Romance makes the world go ’round. In many respects, it makes the book world go ’round too. Romance consistently remains one of the bestselling of all fiction genres, so it’s no surprise so many people write it—both out of personal enjoyment and because, when it hits the sweet spot, it can be extremely lucrative. Learning how to write romance, however, is no easy feat. For all that romance stories often look simplistic, the genre is one of the most demanding.
At its core, romance is nothing more or less than two people coming together and falling in love. Most romances are HEA (or Happily Ever After), but, of course, tragedy has been popular ever since Romeo & Juliet graced the stage. The genre is sometimes maligned for its stereotypes and often contested by readers who have varying “steam-level” preferences, but it remains perennially popular—and for obvious reasons. Genre itself represents an archetype, and there is perhaps no genre more archetypal than romance, representing as it does the heartbeat of all life.
Romance is a highly specialized genre with a demanding audience that wants exactly what it wants. This is true to the point that many romance descriptions now tell readers exactly what to expect, so they can find what they’re looking for and steer clear of what they’re not (e.g., Reverse Grumpy-Sunshine, Second Chance With a Baby, or Enemies-to-Lovers), as well as indicating what sort of “rating” love scenes might warrant (since going too far in either direction can turn off specific audiences).
Although romance novels in their strictest sense are simply about the drama and excitement of two people navigating a new relationship, the genre can feature many subgenres (such as paranormal romance or romantic thriller) or be featured as a subplot in stories that fall into other genres (such as fantasy, historical, etc.).
4 Tips for How to Write Romance
Sooner or later, most writers will tackle romance on the page to one degree or another. It’s difficult, after all, to write authentically about life without including so integral an experience. I am not a romance writer myself and in no way consider myself particularly qualified to teach on the finer points of the actual genre, but I have always featured a romantic element in all of my novels and I enjoy reading well-written romance stories. So today, as the second installment in this five-part “Genre Tips” series, I am offering some of my own thoughts and observations on how to write romance.
Beginnings in Romance: Hook Into the Romance Fast
This is true for any genre: give readers an early taste of what they can expect. In a fantasy, this will be something fantastical. In a mystery, this will be something mysterious. In a straight-up romance, we want romance, and generally speaking we want it now. Like any self-respecting picky romance reader, I have my own set of pet peeves that make it less likely I will read the book. The first rule is simple: I want to get to the good stuff as soon as possible.
The most important element in a romance is the interaction between the leads. I don’t like to wait more than a chapter before I get to see these characters together and experience their chemistry. More than any other type of story, I like to see romances breaking out of the gate fast. Although it is important to set up each of the characters and their respective lives and problems, much of this development can be carefully distributed as the story progresses.
For Example: An example that has stuck with me for many years is Dee Henderon’s True Devotion, which opens with a Navy SEAL rescuing his best friend’s widow, a lifeguard, from a dangerous situation in the ocean. The story introduces the romance immediately, when the woman, in a near-death state, shocks her longtime friend with the declaration: “I love you.” Obviously, not all romances will be able to open with characters whose relationship is already in medias res, but this is a good example of how you can cut to the chase and hook readers into the meat of your story’s relationship right away.
Characters in Romance: Don’t Get Confused About the Antagonistic Force
Who is the antagonist in a romance? Although some stories, such as those in the romantic thriller subgenre, will feature a villain who is endangering one or both of the leads, this villain character is not the antagonist within the actual romance.
First, a quick refresher. “Antagonist” is a morally neutral term. It does not imply a character is a villain. Rather, it indicates which character is creating obstacles to the protagonist’s goal. In a romance, the climactic goal is to make the relationship work. Therefore, the primary conflict comes from within the relationship. Both characters must work through all the outer obstacles and inner resistances to their being together. This means each of the romantic leads can be seen to be each other’s antagonist.
This is important to understand when plotting the story and particularly when planning the Climax. Too many romance novels fall off the rails in the Third Act if the author feels it necessary to bring in non-integral elements of danger or heightened external stakes in order to ramp up the tension. Although there is nothing wrong with including a suspense subplot or something similar, the book will be better off for observing two guidelines:
1. The Subplot Antagonist Must Be Foreshadowed and Integral. In other words, the subplot must be set up early in the story and make sense all the way through, rather than being tacked on for thrills in the end. More than that, it should be thematically important to the success of the romance.
2. The Climax Must Be Focused on the Romantic C0nclusion. Even if something super-dramatic happens with a subplot villain (such as one character getting kidnapped), the structural Climax must focus on the culmination of the romance. Whatever happens in a story’s Climactic Moment “proves” what a story is about. A romance is, of course, about the romance. If the Climactic Moment fails to back that up, the whole story will feel off and unsatisfying.
For Example: In Ellen O’Connell’s western romance Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold (which is soooo much better than either its title or its cover lets on), an important throughline is the female lead’s psychotic father’s resistance to her relationship with a biracial rancher. [SPOILER] This subplot culminates in a tense sequence in which the husband must rescue his wife from her deranged father. But this is not the Climax. The Climax naturally emerges from this threat when the taciturn rancher finally speaks his love for to his traumatized wife, which is both a necessary step away from the danger they both just endured and the awaited culmination of their relationship within the story. [/END SPOILER]
Characters in Romance: One or Both Characters Will Arc
Character arcs in a romance are usually Positive Change Arcs, in which one or both characters must overcome a Lie that is holding them back from personal wholeness and therefore the ability to functionally relate to one another. They inspire each other to arc into a new and more positive thematic Truth. These Lies/Truths can be as varied as the stories themselves, but a prominent theme in many romances is that of healing.
