Home > Editor's Corner Podcast > Editor’s Corner Podcast: The Basics of Writing Romance Novels

Over the past decade, romance novels have been enjoying an enormous revival, and this time around, the heroines are fierce, the heroes are far more swoon-worthy, and the plots are—gasp!—intelligent. Today, Stephanie and Angela discuss the fundamentals of writing romance and discover that good writing is good writing, no matter the genre!


Stephanie: Today, we are discussing the essentials involved in writing romance novels, which is a very juicy topic.

Angela: Exactly. We promise however to keep it rated PG. Don’t think we’re going to hit the G rating but, well, no pun intended. We’re going to keep it PG and that’s all we’ll have to say about that. So where do we get started on this topic?

Stephanie: I think as you started in the article that you have written and that is up on the website, characters is a good place to start. I think that it’s always good to remember that especially in romance writing the characters are really what keep the story moving along.

Angela: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I think sometimes people think of romance novels as these really simplified books that are only about the physical intimacy scenes and that is definitely definitely not the case. Romance novels have changed a lot over, I mean obviously since the old Harlequin paperbacks that your grandma used to keep around and you would sneak to read if you were a teenager. But even over the past few years everything has become much more say, it’s not complicated. I think people are expecting better writing, better plots, better character development so it’s not-

Stephanie: Yeah, I think-

Angela: Yeah, go ahead.

Stephanie: Oh, I think realism is especially better now than it used to be.

Angela: Absolutely. Well, people expect there to be quality too and I mean they’re not reading it strictly for the sex scenes. They want to be able to kind of get into the story and follow, I guess the development of these characters and see where it ultimately leads.

Stephanie: I agree 100%. I mean I remember when I was a kid and friends would read romance and it was for a mindless escape and I don’t think that that is really so much the case anymore. That you can just, that most pick up a romance novel for mindless escape.

Angela: That’s true. Actually it’s an interesting point. I think of the term, I don’t even know if it is a term but beach novel. It’s the novel you take when you go to the beach and you can read it in an hour and you don’t have to think too hard. I don’t think of romance novels that way. The ones that I’ve read, and I’ve read quite a few, that they just don’t give me that feeling. I mean, you’re left thinking about them for days after. And that’s kind of what I like about them is they, you know you don’t feel like you’ve lost brain cells after you’ve finished one.

Stephanie: Right, right. That’s always, to me that’s always the mark of a good book is a book that I’m thinking about after I put it down, in between reading sessions and afterward. That’s always great and I agree that a lot of the romance novels these days do that. It’s not just the quick read through and boom you’re done and you never think about it again.

Angela: Exactly. I mean we’re talking about a billion dollar industry. It covers just about any kind of subgenre you can think of. You’ve got contemporary, historical, suspense, paranormal, sci-fi, young adult, even religious romance novels.

Stephanie: Right. I remember what Janet, Janet Oak, Janette Oke.

Angela: Janette Oke, yep, that’s right. When we say romance novel we’re not talking about these really graphic novels. That would actually be the erotica subgenre. Romance novels can be anything from a first kiss and that’s it all the way up to, like we said, extremely graphic scenes but it doesn’t have to be that way and it’s not all about the sex in these cases.

Stephanie: Absolutely. And so I think character development, like we said is really I think central to a lot of your, the romance genre. Maybe not so much in erotica but even there I think there is room for character development.

Angela: Oh yeah.

Stephanie: And yeah.

Angela: I’m looking at the article while we’re talking and it’s pretty simple. If we’re talking about character development, you write character development like every other genre we’ve ever talked about.

Stephanie: Absolutely.

Angela: Fiction, young adult, children, it doesn’t matter. The character development and character arc still have to be there. One of the huge pet peeves for the romance readers is TSTL, Too Stupid To Live characters. These are people who do things that you’re like, “Oh my gosh, they’re dumb. They should be dead at this point in the book. This would never happen in real life.” And you see it mentioned a lot, especially in book groups, in reviews, so readers are not looking for simplistic characters that don’t ever go anywhere. They want complex, flawed, people who make sacrifices and are interesting to read about, right?

Stephanie: Right. Absolutely.

Angela: I feel like that kind of covers characters. I mean I hate to make it that simple but you write it the same way you write other characters and other types of novels. You make them complicated and complex.

Stephanie: That’s absolutely it.

Angela: Yeah, they have to be interesting. Can you think of anything else that needs to be talked about about that?

