How to maintain tension in a romance novel when you know there is a happy ending

Readers of romance novels have certain expectations and success in the genre means meeting those expectations – one of which is the Happy Ever After, or HEA as it’s known.

But there’s a lot of ground to cover in a relationship from the first meeting to the HEA, and romance readers also expect tension. A lot of tension.

The HEA, while expected, must never feel like a foregone conclusion. Characters have to work to get the romance of their (and readers’) dreams.

So how do you keep that dramatic tension high even as your characters move towards a happy ending?

It’s not easy, which is why I’ve asked three Australian authors at the top of their game to offer their tips.

Kylie Scott is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today best-selling, Audie Award winning author. She has sold more than 2 million books. Kylie’s latest novel is End Of Story, out now.

Anne Gracie is a bestselling, award-winning author of 20 novels and her Regency-era historical romances have been translated into more than 18 languages. Her latest novella, The Laird’s Bride, is out now.

Sandy Barker is the author of nine published novels, with her next book, the first in the Ever After Agency series, coming in September 2023.

From character to credibility, as these authors share, there’s a lot to think about to keep the drama high as a romance unfolds.

1. Start with your characters

“When creating two characters who will eventually fall in love, I consider their main character objectives, motivations and character traits,” says Sandy Barker. “One or more of those will need to clash to create tension between them.”

Characters might have opposing objectives (as in Sandy’s novels Beach Read or The True Love Experiment) or have the same objective, but for very different reasons. But there’s another reason for making your characters complete opposites.

“It’s really fun to read about characters with opposing character traits,” says Sandy. “My next romcom really leans into the ‘opposites attract’ trope with a grumpy-sunshine dynamic between the two love interests.”

For Anne Gracie, understanding a character’s vulnerable areas and fears is the key. “Ask yourself what they fear most,” she says. “Their internal fears – not fear of spiders or fear of death – and then work out how you can make that happen, and in the worst possible way.”

And it needn’t be huge or melodramatic. “Just intense and deeply felt by the main point-of-view character,” Anne.

2. Don’t forget credibility

While romance readers expect a HEA – and get one in a successful romance – the path of love must never run too smoothly. Romance writers often speak about ‘the black moment’, when all seems lost for the relationship. And the key to providing that big, dramatic moment is credibility.

“The black moment needs to make sense within the situation,” says Kylie Scott. “If a simple conversation could fix the problem, would the characters even work as a couple long term? But if it's fuelled by back story and issues the characters have long wrestled with, then the reader is more likely to stick with you to the end.”

3. It often comes down to confrontation

“Often the ‘black moment’ is something that needs to happen – the breaking through of a barrier, the confrontation of a problem, the revelation of a secret,” agrees Anne Gracie. “Something that feels dreadful at the time, but leads to healing afterwards.”

And, once you’ve decided what needs to happen, Anne suggests subtly building up to it. “Keep the reader on the metaphorical edge of the seat, anticipating and simultaneously fearing that something is going to happen.”

4. Understand the different types of conflict

Dramatic tension requires conflict – and different stories will require different kinds of conflict (or a combination).

“If the conflict is internal – the character is struggling because being with the love interest clashes with their belief system or another of their objects – I make them marinade in that conflict before they finally decide to prioritise the HEA,” says Sandy. “But if the conflict is external – there are external factors keeping the lovers apart – then they will have to fight for their HEA, often by joining forces.”

In this latter scenario, Sandy continues, “the higher the stakes, the more they are sacrificing together, the darker the moment, and the sweeter the HEA.”

The third type of conflict is that between the love interests themselves. “This is usually a miscommunication or misunderstanding,” says Sandy. “Here, I force them to imagine life without the other, which makes them miserable and willing to come back together to fight for their HEA.”

5. Use your setting wisely

Regency author Anne Gracie agrees that she uses the setting and social mores of the era to create dramatic tension in her stories.

“All societies have their mores and restrictions and conventions, and they can all be used to heighten dramatic tension,” she says. “But the real tension comes from characters and how those conventions impact on them, what they want, what they try for and how they struggle.”

Kylie Scott, whose romances are hot and contemporary, agrees. “Romance novels have a tight focus, but characters rarely live in a goldfish bowl,” she says. “They still have to deal with the world and friends and family – all of which can have an impact on the longevity of a relationship.”

For more tips and advice, check out the Romance Writing and Historical Fiction courses.

Author bio
Author Allison Tait smilingAllison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. A presenter at AWC and former co-host of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, Al is currently editing her latest middle-grade novel The First Summer of Callie McGee. Find out more about her at

Browse posts by category
Browse posts by category

Courses starting soon

Do you have a passion for writing? Save up to 40% off 50 courses SEE COURSES


Nice one! You've added this to your cart