Romance novel sales are booming. In these dark and uncertain times, readers are turning to books for reasurrance and solace. When it comes to comfort reading, you can always rely on romance to deliver.
So how do you write a romance novel? Is there a formula? Is it easy? Read on to find out.
What Is Romance Fiction?
Romance fiction is a term refering to novels which have a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and uplifting ending. Someone meets someone else, after a few ups and downs, they get together.
As a genre, romance contains a huge variety, but the expectation of what’s in the book changes slightly by market. In the US, the novel is focused tightly on the romantic storyline, with other aspects of the characters’ lives (work, family, friends etc) playing a much smaller role. If you’re in the UK, a romance novel could be anything with a strong romantic thread. UK-style romantic novels tend to embrace family drama or friendships or life changes alongside the development of the love story. In the US, such books are called ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘chicklit’.
Writing Romance Novels
The term ‘romance’ covers anything from light hearted and angst-free to deeply emotional, but the one thing they all have in common is the happy ending. Genre labels promise the reader a certain type of experience – a crime novel will end with the baddie being caught, a horror novel will be scary and the monster will be defeated (at least for now) … and the promise of romance is that everything will be okay in the end. This can take the form of an HEA (Happy Ever After) or an HFN (Happy For Now).
You can write love stories that end in tragedy – these can often be intensely romantic – but these are tragedies, rather than romances. Romantic stories that end without the main characters getting together could be classed as women’s fiction. A romance novel must have a happy ending. Seriously, this point is non-negotiable.
The majority of romance that you see is about cis, straight, white people, but your book doesn’t have to be. There are readers who love, indeed crave, books with different types (and combinations) of protagonists. Write the book you want to write – there is a readership for it out there, you just have to find where they hang out. In this article I talk about a heroine and hero out of convenience, but please substitute any combination of genders (and/or feature gender non-conforming people ) as you prefer.
Romance Writing Examples
Romance is a genre that is known for being a ‘comfort read’. A lot of this comfort factor comes from the knowledge that there will be a happy ending. Sometimes, this gives rise to the suggestion that they are ‘predictable’ and constraining to write. This is not the case. Yes, we know that everything will be okay by the end, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put your characters through the wringer before they get there (mwahahaha).
As I mentioned before, romance is a wide genre. When it comes to backgrounds, settings and story types, you can have just about anything. This means that there are a great many subgenres of romance. Below is a small selection:
These romances are set in the present (or recent past). The setting can be just about anywhere. I’ve written books set in offices, microbiology labs and even one set in a hospice. Some contemporary romance examples are People We Meet On Vacation by Emily Henry and Love And Other Words by Christina Lauren.
Historical romances are set in the past. Technically, anything set more than five decades ago is classed as historical, but most people consider it to be pre-1960. The regency period is particularly popular. Of late, there’s been a boom of romances set during World War 2 as well. The Duke And I By Julia Quinn and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon are popular examples of historical romance.
This is a specific type of historical romance. The heroines are usually working class women who overcome great adversity. The stories can span a whole lifetime, or even several generations and the secondary plots can carry as much weight as the romance plot. Examples are The Rockwood Chronicles by Dilly Court, and the Dilly’s Story books by Rosie Goodwin.
These romances feature vampires, ghosts, shapeshifters, dragons and other paranormal characters who fall in love with humans or with each other. The All Souls series by Deborah Harkness, or the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning are popular examples of this subgenre.
This subgenre features romances set in a science fiction world, with sci-fi settings and sub plots. Think Cinder by Marissa Meyer or The Host by Stephenie Meyer.
Urban Fantasy Romance
This involves characters who live in an alternate world that is very like our own, but with magical or fantastical elements in it. The setting is often a city, but, despite the name, it doesn’t have to be. Examples include House Of Earth And Blood by Sarah J. Maas or Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews.
These are romances set in the wild west, and often have their own subgenres too (such as western cowboy romance and western Christian romance). The Texan’s Wager by Jodi Thomas and High Country Bride by Linda Lael Miller are examples of this subgenre.
Young Adult Romance
This subgenre of romance features teenaged protagonists. YA books usually have no sex scenes, but can have just about any type of subplot. Think To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han and The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon.
These are novels where at least one of the protagonists is a person of colour. Note that you can have interracial romances where there is no white main character when the characters are from two different non-white races. Examples from this subgenre are Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert and If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane.
This is where romance and crime meet. The main story is a romance, but the crime/suspense storyline carries almost equal weight. Verity by Colleen Hoover and The Witness by Nora Roberts are examples from this subgenre.
these books are often chaste and have no profanity in them. The characters often find redemption through their faith (most commonly Christianity). Two examples are Against The Tide by Elizabeth Camden and Undeniably Yours by Becky Wade.
‘Clean And Wholesome’ Romance
These are also chaste books with no profanity, but differ from inspirational romance because these isn’t a faith element. Think Sanibel Dreams by Hope Holloway and The Seat Filler by Sariah Wilson.
Mills And Boon Romances
Mills and Boon, which is probably the most famous romance publisher in the world, is in a special category of its own. Harlequin/Mills and Boon novels are sometimes called ‘category romances’ and there are different imprints which have different requirements. Medical romances are set in and around the medical profession, historical romance has (you guessed it) a historical setting, contemporary romances have modern, glamorous settings etc. They have a particular style about them that you can only capture if you read a lot of them (do your homework!). If you are wanting to write for Harlequin or Mills and Boon, check out their latest guidelines and send your submission to the most relevant imprint.
