A friend of mine recently approached me about her plans to write a romance novel. Many writers get their start with romance novels. It is a genre that never goes out of style. A lot of aspiring writers denigrate romance writers, assuming that it is simply a matter of writing soft-core porn (harder to write than you would think), and creating a smoking hot hero for the heroine to fall in love with. Romance is not as easy as people assume it is, but it’s a subject all writers should take an interest in. Regardless of which genre you write in, most successful books have a strong element of romance. Before you turn your nose up at the thought of writing a romance novel because you consider yourself to be a literary novelist, keep this figure in mind. Romance novels represent a 1.4 billion dollar industry, far more than any other genre.
In writing a romance, the pattern is fairly simple. The couple meets. He’s hot, usually tall and buff. He’s an Alpha male with a great career as lord of a castle or CEO of a multimillion dollar conglomerate. Over the years the heroines have evolved from sweet, virginal fragile flowers to women who often have their own successful careers. She’s beautiful, although she may not realize it until he tells her or she wears a certain shade of green that brings out the color in her eyes. The couple is attracted to each other, but their first meeting frequently ends in a fight. Some writers have taken this to the point that the couple meets when the hero smashes his car into hers, or they are negotiating a contract for competing companies.
In modern romances the hero and heroine have personal agendas designed to keep them apart. They reject love and any entanglements because they have been hurt in the past, or they are so focused on their career goals that they refuse to make time for relationships. Romance writers have come a long ways from the twenty-year-old heroine who met the never-married hero that was the popular pairing in the 1970s romances. While that still works, heroines are often women in their early thirties, sometimes with children from a previous relationship.
If she’s never been married, she’s usually had a previous boyfriend who was a demon from Hell, abusive and expected her to support him. Men who live off women or who make considerably less than the heroine never make good heroes, although they can play the role of villain or the loser who is the alternative to the hot, successful hero, making the heroine’s choice between the two men an obvious one. Another variation on the “my last boyfriend was a bastard” theme is the “Daddy left Mom and me when I was eight so I learned to never fall in love because men are bastards who dump you.” Heroes might be guys who never have gotten married, but a lot of the ones who are popping up in modern romances are bitter from a nasty divorce, making them suspicious of the heroine.
The couple is unable to resist their physical attraction to each other and they have their first love scene. This usually never progresses farther than a kiss and some mild foreplay. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction that romance writers get in making him wait. This is because romance writers are usually women, and women are fully aware that in real life men want what they have to struggle for. The hero may have slept with every woman between the ages of twenty and forty in the entire state of Indiana, but he wants the heroine even more because he didn’t get consummation the first time he made a pass at her. There are no slutty heroines in romance novels. She might be experienced, but the number of lovers she has had are usually in the lower single digits.
In most romances written in the 20th century, the hero and heroine had never been married. That gradually started to change as romances became spicier. Heroines started popping up who were widows, allowing the writer to insert sex scenes prior to the couple getting married because the heroine’s desires had already been awakened and she didn’t have any damaging loss of virginity to contend with. At first a divorced heroine was still taboo. However, due to the number of writers and readers who have been divorced, either one of the main characters may have an ex-spouse.
Shortly after the first love scene a conflict arises between the couple. He wants to buy her beloved family plantation, raze it to the ground, and turn the fields of cotton waiting to be harvested into a subdivision of nasty tract homes. She’s behind in the mortgage so he might be able to get her land at the sheriff’s auction if she can’t come up with the money in time to avoid foreclosure. She has to save her land before the cotton is harvested. Once the cotton is harvested, all her financial woes will be over, but in the meantime, he’s the enemy who wants to steal her property. The variations on this plot are numerous – a couple fighting for custody of a relative’s orphaned child, a court case where they are opposing attorneys, any number of twisted complications.
The conflict may arise from the machinations of a villain. The villain lies to both the hero and heroine and manipulates them in his or her pursuit of a goal that can be anything from stealing their property to seducing either the hero or the heroine. Ex-husbands and ex-wives make great villains in romances. If a romance writer uses an ex-spouse as a villain, the marriage usually ended because of an act of infidelity, proving that the ex-spouse was unworthy to be the mate of the hero or heroine. The ex-spouse attempts to get the hero or heroine back and is ruthless about attempting to achieve this. If the couple had children, the stakes are raised even higher. In a romance, if the future love object has children, the hero or heroine will always be overjoyed at the prospect of being a devoted step-parent.
A popular device for creating conflict is the “I have a secret” variation. In her blog “The Writer’s Challenge,” steamy romance writer Shoshanna Evers quotes from Rita Clay Estrada and Rita Gallagher’s book You Can Write a Romance that the formula for writing a romance is:
Boy meets girl.