When written with authenticity and skill, romance stories often offer deep insight into human nature and development. However, more than perhaps in any other genre, romance demands authors dig deep and write with utmost honesty. The power of the genre lies in its ability to access archetype; but archetype is always one short step away from stereotype. The romance genre is full of stereotypes and overdone tropes, and if an author relies too much on these, rather than exploring deep and authentic change for the characters, the stories can become some of the most cringe-worthy in the entire catalog of literature.
Understanding the beats and progression of character arc can be extremely helpful in writing a powerful and fresh romance.
For Example: L.J. Shen often writes grittily about characters suffering the effects of trauma. In Playing With Fire, both leads arc dramatically via their relationships with each other—one overcoming the shame of terrible scarring from a house fire and the other consumed with guilt for irresponsibly hurting a family member. Each character has a Truth the other needs in order to heal and grow past their fears and hang-ups.
Story Structure in Romance: Beats to Set Up Pacing
The basic Three-Act story structure (with its eight turning points) will create the same skeleton for a romance story as for any other. However, the beats of romance stories are often highly specific. Although there is always wiggle room for exploration, most readers expect and want to discover a familiar pattern. Many books and blogs specialize in exploring these specific beats for the romance in more depth, but here are some quick hits from own observations in reading the genre.
Hook: The first chapter will either introduce one character’s problems (i.e., what is currently causing the problem in the person’s relational skills) or promptly throws the two leads together in some sort of “cute meet”—usually with their defenses coming to the fore and creating obstacles to their attraction and chemistry.
Inciting Event: In stories with a slower start, this may be where the characters meet for the first time, but in a tighter structure, this will be where the characters irretrievably engage for the first time. Either they are forced into proximity or they make a move toward expressing interest in one another.
First Plot Point: This is where the First Act ends and the relationship really kicks off. Something happens here that cements the characters’ connection. This could be a first date or a first kiss, but it could also be something external that happens to permanently keep them in contact with each other (e.g., they become partners on the police force).
First Pinch Point: Pinch points always emphasize the antagonistic force’s threat and what is at stake for the main characters. In a romance, these stakes are all relational. By this point in the story, the romance should be well under way (whether the characters are fully willing to admit it or not), and this First Pinch Point offers the first significant obstacle—something that makes one or both leads question whether the other person is really who they thought or whether they are willing to stay open to the relationship. Usually, it leads to some expression of vulnerability or to one or both people learning something surprising about the other which deepens their intimacy.
Midpoint: The Midpoint turns the plot from the “reaction” phase of the first half (in which the characters aren’t quite sure what they want from each other) to the “action” phase of the second half (in which the characters become more and more consciously committed to their relationship). It should also bring the all-important Moment of the Truth. From the perspective of plot, this might be the result of the characters finally committing to their relationship in a big way. From the perspective of the character arcs, this new “crisis of commitment” within the relationship will be the result of one or both characters admitting, if only to themselves, that they are willing to start transitioning out of their old “Lie-based” mindset so they can be more available to the relationship.
Second Pinch Point: This Second Pinch Point is often much more serious than the first one. Now both characters have much more at stake. Whether they’re ready to admit it or not, they are in love with each other. Losing each other, therefore, would be a huge blow at this point. Pinch Points in a relational story are usually relatively low-key. What happens here may be as simple as a reminder of all the characters have to lose and how much, on an internal level, their fears are messing with them.
Third Plot Point: This the “Low Moment” in the story, when everything seems as if it is falling apart. In a romance, this moment may not be as dramatic as what follows in the Climax, but as the story now makes the turn into the Third Act, something happens that puts the relationship on the line. Although the threat here may external if other antagonistic characters are in play, this is usually where the characters learn something about each other that shakes their trust. Lies and secrets come out, and consequences must be faced.
Climax: A romance with an action-oriented plot may see the two leads fighting side by side against an external antagonist in the Climax. More often, this is simply where the heat really gets turned up on relationship. The characters must face everything they fear about each other and about themselves. They must complete their respective character arcs and discover if they can heal themselves or their perspectives enough to make the relationship work. Often, the Climax will separate the leads in order to allow them to “find themselves” outside the relationship, so they can then return to each other as “two wholes.” However, it is important that the characters not be separated for too long. Just as readers don’t want to wait too long in a story’s beginning for the leads to come together, they also don’t want to wait too long for the leads to get back together in the end.
Resolution: Romances like their epilogues. Readers often enjoy seeing how the relationship turned out by fast-forwarding a bit into the future to be reassured the characters will be able to make it together longterm.
In my own subjective opinion as a reader of the genre, romances can be either some of the most powerful and memorable of stories or the most miserable and annoying! Although personal subjectivity will always play a role in how a reader reacts to a romance story (again, perhaps more than in any other genre), learning how to write romance well is a matter of demonstrating both strong technique and the courage to show up and write about one of the vulnerable and intimate parts of life with honesty and insight.
Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Historical Fiction!
Previous Posts in This Series:
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written romance—or a romantic subplot? What are your thoughts on how to write romance? Tell me in the comments!
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