How To Write A Romance Novel Step By Step
Let’s take a moment to talk about tropes. All genres have tropes – characters, settings or situations that crop up frequently in that genre. With romance, readers often adore these tropes. If you spend any time on romance Twitter (#romancelandia, if you want to check it out), you’ll see people asking for book recommendations that feature their favourite tropes. Again, writing a trope doesn’t have to mean making things predictable. Take a trope and see how you can do something unexpected. Don’t forget that you can mix and match tropes. ‘Friends to lovers’ could pair easily with ‘fake relationship’, for example. (These are two of my favourite tropes to read).
No discussion of romance would be complete without discussing sex. Once again, there’s room for all heat levels. If you like writing sex scenes, then write them. If you’d rather not, then don’t. The choice is up to you. Every heat level has readers who love it. I write ‘closed door’ or ‘fade to black’ romance – the characters do sleep together, but it’s not on the page. My reading preference tends to lean towards ‘fade to black’ too.
So, where do you start?
I’m going to assume that if you’re going to write a romance novel, you’ve read widely in the genre. If not, please go and read some. If you try to write a romance novel (or indeed, a novel of any genre) without reading the genre, it will be obvious to the reader that you haven’t done your homework. Please do your homework. This will also help you find your niche, which is often a small way in which you subvert the conventions of the genre in order to engage and intrigue your reader. If you’re wondering how to start a romance novel and need an initial spark of inspiration, try using one of our romance writing prompts.
Create Your Characters
As with all novels, start with character. Ask yourself some questions:
Who is your protagonist? Most romance novels centre the heroine. She needs to be relatable – the reader has to care about them. Having a protagonist who’s nice or funny helps with this.
What is their external goal? It could be anything from ‘I want that promotion’ to ‘my aunt died and mysteriously left me this teashop and I need to make a go of it’. Of course, ‘I want to find love’ is also a perfectly valid goal when it comes to romance.
What is their internal conflict? All good stories are about change. What does your protagonist need (even if they don’t realise it yet)? It could be a limiting belief like ‘I’m not good at art’ or ‘I can’t trust people’. Work out where they are now and where they need to be at the end of the book.
Now do the same for your hero (or other heroine). They should both change and be changed by each other. Ideally, their external goals should conflict. Which leads on nicely to the next section…
Create Your Conflict
What is keeping your main characters apart? Romance novels need conflict. The bigger the conflict, the higher the tension and the more satisfying it feels when they finally get together.
What is the inciting incident? This could be the first time the would-be lovers meet. This plot point sets the tone for the romantic trope – for example, it’ll tell you whether they will be ‘enemies to lovers’ or ‘friends to lovers’ or even a ‘marriage in trouble that’s revived’. It also gives the characters a reason to keep running into each other. In romcoms, this scene is usually called the ‘meet cute’.
What is the crisis point? The ‘black moment’ or ‘all is lost moment’, if you like. At this point it should feel like the thing that is keeping them apart is insurmountable. All is lost. But wait! The protagonist has changed. By embracing that change, she is able to think of a way over the problem, so that she can be with her loved one. It used to be fashionable for the hero to swoop in and rescue the heroine. Nowadays, heroines tend to rescue themselves, perhaps with a little help.
Develop Your Secondary Characters
Secondary characters in romance are often key to the story. Chief among them is the best friend. They give us a foil whereby the readers can see other sides to the heroine. They also give the heroine someone to talk to, so that you don’t have to write reams of internal monologue. If you’re looking for series potential, the best friend is right there – just waiting to be the heroine of the next book.
Other secondary characters, like family or the wider circle of friends, help bring the heroine’s social circle alive and show her as a fully rounded person. Family – whether biological family or ‘found’ family plays a huge part in making up the background world of the main characters in romance.
Explore Your Settings
Setting often plays a key part, too. Small town romances allow you to have a whole village where the characters can interact. Even if your book is set in a city, you’ll probably have an office or a café where they meet. Romance books are often written as series, which can be linked by having them all take place in the same ‘world’.
Once you’ve worked out all those things, you should have a decent outline for your romance. Now write it, as you would any other novel. Use your external goal to create situations where the characters are in conflict with each other. I usually come up with three potential obstacles to the external goal and three potential ways that the heroine’s internal flaw or false belief is challenged and how each changes her. This will give you at least three key scenes that can lead up to the crisis point.
Romances can be written from the point of view of the heroine, the hero, or both. And the choice of first person or third person narrative depends entirely on your preference.
Romance That Resonates
Once you’ve figured out your protagonists, created a conflict, and explored your setting, don’t forget about the main themes and overall message behind your romance. The main driver for romance books is emotion. All the other elements of your book should tie together to work towards crafting a story which resonates.
Romance often deals with realistic situations and issues that affect people (mostly women) in the home – things like illness, bereavement or the sudden loss of a career. Good romance writers are masters at pulling the heartstrings. This is probably most important at the end of the book. You’re aiming to leave the reader with a sense of warm and fuzzy contentment. Hopefully, they can take that feeling with them when they resurface from your book into real life. Even better, they’ll want to recapture that feeling by reading your next romance.
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