Girl has a secret.
Girl keeps secret from boy as they fall in love.
Boy finds out and they part in anger.
Girl loses all.
Boy returns, repentant, to declare what they both knew all along. He loves her.
Girl is now strong enough to turn him down or take him back (as an equal partner).
In the comments on her blog, Evers notes that she feels having a secret is not enough of a conflict to carry a story. However, the “I have a secret” is the motivation behind every single soap opera plot that has ever been aired on TV. It’s been working for decades and continues to crop up in best-selling fiction. It is the hope that the hero and heroine will finally learn the truth, resolve their differences, and realize they love each other that makes a satisfying romance.
If you want to write a romance, but you don’t plan on calling it a romance, the “I have a secret” variation might be your magic ticket to best-seller land. Leila Meacham had a few romance novels published before she wrote her best-sellers Roses, Tumbleweeds, and Somerset. Meacham plays heavily on the “I have a secret” theme in her novels which are marketed as epic family sagas. Critics have described her books as soap operas, but Meacham doesn’t object to that assessment. “I think life is a soap opera, so that term doesn’t bother me,” she said. “I will continue writing about characters that interest me, and interesting characters are those who find themselves in dramatic situations. Otherwise, why would you want to read about them?”
The conflicts used as plot devices in romance novels often appear almost insurmountable, but there is really only one problem. The couple fails to communication. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, everything that happened in the play could have been avoided if Romeo and Juliet had just done one simple thing – communicate. Romeo doesn’t tell Tybalt and Mercutio that he is married to Juliet and he and Tybalt are now kinsmen. No, he gives vague hints and Tybalt kills Mercutio, and Romeo kills Tybalt. Romeo is banished. Romeo doesn’t tell his parents that he married Juliet so she could go to their place until the couple could arrange to be together again. She doesn’t tell her parents that it is far too late for her to marry Count Paris because she’s already married and no longer a virgin, both of which would have finished any plans they had to force her to marry Paris. Instead, the foolish girl drinks a potion to make her appear dead. The message that she is actually alive never reaches Romeo so he drinks poison. She stabs herself in the heart. None of the tragedies that occurred would have happened if the couple had been honest and expressed their feelings and the motives for their actions in clear, concise language to everyone around them.
In a romance novel, the conflict is in place when the couple has their second love scene. Sometimes there is a small resolution that allows them to come together, or mistaken belief that their positions have changed. The writer has to assure readers that the couple’s attraction is so strong that they can’t resist each other. The second love scene often results in a consummation of the relationship. The purpose of the consummation scene is to demonstrate the couple are hot for each other and are sexually compatible — no one tends to have sexual dysfunction issues in a romance novel. A sex scene can literally take up five pages – people talk far more during sex in a romance novel than they do in real life. A sex scene in other genres is usually not that long and not as detailed. Personally, I always suspected the consummation scene was so the heroine can feel like a complete idiot after being seduced by the hero, despite the high quality of mind-blowing sex.
Everything falls apart after the sex scene, usually due to a huge misunderstanding that amplifies the tension and conflict between the couple. The heroine is usually responsible for this because she misinterprets his actions, throws around a lot of accusations about his heartless behavior, and makes the situation worse. The hero has managed to acquire her beloved plantation and is so angry with her that he negotiates to sell it to a toxic waste dump. The villain ex-wife convinces the heroine that the hero is planning a trip to Barbados to remarry her just as soon as the toxic waste dump trucks start rolling onto the heroine’s former plantation. It appears as if our hero and heroine will be forever estranged.
The last section is the resolution. All misunderstandings are cleared up, and anything that kept them on opposite sides of an issue is swept away. Sometimes the resolution takes a huge twist to bring it about, but sometimes it is just a matter of everyone finally being honest with each other. He decides he loves her, carries her back home to their plantation, and vows to restore it to its former glory with the money he’s going to get building his nasty tract houses on someone else’s property. They’re going to get married under the live oaks at the plantation and have lots of children. They live happily ever after. Although the wedding might not happen in the last chapter, there is usually the assurance that a wedding is in the couple’s immediate future.
The key to creating a romance is attraction combined with conflict, enhanced by a lack of communication. Although a few romance writers have tried what they consider to be daring departures from the formula, the reality is that most romances follow the same basic pattern. Deviations from the formula, especially when creating the hero, do not tend to go over well with readers. Readers of romance like a certain amount of predictable behavior in heroes and heroines. The romance market has gone through a few changes in terms of creating heroines who are more like modern women, or at least like more what modern women wish they were like, but there is one thing that will stay the same in romance novels, and that is the formula and the happily ever after ending.
Photo is of Destrehan Plantation, located in Destrehan, Louisiana. Photo was taken by Prayltno.