Romance novels get a bad rap, and yet, at the very core of human existence is the need to be loved, to belong, and to find a mate. What is it about romance that makes some sneer? Even Nicholas Sparks has said he doesn’t write romance, he writes love stories, or so I’ve heard. We can sneer all we like, but romance or romantic stories have an enormous readership and are often some of the most poignant books on the market.
Personally, I find romances (especially twisty, angsty ones) to be some of the most satisfying novels. What could be more important, life-changing, and devastating than finding love (or losing it), and how that love shapes a person’s view of the world? In particular, I tend towards romances set in the past. (Big shock, I know, since I’m a historical fiction author.) I’ve been reading historical romance since I was eleven years old, in fact, and though the scope of the books I read has changed dramatically, I find it as fulfilling as ever. I’ve even ventured into this category in my own writing. When done well–researched and romantically authentic–history and romance are a winning combo. Admittedly, what I write is considered to be far more historical than romance, or more book club fiction than genre fiction (Honestly, I hate those divisions. Good fiction is good fiction, regardless of labels, tropes, and expectations), but my defense of a damn good love story stands.
Let’s look at some tips to make sure the romantic element of your novel is on the right track. First of all:
Decide the Heat Factor up Front: The heat factor will determine both where you will pitch your novel in terms of publishers, as well as who your readers will be. Do you want your novel to be on the spectrum of less-is-more unrequited love, or ratchet it up a notch to heavy petting? Perhaps you want your characters to become romantically entangled and to go the Full Monty. This isn’t so much about what you are comfortable writing (we all need to step outside our comfort zone at times!), but it’s about what rings true for your characters, for the era, for the social class and circumstances they live in, and most importantly, it’s about your goals. For example, look at the range of these examples: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo, Letters From Skye by Jessica Brockmole, Possession by A.S. Byatt, and The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. These stories range widely in heat, tone, detailing, era and sub-category. Their audiences may not crossover much at all, but at some point, the authors decided how much “on stage” heat they wanted to weave into the narrative.
Keep in mind that what is left unsaid, or what hasn’t happened yet in the ‘hot scenes’, can be far more powerful than a detailed description of every caress, every thought, every moment of breathlessness. It can not only be more powerful to omit, but it can also create much more tension. A good love story is always about the tension you create between your protagonists. The tit-for-tat. The almost but not yet. Just remember the heat factor may be determined by what the norm is for your category. Read widely in your genre so your stories are aligned with your readers’ expectations.
Pull in Close: Whether you use first person or a close third person, close points of view allow you to tunnel deeply into a character’s heart and mind. This creates intimacy between the reader and the characters, and they become instantly invested in the protagonist(s) struggles. Take the reader there, into that secret space, so when the hero or heroine comes along, our pulses are racing with expectation and hope.
Choose an era, or setting, fraught with conflict: Nothing builds dramatic tension around a romance better than a time of strife, war, a shift in ideals or circumstances, or a challenge to one’s livelihood in whatever form that may take. Conflict might also come from family dysfunctions and expectations, or a moral dilemma that separates our hero from our heroine.
As for scene-setting details, if you’re writing a love story that takes place in a different country, world, era, or dimension, remember that readers are looking for the unique circumstances of this particular setting, the rules, traditions, and clothing, the nuances of etiquette and any other interesting tidbits that distinguish it from a contemporary love story. If we’re talking romcom, those nuances come through as humor, sarcasm, and sometimes slap-stick. If we’re looking at a thriller, the nuances can be about tech equipment or crime scene details, things of that nature. In any event, these “extras” are what add richness to the trope of boy meets girl and falls in love. Use your research to transport your reader.
Throw Curve Balls at Your Characters: This is true of all romance–and all genres! Don’t make it too easy for the protagonist (s) to come together. Being apart is is what keeps the reader feverishly turning the pages. They crave that satisfaction of an emotional journey–fraught with mistakes and issues just like in real life–that ultimately works out in the end. That said, not all love stories need a HEA (Happily Ever After)–I’ve written both tragic love stories and happy ones, but the important piece is to keep the reader guessing until the very end. Throw plenty of curve balls at your characters so the reader hangs on your every word.
It’s All About the Emotional Journey: In the end, the most important element is the way in which your protagonist(s) arc BECAUSE of the unexpected relationship that has blossomed between them and a love interest (and if the romance is more of a sub-plot, there’s an additional layer of the protag’s arc through the plot and other circumstances around them that have acted as a catalyst for change). Do they grow and change and become a better version of themselves in the end, or if it’s a tragic arc, do they lose a piece of themselves because of this relationship? Whatever it may be, highlight your protagonist(s) internal struggles to give the love story dimension.
Do you have a favorite novel with a love story at its core? What is it that special sauce the author uses so well that makes you devour their books?