There’s a gorgeous coffee bar I can’t resist. Smack dab in the middle of the Bake Hall and Roastery at Harrod’s—the name alone stirs images of class and fanciness tangible enough to bottle up for a rainy day. I’m at a crossroads between old London and new, on the corner of preserving tradition and stepping ahead. It makes me think about intersections. Not the street kind. The character kind. The first time a hero and heroine meet. No—the first time their gazes lock and they feel a jolt of energy. It’s one of the sweetest moments in a romance novel and one of my favorites. The beginning of their journey is ignited all because she sat across from him. And they noticed each other.
Characters meet in many ways, from disrespectful neighbors to writing letters to each other in a graveyard, to hedging bets. I’ve been told (via a few rejections), that the hero and heroine must meet in the first five pages. I’m not sure if it’s a hard rule in the publishing industry. I’ve read books whose writers follow this guideline and others who do not. I’ve written both ways myself. My stance? I always side with the writer who lets the characters lead and not the trends. Sometimes it’s not realistic for the two mains to meet right away. Other times, it’s necessary and relevant to the situation. I might be stubborn on this point, but I like a little build. I want to savor the moment the hero checks out the heroine and makes his arrogant assumptions about her. Their circumstances of this introduction, whatever that looks like, should be natural. I don’t want forced. Or rushed. I don’t want to be disappointed.
Since the 1940’s, the term Meet Cute has been used to describe this first interaction between love interests. For writers, the question of how these two people meet is an important point…Why? I’m getting there. This all-important moment sets the tone of conflict. Romance novels are rarely love at first sight stories. Loathing at first sight is more like it. The attraction is there, yes, but the depth of genuine feeling comes later. There’s a whole lot of miscommunication to figure out first.
What’s in that special moment? The same as what’s in a great cup of coffee (or chilled espresso Martini from the menu). It’s the details that count.
What does the hero notice about the heroine? Is she seated at the coffee bar checking her phone and crying? Cursing? Annoyed that the hero has taken the seat of the date that hasn’t shown up yet? The latte with the delicate foam leaf sits in front of her, untouched. Will he think of this moment later?
What happens when the heroine meets the hero? Does she overhear him making demands? Is he rude? Cuts in line? Throws money on the counter because he’s too impatient to wait for the bill? She sees he’s on his second cup of Knightsbridge Roast. There’s a mystery to him she wonders about long after she leaves.
It’s the true start of the plot. Among the low-lit atmosphere at Harrod’s, are roses piled high on the centerpiece of the dark-wooded bar and on displays of teas, coffee, and treats all wrapped up with the decadent scents of caffeine and sugar and longing. The setting is right. If only the hero and heroine would give each other a second glance. Just maybe, they already have, and have given the writer a strategic turning point. What the hero/heroine say and do next are critical. They should be described in, or engage in behavior that’s memorable. When the hero leaves, he should think about this woman again. The heroine should have a strong opinion of him. The next time they run into each other, they meet carrying preconceived notions about the other person.
Their interactions raise the bar of conflict. Up until the moment of their first run-ins, the hero and heroine are two separate individuals. They might be interested in someone else, getting out of a relationship, focused on their career or hobbies. The idea of love gets in the way. They should work against each other, proving themselves that they aren’t what they seem. The first meeting is about what stands out. Make it count.