Writers in the Storm

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February 3, 2014

What Makes a Romance? Seven tips.

Just a quick announcement - the winner of the drawing for the online course at Lawson Writer's Academy is . . . Jamie Beck!

Writers in the Storm welcomes Shannon Donnelly to clarify what a book needs to land on the romance shelf. If your WIP a genre "fence-sitter" or if your romance could be shelved in another area, Shannon has answers and help.

by Shannon Donnelly

This recently came up on a message thread. A writer had her manuscript kicked back for not being a romance. I also just read a book recently that billed itself as paranormal romance, and while it was paranormal, it wasn’t a romance. Just what makes novel a romance?

The confusion comes in that you can have sex in your story, you can have a relationship in your story, but you still might not really have a romance novel. Why is this?

1-The most important factor is that the romance has to be the main plot line—all conflict and all tension need to come from “will they or won’t they make it as a couple.” This means if you have two characters having sex, but the real conflict comes from the world ending, or werewolves taking over the world, or spies out to bring down the country, you don’t have a romance. You have an action story with some sex in it. Same goes for having a relationship between two characters, but having all the conflict exist outside that relationship.  So if you have a pair of vampire hunters in a relationship, or a pair of cops, or a married couple solving mysteries in Victorian London, chances are you have an Urban Fantasy, or a police procedural or a mystery with some romantic elements—but it’s not a romance. And if you have a couple in a relationship, but lots of stuff going on around them, you might have Women’s Fiction, but not a romance.

Just remember—the romance, the notion of “will they or won’t they make it as a couple” must be the core, main plot line. If your two main characters are not struggling to figure out how to make a relationship work between them, it’s not a romance.

2-Now what about married couples—can you have a romance there? Sure. Think of all the marriage of convenience stories or the second chance at love stories with a couple who has divorced. Those stories work as a romance because the core plot line is “will they or won’t they make it as a couple.” Other subplots can exist, but they serve to support or weave into that main romance plot line. The romance is always about a character that may not be able to fall in love and be happy with his or her partner.

3-In a romance the conflict for “will they or won’t they make it as a couple” needs to focus on one protagonist. Why? Because this makes for a stronger romance. In any romance, the main character needs to be unable to have a happy relationship at the start of the story and needs to change enough that the reader believes that character can now stay with his or her partner and be happy. That is the core story arc for a romance. This is why you have so many rake reformed stories—it’s a redemption story within the romance.  This is also why you have so many stories of a woman’s emotional awakening—it’s a redemption story again. If your protagonist does not change enough, the reader will not believe the romance.

4-In a romance, the main protagonist needs to have internal issues that cause the romantic conflict of “will they or won’t they make it as a couple.” This is where you get the damaged hero who cannot commit, or the starchy heroine who doesn’t know how to connect to her own emotions. Without internal conflicts, it’s too easy to fall back onto external action only—and all of a sudden the story becomes about the aliens taking over the world, or the murderer, or the battle between good and evil and the romance is no longer the main focus of the story. This is why you have to be very sure your internal conflicts are stronger than all the external conflicts—you want that core question to always remain “will they or won’t they make it as a couple” and for this to focus on that main character who needs to overcome his or her internal issues in order to have that great relationship.

5-The best romances manage to have external and internal conflicts peak at the same time. Read the best romantic suspense authors and you’ll see this happen over and over. The suspense story never overwhelms the romance, but instead the suspense and the romantic conflicts both come to a crisis at the same moment. This is very, very hard to pull off—and if in doubt and you’re writing a romance, stick to the romance first.

6-Romances are about characters. They are about our little quirks of personalities—and how do we make them mesh with another person’s quirks. How does the logical person fit with an emotional person? How does the messy person fit with a neat freak? It’s not just opposites attract—it’s about how do personalities work together. Think of the “bromances” you see so often in stories. The reason these get called that is because you see a relationship building on personality differences that happen to click and work. This is fun stuff—and you want this in your romances. The reader wants to see personality clashes and how these become something that works for the better of all. (I love the Hepburn/Tracey romantic comedies because they illustrate not just great, snappy dialogue, but romances where you see all the clashes of personality, internal issues, and external conflicts.)

