The Rules of Romance Writing?

Every genre has its story expectations, which lead some people to believe there is a formula for writing within any given genre. Not so.

When I pick up a mystery novel, I expect there to be a mystery (probably a murder) to be solved. I expect there to be a protagonist working to solve the mystery. I expect, with some surprises and plot twists along the way, that the mystery will be solved at the end of the book. That’s pretty much all I expect, and so long as the author fulfills those expectations, she is free to do quite a bit in the process of telling the story.

The reader expectations of the romance genre are similar. Readers expect the book to be about a man and a woman overcoming obstacles and falling in love. They also expect the story to end happily—as in, with the sense that the relationship will continue. Everything else in the story is up to the author.

But that’s where it gets tricky. It’s also where the idea that there are lots of rules for writing romance comes into play.

Following are some romance writing myths I’ve heard, versus reality:

Do the hero and heroine need to meet by page three?

No. Nor do they need to meet by page 6 or 10 or whatever. But if the primary story in the book is about a man and woman meeting and eventually falling in love, you will want to set up that plot somewhere near the beginning of the book. Not on page 100.

Does there have to be a love scene (or 3, or 6 or 10 love scenes)?

No, it’s not required or necessary. Do readers like them? Some do, some don’t. Some believe any kind of sex makes the story unreadable, and some are sorely disappointed by a lack of it. So how do you decide whether to include love scenes? You look to the story itself. Would showing the characters’ developing physical relationship serve the story in some way? Would it advance character and/or plot development? It often will when done well. But you also have to decide what you are comfortable and happy writing. If you hating writing about sex, you’re better off skipping it.

Does a romance novel have to be written in third person limited point of view?

It doesn’t have to be, but that’s the easier way to write a romance. First person is more difficult but is certainly possible. When you’re spending 300-400 pages telling the story of two people falling in love, it’s nice to get a sense of where each person is psychologically. That’s why romances tend to go back and forth between the heroine and hero’s third person limited points of view.

Does the romance heroine have to be a docile, innocent, virginal type while the hero is an alpha male jerk who also happens to be a cowboy billionaire?

No, no, no, no, no. Those are silly old-school images of what romance characters are like. Some books may still include such types, but I don’t read or write them. Romances tend to work best when they are about believable characters who are both realistic and admirable—same as any mainstream protagonist. We want to be able to like and identify with the characters in some way. Most people tend to like stories about characters who are perhaps a bit of what we wish ourselves to be.

But making your character too perfect is a recipe for a boring story, so you have to balance admirable qualities with the types of flaws all people have. Romance readers are often disappointed if characters are too flawed though. Never forget that these books are a bit of escapist fantasy. They are usually not the place to try out making a reader fall in love with a philandering alcoholic. Think about the kinds of traits that would make a person a deal-breaker in a real life relationship with you, and that’s a pretty good measuring stick for deciding if you can make it work in a romance novel. Save the tragically flawed characters for your more literary efforts.

Aren’t romance novels so easy to write that I can knock one off in a couple of weeks and then sit back and wait for the cash to come rolling in?

Oh hell no. I suppose a few authors may work that way, but romances are very difficult to do well. It’s a crowded market. The books depend heavily upon author voice and compelling characterization to rise above the mediocre. Inherent in the question above is disrespect for the genre, and I would never try to write in a genre I don’t enjoy and respect myself. You might be able to sell some books with such a cynical approach, but your energy would be much better spent writing in a genre you love.

(And the money rolling in part? That’s a tragically inaccurate myth for 99.5% of all writers.)

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