It’s undeniable that romance is a hot topic (no pun intended). The genre shows no signs of slowing down, with romance novels continuing to dominate every other genre within the self-publishing and ebook sphere.
At its heart, almost every romance novel is about the relationship between two people. There will be minor characters and extras too, of course – but the plot generally revolves around the trials and tribulations of two central characters.
Strong plots will always keep readers turning the pages, but learning how to write romance also means avoiding common pitfalls specific to the genre. Romantic works enjoy a huge fan base that is well read – and those fans know what works and what doesn’t.
If you plan to jump aboard the love boat and give romance a try, it pays to avoid the common mistakes new romance writers make – so to help you forge your next hot hit, here are 10 of our top tips for writing a well-plotted romance.
They’re divided into two categories – quality writing and genre specific.
These tips will help you regardless of genre, but the examples here are based on romance.
Characterisation is Crucial
Although readers want to know how the two lovers will get together, ensure that’s not all there is to your novel. Remember the other major, minor or extra characters, and make them interesting and believable. A rich cast opens up more story potential, allowing subplots, intrigue, and excitement.
By interacting with other characters besides one another, your two main lovers have a greater number of chances to change and develop.
Ultimately, stories are about people and the changes they go through – and believable characters should change throughout the length of a story. The more chances you give them to change (or to refuse to change), the better.
Not This Again
Every genre has reoccurring themes called tropes. They turn up so often that they become tiresome, and they weaken your story’s impact. Here are some common tropes in romance plots:
- The Cowboy – as a hero, a cowboy can be historical or contemporary. He might be in his element (on a ranch, for example) or out of his comfort zone (let’s say New York City).
- Enemies to lovers – our lovers are natural enemies (business rivals, a family feud, law enforcement vs. criminal) until they realize the depth of their romance and find they have to be together despite the odds set against them. Example: Romeo & Juliet.
- Forbidden love – some outside force (cultural, familial, and social) is determined to keep our lovers apart… but they’re willing to stand up and fight for the relationship they want. Rather than being natural enemies, our leads here are more oppressed by the norms of their surroundings. Falling in love with the wrong type of person just isn’t the “done thing.”
- Stranded – our lovers are stranded together, with their environment/predicament kindling their relationship. They might be stranded on a desert island, in an airport after a flight cancellation, or a remote mountain region after a disaster.
You can probably think of many more, and with very little effort.
The problem with plot tropes is they often use degrading stereotypes. For example, women as helpless creatures just waiting for prince charming to sweep them off their feet and bring meaning to their lives, and men as natural heroes whose Navy Seals skills ensure they’ll always save the day.
Working positively with tropes is certainly possible, though, if you use them to surprise your readers. Make them think a heroine is going to be frail and helpless in a dangerous situation – but she turns out to have a lot more in her than anyone bargained for. Maybe the girl can save the guy instead.
Embrace Their Flaws
Nobody’s perfect – not even Mr. Right. Make your characters believable by showing their internal motivations, even when they’re wrong.
Allowing the reader into the mind of a character helps you avoid an over-reliance on physical descriptors of lovers – thing like gazing into eyes, heart palpitations, blushing cheeks and so on. These might be fine in moderation, but pile on too many, and it quickly becomes corny.
Physical features are a great “show, don’t tell” staple of writing, but they can get repetitive.
Instead, your male protagonist could crack jokes to get everyone laughing – but inside, his emotions are a swirling cauldron of self-pity and insecurity.
Another reason to create flawed characters is that it offers up built-in conflict. They argue with themselves, and by extension are at odds with the world around them.
Remember that conflict is the driving force behind any exciting story, and a good variety of conflict helps keep your story fresh all the way through.
What Do They Want?
Make it clear what your main character wants. With modern romance, this doesn’t actually have to be love. Their goal might be to secure a promotion, to go on an adventure, or to win the lottery.
But just because your character wants something, it doesn’t mean they have to get it!
For your male protagonist who wants that promotion, add a quick-witted competitor who’s better at the role than he is. At first, he’s drawn to the sense of humor and strong work ethic of the new girl at the office… but then he realizes she’s going to get the promotion instead of him. He’s falling for her fast, but when she makes a mistake that could cost her the job she loves, will he tell the boss and take the promotion for himself?
This makes for a story with multiple types of conflict and plenty of potential drama.
Plot ideas that carry enough conflict might not pop into your head straight away, so invest some time while planning or drafting and consider what your protagonist wants and what kind of things you could put in their path. This will make your story much easier to bring to life.
A Clear Purpose
Each scene in your novel must have a reason for being there. It should give you information about the lovers or drive the plot forward.
Some publishers, (e.g., Mills and Boon) have clear expectations for stories they publish. Even if you are going down another route, there is a basic formula readers expect to see.
- Characters are introduced, and their motives made clear.
