The Elements of Writing Romance

*This guest post appeared on Margo Bond Collins' blog here, but I will post it below as well.

Marie Lavender on The Elements of Writing Romance

Welcome today to guest author Marie Lavender, who has kindly agreed to stop by and talk about writing romance novels!

The Elements of Romance Writing

If you’re reading this, you’re probably an aspiring romance writer. Perhaps you’ve already tackled a few stories or novels in the genre. Maybe you’ve only written fiction, but not romance. I imagine you’ve read every self-help article you could find. So, I’m going to tell you something shocking.

There is no clear-cut method for writing romance. Most of us use the guidelines for the industry in some way, but we also pick up our own techniques. Every writer approaches a new work differently. Some plan in advance, map out every plot detail and do their research until they’re ready to tackle the writing of it. Some start writing right away and worry about the finer details later. I imagine most of us flounder a bit. That’s the fun thing about fiction though, the moment a character surprises you. It happens to writers too. We don’t handle the reins entirely, do we? Sometime a character has a mind of his own. Or hers.

In characterization, we will always term the main characters as the hero and heroine. Isn’t the point of a good romance to have two people who fall in love despite the odds? Now, I’m not going to get into sexual preferences here. There are certainly LGBT romances. You may see M/M or F/M/M or even F/F/M listed somewhere. For the purposes of this article, I will stick with the traditional male-female scenario in a romance. What I am going to approach are the elements of a good romance, and the decisions you make in the process of writing it.

1) Sub-genre. In recent years, the industry has branched out a lot, and has welcomed cross-genres. You will, of course, see the trusty contemporary romances or historical romances. With the growing popularity of supernatural themes, you may see paranormal romances climbing to the top. This is one of my favorites, but I also read others. There really is no limit to what you might combine with romance these days. Western romance, fantasy romance, time travel romance, the list really goes on. And each sub-genre has its own expectations.

For a more detailed list, I would recommend reading On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels. That, among others, was a great help to me when I was first starting out. It goes into a lot of details about each sub-genre. It also has tips for constructing a good romance and what to expect in the submissions process.

2) Heat Level. If you’ve read any romance novels, you may have been exposed to love scenes. As we’re all adults here, that’s not surprising. It’s a part of life. In romance, there are different heat levels. You will find books that are graphic in description while others are mild. There are closed door romances that only allude to something happening between the hero and heroine. There is also erotic romance, but that’s an entirely different subject.

Whatever you feel comfortable with is what you should write. Some beginning writers may be concerned that their families or friends will read their work, and they may take that into account. I wouldn’t recommend letting such a notion dictate your decision, but to each his own. I won’t go into how to write the perfect love scene. Every scene is different. All I can suggest is to write a love scene as naturally as possible. It shouldn’t feel forced.

3) Likeable characters. Readers want to read about real people with real problems, people they can relate with. In certain sub-genres, you may see a prevalence of alpha males for heroes. I’m sure that will never change. If you decide to use an alpha male, avoid stereotypes if you can. Make the hero tough if necessary, but human too. I don’t know about you, but Rhett Butler doesn’t do much for me now. Obviously, my tastes have changed. And you can assume that the tastes of readers, primarily women, will change too.

I read a paranormal romance recently where the hero was not the typical alpha male. He was a gentleman, a wonderful man really. But, he also had supernatural abilities, abilities that threatened his happiness with the heroine. I found the character a refreshing change and was so enthralled with the story that I couldn’t help but give it a great review.
The point I’m trying to make is that real people are sometimes easier to connect with than aggressive, uncaring creatures. So, if you write about an alpha male, make sure he has a redeeming quality or two. Write about characters you can connect with as a writer. If you get bored with them, that will come out on the page. When writing about a heroine, a strong, capable woman is more appealing than one that can’t handle herself. It is certainly okay, though, if she has vulnerable moments. We are all human after all.

4) Plot and Tension. In fiction, you need a good plot. Well, in romance, you need the same. No one is going to read about a character who is experiencing nothing. Some authors may purposely throw in danger to make things exciting and while that does work in some cases, it doesn’t work for every story. Are you writing a romantic suspense? Then that is certainly a good technique to use. My point here is that the danger is external. Readers are going to be focused on the developing relationship between the hero and heroine. So, while danger is a great tool, it is simply a backdrop for romance.

