The Secret Sauce to an Effective Meet Cute in Romance Books

Filed in Writing Craft — July 9, 2024

The meet cute in a romance is that moment when your characters first cross paths. Note that I say “cross paths” and not “meet,” because in many romance setups (second-chance, enemies-to-lovers, etc.), your characters may already know each other prior to the start of the story.

Think of the meet cute as the first time your readers see your protagonists together on the page.

It’s a critical moment because we only get one chance to set the tone for their love story and immediately draw readers in.

So how do you nail the meet cute?

Hint: it’s not about chemistry, attraction, or even sexual tension, though all of those things are important elements.

The secret sauce to an effective meet cute is immediate conflict.

Yes, even in Chapter One (or whatever early chapter your meet cute happens), something must be amiss.

From the very beginning, you must plant the seed of why these two people can’t be together. It’s what’s going to drive your entire plot. If you get it right here, your writing life will be much easier, and your readers will be more hooked.

Consider this meet cute from my book To Sir With Love:

Gracie stops to buy flowers from a vendor on an NYC sidewalk. While paying with cash, one of the bills gets caught by the wind and flutters away. Here’s what happens next:

I reach for the fluttering bill, but the owner of the shoe beats me to it, bending and plucking up the twenty with long fingers.

I smile in relief, already reaching for the money as my gaze travels up the tall length of a navy suit, conservative maroon tie—

Our eyes lock, and I freeze. Aqua eyes—yes, that’s a thing—stare back at me, his surprised expression matching my own shock.

All that noise I mentioned? The New York City soundtrack? It all fades away until it’s just me, him, and Frank Sinatra singing “Summer Wind.”

“You,” I say, my voice quiet.

I’ve never met the man. I’ve never even seen him before. And yet I know him. My heart knows him. This is my Prince Charming, my love at first sight.

He doesn’t take his eyes away from my face, and when our fingers brush as he hands me the twenty, his eyes narrow ever so slightly, as though in puzzlement.

Chemistry? Check.
Attraction? Yup.
Sexual tension? Totally.

But none of that matters as much as what happens next. Do I have these two instantly-smitten individuals go to coffee and fall for each other a little bit more? NOPE.

I do this:

“Sorry, babe. Thanks for waiting.” A tall woman with thick honey-colored hair appears by Prince Charming’s side. She holds up a Stuart Weitzman bag. “They had over-the-knee boots in dove gray. I couldn’t resist.”

He blinks and looks her way, and the Frank Sinatra record playing in my head scratches and cuts off mid-track. Moment over.

I’ve introduced conflict; a reason why they can’t be together right now.

This is the key to all romance: why they can’t be together right now, and you have to introduce it as soon as possible, and as frequently as possible.

In this case, it’s another woman–the man of her dreams is spoken for.

But here are some other examples of conflict you can introduce alongside the meet cute:

They’re after the same job, and only one of them will get it.

They’re from different social classes (more common in historical).

He’s the cop investigating her brother for murder.

They’re about to get on different planes/trains/buses.

They’re neighbors feuding over a property line dispute.

Her aunt enters a hasty engagement with his mentor. She’s a romantic wedding planner, all for it, he’s a divorce attorney, determined to stop it.

They’re neighbors with a very thin wall; she likes to play Taylor Swift during the same hours he plays Bon Jovi.

She’s a journalist investigating him for fraud.

They’re rival food truck owners, wanting the same spot.

The above examples are all external conflict; they may be attracted to each other, but immediately, you introduce an external reason why they can’t be together.

But it is possible (though trickier) to have the meet cute rely on internal conflict. This is where the characters may not feel instant attraction (or be in denial about it), and the conflict comes from them being stuck together for some reason. Here are some examples:

Two coworkers have hated each other for years. At a team-building event, one of the exercises goes awry, and they find themselves handcuffed together, and someone misplaced the key. Conflict.

Two longtime best friends are adamant their relationship is platonic, and one of them loses their job and moves in with the other to save rent. Maybe you kick off the scene with one coming out of the shower, and you plant the seed of a twinge of physical attraction that wasn’t there before. Conflict.

A woman hurries to catch an elevator just before it closes; she’s looking at her phone, gives a distracted thank you to the man who opened it for her without really seeing him. There’s a power outage, and the elevator gets stuck. Boom. She realizes the man she’s stuck with is her ex-husband. Conflict.

Here’s what it comes down to:

Your meet cute must introduce something the characters don’t want. Either a reason they can’t be with this person they’re attracted to, or a reason they’re stuck with this person they don’t want to be with romantically.

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