Stephanie: I don’t think so. I mean I think in this respect romance is no different than everything else. That the characters are a driving force in it. And I think they have to help drive the plot along. And really, yeah, character wise they’re not going to be, obviously you’re going to be possibly looking at different, at different thoughts in them in the character development. You’re probably going to focus more on their feelings for this other person but they still do develop because essentially every novel with characters involved, which is basically every novel has, it’s built on relationship. That’s how characters develop is based on relationships.

Angela: Exactly. Well that development too I think it’s important to remember you do not have instant love in a good romance novel. That’s part of the development. You can have instant attraction but in well written romance novels they don’t just instantly fall in love because, like you said, it needs to be realistic. Those things don’t happen in real life.

Stephanie: Yes, I hate that. When I come across that in a novel I’m just like, “No.” I don’t care if it’s a romance novel or something categorized not as romance. I’m like, “Oh, come on.”

Angela: Because you want kind of a sense of realism. I think any kind of novel that we read we probably inadvertently put ourselves in one or more of the characters’ shoes and if you’re doing that and imagining yourself as the character I’d say especially in a romance novel you want to be able to imagine it as it could actually happen. I mean that’s part of the appeal of it. If you have this instant love between these two characters, it doesn’t happen that way. That doesn’t work that way.

Stephanie: Right. Absolutely.

Angela: We said before, moving on from characterization that not all romances, well, sex isn’t the only thing involved I guess I should say. I would say for maybe the erotica subgenre that might be a little different but I’ve also read some of that and there is still a plot. It maybe-

Stephanie: Right, there absolutely is.

Angela: It may be really simple like, well it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to get too deeply into this but there is some sort of a plot even if it is a simplistic plot.

Stephanie: Absolutely.

Angela: Even if the romance is kind of meant to be front and center I almost feel like, I don’t want to say it’s secondary but it seems like it moves along with the main plot. If you are … If you’ve got a suspense novel that’s in the romance category, the suspense still has to be there and the characters and villains still have to move the story along. You just have the, I guess the romance part in there almost as kind of extra seasoning. You sprinkle it in there and it kind of helps weave and tie everything else together. Does that make sense?

Stephanie: Yes. Absolutely. And I completely agree.

Angela: Okay. You’re going to make this way too easy on me today. Okay. She agrees.

Stephanie: You’re doing really well today.

Angela: Thank you. I appreciate it. Yes. I appreciate that. I will take that wherever I can get it. I actually have a question for you. I was thinking about this before we started. You know how the maxim of you write what you know?

Stephanie: Um hum.

Angela: I’m wondering if you think that’s important as far as the romance genre goes?

Stephanie: I don’t know. I think really if you consider that romance is based on relationship and not necessarily romantic relationship but if you think of the principles involved in any relationship I think it can definitely start from you write what you know. I think you can have, I think there’s always a little bit of the fantasy aspect in romance. Because a lot of people, you’re reading romance because … A lot of people I think the old stereotype is, you’re not getting it in your own life so you want to read this. But isn’t that really the case in most books. You don’t have enough mystery in your life so, you know, you devour mystery novels.

Angela: Yeah. You’re not being chased by a serial killer in real life so yeah. Yeah.

Stephanie: Right. I don’t know. I actually don’t know enough about the background of romance writers to say if a lot of them write what they know. But I think a lot of romance readers are probably more forgiving in the, not really the, fantastical is the word that’s coming to mind but that’s not what I’m trying to say. The aspects, they don’t mind I think if you fudge the truth a little bit.

Angela: Right. Right. Well thinking of things like time travel subgenres or sci-fi. I don’t know though. It’s interesting because even though the, I guess the setting of those is really different and far out and something we may never experience in our lives there always still seems to be that little small piece that makes you still feel like you’re there or that you could absolutely be there. It’s funny because we say we’re going to talk about romance today but the more I think about it, it’s every genre. I mean, it doesn’t change just because you put in the romantic aspect of it or because you put in a scene with physical intimacy because there still has to be all of that building into it. I just don’t know that it’s that much different from everything else like I’ve kind of thought it was.

Stephanie: Right. You know I think that, I’m kind of thinking of, I’m trying to think of how to put this into words. You can write the same story from say the aspect of a mystery or the aspect of a romance. The only thing you’re really doing is you’re looking, you’re focusing on slightly different aspects of it. You could write the same thing. I’m kind of thinking of, because you mention Diana Gabaldon in the article and you know I’ve read her Outlander books and a few others and you know, her books, they’re really hard to categorize because they include everything. She’s the kitchen sink person. She absolutely has admitted that she cannot stick to … What most people call novels, she calls short stories.

