Emotionally Speaking: Romance Fiction in the Twenty-First Century

Romance fiction is the most popular, elastic, exciting, and creative genre in publishing today, but it’s also the hardest kind of fiction to write. All you have to do is convince the modern, jaded, ironic reader that your heroine and hero have not only fallen in love and surmounted all the barriers in their path, but that their love is unconditional and will last throughout time. You must, in short, give your reader not only good narrative, but also great emotional satisfactio. If you’re up to the challenge, there are three things you’ll need to know.

1. You Need To Know the Genre and How You’re Going To Fit Into It

A romance is a love story with an optimistic, emotionally cathartic ending.

A romance can be anything you want as long as the main plot:

  1. traces a struggle to develop a committed relationship
  2. through the unabashed exploration of emotion on the page that
  3. ends optimistically.

If your story is about two people who have no problems except for an almost pathological inability to communicate, try another genre. If your lovers don’t have real problems that cause a believable struggle, there’s no emotional catharsis when they finally commit at the end. And romance is about emotional catharsis.

If your story is about interesting people who have real problems that are written with irony and distance, you’re not our kind of people. Irony and distance kill emotional involvement and reader identification, and without involvement and identification, there’s no emotional catharsis when the lovers finally commit in the end. And romance is about emotional catharsis.

If your story has interesting characters who have real problems that are written great passion, but your story ends tragically, we feel your pain, but go someplace else. Dying is easy, commitment is hard, and romance has no room for writers who weasel out by killing people off or leaving them to yearn hopelessly for lost passion. Romance is about optimistic, life-affirming emotional catharsis.

But understanding the definition isn’t enough, you have to read widely in the genre to understand the subtleties therein. If you’re a lifetime romance reader, you’re way ahead of the game because you know the subgenre you like to read which in turn is probably the subgenre you want to write. If you’re not a lifelong reader, you’ll have to do your research and narrow down the kind of romance you’re interested in. Historical, contemporary, suspense, comedy, inspirational, paranormal, fantasy, the genre is so elastic and so broad that you can write almost any kind of book as long as the central plot is an emotionally true love story, but every subgenre makes its own peculiar demands and you ignore them at your peril.

When you’ve read at least two dozen titles in a specific subgenre published in the last two years (romance changes radically with the times), analyze what it was in the books that kept you turning the pages and made them satisfying reading experiences for you; that is, find the “good parts.” Don’t bother trying to analyze them for some non-existent formula or to find what works for “the average romance reader.” There is no formula and no average romance reader. You’re writing new, original stories for a reader who is exactly like you, only a little bit smarter; always write up to your audience in romance, not down.

Then when you’ve discovered those aspects of that subgenre that you want to keep, think about the aspects you wanted that weren’t there, the things that would have made the stories even better, the characters or actions or themes that you want to read but couldn’t find. I loved the wit and romance of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, but they weren’t contemporary. I loved the angry internal monologues of Dorothy Parker, but she wrote anti-romance. I loved the contemporary romance of Susan Elizabeth Phillips but her heroines weren’t mean enough. I loved romance, but nobody was writing the edgy, angry feminist love stories I wanted to read.

The combination of what you love in your romance reading and what you can’t find in your romance reading defines the romance you want to write.

2. You Need To Know How To Write Story

Romance as a genre is character-based; your characters must have strong motivations for what they do, especially for why they fall in love. If your hero takes one look at the size of the heroine’s breasts, and your heroine takes one look at the size of the hero’s bank account, and they fall instantly in love, that’s not just lazy characterization, that’s lousy romance writing. The psychology of the characters will dictate how and why they fall in love, and their growth as human beings will dictate whether or not the reader believes they’ll stay in love. That’s why, along with researching the genre, it’s a good idea to research the psychology, anthropology, and biology of romantic love (a good place to start is Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving ).

But fully realized characters aren’t enough; those characters have to struggle through conflict. Early romances often cast the hero and heroine as antagonists, the I-hate-you-I-hate-you-I-love you story. As the genre grew more sophisticated, this plot began to look as dumb as it sounds. It also makes for weak plots: since a strong conflict ends in a fight to the death (literally or psychologically), casting your hero and heroine as opposite numbers makes it almost impossible to achieve a satisfying ending. Either they compromise to save the relationship, leaving the book with a fizzle of a climax, or one destroys the other, leaving the relationship in a shambles. It is possible to make this latter plot work if the destruction creates a phoenix-like transformation in the one who’s destroyed, but it’s extremely hard to bring off in a genre that’s already difficult to write. Making both the heroine and hero protagonists and giving them a strong antagonist to defeat together not only allows for that fight-to-the-death ending, it fosters the relationship because people who struggle together against a common enemy in pursuit of a common goal form a strong emotional bond.

