Want to make a living writing romance novels? Here’s what you need to know
Year after year, the reports continue: romance novels dominate the world of fiction as the highest grossing in sales and reader downloads. If you’re interested in the profitable, best-selling romance writing genre but don’t know where to start, it’s important to first know that romance readers, while a loyal and enthusiastic fan base, have very specific reader expectations. In other words, there are rules for writing romance novels.
That said, romance novel rules aren’t something to be afraid of. In fact, you should embrace this part of the genre! Just because readers have certain expectations it doesn’t mean your story should be stale or formulaic. Let’s get started:
Rule Number 1: Your romance novel must have a happy ending
If you’re planning on writing a romance novel and want to create something new, fresh and different, that’s great—so long as you don’t consider a sad ending part of that plan. This also means that your protagonists can’t suddenly realize they are better without the other person in the relationship. The most important rule of romance novels is that they must have a happy ending. The characters MUST end up together.
In the world of romance novels, this is called the “happily-ever-after” (HEA) or “happily-for-now” (HFN). And it’s a requirement.
But…wait?! Doesn’t Gone with the Wind end with the hero walking out the door? Yes, yes it does. But it is not the same type of romance we’re talking about here. In fact, that book spends a great deal more time and attention on Scarlett O’Hara’s character journey and transformation than it does on the romance of Scarlett and Rhett Butler. Which leads to…
Rule Number 2: The plot of a romance novel is about the couple getting together
In a genre romance novel, the plot of the novel tends to focus on the couple getting together. That is the plot. Character A and Character B want to be together but something (conflict) is keeping them apart. Can they overcome this obstacle and find a way to love?
While some wonderful and excellent novels have romance as a very strong subplot (sometimes to the point of it running parallel to the plot), the whole point of the romance novel is to get the two characters together. This is what readers want to see. Stray too far from this and you may be writing a different genre of fiction (such as women’s fiction).
Rule Number 3: Tropes are your friend!
If you look at the world of romance novels, you’ll find it littered with tropes. Here are some of them:
Enemies to lovers: The couple can’t stand each other at the beginning but just can’t help their attraction! (Here’s how to master the enemies-to-lovers romance trope, by the way.)
Fake relationship: The couple must pretend to be a couple for some very important reason to the plot (like a willed estate where they need to prove they’re married or a wedding they don’t want to go to alone). Then they fall in love.
Friends to lovers: The couple starts as friends and has no idea that secretly, behind that friendship is a passionate attraction and romance.
Forbidden fruit: What’s worse than falling in love with the person you really shouldn’t? This could be a best friend’s brother, a brother’s best friend, the son/daughter of the family your family hates (Romeo and Juliet, anyone?), the bad, bad, bad boy who hasn’t ever had a successful relationship… It’s one of the most popular tropes for a reason—there are endless possibilities here.
Love triangle: Oh, the sad, sad situation when the hero/heroine is just trapped trying to figure out whether he or she should love Wonderful Person A or Wonderful Person B. They are a sad little romantic triangle!
Secret billionaire/celebrity: It’s so hard being rich and famous. Sometimes these rich-and-famous people just need to mingle among the rest of the world…and fall in love with a “normal” person who reminds them how normal is better.
Soul mates/instalove: Ever look into someone’s eyes and know—immediately—that you were meant to spend the rest of your life loving them? Soul mate. Clearly. (Notably, this is a hugely popular trope in werewolf love stories especially, where everyone’s yearning for their “destined mate”!)
There are other romance tropes, but the point is, use them to your advantage! Readers expect and know and love them for a reason.
Rule Number 4: Romance novel sub-genres can help you find your way
Just as with romance tropes, there are a ton of subgenres within romance novel writing: historical, paranormal/supernatural, urban, fantasy, small town, billionaire, western, contemporary, fantasy, young adult, erotic, and Christian/religious (among others). Each of these subgenres come with their own set of reader expectations or subgenres. For example, Christian romances tend to be sweet and clean, with closed-door love scenes. Readers will be infuriated if you include steamy scenes. On the other hand, erotic romance novels include the expectation of many, very steamy scenes.
Rule Number 5: Something should tear your couple apart before the climax
One of the most important aspects of a romance novel plot is conflict in the relationship. But think back to every romantic comedy movie you’ve ever watched. You can probably name the moment when, right before the ending—the entire relationship falls apart. The couple is hopeless. How will they ever get back together? How can they not get back together?
That moment of conflict is key to making that happily ever after really pay out. This is also why you need to include a happily ever after. Readers are expecting it—so they’re willing to deal with the couple falling apart so they can see them get back together.
…and that’s it. While great writing will be key to making your story fully come to life, these are the five most important rules for writing romance. Now take those tropes and genres and make them your own!