Note: In honor of ❤ Valentine’s Day ❤ (I’m a little late, what else is new?), I thought I’d share an instructional post on writing romance that I put together. Basically, romance has a unique narrative structure centered on character, rather than plot. I also included tips on writing attraction and basic genre conventions which writers of other types of fiction  might find helpful, whether you’re writing your first romance novel, or a small romantic subplot. I hope you enjoy!

I read a lot of romance, but I never put a lot of critical thought into how romance novels are constructed, how I would write one, or even the elements of a romance. Sadly, reading good work does not mean that you can produce it. My oversight predictably resulted in some frantic research after writing a romantic subplot that was dull, forced, awkward, and conflictless. I thought I would share the fruits of my research.

Romance novels are a specialized type of fiction that is more character-based than plot-based. Most plot-based fiction follows a loose structure of the-world-before, inciting incident, rising tension with setbacks, climax, and then falling tension. Romance writers have developed a more specialized structure within that framework. It goes something like this: pre-meeting, meeting, deepening interest, complications, dark times, and climax followed by falling tension. An explicit understanding of romance novel structure is quite useful when pacing and structuring a subplot. Any of these moments can be drawn out and emphasized, particularly the deepening interest phase and the dark times. Pride and Prejudice ends at the moment the characters get together. In more modern work, getting together may happen quickly and then most of the novel is spent in the ups and downs of the early relationship.

You could injure yourself on all the hooks a romance novel needs. There needs to be something unique and compelling about the main character, the romantic interest, and the story, whether it’s in the plot, prose, or setting. There’s also usually something about the main character and romantic interest that makes them fit each other in a way no one else could.

I’ve personally struggled to put physical attraction on the page. Every romance has to convey physical attraction, even the ones with a temperature close to absolute zero. The lessons learned:

  • It can be present immediately, grow slowly, or take the character by surprise halfway through the plot.
  • Don’t conflate description with attraction. “She was beautiful” or “he had curly black hair” might do something for the character, but not the reader.
  • Attraction needn’t be visual. It could be in their body language, the way the person speaks, or an action that reflects the character (reading books is hot, says the MFA student).
  • Instead of writing attraction to the lips or eyes or chest, focus on other, less obvious parts of the body. Consider using the hands, fingers, adorable ears, back, or neck to convey attraction.
  • As far as writing sex, the main advice I found (from high temperature romance and erotica writers) is that there should be a point to it, and it should move the story forward somehow.

The conflict is the reason why the characters can’t be together right away. This is another element of romance where having the backstage workings laid out is helpful. Romantic conflict can be external, internal, or hybrid. It is often due to external circumstances, otherwise known as “they like each other, but can’t be together because…” External conflict needs to have high stakes. If she fails to buy his house, she loses her job. If he sells the house, he’s homeless. In internal conflict, one or both characters don’t initially like the other person. But if a character truly has every reason to dislike someone, immediately leaping into a romance may be difficult to pull off believably. The “getting to know you” stage will be elongated in this type of romance to make room for character development. That said, Pride and Prejudice was fairly popular, so it can be done. Hybrid conflict begins with a misconception by one character about the other which gradually gets cleared up. This must be distinct from a miscommunication, because any problem that could be solved in twelve seconds of conversation is not compelling or capable of supporting a novel.

As we wind down to the end, it seemed appropriate to talk about a genre convention of romance: the happy ending. It seemed worth including here because every single blog post I read, even ones on unrelated romance topics, referenced it. It’s worth noting that “happy” might be slightly misleading. Conditions needn’t be perfect, but if a writer spends 200+ pages building romantic tension and implying that these characters will get together, they damn well better be together in the end. The reader trusts the writer to follow through on their promises. It’s a massive breach of trust to break this contract. Many romance writers even use the happy ending as a way of defining the genre, rather than as a convention. As in, if you don’t have a happy ending, you might have a love story, but you don’t have a romance.

I’m primarily a fantasy writer, but I believe that a basic understanding of the romance genre and its romantic elements is invaluable to any writer. I will certainly incorporate these lessons from romance in future writing. I hope blog readers also benefit from this work.

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2 thoughts on “Flirting With Romance

  1. Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I find It truly useful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to give something back and help others like you aided me.

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