And so you know what she has is kind of everything but another author might take that and focus only on the mystery but you’d still have the romance thrown in. Another person might focus exclusively on the romance but have just a little, or mostly exclusively on the romance but have a little bit of mystery thrown in. You’re really telling the same story, just from different aspects but in all of them, like you said character and plot development, they’re both very important. Those are the two things that really in my opinion drive any story along.

Angela: Yeah, I agree. I’m thinking too of the research aspects. I mean, the historical and regency subgenres of romance and especially Outlander series, they are so intricate as far as like the, even the description of the swords or the clothes or the area or the castles or whatever. It’s just, it’s filled with, as I say research, it’s deeper than that. It’s almost like an intellectual kind of journey. I don’t know how to put this one into words but then you still have that intense focus on the relationships of the characters. Whether or not there’s romance involved in those particular relationships.

Stephanie: Right. Absolutely. And so the only thing that’s different in a romance novel is that the focus is on the romantic relationship more than on the other relationships. Other novels may have primarily a new parent and child relationship or a friend relationship and romance can still include those but it really focuses more on, really on two main characters who are romantically attracted to each other. Whether that attraction goes anywhere or not it’s really focused on the orbit. I’m just seeing two characters just kind of spinning around each other and that’s what you focus on is that interaction and the way that they revolve around each other.

Angela: I like that word a lot. It’s actually, yeah, that’s exactly what it is. I think the main thing for our listeners and I guess now me too because I hadn’t thought about it this way to realize is that going into writing a romance novel I think a lot to people go, “That’s going to be easy. You just write a bunch of sex scenes and kind of piece it together and it’s done,” but the best romance, just like the best fiction is meticulous. It’s got everything that the best fiction has and it has to be fulfilling and readers needs to be able to finish the book and have a sense that something kind of wonderful and amazing happened.

Stephanie: Absolutely. I agree. I mean I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, “Some people think well it’s romance. Write some sex scenes and paste it together.” It’s kind of like children’s books. We’ve talked before. I think we’ve talked before.

Angela: We have.

Stephanie: About how people think it will be easy to write a children’s book but really it’s not. It has its own challenges. And so here with romance it’s the same way. It’s still, you have to be a good writer because it has its challenges. It has its unique challenges and in this case it happens to be that you have to write it as well as you’d write another book.

Angela: Exactly. Exactly.

Stephanie: But here you’re focusing on the attraction between two people and exploring it from one side or both sides. How you decide to focus on that is up to you but that’s what makes it a romance and so you can go supremely in depth emotionally and never actually have them do more than kiss for example. Like you said sometimes you can end with the kiss and you know that that’s the beginning of something wonderful. Or you can get down and dirty if you’re writing erotica. And anywhere in between depending on what genre you’re writing in, what subgenre I should say.

Angela: Right. I guess the thing to remember too then is to just research the trends. If you’re trying to write a book that you want to sell and sell well the trends change over time. What was popular in the 80’s is not going to be popular now. If you’ve ever gone back and read some of the books, they do not age well at all.

Stephanie: Yes. There are some books I’m like, “Oh, I loved this.” Just kind of like your favorite TV shows or movies. Because you’re like, “Oh I remember that was so wonderful when I was a kid,” and then you go back and you’re like, “What in the world were we thinking.”

Angela: Exactly. Well, I think because we change over time too but I would say trends are changing all the time so the best thing to do just like we say with any genre is to look at the best seller lists and read the reviews and read the novels and see what’s selling and why it’s selling. Why do people love it. What do people not want to buy? What do they hate about what they’re reading? And kind of put together what you’re able to bring to that genre from that mishmash of information you get.

Stephanie: Absolutely.

Angela: And is there anything else you can think of to add to that? I mean it’s funny, I went into this thinking it was just going to be this really alien topic filled with all these different things but it’s so funny how it comes down to the same advice we give for any amount of writing is just characterization, plot development, do your research and try your best I guess to make the best book that you can.

Stephanie: Right, because good writing really is, it’s all driven by the same thing. And so yeah, there’s really not that much. It’s really just focusing on what is different in this genre from the other genres but always you come down to the same essentials, always, because good storytelling has not changed in centuries.

Angela: That’s exactly, exactly true.

Stephanie: So, okay. I have nothing else to add.

Angela: Yeah, me neither.