How to Write a Romance

One thing I noticed reading my PitchWars subs this year (and talking to other mentors) was how many entries were submitted under the wrong genre. Personally, I was accepting both women’s fiction and romance, so it’s not the end of the world when an entry said the wrong one. However, I talked to some mentors who only were accepting romance, and they also got quite a few entries that said romance-but were really woman’s fiction. I have a very general blog I wrote a couple of years ago with some tips, but that’s mostly geared at identifying the manuscript you have. What I really want to talk about today is

Romance has specific tropes. People who read genre romance regularly should notice the same story structure, the same ideas, etc. Books that do not follow these basic guidelines generally are not a romance, no matter how romantic the subplot is.
Why does it matter? It’s true, many editors who accept women’s fiction or romance accept both. An editor who loves your book is going to help you edit it a certain way, and they’re allowed to call it whatever they want after they’re done. But you still need to know how to describe your book. For one thing there are a lot of agents who only accept one or the other. For another, WF queries are different from romance queries and your reader needs to know what to expect when they start to read your pages. So, let’s take a look at these tropes, using examples from a book I just made up, Stella Wrecks Everything.
  1. The main characters meet early on. In recent years, this winds up being in Chapter 1 a lot of the time (sometimes on page one). That’s not absolutely required, but if I get to page 50 of your manuscript and the main characters have not yet met, your book is probably not a romance.
  2. The first kiss occurs roughly within the first 25% of the book. It can be a short kiss, a stolen kiss, whatever. But romance means kissing, and the first time it happens should be in the first quarter of the book. I don’t care if you put it on page 10, but it shouldn’t be on page 100. (Yes, I’m aware that the main characters in ME BEFORE YOU don’t kiss in the first quarter of the book. Do not tell me that book’s a romance. Seriously. Don’t. If you think it is, skip to #9.)
  3. One or two POV, the halves of the couple only.** Want to tell us what Stella’s mom or dog or BFF or first grade teacher thinks of the relationship? That’s fine. But the POV in a romance should only be the love interests. Because, again, you don’t want the reader to be rooting for the wrong two people. (Yes, I know ME BEFORE YOU has a zillion POV. It’s still not a romance.)
  4. Deep POV. What does this mean? FEELINGS. Lots of feelings. Use multiple senses, show physical symptoms of lust, but make sure your readers feel the sexual heat between your main characters.
  5. Every scene must further the romance. Does that mean they have to be together on every page? Of course not. It’s okay to separate the characters and give them subplots that allow them to grow as people and ultimately become more ready to enter a serious relationship. But if Stella goes goes to work and spends 100 pages filing and dealing with an overbearing boss while Rex is nowhere to be found, your reader is going to forget the love interest exists and might not care when he finally turns up on page 237 carrying the aquarium he bought to surprise Stella because she never called him when her fish died.
  6. Each main character gets their own character arc. The readers love Stella. Stella’s super well-developed. She’s got the cutest dog, and funny things happen to her. Rex mostly stays in the background, except when Stella needs someone to carry her shopping bags. We never learn anything about his past. Rex is not a romantic hero. This book is not a romance.
  7. By the mid-point, your main characters should have a sexual encounter. Don’t want them to have sex? Fine. Let them get interrupted. Have one of them get cold feet. But when I’m reading a romance and I’m halfway through the book, I’m going to get cranky if there hasn’t been any nudity yet. I at least need some (very very hot) over the clothes action.
  8. Explicit encounters are reserved for the main characters. Sometimes, couples don’t meet, fall in love, and get married in a linear fashion. That’s fine.  But for the most part, if one of the main characters is getting it on with someone else, that’s not detailed. It’s not hot. Because the reader isn’t supposed to be rooting for them.
  9. The main characters must wind up together. THIS IS NON-NEGOTIABLE. What used to be a required happily ever after (HEA) has evolved to include “happy for now” (HFN) endings. But if your main characters are not happily involved on the final page, you have not written a romance. 
Need more help? Those of you who subbed to me during this year’s PitchWars can enter my feedback giveaway.

* I’m talking about genre romance, not romantic comedy. Romantic comedy sits pretty firmly in the realm of women’s fiction, meaning that it tends to be solo POV, told from a woman’s perspective, and deal with multiple issues in her life. The romance is often a subplot that only comes to fruition near the end.
** I’m currently reading a book that has four POV, but it’s also very neatly split into two couples. Each has their own plot, and the two rarely intertwine. It’s really two separate love stories occurring at the same time in the same place.

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