Romance novels are the most popular genre of fiction in the world, so it’s no surprise that you want to know how to write a romance novel. The trick to writing a great romance novel is to both follow and break the rules. That might sound contradictory, but it’s true. You need to know the basics of the genre so that you can make it your own, and break from the formula every once in a while to keep the romance fresh and exciting. The trick to writing a great romance novel is to keep your characters, and the relationship between them, at the focus of the story. The rest will follow.
Figure out who you want to write for
Writing any novel is a process of discovery, and the length and genre of your book will affect the process to be sure. Romance is no different — however, a large part of writing a romance is knowing what you want to accomplish. Nobody demands that you put a disclaimer on the cover jacket or in the pages of your completed book saying what kind of readers you hope will read your romance, but clarity on this point will help you immensely.
This clarity will help you ground the characters, backstory, and themes of your book. In romance, if you want your book to stand out from all the others, it’s important that you develop four key elements. The first is a satisfying arc. The reader wants to see characters change the way they feel about each other, whether that means growing closer together, falling further apart, or just adapting with the help of discovery, disappointment, or anything else. The second is their emotional yearning or inner drive to change themselves, which is a factor in satisfying arcs. The third is tension between these characters — emotional, professional, and otherwise — and the fourth is a happy or at least hopeful finale. All four of these elements, in varying amounts depending on your chosen subgenre, will form the core conflict of your romance novel.
Choose the genre
The first decision to make is what kind of romance novel you’re going to write. The romance category has subgenres you can research by title, such as chick lit romance and dark romance, but they also exist by theme and character. Contemporary romances unfold in contemporary settings, while historical romances are set in past times. Paranormal romances are set in other worlds, and may include fantasy. Suspense romances add action-adventure or mystery to plot elements. Comedy romances are pretty self-explanatory. Single-title romances are the “mainstream romances” from publishers with big marketing budgets, and are in bookstores all over. And men’s romances are nearly identical to single-titles, but published with sexual elements removed to appeal to male audiences.
The guidelines for writing romance vary dramatically depending on the subgenre you choose. Maybe you’re in the mood for single-title drama romance with a touch of contemporary fantasy and hint of suspense. That’s fine — just make sure to check that your plot lines make sense in that setting, whether the amount of sex scenes you’re picturing are appropriate to the genre, etc. As an added bonus, some publishers accept submissions from indie authors if the category and genre are correct.
Pick the tone of your romance
You’ll be working with two tones, romantic and narrative. The best romance novels make use of both. You want your novel to strike an intimate tone between the characters. You should approach it from the point of view of both characters, if at all possible. But the natural storyteller inside you will still want to advance the plot. You can find this balance by thinking of your novel’s romance portions as an innermost layer of plot. Aim for intimate language that will ramp up in tone as the action heats up. Mix between writing in the first and third person to give your romance both credibility and flavor.
Think about how your novel should be categorized as romance, as well. You’ll want your romance novel to have a final romance that will feel true to your romantic tone, as well as a sturdy plot that stands on its own outside of the romance. Make sure to set up your characters’ back stories or make them cast in some kind of action to give them clear reasons for being interested in each other. Visualize the potential for romance in these interactions and frame it as its own action, projected forward in a romantic way.
Create a unique relationship
Modern romance readers are so used to reading about the same things in romances that any deviation has the potential to wow — but only if it’s executed well. So it’s essential that if you want to write a romance novel that you learn to think how every romance novel should be written — that is, more than just as a couple of characters falling in love over the course of the book, but as a couple that has to break through difficult issues and also overcome certain obstacles to get together.
It helps to look at what other romances do, particularly if there’s any variation that you specifically want to accomplish — a particular kind of grittiness to your story, for example, or deeper themes to the conflict. But really, the first thing you should ask yourself is why your books should be romances at all, rather than just love stories, or romances with suspense plots, or something else entirely. Some of the most successful romance novels in literary history have made a point of confounding the reader over what’s romance and what isn’t. It’s worth studying literature that avoids the traditional trappings of romance, to test how much you actually need them – if your most skeptical reader is going to make a truly satisfying romance heroine or romance hero, you have to start deviating from the “typical” romance sooner, rather than later.
Understand your tropes
The best way to begin the process of understanding how to write a romance novel is to start by reading like you normally read. There’s no need to devour romance novels like popcorn — it’s ideal if you take time to appreciate each so that you can absorb the details that make every romance different from the last. It’s important to read as many romance novels as you can and take note of the tropes that are used — both the devices and the language. Tropes are common devices, like the bad boy character, the faithful sweetheart, the leading man hero, the seductress, the knight in shining armor, and the tragic heroine. YA has all these too, albeit in its own flavor of tropes that are also tailor-made for the audience.
