We’ve just been talking about romance—elements of romance show up in all sorts of fiction, from literary to genre. It’s commonly an important element in women’s fiction—books from authors like Liane Moriarty, Elizabeth Berg, Jane Green, Emily Giffin, Sarah Addison Allen, Jennifer Weiner, and many more—though here you’ll find it as a subplot.
As noted, too, it’s important to know where you’re headed when you’re crafting your story arc. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts described as adventure or family drama or coming-of-age that were, in fact, romance. Which is fine. My point is you should write the story you intended to write. You know: the one you described in the book proposal, the one your agent sold to the publisher. :)
And if you’re going to write a romance, you need to understand how the romance genre works.
Wait, you say. How it works?
Yes. You may think it’s boy meets girl,* boy loses girl, boy regains girl, but … not so fast, cowgirl. Romance is a different animal altogether; there are certain conventions readers expect, and you should be aware of them. For example:
• There must be a Happily Ever After.
• Hero and heroine meet very early in the story—often on the first page.
• The reader knows right away these two are meant to be together—even if they don’t know it yet.
• The plot (story arc) is the love story: the meeting, the romance, the obstacles to love. It’s all about the relationship.
• The plot’s conflict is in the relationship; it must seem impossible for the protagonists to ever hit it off, much less get together.
• The conflict isn’t conflict if resolution can be accomplished by putting the two parties into the same room for a heart-to-heart conversation. No conflict should be based on a misunderstanding.
• The story is usually told from two points of view—his and hers.
• Some readers prefer that neither hero nor heroine is with anyone else after he or she has become interested in the other. For these readers, fidelity is all-important, and you should consider it.
• The hero and heroine must be absolutely in love with each other as they near the end—that is, their Happily Ever After.
These conventions are significantly different from other types of fiction that contain an element of romance. They’re pretty straightforward, but there’s lots of leeway for detail in this structure. And I’ve seen some romances “break the rules” on occasion—think Erich Segal’s Love Story, in which the heroine dies, for heaven’s sake—but the list above contains the tropes romance readers like to see.
If you don’t believe me about the wide variety of stories you can create with this structure, start reading some of the authors practicing the trade—Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Crusie, Debbie Macomber, LaVryle Spencer, Nora Roberts, Jude Deveraux, and Nicholas Sparks, just to name a very few. And you already know how much I love Georgette Heyer.
That said, I’m also on record that romance is not my normal fare. So I’ve been changing that.
“I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K.” This is the first line of Joshilyn Jackson’s Someone Else’s Love Story, in the heroine’s voice. “We were both staring down the barrel of an ancient, creaky .32 that could kill us just as dead as a really nice gun could.” Yes, the protagonists meet on the first page, the story is about the relationship—but don’t forget it’s someone else’s love story!—and it’s told from two POVs. Jackson does a fine job of developing the characters (in fact, I’m going to reread and study how it was done) and layering in details that felt real—and I didn’t see the ending coming, which always pleases me.
An author friend had suggested I read Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, a YA romance, so I started that next. Here our protagonists meet on the third page, and it’s just awkward. That is, Eleanor is awkward. Park says, “[She was] not just new—but big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like … like she wanted people to look at her. Or maybe she didn’t get what a mess she was. … [She looked] like something that wouldn’t survive in the wild.” In fact, a reader agrees with Park: there’s no way Eleanor’s going to survive this high school. But she does, with Park’s help. Again, two POVs, an odd-couple relationship that can’t possibly make it, and if you’ve forgotten, in your mature age, what it feels like to hold the hand of someone you like and hope likes you back—whoa, you should read this book. It was lovely.
If you’re writing romance, leave me a comment and tell me what you’ve been reading lately. I had fun looking for the markers I knew would be there in these two romances. And who doesn’t love a little Happily Ever After?
*Or boy-meets-boy or a girl-meets-girl. Bartender! A round of romance for everyone!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”