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From Romeo and Juliet to Noah and Allie, some of the greatest love stories of all time have all come from a particular genre of fiction: romance.
The concept of romance novels dates back centuries and remains one of the most popular genres across the world. After all, what’s not to love about love?
While it may seem like an easy topic to pen a whole book about, learning how to write romance effectively takes time and skill. So whether you’re new to novel writing or shifting away from another genre, we’re here to show you how you can get your own “happily ever after” ending from your story.
Before we jump into the ins and outs of romance novel structure and how to actually write your book, let’s start with a quick definition of what a romance novel is. Ultimately, romance novels are about love, in whatever form that takes, and usually have an optimistic ending.
For much of the genre’s history, stories have been written by, for, and about heterosexual white couples. But there’s plenty of room for diversity in this lucrative field. Emerging authors are finding great success with Black women as their lead characters or by focusing their story on an LGBTQ+ couple in new, contemporary fiction.
Thanks to romance’s often secretive past, there are plenty of misconceptions about what this genre is about, which can sometimes be off-putting to authors writing romance stories. But just like in our real lives, everyone has their own idea of what makes a happy ending, which means that no two romance novels will be the same.
The uniqueness of romance novels also extends to the other genres that they overlap with. There are hundreds of possible subgenres that your novel could fall into, from historical or contemporary to fantasy or young adult.
The way you package your story is just as important as the romantic plot, particularly when you’re targeting a particular type of reader. Before you even think about putting pen to paper, do some research about the niche you’re planning to write in and figure out exactly where you fit in.
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Romance Novel Tropes
There are many possible roads that your romance novel could take, but there are a few tried-and-tested approaches that readers have loved over and over again.
Some of the most popular tropes for romance novels are:
- Friends or enemies ultimately fall for each other.
- An unexpected journey leads to the main character finding their soulmate.
- A disastrous past gives the lead a second chance to find love.
- Forbidden love keeps two people apart.
- Love triangles form and force one character to choose between two other characters.
- One of the leads has a reputation for “playing the field” until they meet the person they want to be their real self with.
There are definitely times when any of these plot devices can feel overdone and cliche, but it’s your job as the writer to make the story believable and unique. Blending approaches or taking an old trope from an entirely new angle will keep your readers turning the page instead of predicting what happens next.
Romance Story Structure
Once you’ve decided on the general plot of your romance novel, you need to start mapping out the structure.
Some writers prefer to work spontaneously, letting their writing flow naturally without much pre-planning. But if you want to shorten your editing process or if you’re still learning how to write romance, having at least a basic structure outlined will keep your story on track.
Romance novel structure is fairly similar to other stories you may have worked on before, particularly if you’re only using a very rough outline. Go back to the basics here—decide on your story structure and how many “acts” there will be, where the key plot points that drive the story forward should occur, and how you plan to conclude everything at the end.
Start by introducing your characters to the audience and find a way to make your readers care about what happens to them. Setting is a great way to do this, as is building up a believable backstory. From there, you can develop the story with an introduction to the love interest and any secondary or supporting characters that you might have.
Remember to include some tense points throughout the plot, like inciting incidents that lead up to a conflict to be resolved. After all, no one likes a story where nothing happens.
Characters In a Romance Novel
As with every novel, the characters are key to keeping your readers interested in the plot, and this is certainly true of romance novels. Of course, you’ll have your main protagonist and love interest, but don’t forget about the supporting characters too. These individuals can create challenges for your lead characters, help them to overcome struggles, or even be the reason that the romantic relationship can happen.
All of your characters should be compelling and interesting, not just your leads. Yes, the dynamic between the lovers is the most important part of the story, but having some exciting secondary characters for your readers to love or hate can make a huge difference in taking your novel from a cliched romance to a unique and original story.
Intimate scenes are also important to consider, as these can significantly help both character and plot development. These are some of the most difficult scenes to write, even if you’re keeping everything PG-13, and can easily turn quite cringe-worthy within a few sentences.
Study writers like Sally Rooney, Diana Gabaldon, and Nicholas Sparks for some ideas if you’re new to writing these scenes. These can be some of the most important moments for your characters, so you want to treat them with care and attention.
Happily Ever After (HEA)
When it comes to romance novels, the “happily ever after” ending (or HEA) is most writers’ go-to way to wrap up their story. This is usually the fairytale romance ending, often leading to the main character’s marriage or a “we’ll be together forever” approach.
A “happily ever after” is often described as the standout characteristic of a romance novel—without this, it cannot be considered as part of the romance genre. Yes, your reader may know how the story ends before they’ve even begun, but that’s the whole point of genre. How you build your HEA ending, though, is left entirely to your creativity.
Happy For Now (HFN)
If “happily ever after” is a bit too much for you, try working with a “happy for now” (or HFN) ending instead. This gives the implication that the lovers will be happy following the novel’s conclusion, but it’s not guaranteeing it in the same way that a HEA ending does.
For many romance novel readers, the HEA isn’t realistic enough to be believable, which makes a HFN ending much more realistic and enjoyable. While some argue that HEA is the only way to end romance and that fiction isn’t meant to be real, a HFN is a perfect bridge for readers who still want to enjoy a romantic and optimistic story, but with a little less cliche at the end.
You need to have a good understanding of the people you’re writing for before you get started and that’s certainly true in this genre as much as others. The research into your readership doesn’t need to be hugely detailed, but the more you know about your audience, the better you can tailor your work to appeal to them.
When it comes to romance novels, around 80% of the readers are women aged between 20 and 50, with about 30% of them buying more than one romance novel every month. That’s great for anyone writing romance, because there’s clearly significant interest in the genre.
But that also means that readers will know when a trope has been overused, and they’ll easily be able to spot predictable plots a mile away. Don’t let this dissuade you. Use this knowledge to inspire your creativity and come up with new and interesting ways to tell a love story.
Remember, romance novel readers want to see themselves in the hero. They want to believe in their story and also have hope that the same could happen for them. While the story may be set in another world or in the distant past, love is a unifying feeling that all of us know and understand.
Keep romance as the central focus throughout your story that you can build setting and characters around. Not only will this unify your plot, but it will also keep readers engaged throughout the entire book.
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Writing romance is an exciting, challenging, and rewarding creative exercise that will test all of your skills in plot and character development. So, start crafting your story today and let those sparks fly.
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