Stacy Gold ~
So, you want to write a romance novel? Yay! We need more great romance novels in the world with fresh voices and perspectives. The key—and the hard part—of course, is writing a romance novel with all the feels, and characters readers want to root for.
Unfortunately, all too often aspiring romance writers fall in one of three camps…
People who haven’t read much romance but are determined to subvert the genre and “do something different.” People who’ve read some romance and are sure they can write something better. And those who adore romance and want to tell an amazing, compelling, and/or heart-warming story but don’t know where or how to start.
Whichever category you’re in, you’ve come to the right place if you’re looking for a little advice. Here’s the thing, though. If you fall into one of the first two groups, you’re not likely to do very well in terms of sales and reviews. Why? Well, even if you’re a good, or great, writer in non-fiction or other genres, nothing quite compares to writing romance.
Whether you write a romantic thriller or a historical, sci fi/fantasy or contemporary romance, you have a bigger job to do than many novelists. In addition to whatever else a writer must put on the page in each of those genres, when it’s a sub-genre of romance you also have to make two people fall in love by the end of the story. That means convincing the reader that two slightly (or largely) broken people can work through their issues, fall in love, and have a healthy, satisfying, and believable relationship. All this while you tell your story about aliens, or kidnappings, or dragons, or whatever else.
The other reason falling into one of the first two groups makes it difficult to succeed is that you can’t break the rules effectively if you don’t know them. And romance readers take the rules that define the romance genre very seriously.
Of course, if you’re just writing for fun or your own entertainment, feel free to ignore everything I have to say. Or use it to your advantage to improve your end result.
Here are my seven specific suggestions for writing romance novels that sell:
1. Understand the rules. Every genre has its conventions and romance is no different. Every romance starts with a meet-cute that introduces your main characters to your readers and each other. There are good reasons why the two (or more) people can’t be together. But eventually, despite a dark moment where the characters and the reader are sure it can’t work, they figure it out and get their Happily Ever After (HEA) or Happily For Now (HFN) ending.
2. Know when it’s not a romance. If it doesn’t end with a HEA or HFN, it is not romance. This is the one, immutable rule. If the love interests don’t end up happily together it’s not a romance. If one or more main characters die by the end, it’s definitely not a romance (that’s a tragedy a la Romeo and Juliet). Nicholas Sparks writes love stories, not romances.
3. Make your story character driven. Sure, you can have a romance where part of the action is driven by external forces like a kidnapping, or getting lost in the woods, or space exploration. But in the end, the story is about relationships. Which means the story is always about the characters growing and changing. It’s about them becoming better versions of themselves and learning to love and be loved. So, every thing that happens needs to be driven by your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts.
4. Ensure your romance has two arcs. If you’re not familiar with the term arc in reference to writing, it’s how thing shift and change from the beginning of the story to the end. Many novels in other genres can simply have a plot arc with external forces driving the story forward. Thrillers, for example, usually center around a crime that’s been committed. The characters may not grow or change at all in their quest to solve the crime or mystery. In romance, you need a solid plot arc AND arcs for each main character. Because at the start of the book the characters consider themselves unworthy of love in some way. So, they have to work through their personal issues and figure out how to have a healthy, fulfilling relationship by the end.
5. Recognize and use romance tropes to your advantage. Tropes are certain ideas or set-ups that get used over and over in a variety of ways to great effect, and they exist in every commercial genre. They include concepts like friends-to-lovers, only one bed, opposites attract, workplace romance, grumpy/sunshine, and more. Many readers one-click certain romance novels because they include one or more of their favorite tropes.
6. Keep in mind most of the “rules” of fiction writing are really guidelines. People say, “never use adverbs,” “show don’t tell,” “never use passive voice,” etc. The truth is, most of these are just guidelines to help you assess your work and make it stronger. There is a time and a place for a good adverb—but more often than not you can replace the adverb/verb combo with a stronger verb. Showing is more immersive than telling, but if you need to compress time or handle small details, telling is the way to go. So, it’s about understanding these rules and knowing when you want to intentionally break them.
7. Accept that at least half of writing is editing. Maybe two-thirds. Seriously. Most new writers have this idea that novels sprout pretty much fully formed from a writer’s fingertips. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, your first draft might be pretty damn good, but it’s in the editing that you have a chance to strengthen your plot and arcs, clean up your grammar and typos, and choose stronger words and phrasing.
Like most things in life, if you want to get really good it’s best to learn from experts. These days stellar resources abound at every price point—even free. You can find blogs, podcasts, articles, books, videos, workshops and entire conferences dedicated to writing, and to writing romance specifically. Luckily, everything that applies to writing good fiction in general also applies to writing romance.
Bonus Suggestions—Books on Writing and Writing Romance
To help you get started, here are five books that made a huge impact on my own writing. I only wish I’d read them before I drafted my first romance novel (and then revised it six times before officially dumping it in the circular file).
- Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain – An oldie but goodie… If you struggle with what you actually need to put on the page to make your vision come to life for the reader, this book is for you.
- Save the Cat by Blake Snyder (or Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody) – A simple guide to plot and story structure based on writing screenplays, that works wonders for novels, too.
- Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes – Beats are the changes that drive your plot and character arcs forward. It’s good to understand how they work in any genre fiction, but this book specifically applies them to romance.
- GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon – If you want to keep readers hooked, you have to understand how your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts move the story forward.
- Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson – You know those books where you feel immersed in the story, like you’re inside the main character’s head? Deep pointing of view is one of the big secrets to achieving this, and this thin tome breaks it down logically and succinctly.
Good luck, and happy writing!
— Stacy Gold
Stacy Gold is an outdoor adventure athlete and contemporary romance author. Her latest book is Wild at Heart (May 2022, Onyva).
Purchase Wild at Heart.
Learn more about Stacy here:
Goodreads: Author Stacy Gold