- The key characters (lovers) meet. They do not have to fall in love at first sight.
- A major conflict arises that keeps the characters apart.
- The physical and emotional attraction between the key characters builds.
- A crisis occurs that might seem to end the romance or separate the lovers forever.
- A dramatic final conflict; is all lost?
- A satisfying resolution to the crisis; love conquers all.
It’s important to end your story at an emotional high point, so readers can imagine the lovers riding off into their happily ever after. They don’t need to see arguments over whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher.
It’s worth noting that your characters don’t necessarily have to head off into their new future together. Maybe things don’t entirely work out that way in the end – but the love they’ve experienced has still changed them for the better.
These tips are genre-specific. Although you can use them for other novels, they are vital in romance. Ignore at your peril!
Know Thy Sub-Genre
If you don’t research your sub-genre enough, you might repeat a worn-out plot without knowing. It’s so easy to make the mistake of thinking you’re being original – only to discover the horrific truth when it’s already too late. Your characters are dull, predictable stereotypes.
Extra reading in your sub-genre allows you to spot trends and tired old tropes, so make sure you’re as much of a reader as you are a writer. More so, even.
This deeper understanding pays off when you start conjuring ideas for new stories. Cross out the ones that have been used time and again, and take the one that feels new and fresh, but stays within the framework that fans of your chosen sub-genre expect and enjoy.
Let Love Wait
Romance novels are all about the journey. There needs to be excitement, disaster, happiness, and anger. In short – a roller coaster of emotions.
If your lovers fly into one another’s arms at the very beginning, then you’ve missed a vital component of your story: tension.
Your readers want the suspense to build. They want the anticipation and drama.
Also, allowing the romance to peak too early leaves lots of space for the rest of the story to fill. If this happens, you’ll usually see that the pace of your story slows right down – it all becomes unsatisfying and unexciting to read, and leads to a weak climax.
The Road to Love is Potholed
Whether your main characters get together will be the primary focus of a romance novel – but even if you know the lovers will have their happy ever after, don’t make it easy for them.
Real people have flaws that cause conflict in relationships. They’re stubborn and make mistakes; maybe they were hurt in the past and find it hard to trust others. These vulnerabilities make your characters more realistic and let readers empathize with them – because we all have flaws. Reader empathy goes a long way in crafting a gripping novel.
Creating a perfect romance with no drama and no conflict makes for a boring story. We may all wish for perfection in our lives, but we generally don’t crave it in our fiction. Without conflict, there can be no compromise – resulting in a narrative that feels hollow and too convenient.
Besides writing flawed characters, another way of keeping lovers apart is to add external obstacles. War, a family feud, or even geographical distance can add dramatic tension to a story.
Whatever you decide is best for your plot, remember to avoid an idyllic setting. Your romance novel will be more satisfying if your lovers are drawn against a dramatic background.
Kick Out Clichéd Language
Bad romance novels are beset with linguistic clichés. Her eyes were like stars. His heart bounced around in his chest.
A quick glance around a shop on Valentine’s Day explains why. Mass-produced cards with soulful-eyed cartoons gaze up at customers, while red-wrapped chocolate hearts litter every surface. Our language of love is fixated on hearts and eyes.
But romance and love can be hard to describe, so it’s no surprise that writers often fall back on these kinds of dull, hackneyed phrases.
The biggest problem with these overused phrases is they seem insincere. Maybe because they remind us of bad pick-up lines.
“Do you need me to call a paramedic? Because it must have hurt when you fell from heaven.”
One method for finding original descriptive language for love is to mind-map words your character associates with it, based on their own personality and perspective. So, say your male protagonist is a dedicated painter, for example. He might describe love in similar ways to his art, relying on his internal worldview and frame of reference.
Do this, and instead of narrating with your own voice, you can dig much more deeply into the point of view of your characters – and strengthen your reader’s connection to their world.
Take the time to find the right language for your characters’ sense of romance, and your readers will thank you for the experience.
Getting It On
Since 1993, the Literary Review has awarded an annual prize to the worst sex scene in fiction. Their aim is, “to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction.” Each year there are many nominees – mainly because erotic scenes are so difficult to write.
It’s tricky to find metaphors or similes that work for intimate descriptions and don’t leave people snickering like school kids.
Have a look at some of the previous ‘winners,’ and you’ll see just how difficult it can be! (Warning: graphic description and terrible imagery ahead!)
The advice of successful romance novelists is: if in doubt – don’t write it.
After all, most romance readers aren’t looking for all the intimate details. They enjoy the suspense and tension of the build-up, and gaining emotional insight into the nature of love between different people. If your approach to sex is the equivalent of an early fade out, then that’s perfectly fine.
It’s certainly better to take a minimalist approach than to end up in the sights of Literary Review for all the wrong reasons!
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