7-Use your external conflicts to force your characters together. External conflicts work best to drive a couple who would never get together into spending time together. Don’t think about external conflicts as pulling the couple apart—or testing their relationship to make it stronger. Think about external conflicts as the engine that sets the stage for making two people come together and be forced into asking that question of “will they or won’t they make it as a couple.” If you use your external conflict to force togetherness, then you can use all the internal issues to drive the couple apart. This push/pull will give you a romance that sparks—because the main focus will be on your characters and if they can make it as a couple.

How do you know a book is a romance? Which of Shannon's tips makes a romance a keeper?

Shannon Donnelly

Shannon Donnelly

Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written."

She’s at work on her next Regency romance, a sequel to Lady Scandal, and will be bringing out the next book in the Mackenzie Solomon Demons & Warders Series, following up on Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire.

34 comments on “What Makes a Romance? Seven tips.”

  1. This is really interesting! I write Fantasy with strong romantic elements, and actually went the opposite way-- I strengthened the external conflicts to put less emphasis on the relationship, though it's still a major part of the story and character development (not looking to have it shelved as romance, obviously). I find it interesting that so many stories can go either way, depending on the focus and how different elements are balanced and where we place our focus.

    Number 6 is a fantastic tip for all genres where characters are in a relationship (working, friendship, romance).

    1. Yes, if you're writing in a genre such as mystery, fantasy, SF, those external element that drive the plot line need to be really strong--particularly in fantasy. And, personally, I think the best books area always about characters.

  2. As always, Shannon, you hit the mark. I agree about the basic principle about what makes a book a romance. I have used this in my new WIP and since I love mysteries, I wanted a romantic suspense. I asked myself how can the murder and the conflicts and the search for justice go hand and hand with a romance? Not the traditional female in distress falling for the cop ... but a murder that brings them unwittingly back into each other's life.

    So I would say that your main premise of what makes a romance a romance, and the external and internal conflicts, are spot on. It's always been boy meets girl, etc. but I love the way you describe it. Thanks 🙂

    1. It is always about looking for that fresh twist that brings something new without going so far outside the lines that you're writing something else. Hard to do, but the rewards are great if you do it right.

  3. Reblogged this on Author Lisa Rayne and commented:
    Are you doing your fans and your writing career a disservice by inaccurately categorizing your stories? Are you really writing a romance or could it be more accurately classified as woman's fiction or maybe an urban fantasy? Take a look at Shannon Donnelly's seven tips for "What Makes a Romance?" and don't forget to end your true romance with a happy ending.

    1. Michael, I'm not sure that's true for all readers (or viewers). There's one school of thought that says women read to identify with the female protagonist, which is why for decades Harlequin Romances had to have first person female POV only. However, another school says that it's more about the hero--it's about the redemption of the hero that gets to readers, and there is evidence of this in the popularity of the rake/bad boy stories. And I think a lot of times we just want to be experiencing the emotion--we want the tears and the happiness of watching someone else hit it right. So I think it varies by the viewer or reader as to the experience.

  4. First of all --PSYCHE! I'm so happy to win the Margie Lawson class. Thanks. As if I didn't love this site enough...

    Secondly, as someone whose writing is definitely "on the fence" between WF and romance, it is always interesting to read genre descriptions and advice. In most cases, I think it is pretty clear whether a particular book is contemporary romance or not (and the factors outlined above weigh heavily into that classification).

    However, there are some books that don't fit neatly into the romance category, although they are still tagged as romance. Lisa Kleypas's Sugar Daddy comes to mind. That book does not follow the traditional romance formula. It starts with Liberty being in love with Hardy, and ends (spoiler) with her being with Gage, for example. It also deals with a whole host of her "coming of age" issues (from poverty, to raising her sister, etc.) spanning 11 years of her life (14-25). The pacing is much slower than a lot of contemporaries, and so on. I would call it WF/sre, but it is shelved as romance.

    My own work tends to be a bit like Sugar Daddy (in terms of not following a formula...but I am not daring to compare my writing to the wonderful LK!!). There is a very central love story, but the H/H arcs are also equally explored and pivotal/heavy. So here's my question: Sugar Daddy was released in 2007. Do you think it would be shelved as romance in today's competitive romance market, or would it be WF/sre?


    1. An interesting thing about "the market"--years ago you only had NOVELS. That was it. Didn't matter if you had a romance in there, or fantasy, or whatever. It was just a novel. Along came publishers looking for a new way to do things and paperbacks created "genre" fiction. Suddenly, novels were high class things and mysteries, westerns, sf, fantasy, and then romance became "mass market" pulp. The categories splintered further as the markets grew and it became harder to get a book out into mass market.

