Creating Happily Ever After
Over the past decade, romance novels have been enjoying an enormous revival, and if you grew up sneaking peeks at your grandmother’s Harlequin paperbacks but haven’t looked at books in the romance genre since, the new crop of stories will surprise you. This time around, the heroines are fierce, the heroes are far more swoon-worthy, and the plots are—gasp!—intelligent. Welcome to the new happily ever after.
Though finding good romance novels is no longer difficult, writing them still takes skill. Like any other form of fiction, romance novels are required to have strong characters and reasonably viable plots, but they must go a bit further to also include a thread of romance—anything from a chaste first kiss to extremely graphic sex scenes. In this article, we’re outlining only the basics of creating a romance novel your readers will fall in love with; we’ll be discussing the specifics of writing intimate scenes in a future article.
Today’s heroes and heroines are whip-smart, beautifully flawed, and willing to make crazy sacrifices for the ones they love. What they are not, however, is stupid. When the heroine knows an axe murderer is on the loose, she’s not going to investigate a dark, empty alley. And if she’s hiding in a safe house, she probably won’t use the phone there to call a friend—you know, just to let them know she’s okay. “Too stupid to live” (TSTL) characters do not make for happy readers, and good writers know that.
As for heroes, they have a fine line to walk between strength and dominance, never becoming so domineering as to cross the line into nonconsent (though those subgenres do exist). Heroes must also stay away from … how do we put this politely? … sleeping around with anyone and everyone—and everyone’s sister. Also, no male versions of the Pollyanna, please. Repeat after me: There is no such thing as a perfect guy (or girl, for that matter), and readers expect complex nuances of character (think shades of grey, not simply good or evil).
Not all romances are love stories; some are truly only about sex. Every story, however, still must carry some kind of arc, for both the plot and the characters. In romance novels, just like in life, great sex may be powerful, but it doesn’t fix everything. Readers expect a strong storyline. It can be dead simple (a dark secret or big misunderstanding to overcome, for example), but it has to make sense and steer clear of clichés. No instant love, evil ex-wives, or heroine in need of rescue.
During the course of the book or story, the main character(s) should also successfully see their way through a compelling trial, and readers should finish the book with a sense of satisfaction.
We mentioned before that what sets romance novels apart from standard fiction is their inclusion of romance, so let’s look at this more closely, though this is only the tip of the iceberg; we’ll be diving deeper in another article.
For now, remember some dos and don’ts:
- Do take the time to build sexual tension between the characters.
- Do be choosy—and realistic—about when and where any intimacy happens.
- Do be subtle in your language choices.
- Do watch out for slang terms that unintentionally make readers giggle (for instance, female body parts do not always have to resemble flowers).
- Don’t get so clinical that readers feel like they’re at the doctor’s office.
- Don’t think you must include sex; a well-written romance can be fulfilling even with no such scenes.
As with any other type of scene, the best way to learn to write sex scenes is to read, read, read. Study other successful romance novels and figure out what you like and what you don’t. This will help you learn how to appeal to the audience you want to write for. We also recommend the following resources:
- The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict
- Thinking Like a Romance Writer: The Sensual Writer’s Sourcebook of Words and Phrases by Dahlia Evans
- “I Give You My Body …”: How I Write Sex Scenes by Diana Gabaldon
Giving Readers What They Want
Whether the romance you’re writing is historical, contemporary, or something in between, the best way to get good at writing romance novels is to read them. Think of it as research—sweet, delicious research …
And if you find yourself falling head over heels for this revived genre, you’re not alone. Romance novels regularly top the best-seller lists of everything from the New York Times to Amazon.com,1 and authors of particularly compelling books have gone on to become household names (think Nora Roberts and E. L. James).2 Like every genre, the romance world is always looking for fresh new voices. Maybe yours will be next!