How to Write a Romance Novel
Writing romance is a lot trickier than it might appear at first glance. To produce a successful romance novel, you’ll need to follow a proven formula that will have your readers falling in love with your characters and devouring your story. You’ll need solid characters that your readers can get behind, a believable plot that’s exciting to follow, and a satisfactory ending—whatever that may be.
Romance readers have certain expectations, and your job as a writer is to make your story feel new, captivating, and perhaps a bit steamy. You can throw some surprises at your audience, but you’ll want to make sure they’re acceptable in the genre. If you’re having trouble with your narrative arc or developing your characters, check out our manuscript critique services for help fixing any fundamental or structural issues.
So, what’s the romance formula? Let’s start at the beginning.
Understand your target demographics
As with any form of commercial art, you need to understand who your audience is. Traditionally, most romance novels involved heterosexual couples and were written for white, middle-class women. However, that’s rapidly changing as racial diversity and the queer romance genre carve out spaces in the industry, offering a wider range of stories for a more eclectic audience. You should always write your book with a specific audience in mind, so figure out what demographics will be interested in your story and cater to them.
Develop your protagonists
Romance novels are character-driven, meaning your protagonists (hero/heroine and love interest) are the focus of the book; what happens in the story is there to challenge them, to reveal to us who they really are.
Since romance readers have traditionally tended to be women, most romance leads have also been women. However, whether your protagonist is a heroine or a hero, they must share some characteristics with the target audience, such as age, physical attributes, place of residence, or profession—such elements will connect them to the average reader.
Your lead must also be likable and have an aspirational but believable arc as they anchor the story while the romance erupts. Since romance books are often more about indulging the fantasies of readers than taking them on a wild adventure, as a thriller would, it’s more important than in other genres to make the protagonist relatable to the audience. The idea that such a dreamy love interest would be attracted to someone like them is part of the fantasy.
Your chance to get more creative comes with the love interest: They should be imperfect, exotic in some way (not fetishized but somehow different from the lead or what they’re used to), and intriguing. The reader has to fall in love with them, sometimes even before the hero or heroine does, so make them well-rounded and show their affection and admiration for the lead—a quality that will have your readers swooning. Make sure their imperfections are forgivable so that your audience loves them regardless.
Apply the romance formula
Once you’ve figured out who you’re writing for and about, it’s time to choose your own romantic adventure. Usually, the romance formula goes something like this: 1. The lovers meet. 2. They separate. 3. They get back together. Your job is to make that formula exciting for the reader, who will expect to be transported to a sexy world that feels new and is populated with enticing, relatable characters. There are many different ways to explore this basic romance formula, so make it feel totally new to your readers.
Plot devices are also key when considering your formula. Basically, you need to figure out how you’ll make your readers believe in true love. Are your protagonists soulmates? Will they have to overcome countless hurdles and challenges until they can finally be together? Are they old friends who became romantic partners after realizing true love has been right in front of them all along? Maybe they’d given up on love until they found each other? Yes, your characters should be relatable, but something extraordinary must also happen to them—that’s where the romance is.
Also, just because you’re writing a romance novel doesn’t mean you can’t mix genres. Fantasy, sci-fi, historical—you can set your story in various backgrounds, each one changing your target audience. Just make sure the romance stays front and center—otherwise, you’re not writing a romance novel but rather, say, a sci-fi novel with romantic elements.
Construct a romantic plot
Just because romance novels are character-driven and formulaic, it doesn’t mean you can neglect the plot. There has to be some type of motivation, a driving force that brings your lead and their love interest together, whether it’s an instant mutual attraction that they have to overcome external barriers to act on or an initial distaste for each other that slowly dissipates when they’re put through an emotionally packed experience together. Their actions and choices, which traditionally end with happily ever after, must feel realistic and authentic, or you’ll lose the audience’s interest and end up with one-dimensional characters.
To avoid writing flat characters, you need to know them inside out without being explicitly descriptive (in other words, the reader doesn’t have to know their entire backstory, but you do). Figure out what their background is and what made them who they are, what their fears and aspirations are, what has hurt them in the past and what they want to avoid in the future because this is what will drive their actions and, therefore, your plot. Then, show (not tell) the intricacies of who your characters are as the story progresses, making them feel as complicated as real people.
Your location can also play a significant role in your plot, so you should use it to your advantage. Whether the setting is historical or contemporary, fictional or real, it should add to the tension and the romance and help your story stand out.
The key to creating powerful romantic scenes is passion, and passion has many facets beyond sex, including emotionality and actual old-fashioned romance. Think about what your audience wants—are they more cerebral or physical when it comes to sex?—and deliver that.
How graphic you make your romantic (read: sexy) scenes is completely up to you. Some romance novels are explicitly detailed while others leave the sex to the reader’s imagination. What’s important is that the romance is at least implicit and that the way you write it matches your voice and style without being incongruent with your characters.
The big finish
Regardless of the genre, an unsatisfying ending can ruin any story. This applies even more to romance, where the ending is expected to be rewarding and idyllic as you close on your lead and their love interest finally getting together. Since romance novels are about your readers’ fantasies, it’ll be hard to pull off anything but a happy ending, or at least an ending where the main characters end up together. If you want an unconventional ending for your romance novel, it may be difficult to sell—in this case, perhaps you can consider reframing the story in a different genre and keeping the romance as a subplot.
If you’re still having some trouble with your ending or any other structural issues, check out our developmental editing services, which will help you craft the best version of your romance manuscript.