7 Tips for Writing a Great Romance Novel
Romance is consistently one of the top-telling genres out there, and probably always will be for the simple reason that readers love reading about love.
Anyone who’s dipped their pen in the genre knows that writing a great romance isn’t as easy as it might first seem. Creating characters that readers care about and that stay with them long after they close the pages of your novel is a skill that takes practise.
Here my top tips for writing a romance novel that will get your readers swooning.
Know your subgenre
Romance is a huge genre, but within it are even more sub-genres including:
There’s even more out there, but the above are the main ones – actually they’re the ones Amazon uses for their Kindle store. Knowing which sub-genre your novel fits into is super important when it comes to cover design and book marketing, but also in knowing the tropes and conventions that exist for each sub-genre.
If you aren’t familiar with your sub-genre, then you can’t know what tropes are popular and what aren’t, and you may end up repeating the same worn-out tropes that have been done a hundred times before without even realising it.
Some people advocate reading 20+ novels in your sub-genre before you even start to write your own. That’s probably a little excessive. But you should aim to read as much as you can, or at the very least familiarise yourself with the blurbs and basic premises of the most recent, best-selling titles in your chosen sub-genre.
Pick your steam level
You want to decide ahead of time where on the steam spectrum your novels are going to sit: from sweet romance, which focuses more on the emotions of the characters and where anything hotter than a kiss happens off-page, to full-on erotica, which obviously is more focused on the physical want between the two leads.
If you’ve written and marketed a book as a sweet romance, and you shove an unexpected sex scene in, don’t be surprised if you end up with negative reviews. Or conversely, if your writing is oozing in sexual tension from chapter one and then when your main leads finally get it on you decide to pull the curtain down on the action, your readers are going to feel cheated.
Intimate scenes don’t have to be explicit. It’s perfectly possible to focus on the emotional experience of the characters rather than the *ahem* physical side of things. If you’re writing a romance on the sweeter end of the spectrum but you still feel an intimate scene is important to the story, this might be the way to go. Again, it’s super important to know the conventions in your sub-genre about how explicit sex scenes tend to be and what your readers will expect.
Know your characters
Romance is fundamentally about people. If you don’t know your characters inside out, it’s going to be harder to create a believable love story between them. A common weakness of romance books is that the author doesn’t spend enough time showing the reader why the hero and heroine (or hero and hero or heroine and heroine etc.) are drawn to each other to the exclusion of everyone else.
What are your characters’ goals and hopes? What are their deepest values and their worst fears? ‘Wanting to find love’ should obviously be one of the main goals of your characters, but if that’s their only goal it might be a sign your characters aren’t as well-developed as they could be.
Don’t forget your side characters either. They shouldn’t take up too much space, since the focus of any romance needs to be on your two leading characters, but neither should they be cardboard cut-outs.
By developing an interesting cast of secondary characters who all have rich stories and personalities of their own, there’ll be more opportunities for tension in your story. Perhaps your main heroine has an overly protective big brother, or your hero’s best friend is secretly in love with him and is constantly trying to sabotage his relationship.
By having a rich cast of characters, you’ll also be laying the foundation for future books should you choose to expand your series – that plucky best friend could turn out to be the heroine of book #2.
Remember to give your characters flaws
The characters are the heart of any romance novel, so they need to be likable. However, many writers mistake this advice for thinking that their characters need to be nice, or else that they shouldn’t have any shortcomings more damning than being a bit of a clutz or being a workaholic.
A likeable character isn’t necessarily a nice character or one that you’d want to spend an afternoon with. Think of some of the most enduring romantic heroes and heroines of all time – Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and Emma Woodhouse (Emma). Both have very real character flaws that make other characters in the novel not like them at times – Mr. Darcy is withdrawn and proud, Emma Woodhouse is interfering and snobbish – but they aren’t bad people. Their flaws make them real and relatable, and make us root for them all the more.
Giving your characters flaws also gives them room to grow and to ultimately become better people by the end of their story.
Focus on more than just the physical
It goes without saying that your characters should be attracted to each other, and if physical attraction is the spark that gets the story going, that’s great. But a story where physical attraction is the only thing holding the romance together is not going to be very compelling.
What draws your characters together? What shared experiences do they have that make them fall in love? What is it each character gets from the other that they can’t get from anyone else? If you’ve done the work and you’ve developed your characters well, this shouldn’t be too hard to figure out.
Give your characters real obstacles to overcome
What’s keeping your characters apart? What’s stopping them from having their happy ever after? Conflict is crucial in any good novel, not just romance; it’s what drives the story forward and keep the readers engaged. The more your characters have to overcome, the more satisfying it will be when they are finally able to be together.
In romance, we can break down the most common types of conflict into the following categories:
Your hero or heroine is the one getting in the way of their own happiness.
This is where the work you’ve done on developing your characters comes into play, since your characters’ flaws will form the basis of any internal conflict. Maybe your characters are besotted with each other but your heroine can’t get over her fear of commitment, or your hero has a huge problem with jealousy that gets in the way of his ability to hold down a healthy relationship.
This is the type of conflict that will pave the way for really satisfying character growth.
Perhaps the two leads have clashing personalities, such that they can hardly stay in the same room together.
Perhaps society frowns upon your hero and heroine’s love. There might be a class barrier that stops the couple from being together – perhaps in a historical novel, it’s a love between a gentleman of the ton and a servant girl, or if it’s a contemporary romance it might be a seemingly hopeless match between a celebrity and a regular girl/guy. Or perhaps the lovers exist in a time period or society that isn’t friendly to same-sex relationships or maybe the woman is ten years older than her love interest and their relationship is strained by people’s reactions to it.
Ideally your novel should have both internal and external conflict. But whatever obstacles you throw in the way of your couple, they need to be believable. Whatever’s keeping your characters apart should feel high-stakes, not just a simple misunderstanding that could easily be solved by a quick phone conversation.
If your conflict doesn’t feel real, readers will lose the sense of immersion you’ve worked so hard to build. Instead of getting lost in a great story, they’ll simply see the author’s hand manipulating things because the book still has another hundred pages to go and they need to manufacture some tension.
Give your characters their happily ending
Every genre has its expectations. In a murder mystery it’s expected that by the end of the novel the killer will be caught. In romance, once the characters have met, fallen in love, had their love tested and overcome the challenges stopping them being together, readers expect them to float off happily unto the sunset together.
Readers come to romance looking for escapism, and if you don’t give them what they want, if you try and break this mould, don’t be surprised when those one-star reviews come rolling in.
That isn’t to say every story needs to end in marriage and babies. You certainly shouldn’t shove your characters into a wedding-cake shaped box if it’s not right for them. But even if they aren’t walking down the aisle in the final chapter, your ending should be emotionally fulfilling and end with the characters committed to each other in some form or other.
Your characters’ happy ever after might look more like packing a backpack and getting ready to travel the world with their beloved, or for a character who’s so scarred by past experiences that they’ve spent the entire novel just questioning whether they’re ready for a relationship, uttering “I love you” for the first time might be the happy ending with the most emotional resonance.
Sometimes a Happy For Now works better than a Happy Ever After.
Melanie Kirk is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). She specialises in editing romance novels, and offers manuscript critiques, line editing, copy-editing and proofreading. If you are interested in her services, you can get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org