears that to love is incompatible with real independence of mind and life.

The focus in these stories is on character development and the events that change the characters' minds. That is what makes them work.

It's not so much that the heroines in these stories learn to better value their romantic interests, but that their own characters develop to the point where they are ready to risk loving someone. I love stories in which characters change and develop, so this kind of story holds my interest much more easily than one in which the characters are more static.

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I like both answers very much, but I chose this one because I feel like it fits in well with the type of story I'm trying to write. I will definitely also be using Lauren's advice, though. –  lea Jul 22 at 9:03

A classic take on this from the Bard is Much Ado About Nothing (I also recommend this wonderful filmed version, which stays fairly close to the text). Beatrice and Benedick both swear they will never marry, are not interested in relationships, and are certainly not attracted to each other. They preen and posture and announce and declare, but when their friends and family decide to fix them up, a hint to Benedick that Beatrice likes him but is too shy to say so tips him over immediately.

In more modern romantic comedies, you have two people who profess to be unable to stand one another, but when they are talking with friends, will protest too loudly about some facet of the other person or will admit "Oh, yes, he's certainly handsome/witty/smart/charitable etc., but I could never date him," and the friends correctly read that as "Well, I could if I was talked into it."

If your story is less comedic, then each interaction has to have some element of the wall being chipped away (with one or two reversals so it's not too obvious). In scene 4 she thinks "Wow, we managed to get through a conversation without Dave being an arse." In scene 7 she watches him help an old lady across the street (but doesn't interact with him). In scene 10 he says something which she actually finds funny. Et cetera.

Additionally, your love interest cannot be an actual jerk. He can do things which are annoying to the heroine ("I hate how he dresses like a slob and sits sideways on the furniture!"), but he can't be so antagonistic that the reader doesn't want to see them together (kicking puppies, using homophobic slurs).

As she warms to him, he should also be listening to her complaints and responding to them. So he may not dress in a suit, but maybe he buys new jeans and tucks in his T-shirt.

You need to create a gentle slope of forward progress almost from the beginning, although much of the progress is going to be internal monologue or conversations with characters who are not the love interest, so we see that the heroine's mind is changing even if the love interest doesn't.

The sharp banter can continue throughout, but can be leavened with more genuine compliments, or changed with tone/expression/smiles.

It will feel like it's gone too long if there's no change in her internal monologue about him. If every time she thinks about him or interacts with him her feelings are the same, then he comes off as an annoying stalker.

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