It’s worth noting that writing in romance tropes is not the same as following them. It’s definitely possible to make use of these tropes, while also crafting a story that stands out from the common tropes of romance. And as a writer, you should know how to write a romance novel by avoiding cliche characters, and by making your characters truly stand out. It’s okay to play with tropes, and you can do it as the writer.
Start thinking about your characters
If you think about it, when you’re writing a romance novel, you’re really writing the whole story in a sense, and characters can make or break that kind of structure. So when you’re getting ready to write a romance novel you’ve got a couple of decisions to make in order to help inform your characters. What’s important in romantic relationships is 1) the initial attraction and 2) the process of maintaining the relationship over a period of time. The key question is who’s leading in each stage and how are the feelings altered from one stage to the next? Point of view will be important – who is the story first, second, and third person or present tense or past tense so that your reader knows where to focus his or her attention?
Write your hero
Your romance novel’s hero is arguably the most important part of the story. We read a romance novel primarily for the love story, and so it’s the hero’s journey that most determines whether we love the novel or not. Therefore, it’s essential that you understand how to write a romance novel’s hero thoroughly. How do you develop your hero as a character, while still staying true to romance tropes? What personality traits should he possess? What mistakes should he avoid? How can he be appropriately flawed, so that the reader can connect with him on a deeper level? Lastly, how can he and the heroine still balance each other in an equal partnership?
Develop your heroine
The success of your romance novel really hinges on your ability to create a likable heroine. Sure, your hero is a big part of the appeal, but readers can only follow his emotional journey to the extent that they identify with the heroine. To that end, you’ll need to take the time to ensure that your heroine is developed and dynamic, and is capable of making the leap from ordinary to incredible.
Think about love interests in your life, and in the things you’ve read. What familiar archetypes and tropes can you spot there? The last time you read a romance, think back to which characters the writer most effectively dug into, and how he or she did it — for example, was there a particularly stirring scene where the heroine comes clean about her desires, giving the reader a “behind the scenes” view of her sex life? What role did the hero play? These kinds of details should matter when you’re learning how to write a romance novel, even if the characters are unique to your specific work of fiction.
Spend time concepting your locale
Constructing the perfect setting is an important part of how to write a romance novel. From a beach town in Northern California to a billionaire’s penthouse on Central Park West, a well-conceived setting will ground the reader and set the tone of a story. There’s no hard and fast rule for constructing the perfect setting, but being familiar with basic geography is a logical choice. If you have a primary character in your romance novel, use their place of origin to inform their worldview and describe what kind of environment they live in.
Placing your characters in a familiar environment like their home or surrounding environment will help readers develop clearer insights into them and their actions. There are countless ways to introduce and describe a setting, from taking a train or bus tour, to checking out research videos on Youtube. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to how to write a romance novel’s setting, knowing about the world in which you are creating your characters can help you make your worldbuilding stronger.
Know your characters’ worldview
When you’re writing a romance novel, it’s critical to know how to write a romance novel with your characters. They shouldn’t be stock characters for you to engage in story movements, nor free-floating personas that you can surprise for the sake of shock value. They need to be beautifully complete. Prepare to get to know them partner-by-partner. What would they say is their life’s ambition? What do they hold sacred? What are their hobbies and physical interests? What are their raw ambitions? What are their dreams? What are their greatest fears? Write them down, write up entire character charts. You’ll write your novel more carefully and know them better, too.
Then you have to write them together. How do they act when they’re alone, and when they’re with others? How do they react when it’s just the two of them? Write their first date and all the others. You don’t have to put all of this in your novel — for right now, it’s just about getting to know them. You want to know how to write a romance novel so you can create characters who are compelling to your reader, but who are also perfect pairs for each other. So get to know your characters well, and plot their progression wonderfully so that they can be perfectly matched with each other.
Fill your romance scenes with emotional details
Like all good stories, romance novels have interesting conflicts. For a romance novel, one of the most interesting lies at the intersection of your characters. Nothing will captivate readers like watching as two conflicting forces collide. The conflict usually comes from another character with whom the romantic hero and heroine interact, but there’s another, deeper conflict at play within the protagonist—the battle between overcoming their fears and giving in to their love. When readers read a romance novel, they’re settled in for a bit of a roller coaster ride — again, think about your own emotional response to falling in love. Start to explore that emotional journey in your own mind. Most people look at love as some sort of challenge or obstacle — even when they’ve made it work. So when one of the important characters in your romance novel gets involved with someone else, they should view it as surmounting an obstacle in their quest to find romance. The only thing is that the obstacle that your character is facing actually gives themselves a greater chance of finding their true love — the other protagonist.
These are the emotional corners to which you should be applying the pressure of your character’s dual struggles in your romance scenes. Each paragraph you write should have something for your protagonists to face — whether it’s a conflict, temptation, accusation, betrayal, or revelation. All of these should be facing the dual pressures of another character pushing back against their relationship, while at the same time another character pulling forward into it. Mix things up. Don’t give your prose monotonous beats of the exact same emotional tension and action over and over again. To craft the perfect romance, you need to think about this pressure directly in terms of controlling your characters’ emotions.