That conflict, coupled with the struggle to know and trust each other as the relationship develops, must be played out in action. There’s a misconception that characters in romance novels don’t have to do much besides fall in love and then think about it, and this misconception has led to a lot of interminable scenes where the heroine (less often the hero) sits and ponders her delight/misery/confusion/desire/rage. While some internal monologue is essential, it’s a weak characterization and plot device because most thought is rationalization and review. Readers like to see emotion played out in movement on the page because they know that action is character. (If somebody says, “I love animals,” and then kicks a kitten, which do you believe, the dialogue or the act? Readers feel the same way.) All that internal monologue is also death to pacing: pages of long paragraphs (as opposed to pages of dialogue and action) become the parts readers skip.

Finally, you have to write those fully realized characters in active plots that are emotionally true and evident. Every writer walks a fine line between melodrama and detachment, between embarrassing hot and boring cold. In most creative writing programs, the unspoken rule is that if you must err, err on the icy side, that it’s better to be too ironic and detached than it is to be too emotional and melodramatic. This is playing it safe, and every creative writing teacher or book that implies this should be slapped. Writing is not about playing it safe, it’s about taking risks to put the truth on the page. And the truth in romance is that love makes hot, embarrassing fools of us all. The brave writer is not the one who cowers behind irony, leaving her reader unsatisfied in the cold; she’s the one who strikes boldly into burning emotion, drawing her reader into the warmth of catharsis and satisfaction. If you don’t have the guts to write emotion, don’t try romance: love is no subject for wimps.

So the way to write romance is to

  1. write fascinating protagonists who fall believably in love and
  2. struggle to form a relationship and grow as people and partners
  3. while contending with fascinating antagonists in pursuit of a goal that is vital to them
  4. in a well-written emotional narrative that shows the conflict in action on the page
  5. and concludes in a satisfying, optimistic, and psychologically plausible ending that convinces the reader that the hero and heroine will be together until death does them part.

I told you it wasn’t easy.

3. You Need To Know the Romance Industry

Publishing is a very strange industry, a place where perception is reality, the landscape changes daily, and an unwary writer can become a nice snack for a publishing house. This is particularly true in romance writing because the genre has traditionally garnered so little respect and because it has traditionally been written by women (these two things are not unrelated).

So the first thing a romance writer should do is join Romance Writers of America. One of the largest writer’s organizations in the country and one of the very few that welcomes the unpublished author, RWA publishes a monthly magazine with industry news and advice articles; supports several internet links for writers on topics such as industry, craft, and promotion; holds a national conference that is heavily attended by editors and agents; runs contests for both published (the Rita) and unpublished (the Golden Heart) romance writers; vets new publishers to make sure they can provide authors with viable career options (that is, they sell books); publishes position papers on topics such as contracts, agents, and electronic publishing; maintains a website on the romance genre (www.rwanational.com), and generally keeps tabs on the industry at large and in detail.

Then, with your book written and RWA’s education, networking, and advocacy behind you, research the market again, this time with the purpose of finding the best market for this particular book. Go back to the books that inspired you and find out who edited them. (You can call the publisher to find out, or ask online on the RWA links; somebody will have the information there.) In your query letter, tell the editor that you really enjoyed the book she edited, then pitch your story to her in two or three sentences that make the characters sound fascinating and their struggle new and different in terms that evoke her emotions. Since you both have the same tastes in reading material, chances are, she’ll like your book, too. If she turns you down, go to the next novel you liked and query that editor.

The important thing to remember is to do this research after your book is written. The dumbest thing an author can do is find out what’s selling at the moment–the hot trend–and then write to that. In an impossible-dream-best case scenario–the book only takes six months to write, an editor buys it after only six months of submitting, it’s on the shelves a year later–the book won’t hit the market for two years after the author spotted the trend at which point she’s not even a wannabee anymore. The smartest thing an author can do is start the trend and be the one everybody else emulates. If you’re writing the book that you want to read, the book you have to write, and everybody else is following you, your books will always be the truest and the most exciting. And readers notice that.

If all of this sounds difficult, it is. But it’s not impossible; the RWA magazine lists an average of half a dozen first sales every month, and the romance market is booming. But it’s a market that only welcomes true believers. If you really love and respect the genre, if you’re willing to work hard to learn your craft, if you’re brave enough to take huge emotional risks on the page, you, too, can have an optimistic, emotionally satisfying ending.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Writer’s Market. 2003