How to Write a Romantic Tragedy That Will Break Your Reader's Heart
Updated: Jan 2
It has been said that the best way to break someone's heart is to write a romantic tragedy. Crafting a story that is heartbreaking, yet beautiful, takes skill and finesse. Here are a few tips on how to write a romantic tragedy that will leave your readers in tears.
What is a Romantic Tragedy?
So what is tragic love? A tragic romance is a story that is both heartbreaking and beautiful. It tells the story of two people who fall in love, but are ultimately doomed to fail. The beauty of a romantic tragedy is that it allows us to experience the full range of human emotion. We can feel joy when they are together, and heartache when they are torn apart.
When it comes to writing a romantic tragedy, you want to ensure that the story is one that will break your reader's heart. To do this, you'll need to focus on the key elements of storytelling - creating believable characters with a strong emotional connection to the reader, building tension and suspense, and delivering a satisfying and heartbreaking ending.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when writing a tragic romance is that the love story should be the focus of the story. Your reader should feel invested in the characters and their relationship, and you should take your time developing their connection. Use dialogue and action to reveal their emotions and progress their relationship; don't just tell the reader how they feel.
Another key element is suspense. You want your reader constantly wondering what's going to happen next, what twist or turn the story will take.
Let's start at the end because that's the fundamental difference between a romance and a tragic romance. How a romantic tragedy ends is the key to breaking your reader's heart, but don't think that one lover has to die. A tragic ending can be just as powerful if one character sacrifices the relationship for the greater good, one lover is left alone with their regrets, or the relationship—despite its potential—builds to a crescendo that only breaking up will solve.
I've seen many storytellers using an incident unrelated to the story to polish off one of the romantic leads. If I'm honest, I think it's lazy. Now, a character who has a trait that leads them to die, or an illness, or a (foreshadowed) mistake on their part is waaay more satisfying.
I have a WIP that involves a young man drowning at the end. At the beginning of the novel, he makes an off-the-cuff remark about not being able to swim. It's a throwaway line said as he turns down a social event. It's never mentioned again, but the seed is there. By the end of the novel, he's so confident that his lover can save him from anything that he—a little drunk—jumps off a sandbank and into deep water, expecting to be rescued. His lover, suddenly remembering the off-the-cuff remark, tries to save him, but it's too late—a strong current has dragged the young man under and he drowns. Much better than a random shark bite, right? Riiight?
Leave clues along the way that it won't end well.
(N.B. There are a few drowning metaphors peppered throughout the manuscript, but it's nothing obvious enough to tip off the reader.)
The ending should be unpredictable, but inevitable. If an ending is going to be tragic, give the readers some feeling that greater purpose is served by it. Give them an ending which is earned—by the only way that your characters could behave and remain true to their natures.
Most readers like surprises, even tragic ones, and they like earned surprises even more.
PRO TIP - Don't 'do a Titanic'
I'm one of those folk who believe that Jack would have fitted on the damn doorframe if Rose had just shifted over. It annoys me that she didn't. Please don't do that to your readers. Respect the rules of logic!
Now you don't want to end things there—readers need a little cushioning—so a final scene in which one, if not both, of the characters reflects on what has happened, leaving them with the sense that maybe, just maybe, they'll find love again, make different choices, or swear to be a better person.
The Story Beats
Devotees of story beats will recognise many of the following from the different models out there, but here are some of the 'obligatory' beats you're going to need for a romantic tragedy (you might consider story beats 1-7 (and one aspect of 8) standard romance story beats, and I'd agree):
Absolute, undeniable attraction as soon as the lovers meet.
Hitting a wall. This can be much heavier than the Refusal of the Call / No Way ( I can't get with them!) beat—think Romeo's and Juliet's families. The key here is to make it so difficult for the lovers to get together that when they do their ultimate separation is that much more heartbreaking.
They resist temptation just like that mouthwatering chocolate bar your parents bought 'for Christmas' that you absolutely, positively must have. After all, it's still November. They can buy another one, right?
They fight, fight, fight their feelings.
Bow Chicka Wow Wow. They give in to their... urges. They don't have to bump uglies, but at least let them bump lips.
Post-bumping bliss can't last forever, and something happens to remind them this won't last, because life will always find a way to keep them apart whether it be distance, misunderstanding, or something else your devious little brain can come up with to torture them.
But they belong together! So they, uh, get back together. Travel, clearing up the misunderstanding, or something else your wonderful little brain can come up with to relieve them.
They declare mutual love OR they declare their mutual, doomed love. There's a distinction here—knowing their love is doomed can be effective for some tragedies—so I really want you to think this through from the reader's perspective. Do you want them to have the impending sense of dread or give them a jolt? Often the happy ending comes right after a really terrible low. Consider having an intense high, the resolution of one of the main conflicts in the story, then follow it with...
The tragic ending. All's bad that ends bad. Should that be 'badly'? I don't know, but either way, it ends badly. There's too much in their way (namely you, dear writer), and one, or both, kick the bucket either literally or metaphorically.
Someone, somewhere must reflect on the ending of the doomed love and the circumstances around said doom-age. If both lovers die, the remaining characters must recognise their love was true. If only one dies, the surviving lover—you guessed it—reflects on what has happened, leaving them with the sense that maybe, just maybe, they'll find love again, make different choices, or swear to be a better person even if they never love again. They might bond with someone over the loss of their loved ones.
Sentimentality vs. Truth.
Sentimentality can do all the heavy lifting for you, but it's a blunt tool, manipulating the reader and robbing them of surprise.
In the words of Oscar Wilde:
“A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of emotion without paying for it.”
And in the words of James Joyce:
“Sentimentality is unearned emotion.”
The beats of a tragic romance—of all stories—can be considered formulaic, but sadness can’t be forced, which leads us to...
When you give readers the truth of who your characters are, your readers can experience genuine, earned connections with your characters. Through those connections, you can move a reader to tears. Don't veer towards sentimentality or—worse—melodrama. It's truth that really does all the heavy lifting.
Romance is all about the highs and lows of emotions, the rollercoaster. Find the truth in those moments and you're golden.
The best way to learn how to write romantic tragedy is—you guessed it—read tragic romance novels! Reading these sad novels about love should help you determine the beats you want to hit in your own tragic love story.
Here are 10 of my favourites tragic romances:
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
Romeo & Juliet, by William Shakespeare (yes, it's a play - yes, it's really good!)
Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes
The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller (yes, I cried!)
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven
I Too Had a Love Story, by Ravinder Singh
History is All You Left Me, by Adam Silvera
The Love Story, by Erich Segal
Romantic tragedies can be challenging to write, but the end result can be a deeply rewarding experience.
A successful romantic tragedy must have a believable and compelling love story at its heart. The characters must be sympathetic, and the reader must feel invested in their fate. The plot must also be structured in such a way that the tragedy is inevitable and unavoidable.
The climax of the story should be powerful and emotionally charged, leading to a devastatingly tragic ending. This type of story can be immensely satisfying for readers who enjoy watching beloved characters suffer.
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