Set the romance at the right pace
In almost any romance novel, the couple has ample time to fall in love with each other. Two weeks together is a short time, and the ten or twenty years of marriage that follow can feel like hardly anything at all. A writer of romance novels can use this time and timelessness to their advantage — you can explore the love the characters feel together, and also the intangible barriers that stand between them. While their love is fleeting, you can use their hesitance to explore their deeper personal struggles. Take a moment to look at romance novels in your favorite genre. Are there particular themes that they tend to focus on – overcoming adversity, family and societal norms, self-respect?
Viewpoint, tone, conflicts, tropes, timing, pacing — these are all elements of a successful romance novel that you can play with to meet the goals of your story. There are no hard and fast rules to writing a romance novel, but following general good story writing methods will certainly show your appreciation for your genre. Write carefully and let your characters fall in love with you, and fall in love with their story.
Don’t attempt sex scenes out of nowhere
Romance works incredibly well on the page because of the tension that is created between two people who feel attracted to each other. Sex is often the culmination of this tension, so it doesn’t make sense to throw in random sex scenes that don’t serve the plot. When it’s time to write a sex scene, make sure that it enhances the tension between the characters rather than making them love each other instantly just because they’re shedding their clothes. Let their minds and words do the work first. When characters spend time together talking, you have a chance to increase their tension and slowly bring them closer together. To take this a step further, use male and female perspectives of the sex scene. One character’s view of the love-making should be almost painfully vulnerable — while the other’s takes more control, to show an inhibition that she or he is ultimately overcome. Both perspectives can be equally charged in emotion and in form.
One of the most common writing mistakes is rushing the beginning of a romance novel. The writer spends the first three-quarters of a book building up tensions between characters, preparing them for their imminent meeting, and then falls into the trappings of the romance novel trope for which the novel stands. Don’t do this. Take your time to build up that tension. Get your reader on your side — write them to care about, or even fall in love with, the characters. Then, when the inevitable plot development comes, you’ll have a head of steam to tell the sex scenes properly, and you can benefit from all the emotional connection your reader has already built up.
Stay open for new ideas
To start, be sure your characters have strengths and weaknesses. Also, remember that despite the traditional focus on the couple’s relationship, your readers will actually relate far more to your characters’ personal growth than their affection for each other. Furthermore, the external struggles in their lives matter almost as much as the romance between them. Altering your plot dynamics will change your story, but it will also bond readers with your characters. Worse-case scenario, those tricky plot dynamics might be the inspiration for your next great novel.
Romance is about the obstacles your characters face in pursuit of their romance. Are you throwing in fairytale tropes? Vampire romances. Are you writing about steamy vacations full of stilettos and silk sheets? Tropical settings. Are you writing about an impossible romance? A time travel romance! But just like you, your characters are inevitably drawn toward each other through yearnings to “fix themselves” for each other. It’s that interplay of parallel desires and identifications that will help your characters spring to life in your readers’ minds.
Make sure your ending works
Obviously, you need to get your hero or heroine together in the end. But the logistics of how that happens needs to be meticulously planned or your romance won’t be satisfying to read. By the end of your story, your hero or heroine should have reached a level of maturity where their interactions with their future love are more about support, trust, and admiration than misguided insecurity and stubbornness — and if they’re going to have obstacles to overcome in the future, readers should see how this duo overcomes any new challenges together. While much of your novel will play on your characters’ emotional journeys, make sure that everything works out in the end in a way that’s both satisfying and empowering.
If the ending to your romance novel is satisfactory, congratulations, you are well on your way. But just because your book does thematically what it needs to doesn’t mean your ending needs to be weak — quite the opposite! Your romantic ending must be a page-turner. You want your readers to want your hero and heroine to be together, and to make their romance part of the paragraph-turning appeal of your novel. Avoid killing off secondary characters, changing your character’s mind, and never underestimate the power of a funny ending, a delightfully joyous one, or one that leaves the characters with plenty of hope for the future.
Write your romance novel
You can always find reasons to explain why you can’t write a romance novel — you don’t have time, you don’t know how to write a romance novel, you’re too busy. You might even feel like you don’t deserve to learn how to write a romance novel — you don’t have in common with someone who writes a romance novel. But if it’s your story, your time, your life, love is something you give yourself permission to have, to express, and to share as deeply as you want. It doesn’t matter why you love romance novels — whether it’s because you love the written word, you love storytelling, you love writing with more than just plot mechanics or character arcs. The goal of a romance novel is to mix together adventure, celebrity, and the triumph of romance. Readers want to lose themselves in the romance — but the best way to do that is for you to lose yourself in writing it.
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