Maybe you choose to write a contemporary romance about a young woman who, even though she struggles with anxiety, decides to conquer her fears by going on a two week cruise voyage. Yes, that’s one work in progress I have. Well, she immediately starts to regret her decision as she is suddenly assailed by the same fears as before. She eventually meets a man who makes her question her anxieties. Perhaps life isn’t so scary after all. No, her worry now is falling for a man she can’t have a future with. So, you see. There didn’t need to be unnecessary danger. The danger was internal, part of the heroine’s psyche.

A good plot can move a story forward and keep the reader from tossing your book. I will mention tension here as well. Tension between two characters, whether it’s sexual or emotional, can also move a story along.

5) Antagonist. If you’re familiar with writing fiction, then you know any good story needs an antagonist. We learn early on as writers about the antagonist, or the force keeping the main character or characters from resolving things. In the case of romance, the antagonist keeps the hero and heroine apart. At best, the antagonist keeps them from achieving true happiness.

An antagonist can certainly be a ruthless criminal or some kind of enemy. Some antagonists are less obvious. Maybe they come in the form of a gossiping biddy. Finally, the antagonist can be intangible. We are our own worst critics, right? As with my earlier example, an antagonist can be the hero or heroine’s own mind, their fears or beliefs about something. But, any great story will have this thing that keeps the couple apart.

6) HEA, or Happily Ever After. After things are resolved and the antagonist is banished, so to speak, a happy ending is required. You may remember seeing this on Disney movies when you were younger or on things that seem a little cheesy now. “And they all lived happily ever after…” Okay, so we don’t really go as far as to say that these days. You certainly don’t have to. But, in order for a story or novel to even qualify as a romance, happiness must be achieved. So do what you can to button up the loose ends and get the couple on their way to a fairytale ending.

But, let’s be realistic. Life doesn’t work that way, does it? Do you really hear music playing and freeze in a moment of pure bliss? Probably not. And yet, that “happy ending” or HEA as we romance writers like to call it, is a necessary component. I like closure just as much as everyone else. And believe me, endings are hard to write. It is challenging to come up with a new way to say the couple is happy. However you do it, this is the most important stage of a romance novel or story.

Some writers may decide that a wedding makes a good ending. It doesn’t have to be so obvious. Sometimes a gesture is enough. A simple declaration of feeling is good too. That gives the reader the idea that the couple is content and the relationship will progress in a natural direction, most likely in the form of matrimony. If you’re writing a series, you may be lucky enough to officially convey that. Do what you can to bring the story to a natural conclusion, a happy ending. Make your characters happy, and you will make your readers happy too.

I hope I have helped with your foray into the world of romance writing. It’s a long journey, at least it has been for me, but I wouldn’t have changed anything.
Don’t forget to select a sub-genre, a heat level for your romance, make good characters, create a good plot and tension between your characters, throw in an antagonist and give the hero and heroine a happy ending. These are the elements of a good romance. Now…start writing!

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Author Bio

Marie Lavender lives in the Midwest with her family and three cats. She has been writing for over twenty years. She has more works in progress than she can count on two hands.
At the tender age of nine, she began writing stories. Her imagination fueled a lot of her early child’s play. Even growing up, she entered writing contests and received a certificate for achieving the second round in one. She majored in Creative Writing in college because that was all she ever wanted – to be a writer. While there, she published two works in a university publication, and was a copy editor on the staff of an online student journal. After graduating from college, she sought out her dream to publish a book.
Since then, Marie has published sixteen books. Marie Lavender’s real love is writing romances, but she has also written mysteries, literary fiction and dabbled a little in paranormal stories. Most of her works have a romantic element involved in them. Upon Your Return is her first historical romance novel. Feel free to visit her website at http://marielavender.webs.com/ for further information about her books and her life. Marie is also on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

A list of her books and pen names are as follows:

Marie Lavender: Upon Your Return
Erica Sutherhome: Hard to Get; Memories; A Hint of Scandal; Without You; Strange Heat; Terror in the Night; Haunted; Pursuit; Perfect Game; A Touch of Dawn; Ransom
Kathryn Layne: A Misplaced Life
Heather Crouse: Express Café and Other Ramblings; Ramblings, Musings and Other Things; Soulful Ramblings and Other Worldly Things

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