The Rules of Romance

Your story has a love story.  It has characters feeling a powerful attraction.  That attraction effects the plot.  The characters may even fall into bed together at some point.  But are you writing a Romance?

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I’ve had some interesting discussions with fellow writers recently who feel that their work could be considered a Romance.  I tend to be of the school of thought that says Romance as a genre is pretty darn specific, but that other genres can have Romantic Elements to them.

So, to avoid confusion and answer a few questions about whether you’re writing Romance or not, here are The Rules of Romance.

Rule Number One:  The story is about the Characters.

There are plot-driven stories and character-driven stories.  The Da Vinci Code is a classic example of a plot-driven story.  It’s about what happens.  The characters are relatively weak by comparison and react to the plot.  Lots of mysteries, thrillers, and crime novels are plot-driven.

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Romance is character-driven.  Sure, there’s an external plot, something is happening that is effecting the lives of the characters.  But the story is about the characters.  In fact, the story IS the characters.  More specifically, the story is about the hero and the heroine falling in love and coming together.  Everything else that happens informs that internal plot.

Rule Number Two:  From the moment the hero and heroine meet, they are exclusive.

That doesn’t mean that they are instantly a couple.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other influences working to tear them apart or bring them together.  It means that from the moment they meet neither one has intimate relations with anyone else.

Now before you argue with me, yes, there are exceptions.  Erotica is an exception.  Erotica is a sub-genre of Romance in which the characters can have multiple partners (among other things).  There are other exceptions on a story-to-story basis too, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Granted, this can be a fine line.  I read a Romance novel recently, Notorious Pleasures, by Elizabeth Hoyt, where the hero is actively *cough* interacting with another woman when the heroine meets him.  It’s pretty funny, actually.  But from that point on, nope.  He’s met the heroine so all other activities are off-limits.

Actually, as I think about that I might be wrong.  The hero might actually pop off to entertain another lady at some point (it’s kind of his thing).  But Elizabeth Hoyt is a RITA Award-winning, NY Times best-selling novelist.  She can get away with it.  Chances are you can’t.  But again, I’ll get to the rule-breaking in a second.

Rule Number Three:  The hero and heroine must get together at the end and it must be a happy, emotionally satisfying ending.

One complaint that I hear a lot about Romance is that you know what’s going to happen before you even start reading.  Boy meets girl, boy and girl are kept apart, boy and girl get together in the end.  Yeah.  Duh.  It’s a Romance novel.  Of course that’s how the story goes.  The key to a good romance novel is to create characters that are compelling enough that even though you know the truth, your emotions are taken on a journey where you worry for them, you get swept along with them, and you experience relief and joy at the end when the pay-off comes.

One of my favorite examples of this is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.  Of course you know from page one that Fanny Price is going to end up with Edmund.  But for a while there it looks like she might actually choose Henry Crawford instead.  And personally, I happen to think he’s the better choice.  But I’m not Jane Austen.

In my novel, The Loyal Heart, this rule is followed, but you might not realize who the hero is when you first start reading.  I did that on purpose.  But sure enough, the hero and the heroine do get together in the end and it’s an emotionally satisfying ending for the reader.  Not necessarily for some of the other characters, but that’s why it’s a trilogy.

Happy ending.  ‘Nuff said.


Breaking the Rules:  Yes you can.

Rules are meant to be broken … to a certain extent.  But as I have been told time and time again, and as I pass along to you, you have to know the rules of the game really, really well before you can break them.  Writers at the top of the genre can get away with breaking the rules much more than those of us just starting out.  But keep in mind, if you break the rules too much then you’re not writing a Romance anymore.  If the plot suddenly becomes more important than the relationship, you’re not writing a Romance.  If the hero and heroine don’t get together in the end, you’re not writing a Romance.

I have experience of this first-hand … and someday I’m going to infuriate a lot of people because of it.  The couple in one of my novels does not have a happy ending, ultimately.  The heroine dies in childbirth.  The hero has to move on as a single dad.  His story becomes one of grief and redemption and learning to love again.  But I’m not going to tell you which story it is until it’s good and written.

So there you have it.  The Rules of Romance.  So are you writing a Romance after all?

But don’t take my word for it.  Here is the official explanation of the genre from the Romance Writers of America (of which I am a member).


9 thoughts on “The Rules of Romance

  1. You always write so interesting posts, Merry!

    I’ve tried to write romances, but got carried away with scandals, or crimes or fights, so my stories don’t fall into the romance category, according to publishers :s

    • Thanks Catherine! I’m the other way around. Any time I try to write anything else it always turns into a love story. I’m probably compensating for what I’m missing in my own life. 😛

  2. I don’t write romance. But increasingly, I think I might someday. I find myself fascinated with some elements of the genre.

    Although in the back of my head, my Shakespearean theater background still hears “Romance” and thinks “The Tempest”! =)

    • Ah, yes, The Tempest. Well, that’s the more classical definition of Romance as an artistic movement. And I’ve gotten into many an intellectual debate about the semantics of the word “Romance”. And of course, being a giant nerd, those debates are fun.

      You should totally write a romance novel! I would love to see more guys give it a try. I think it would be an entirely different perspective. Although there are some male romance novelists out there who write under women’s names.

      • That’s what I meant – playing with the classical definition of romance vs the modern one. =)

        Funny thing about romance today – it *transcends* genres. Or dabbles in all of them, perhaps. I read mostly SF and fantasy; but I’ll also happily read a romance novel set in space, for example. As you point out, it’s just a character driven story with romance at the core, exclusive focus on that relationship, and a HEA.

        Where, when, and how that story takes place makes romance perhaps the broadest genre possible today.

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  4. Based on this, I don’t write romances. I write science fiction and (at the moment) a paranormal with romance elements. I think I can live with that.Mind you, the romance is a huge part of the latest WIP as he thinks she can’t be ‘the one’ and she begins to realise there’s more to her than she thought. I guess, like so many things, the line could be a bit blurry.

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