5 Tips for Writing Romance

1280px-Stipula_fountain_penAs I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’ve spent some time working with category romance imprints. These experiences have given me quite a few thoughts about what makes a romance compelling. Of course, whether or not a romance appeals to you depends a great deal on personal taste.  However, the more time I spend evaluating romance submissions, the more I notice some basic issues with romance that many writers seem to struggle with. How can you avoid these pitfalls and write a romance that works? Here are my tips:

  1. Know your genre

Romance, as a genre, relies very heavily on conventions. This isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it’s one of the reasons romance is so popular. Readers know what to expect when they pick up a romance novel, and they already know it will end happily. If your story doesn’t have a happy ending, it’s not a romance; it belongs to a different genre. Romance readers also expect other conventions, like a sympathetic hero or heroine. If you’re writing category romance for specific lines, the requirements get even more specific. It’s important for romance writers to understand these conventions and implement them in unique ways, rather than thwarting or avoiding them entirely. I think this makes romance one of the most difficult genres to do well—you have to know romance novels inside and out in order to write a good one. If you don’t read much romance, start now. Take notes. Figure out what’s popular and what isn’t, what works and what doesn’t, what’s absolutely required and what isn’t.

  1. Have believable conflict

Romance novels rely heavily on romantic conflict, of course. Something has to be keeping your hero and heroine from getting their happily-ever-after until the very end. But that conflict has to be believable, and it has to be able to sustain the entire novel. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to read an otherwise well-written manuscript where the entire conflict could easily be resolved with a single conversation. There has to be something real keeping these people apart, not just a misunderstanding or a miscommunication.

  1. Focus on the relationship

What sets a true romance apart from novels in other genres that have a romantic storyline? In a true romance, the relationship is front and center. The romance is the story. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts with paranormal or fantasy elements that spend a lot of time on worldbuiliding or fantasy conflicts and lose sight of the romantic plotline. If that’s the case for your story, you’re not writing a romance at all; you’re writing a paranormal or fantasy with a romance subplot. If your goal is to write romance and you’re submitting to romance imprints, be sure that you’ve kept the focus on the romance throughout the entire manuscript.

  1. Include emotional payoff

What makes a romance really stand out is the emotional payoff of the story. Go deeper than physical attraction to explore what the hero and heroine feel for each other—and then make your reader feel it too. Show what your hero or heroine is willing to sacrifice for each other. Show how they’re good for each other and make each other better. And end with the emotional payoff of a happily-ever-after.

  1. Say it with action

I see a lot of romances that end with a grand declaration of love from either the hero or heroine. But there are often problems with these monologues: they can be boring, sappy, or unbelievable. It doesn’t often work to have your character wax poetically about how in love they are, especially if they do it for pages and pages. What’s often much more effective is a simple, telling action that shows just how much they love each other. At the very least, there should be an action that accompanies the speech, to demonstrate that the character truly means what they say. Your hero or heroine should make a grand gesture in the climax of the novel—but if that gesture is nothing more than a monologue, it’s likely to feel hollow.

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What do you think? What works (or doesn’t work) in romance? Let me know in the comments!

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This post is part of my Writing Craft series. For more info about planning, writing, and revising your work, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

Identifying Inciting Incidents (And Why Your Plot Needs One)

Cliches 101: Links and Resources

Fiction Genres Glossary

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4 thoughts on “5 Tips for Writing Romance

  1. Rhonda Wiley-Jones says:

    I’ve dithered about whether my novel is historical fiction, historical romance, just romance, or something altogether different. But all along I’ve known that it is a coming-of-age late in life and a bigger than romance story. It plays into what I call “agency” when a person learns to be the director, CEO and travel agent of their own life. I believe it is something we as a culture need to be more conscious of and adaptive toward. How many of us let life happen to us, instead of forging a path for ourselves. So what genre is this?

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    • ceciliajlewis says:

      It’s hard to say without having read it, of course, but it does sound broader than a romance to me. Ultimately, it may depend on which themes and plotlines are most prominent. If it helps, you can always pitch it as historical fiction with strong romantic elements/themes. But if you can’t say that romance IS the story, then it’s probably not romance as a genre. Does that help?

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    • merriank says:

      Interesting. As a romance genre reader I would say the search/reaching for agency is the Heroine’s journey and the arc of the romance plot is how the relationship with the Other strengthens her and enables this. Both Hero and Heroine in a romance genre novel should be by the ending of the story, the better for their relationship. You sound a bit as if the romance arc is in opposition to the quest for female agency? If this is happening then the book fails as a romance genre story I think. The genre is many things to its readers but powerfully, it is about how women may integrate their emotional being with their roles and loved ones in the world

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      • ceciliajlewis says:

        Thanks for your thoughts! I wouldn’t say that romance is in opposition to “the quest for female agency,” as you put it. Rather, I think there’s a big difference between a story where the heroine grows as a character and claims agency by the end and one where the heroine has no agency at all, at any time. The latter is what I was referring to in this post.

        Also, when I use the word “agency” here, I’m referring to a character’s ability to influence and direct the plot through their goals, motivations, actions, and decisions. It is important for all protagonists, in all genres, to have agency within their own stories. Otherwise, they aren’t really a protagonist. If a character can be replaced by any other character without affecting the outcome of the plot at all, then that character lacks agency. That’s the kind of issue I’m referencing here.

        Thank for reading! :)

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