7 Essential Tips for Writing a Romance

Posted on Fri, Jan 31 2014 9:00 am by Jennifer Lawler

CC: Gabriela Pinto

If you’ve ever thought of writing a romance, you’re not alone. Romance is the bestselling fiction genre, so it makes sense that a writer might think about trying her hand at one. But romances are harder to write than you might think. Here are some tips for avoiding the most common mistakes in writing a romance.

1. Read romances. A surprising number of people who think they can write a romance don’t actually read romances. If you’re not interested in the genre as a reader, that’s going to come across in your writing. Although it helps to read in a variety of subgenres (such as romantic suspense or paranormal romance), it makes sense to focus on the type of romance you’re thinking about writing.

2. Follow the formula. Romances do follow a formula—but it’s probably not the one you think. Here’s what a romance reader expects from a romance:

  • A hero she loves and a heroine she sympathizes with.
  • A believable conflict. Something has to keep the hero and heroine apart, and it can’t be a pointless misunderstanding that could be cleared up with one twelve-second conversation.
  • A happily-ever-after. The couple doesn’t have to get married or vow undying love but it should be clear that they’ve resolved their differences and are mutually committed to one another.

That’s it. That’s the framework within which you write your novel. Now, different lines may have more specific expectations than this (for example, if you’re writing a Harlequin Suspense, the editors will expect you to hit a specific word count and to have a certain type of plot) but this is where you start.

3. Focus on the emotional payoff. Readers read romance because they want to feel something. Romances can have difficult subject matter and any number of dark moments but at heart they are life-affirming and the ending is always positive. If you kill off your hero at the end, you may have a love story but you don’t have a romance. Often the emotional payoff requires both the hero and the heroine to make a sacrifice for the sake of love. Be sure that you’re even-handed about this. Romances require mutuality to be satisfying to readers.

4. Keep the action going. Although romance is about feeling, spending a lot of time inside a character’s head mulling things over is the kiss of death for a romance novel. Your story needs to keep moving along to the conclusion. That doesn’t mean you should dump in a bunch of pointless action; you can have a romance where not a great deal of objective action happens. But characters need to be doing something: having conversations, going to work, throwing things.

5. Don’t head-hop. This refers to the jumping around from one character’s point of view to another character’s point of view in a scene. This prevents you from deeply exploring one character’s feelings and situation, and is a deal-breaker for a lot of readers and editors. Also be aware that most romance is written in third person, past tense. Unless you have an extremely strong reason for doing otherwise (and you probably don’t), stick with what readers want and expect.

6. The love relationship must be front and center. In many romance subgenres, such as historical or paranormal, a lot of world-building has to take place for the reader to understand what’s going on. But you have to keep the love relationship front and center from the start of your novel to the last page. If your hero wanders off for fifty pages midway through the book, readers are going to be unhappy. They want to see your hero and heroine together, falling in love.

7. Convey physical attraction. Even in the tamest of romances, the reader needs to have a sense that your two main characters are physically attracted to each other. Romances are about sexual love relationships, even if your characters never do more than kiss. Physical attraction and desire are important parts of your characters’ love journey, and your readers want to experience them.

Following these tips will help ensure that your romance is one that readers will love.

Jennifer Lawler is teaching "Writing a Romance" this March at the Loft. She is the author of more than fifteen romances in a variety of romance subgenres (paranormal, suspense, contemporary) under several pen names and for various publishers. She is also a former acquisitions editor for a romance publisher, where she was responsible for acquiring more than 250 titles a year. She has given webinars on writing romance and has guided many romance writers in creating better stories.