Thinking of writing a romance?
Publishers will often say there is no format when it comes to writing in this genre, which is often criticised for being formulaic. Is that the truth? Well, it depends what is meant by ‘format’. Certainly your book should not be a carbon copy of another, albeit it with the names and maybe location changed. There are however certain elements that are ESSENTIAL for a romance novel.
Publishers do state they want to see fresh voices and new ideas on traditional tropes, however, this does not mean they want something so unrecognisable from anything else ever published that it could barely be considered romance.
It’s important to remember that readers of this genre are loyal and big lovers of romance, and therefore they tend to know what they want. No, of course they don’t want to read the same rehashed story over and over, but they do expect certain things that romance writers should stay true to if they hope for success.
So, what are these ‘things’?
1. A happy ever after or at least happy for now (HEA/HFN)
A romance novel cannot end with death, destruction or sadness. Unlike the books of years gone by, a modern book can conclude with a happy for now, e.g. the start of a wonderful relationship as opposed to a marriage proposal.
Don’t be tempted to get cocky by changing these rules and thinking your writing is going to change the face of romance forever. It won’t. What’s that you’re saying? Nicholas Sparks does all right by bending the rules? Yes. Yes, he does, doesn’t it? What can I say – there’s always an exception. Chances are, however, if you’re just starting out, it won’t be you, so best go with the HEA/HFN.
2. The black moment
This is the moment in the book when, just as everything is looking rosy with the couple, the proverbial sh*t hits the proverbial fan. Perhaps an ex comes back on the scene, a secret is revealed, or the hero/heroine makes an unwelcome discovery about the other. Whatever it is, at this point their relationships looks doomed. The reader realises there are only a few pages left – precious little time for them to get back together – and is concerned it can never happen. Plus, if you’ve built your characters up so the reader really, really cares about them, this will be felt even more powerfully.
Be under no illusion: no conflict = no story. Well no good story anyone wants to read, anyway. Have you ever read any decent romance where the characters meet, sail through the getting-to-know-you process, and live happily ever after? No, you haven’t, because that stuff doesn’t get published.
Conflict is at the core of every romance. It’s the reason your characters can’t / won’t get together immediately. In fact, the conflict should be so strong that the reader is hard-pressed to see how these two could ever make it.
So, what kind of conflict are we talking about? Clearly it’s not that she wants to paint the walls white but he prefers green. This is deep-rooted, internal conflict. By internal, I mean it’s nothing someone else is imposing on them, and nor is it some silly misunderstanding. Some examples are:
- The characters are from feuding families
- They’re fighting for opposing sides (political, environmental, capitalist v liberal, etc)
- They share a turbulent past
- His job conflicts with her moral beliefs (or vice versa)
There are many manifestations of these and other conflicts, which is why no two romances may ever be the same.
4. They learn from one another
Just like in a real-life relationship, two people in a fictional work need to get something out of the relationship and from each other. That ‘something’ is often a new way of thinking that makes them stronger in some way. Examples could be:
- An up-tight character becomes more relaxed thanks to the other person
- A commitment-phobe learns to love
- A workaholic realises the importance of family time
- A fat cat discovers the needs of a community
There are many others, so the world’s your oyster, but the important thing here is make sure that BOTH parties learn something from the other, and not make it all one-sided.
5. The couple finally reunites and finds a resolution
This goes back to point 1 – the HEA/HFN, but before the author realises all is good with the couple, it needs to be made clear how this has been achieved. Some examples are below:
- An action triggers one of the characters to have a change of heart / see the world for what it really is – e.g. the boss they serve makes an unreasonable demand forcing the character to re-evaluate their values.
- Self-reflection and perhaps some harsh but true words result in a shift in a character’s mentality.
- One character discovers the other’s true feelings, even if they’re not said in a plain way, e.g. sees a painting they’ve created / hears a song they’ve written.
- One character realises their eyes have been opened by the other, e.g. the fat cat who’s always been driven by profit sees the true sense of community in the village they’re trying to knock down.
Whether you call this a formula or not, hopefully you can see that such a wide spectrum of options means every romance can still be beautifully unique while being true to the must-have elements in the genre.