This originally appeared as a guest post on Kevin Klehr’s blog
Romance is the home of “happy ever after.” So much so that we even have an acronym for it: HEA. In these trying times, Romance helps take millions of readers away from their troubles for the evening, but it can also be a vehicle for exploring social issues, for traveling to exotic places, or for learning about a new culture. Romance holds a mirror up to our own relationships or sets an example for the way we’d like to love and be loved.
The focus of a Romance should be primarily on the relationship between the two main characters (MCs). The development of this relationship is called the internal plot. In order to have enough story to fill out a whole novel, you’ll probably also need an external plot—something that forces the MCs apart emotionally or brings them together physically.
The most satisfying Romances entwine internal and external plot. For example: sworn enemies must complete a mission to save the world and along the way they fall in love. Their enmity pushes them apart, the mission forces them together.
Here are some Do’s and Don’ts for writing Romance:
- Don’t assume that writing Romance is easy or that it’s a quick buck. Romance is no easier to write than any other genre. Yes, there’s a formula to it, but that formula is what makes it challenging, not what makes it easy. Chess and football also follow strict rules, and just because you’ve read them doesn’t mean you know how to play by them
- Don’t come into it expecting to reinvent Romance or “show them how it’s done.” If you think you’re doing something new in Romance, you probably haven’t read enough Romance. Read it before you write it
- Don’t write the perfect partner meets the perfect mess. It’s tempting to write our own idealized “book boyfriend” or “book girlfriend” who will love and adore our own imperfect self, but that leaves the reader wondering why. Why did the handsome suave billionaire immediately fall for the awkward, average bookworm? Relationships need to be two-way streets. Show us the good and bad of both MCs
- Don’t make your female MC (if you have one) “not like other girls.” Your readers are other girls. That doesn’t mean a female MC needs to be a stereotype of a girl—just don’t imply that she’s the only woman on the planet worthy of love. Whatever characteristics your female MC has, I assure you that plenty of other women share them
- Don’t make us guess who the two MCs are. The first person of the appropriate gender that the POV character interacts with at any length should be the other MC. Random dates or extended sexual encounters with people who aren’t the other MC are either confusing or boring
- Don’t use ridiculous euphuisms for genitals and sex acts. The days of “throbbing love staff” are long gone. Use dirty words in dirty places
- Don’t go into Romance looking down on the genre or its readers. We will sniff you out and burn you
- Do learn and follow the rules. As your sixth grade English teacher told you about e. e. cummings, you’re not allowed to break the rules until you’ve demonstrated that you know them
- Do understand your tropes. A trope is a premise, basically. Billionaire, Cowboy, Secret Baby, Each trope comes with expectations. It’s OK to subtly subvert these expectations but, as with the advice above, you need to understand them before you can subvert them
- Do have your MCs meet earlier rather than later, preferably in chapter 1 but no later than chapter 3
- Do make the intimate moments of your characters’ lives unique. Whether it’s saying I-love-you, having some down and dirty sex, or a marriage proposal, it should be specific to those characters. What does love mean to them? What’s hot in bed for them?
- Do give your characters a happy ending (with each other). This is the number one rule in Romance. Yes, some people will argue that a Romance can have an unhappy ending. Those people are wrong. Go ahead and write a romantic book in which one of the MCs dies or they learn that the best thing they can do for each other is go their separate ways. Just don’t call it a Romance
- Do use a happy-for-now (HFN) ending if happy-ever-after would be totally unrealistic, e.g. the characters are eighteen or they’ve only known each other a few days. A happy-for-now ending suggests that the two MCs will make this relationship work long-term without a seal-the-deal moment like a proposal
- Do consider an epilogue, especially if your ending was HFN. Romance readers love epilogues. This is your chance to put in an anti-climactic but satisfying scene that shows the characters at a future point in time, thus proving out their happy-ever-after
- Do plant the seed for your next pairing. Romance series are hugely successful. Include a side character who can be promoted to MC in the next book. Each book should stand alone but feature appearances from past couplings. Readers love these peeks into the characters’ future lives
The best way to write a Romance is from a place of love—not love for a person, but love for Romance itself. Create interesting characters, put them in an interesting situation, and let the reader watch as they fall in love.