*Sings* Do you want to write a romance?
If you do, you’re in good company. Millions of books printed and sold every year (and probably hundreds of millions of Ebooks downloaded. I haven’t done the research, but I’m feeling pretty confident with that guess.) Thousands of authors. HUGE part of the publishing market share.
But . . . where to start? How is a romance different from any other fiction novel? What defines “romance”?
At the basic level: A romance novel tells the story of the romantic relationship evolving between people.
That’s all. That’s it.
When you get right down to the nitty-gritty-bitty center of it, this is the difference between a romance novel and any other fiction. Other genres can (and almost always do, I’m just sayin) *contain* a relationship, but a romance novel *is* the story of that relationship. Seems simple, right?
How is that different from any other book when I’m writing my romance book?
First off, the plot points will be different. SUPER SIMILAR, let’s get that straight, but not identical.
Other books have a fiction formula (try Save the Cat! Writes a Novel) which is totally malleable but still follows some basic steps.
Exposition Opening-Inciting Incidents-Obstacles! Rising Action-Midpoint-Challenges Growing-Climax-Resolution. That’s severely oversimplified but we’re pressed for time here. Basically, the structure is plot oriented. The characters have goals, things get in the way, they conquer those things and move to their ending.
Romance has its own endlessly variable formula (try our original scripture, the beat sheet by author Jami Gold).
Inciting Incident when lovers meet-Obstacles! Rising Action as relationship grows-Midpoint-Challenges Growing-Oh God More Obstacles Our lovers are doomed!-Climax-Resolution. Here, the structure is relationship oriented. The characters have a relationship forming, things get in their way, they conquer those things together and move to their happy ending.
Right. Okay. So, an entire book focused on one relationship? What kind of obstacles can I find for that?
Ohhhh I’m so glad you asked. This is the reason tropes exist, and I love me some repeated themes in literature. For my own convenience, I’ve separated the romance tropes into two types. (For a giant curated list, Mindy Klasky has you covered.) Check out these examples and then sit back and think for a second of a show, movie, or book you’ve read that contains this trope. Hint: there will be at least one.
Internal/Personality Driven Tropes
Alpha hero/heroine, Best Friend’s Little Sibling, Cowboy/Billionaire/Cop/Mechanic/Maid (basically the MCs profession drives their plot), Fish Out of Water, Misfit Finds their Niche, Friends to Lovers, Enemies to Lovers, Opposites Attract, Rockstar Romance, Revenge, Mistaken Identity, Unrequited Love, Damaged with a Heart of Gold, Redemption, Returning Home, Second Chance, Redeemed Rogue.
- Hint hint, Pride and Prejudice and all variations thereupon are an enemies to lovers flavored romance.
External/Outside Forces Driven Tropes
MC in Peril (most romantic thrillers), Time Travel, Stranded Together, Forced Proximity, Royalty/Secret Heir to whatever, Orphaned Ward, Marriage of Convenience, Forbidden/Taboo Relationship, Fake Relationship, Fairytale retelling, Rich MC falls for Poor MC from the Wrong Side of the Tracks, Arranged Marriage, Mail Order Bride/Husband, Accidental Pregnancy.
- Outlander is the most famous time travel romance around right now, but fun movies with fake relationship trope (think The Proposal with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds) or Privileged MC falling for Poor MC (think Grease, Dirty Dancing, Notting Hill) always pop up every decade or so.
Tropes are an all-you-can-eat buffet of plot ideas. Mix them, match them, use several for one book, use none and make up your own.
The very best romance writers combine the growing relationship with a growing, moving plot like you would find in any other genre. It’s like combining the two into one seamless, engrossing, entertaining whole. Romance authors need to be prepared to do their research and then some extra. Learn story structure, how to write exciting obstacles, plotting, story beats, how to save the cat. And then also learn how to write emotional, believable, evocative relationships that demonstrate character growth. Mush the two together (it must look effortless) and write a book.
Now does it sound so simple?
Not really simple, no. But let’s talk about the fun stuff, S.E. When do we get to the bow-chicka-wow-wow?
*rubs hands together* Step closer, my padawan. Let’s get into the deep, secret, sexy details. Ready? *whispers* Your romance novel doesn’t have to contain any sex. None. Whatsoever. *done whispering because it’s creepy* Your lovers can skip off happily into the sunset holding hands and never doing anything else, if you so choose.
Um, what? Yeah. You heard me. Romance novels don’t automatically have sex in them.
Here are your basic guidelines for sex in your romance novel:
A romance is the story of a relationship evolving between people. Are they at the point in their relationship where sex would be natural and it would move their plot forward? Yes? Go ahead and put it in. Is it not time, and the plot will not be changed at all by it? Throw it out.
Like the real life it reflects, sex in romance is incredibly fluid. Not that kind of fluid, get your mind out of the gutter. I meant that the amount and level of detail are all over the map. That being said, there are some definite clues you can find as to how much heat a particular book will put off. Think of these as loose guidelines that the readers, the publishers, and the authors themselves expect, work within, and mostly obey.
Here’s a list of your possible variations. This is a paraphrase of my friend and fellow author Megan Morgan’s excellent breakdown of this exact topic. I really recommend reading her post if you’re interested in more background on the list.
-Sweet/Clean or Christian Romance: There will be no sex and no sex behind the scenes. The words ‘sweet’ and ‘clean’ will almost certainly appear in the synopsis or tagline. Possibly some kissing and holding hands, but the only star here is the emotional relationship happening on the page.
-Behind Closed Door/Fade to Black Romance: Some sexual focus, maybe some hot and heavy clothed action, but the actual sex happens ‘off page’, all implied. The emotional growth is the true focus of the book. These are tricky and hard to predict until you’re actually reading one and that metaphorical door hits you in the nose right before the sexy bits, but the synopsis may contain ‘sweet’ themes as a clue.
-General Romance: Huge spectrum category. Some sex will happen by more than implication, but the amount and how clearly explained it is on the page varies wildly. The emotional relationship is getting more screen time than the physical and the sex scenes will not be very detailed. Broad, descriptive brush strokes rather than intricate details, let’s say.
-Erotic Romance: The kind everyone *automatically thinks* is romance (thanks, 50 Shades). The emotional and the physical relationship between characters share about equal time. The sex will be more detailed, certainly with clear, blatant language. The synopsis will contain words like ‘steamy’, ‘heat’, or ‘sizzling’ and there will very likely be a content warning at the bottom saying something about ‘only mature readers’ or ‘readers over 18 please’.
-Erotica: The physical relationship is pretty much the plot. There’s still a story, action is happening, but most of the plot complications are obstacles to our lovers finding a flat surface and getting sticky. The sex will be very detailed, very often, and very hot. Generally erotica is used to celebrate and expand on different types of kinks, and those can get very specific. The synopsis will explicitly warn ‘only readers over 18’ and will usually list the kinks straight out, so there’s no guesswork.
If you’re thinking of writing romance and feeling very uncomfortable with writing the sex, don’t worry. It’s not a requirement and we won’t kick you out of RWA. Come to the dark side. Come join us. And write your own romance.