Redefining Teen Romance: On Writing Sex, Love and Emotions

by Wendy Lu
published in Community

Think about the first time you fell in love. I was a skinny little 14-year-old who had yet to take drivers education, and back then, passing notes in class was still a thing. If your experience was anything like mine, then there were a lot of sweaty palms, awkward e-confessions such as “I want you to be my GF,” and a slippery first kiss that left you dizzy and grinning.

Oh, the throes and woes of adolescent love. The fact that it’s such a relatable experience is one of the reasons why teen romance is one most popular fiction categories in the book industry. On March 22, I listened to five New York Times bestselling YA authors speak at a NYC Teen Author Festival panel about the importance of authenticity and “stripping away layers” – as panelist Lauren Myracle put it – when writing about teenagers in love.

Conveying Emotions

Author Stephen Chbosky said he was 26 years old when he started writing his first book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower – young enough to not have any sort of plan or specific approach to writing it. The book is set in the early 1990s and follows an adolescent boy, Charlie, who grapples with how to express and make sense of his feelings for his first real crush, a girl named Sam.

“It took a few months [of writing] for me to go back to that place in my heart,” said Chbosky, who is almost done with his second novel. “A crush is not this cute thing. It’s beautiful, obsessive.”

Fangirland Eleanor & Park author Rainbow Rowell said she thinks the experience of a first love is especially unique, and that studies have shown that first love has similar effects as drugs, unlike adult relationships.

“If you marry someone, you fall in and out of love three or four times,” Rowell said. “To sustain a relationship, you constantly die off and are reborn. There’s drama in that as well.”

However, David Levithan, the panel facilitator and author of Boy Meets Boy, added that short-term love can also have similar fluctuations in emotional connectivity.

Very few of his characters were in relationships before the books. While writing about the process of falling in love is exciting, Levithan said he’d like to explore more with having two characters maintain a relationship.

Developing Well-Rounded Characters

It’s easy to pick out novels that feature the typical Mary Sues and/or Gary Stus, characters who fit inside perfectly cut-out boxes and seem to magically find each other by chance before developing feelings based on very few meaningful interactions (e.g. Edward and Bella).

So, how does one avoid clichés? Levithan asked.

Rowell said there is no way to avoid them, but that’s not necessarily a disadvantage. Certain clichés very well may be what makes reading about relationships so satisfying.

“We all fall in love, but we do it in our own way,” Rowell said. “The things in a love story are in every love story.”

For Gayle Forman, author of the Just One Day series, a writer doesn’t have to spell everything out for the audience to feel the characters’ emotions and understand what they’re going through. An effective love story isn’t rushed, but brings readers along for the ride.

“In my next book, the guy’s transformation is so clear in my head,” Forman said. “I don’t want to make it a real ‘he-said, she-said.’ It’s more interesting to make things left unsaid or in silence. [There’s an] untold story – if I’ve done my job right, you’ll pick up on it.”

Both Rowell and Forman said they don’t sit down with the intent of writing a teen romance. Rather, it’s how the characters interact with each other and are shaped by their emotions that ultimately drives their stories.

Levithan also asked the panelists how they create characters that are well-rounded and stories that show both sides of the relationship.

“The way I do it is by falling in love with all of them [the characters],” Rowell said. “I just really invest and invest and invest in those feelings. My husband gets jealous all the time. Levi in Fangirl – he was so sick of hearing about him. I just try to get inside of them and love them.”

Chbosky said a successful love story maintains balance between a strong point of view and an appreciation for all the characters.

For her book The Infinite Moment of Us, author Lauren Myracle said she asked her guy friends to share their insight in order to figure out what the experience of her male character, Charlie, should be like.

“We always hear that guys are more visual than girls,” said Myracle, who celebrated the 10th anniversary of her YA novel, Ttyl, in April. “I had to make sure not to have Charlie use words like ‘fabulous’ or ‘lovely.’”

The “S” Word

When I was in eighth grade, several kids in my class teased me at lunch because I didn’t know the difference between “condo” and “condom.” According to the panelists, YA love stories need to show that sex is that awkward – especially when you’re a teenager – and it’s imperative for teen romance stories to capture that reality.

“My characters don’t have sex, but they think about sex and they’re lustful and they want each other,” Rowell said. “When I was a teen, I didn’t know anything about sex or how my body worked. [I’d wonder,] ‘Is this thing that’s happening to me only happening to me?’”

Stigmatizing messages lead many people to believe that sex is scary and wrong. But if two characters end up having a positive sex experience, Rowell said, then that’s how it should be.

Forman agreed, adding that sex shouldn’t always be portrayed as a taboo experience that leads to a negative consequence such as pregnancy.

Teen love isn’t just about the quickened vital signs and starry eyes. There’s a lot of angst and confusion and the potential pain of losing something that once seemed so sacred. The panelists said it’s necessary to provide some emotional context to sex.

“It’s important to talk about real sexuality,” Chbosky said. “The very dark secrets kids keep and haunt them and continue to haunt them. I don’t know if there is a line. There’s only the truth. We’re trying to write as honestly as we can. A little conversation goes a long way.”

Chbosky shed some positive light on the direction that YA romance novels are going in the future, saying that how writers are portraying teen love these days is powerful.

He said, addressing Levithan, “I love that the love story has gone from Patrick and Charlie [from The Perks of Being a Wallflower to your book [Will Grayson, Will Grayson].”

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Wendy-Thumbnail Wendy Lu is the print co-editor for The Durham VOICE and the managing editor of UNC’s Blue & White Magazine. She is also a former publishing intern at Sleepy Hollow Books and a NaNoWriMo 2008 winner. Her work has appeared in The Daily Tar Heel, Raleigh Public Record and Chapel Hill Magazine’s The WEEKLY. Learn more about Wendy’s work at http://wendyluwrites.com.

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