I love a friends-to-lovers plot in a contemporary romance. It’s one of my favorite story lines—but it’s also one that I am the most critical of. So much can go wrong with characters when the author is moving them from friends to friends-with-sexual-tension to friends-with-benefits to more-than-friends by the end of the book.

 

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I was thinking about this recently while reading The Kiss Test by Shannon McKelden (Carina Press, 2010) and realized that there are two main types of friends-to-lovers plots: There’s the type in which one person is secretly in love with the other, while the other remains ignorant of all that ardor. I call this One Pines and One is Clueless.

Then there’s the type where one or both Wake Up (often at about the same moment) and See Something More in the other person that wasn’t so obvious before.

Both plots can be very satisfying, but there are pitfalls to each—it’s easy for the book to go off the rails or for the characters to lose the reader’s respect regardless of what path they take.

In the One Pines and One is Clueless plot, a tricky balance must be maintained to sustain the tension throughout the story. On one hand, Clueless can’t wake up too soon, unless another conflict is introduced that creates an obstacle to the happy ending. But that character can’t remain too blithe and clueless for too long—he or she will look more than clueless, as in willfully ignorant, dumb and oblivious to someone who is supposedly a friend.

Meanwhile, the Piner can easily trip over the line of “oh, yes, I’m actually a stalker. Oops.” Even if that character avoids that pitfall, he or she might stumble into “yes, I am pathetic and I cannot help myself” pine, pine, pine territory. Either way, the pining becomes pathetic, and the character pathetic as well. Yet the One Who Pines can’t grow a pair too soon or else the conflict disappears with the application of Grown-Up Pants of Courage and Confession.

I seem to encounter more plots in which one or both characters wake up to the hotness of their friend. Either there’s a sudden event or incipient change that causes one character to be viewed in an entirely different manner (Christie Ridgway’s Not Just the Nanny, Harlequin/Silhouette 2010, is like this) or a closer-than-usual proximity forces recognition of additional layers of attraction. 

Other times, it could be a makeover that creates Hotness Revealed, or a character grows up, moves away and comes back after a bit of time, causing a slight variation on Hotness Revealed. 

Or, and I see this often in contemporary single titles, the Waking Up occurs when the friend is about to marry Someone Else! And behold, there is realization! And drama and confusion occur because the Woken-Up One Cannot Put Up With That Nonsense.

However it happens, the idea of waking up to a whole new possibility in someone already familiar is an excellent and delicious conflict when done right. But then, once one person recognizes their horny pants for the other person, the plot has moved back into One Pines and One is Clueless—with all the potential problems contained therein.

The interesting addition to the One Pines and One is Clueless friends-to-lovers plot is that if the pining is kept hidden for a lengthy part of the book, the author can keep the reader guessing a bit, revealing the Pining One’s feelings in tiny bits. I personally love that. Sometimes I figure it out or guess too early—or the cover copy gives it all away—but if the Pining One has good reasons for keeping their feelings under wraps, the ways in which they give themselves away without intending to can make for emotionally complex scenes.

Even then, it’s a challenge. There has to be a good reason to keep those feelings a secret, but that reason can’t be so large that it never fully dissolves or resolves by the end. The reason for secrecy has to be good enough to sustain the secret but not so big that the happy ending isn’t compromised by its continued presence, whatever that conflict may be. 

Sometimes that conflict is based on sex—would sex fuck up the friendship utterly, and the friendship is too valuable to risk? Then you can cue the “Let’s just get it out of our systems!” comment, followed by the When Harry Met Sally-esque “that was a mistake, let’s pretend it never happened” scene. Like clockwork.

I won’t give away what kind of friends-to-lovers book The Kiss Test was, but I will say that I enjoyed it, even with a desire to smack the heroine hard with a hammer sometimes. It’s quirky, different, features a road trip (LOVE THOSE) and some hilarious dialogue. There are also copious and egregiously funny amounts of Elvis. 

What are some of your favorite friends-to-lovers plots? Are there books you reread just to pinpoint those moments in which a character gives him- or herself away? What books did you find utterly disappointing?

 

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.