      These days, e-books are helping do away with a lot of the categories--but they still exist. Also, there's a school of thought that says a great book will "break out" of its genre and become something more. I think that's sill. A great book with great marketing hits big--it just does.

      The real point here is that when you market a book a certain way, editors, agents, and readers all then expect what you are marketing. So you need to deliver. And it's always harder to market something that doesn't quite fit in anywhere--yes, that kind of book can create a new sub-genre, but it can also sink if the readers don't know what to expect (and so won't buy it), or if the story doesn't deliver on a strong enough conflict.

      And I think if you look at all of Lisa Kelpas' work, she knows how to write strong conflicts and great characters.

  5. Whether or not the story is a "true" romance comes up a lot in our crit group. We sometimes have to remind each other about certain elements that need to be in place, esp. if the heroine or the hero isn't showing up enough or there's not enough interaction.

  6. Thank you for this clear writing to help understand what romance readers expect in the romance genre. Thought I'd mention that in more recent years romance readers do also recognise there are books that while not strictly romance genre books are novels "with romantic elements". Perhaps publishers should make this clear on the back cover blurbs? While I am primarily a romance reader (as well as a romance writer) I do also enjoy books that have a romance even if the relationship between a couple is not the main focus and plot.

    1. I love a lot of books with romantic elements, but it's hard to fit all that into a blurb. It's really a matter of trying to hit your core audience--you often don't have time to pick up secondary folks who might read the book, too.

  7. This is a wonderful breakdown of what makes a romance, a romance - thank you! I enjoy reading books from many different genres, and sometimes those lines get blurred in my mind...I wonder why this or that book is or isn't considered a romance. I will have to pay a bit more attention now. 🙂

    1. Keep in mind, too, that quite often "name" authors can get away with blurring lines that other folks can't. Not only does it take mad skills, but if you have a reputation for selling books, it gets you places.

  8. Do you think the strict separation of genre is an important as when everything was run by the Big 6, Shannon? I'm thinking smaller e-presses are more apt to have less stringent guidelines than you suggest. As long as I find an HEA, I consider the book a romance (given a relationship, of course between two people who are lovers.) I really don't care whether a book leans more toward the suspense or more towards the romance, but I want them both to be there. Intriguing and thought provoking post.

    1. In general NY NEEDS those strict separation of genres (and sub-genres)--it's what allows them to put a book into their "marketing machine". If a great book doesn't fit that machine, they just don't know how to market it. And that's where you get the "we love this but don't know what to do with it" letters. This is why a lot of break out books get bought and introduced by small press (Harry Potter came originally from a smaller publisher, The Bridges of Madison County, Lip Service, etc). You do have to have the market in mind if you are writing for a specific publishing house, particularly for NY.

  9. I love reading romance novels but had never thought of It this way. It makes sense though, now that you say it. And I agree with your comment to Michael. Personally I'm drawn to romantic fiction (either in books or film) by the redemption aspect. What is it they say? All women love a bad boy!

    I also get really put out when the two characters I want to end up together, don't. I feel like the author has cheated me. If I've invested in watching two characters hit highs and lows in their relationship and then one suddenly decides she's grown so much as a person she doesn't need the relationship, or he decides not to journey half way across the world to be with her and marries is secretary instead, I am not a happy chappy.

    1. I know what you mean about the wrong two people in love. You have to have that chemistry between characters--that spark and sizzle.

  10. I've written a sequel to the original Romance novel, THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1894) in the style of the original (the memoir of a Victorian/Edwardian gentleman) and just had a fairly well-known agent tell me I had to edit out all the "ly" and "ing" words, to work with her, because the book won't sell, otherwise. My husband's response is, "Do you want to dumb it down?" I've been wandering around in shock - I see no reason to "dumb it down," when there are still so many readers of Austin, etc., around, not to mention Anne Perry and the late Elizabeth Peters. Still trying to get a deep breath, and my feet back under me, before I search out another response. Tough haul.

    1. I think you're probably better off self-publishing that book. You're going to get a lot of flack (not from readers), and you'll hear about what established authors can do that you can't do. When you go against the "market wisdom" it's always a tough ride.


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