How to Write a Romance Novel: 5 Tips for Writing Romance

brainstorming genres
How to Write a Romance Novel: 5 Tips for Writing Romance

From Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, swoon-worthy romance novels take readers on an emotional rollercoaster ride of ups and downs until they arrive at their “happily ever after.”

But what are the elements that make a great romance novel, and how do you write one well? Today, we’ll look at three key ingredients all romance novels need and tips for writing a swoon-worthy romance.

3 essential ingredients for a successful romance novel

If you’re familiar with Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, then you’ll know that romance novels typically fall into the “Buddy Love” genre. While this genre goes beyond romantic love and includes different types of love, such as familial and friendship, it’s most commonly used in romance. Here are the three essential ingredients you’ll need for this genre:

An Incomplete Hero: someone who is missing something physical, ethical, or spiritual. They need another to be whole.

A Counterpart: someone who makes that completion come about or has qualities the hero(es) needs.

A Complication: this may be a misunderstanding, a personal or ethical viewpoint, a physical or emotional challenge, an epic historical event, the prudish disapproval of society, or an “other” (such as a supernatural element). This is the primary source of conflict in the novel, working to keep the two main characters apart, but also to pull them together.

With these essential ingredients in mind, here are 5 tips for writing a great romance:

Tips to write a romance novel

Narrow down your subgenres

Like mystery, fantasy, and many other genres, romance writing is a broad category. To find the right readers for your romance novel, you’ll have to narrow down your genre. Are you writing a fantasy romance, contemporary romance, historical romance, or something else? Narrowing your subgenre will help you understand what readers expect from a novel in that romance genre.

If a reader picks up a book expecting it to be a contemporary romance novel, they will not expect–and may even be disappointed–to see two characters who are vampires or werewolves. That’s because the expectation of a contemporary romance is a story that is set in our world or the “real” world, not a fantasy or paranormal world.

Knowing these expectations is important, but don’t be afraid to tell the story you want to write! It's fine to blend genres together to create something unique and different. Renée Ahdieh’s The Beautiful blends historical, paranormal romance with mystery elements that enrich the world and the story.

Subvert common romance tropes

Once you’ve narrowed down your subgenre, study and analyze the common tropes within the genre/subgenre. With romance, there are a lot of common tropes readers love to see.

Some of these include:

  • Friends-to-lovers
  • Enemies-to-lovers
  • Forbidden/star-crossed lovers
  • Love triangles
  • Second chance romance
  • Fake relationship
  • Forced proximity
  • Holiday romance
  • Damsel/dude in distress
  • Cinderella story

Just as with any popular trope, you’ll have to put your own unique spin on it to make it fresh and new for readers. Sonora Reyes’ The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School takes the fake romantic relationship trope and gives it an interesting twist that makes it feel fresh and unique.

A couple of ways to subvert a romance trope would be to change the setting, change the characters and/or their roles, or blend different genres together as suggested above. What if Romeo and Juliet are not star-crossed lovers, but destined to be with someone else? (Juliet Immortal and Romeo Redeemed by Stacey Jay.) What if Pride and Prejudice were retold in today’s time with an Afro-Latino main character? (Pride by Ibi Zoboi.)

Find a worthy love interest

In nearly all romance or “buddy love” stories, the main message is: “my life changed for having known another.” It’s the hook in these stories that draws readers in. Your protagonist’s growth and transformation depend on your romantic lead or counterpart, so there has to be something exciting about this new character that’s going to shake things up for your hero. They can’t be dull or ordinary. Their introduction has to launch our hero into Act 2, which means they have to be worthy of an entire catalyst!

In Nicola Yoon’s YA romance Everything, Everything, our counterpart, Olly, moves in next door to Maddy (our hero). Dressed in all black and constantly moving, jumping, and running “wild” through life, he’s the polar opposite of Maddy, who is literally stuck in one place in her all-white world. This is exactly what she needs, someone to pull her out of her lonely, predictable existence and teach her how to really live.

Use the complication to push and pull your buddies

Your complication provides the primary conflict of the story. It’s what keeps your lovers apart; otherwise, what’s stopping them from running off into the sunset and living happily ever after on page 20? The conflict will either make or break your story. If you don’t have enough of it, the reader will give up because the story is “too easy” and the love doesn’t feel earned. The longer you can keep your lovers apart and the more gaps you can wedge between them, the better the story— and the happier the reader will be when your characters finally get together by the end of the story!

Although the complication may be initially keeping your lovers apart, it can also keep them together. In the Nicholas Sparks bestseller The Notebook, the complications that keep Allie and Noah apart are the prejudices of their society and Allie’s family. It’s also the very thing that makes them fight to stay together. Often the complication leads to the All is Lost beat. This beat is crucial in buddy love stories because it helps them realize what they truly have and figure out how to fix their flaws (i.e., learning the theme) in order to save their relationship, thus pulling our lovers together again.

Focus on the key moments

With romance, there are several important moments that are key to creating a swoon-worthy romance: the meet-cute, intimate moments, the breakup or separation, and the happy ending.

The meet-cute

In romance novels, this is when your hero meets their eventual true love for the first time, or in the case of friends or enemies to lovers, this may be when your couple first pursues a relationship. In a romance novel, this moment usually occurs during the catalyst beat. Don’t let the name of this moment fool you, though. Sometimes this is done in a “cute” or comical way, but it doesn’t have to be. In Renée Ahdieh’s The Wrath and The Dawn, our hero, Shahrzad, volunteers to marry Khalid (love interest) in order to kill him and get revenge for her best friend’s murder. There’s really nothing cute about the circumstances of their meeting.

Love scenes

What would a romance novel be without the intimate moments between the characters? Now, "intimate" doesn’t necessarily mean sex scenes (though it could if the subgenre you’re writing is erotic romance) but it can be something as simple as a first kiss or first date. It also doesn’t always have to be something physical. Readers want to see the emotional journey and connection of your characters. Show us the moments when they bond over a shared passion, when they become open and vulnerable with each other (especially for characters that don’t trust easily), or when they sacrifice something for the other person. Show us the moments when they fall in love.

The breakup or separation

Since the all is lost beat is the lowest point in the story, it’s a natural place for the breakup or separation to occur. After all, what’s lower in a romance novel than losing the person you're in love with? This is also a natural place to explore the hero's internal conflicts. Does your protagonist secretly believe they are unworthy of love? This point in the story will seem to confirm that false belief.

The happy ending

In romance novels, this is the implicit promise romance writers make to the reader. After all the pain, heartache, and turmoil you’ve put your characters through, readers want to see them get their happy ending. Of course, there are some exceptions to this, such as John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, but most of the time, if you want to satisfy readers, you’ll need to let your characters ride off into the sunset by the end of your novel. Keep in mind, if you do plan to keep your characters apart in the end, you’ll still want to leave your hero transformed and in a better place than where they started.

Pacing is key to all of this. Romance is all about building that angst between your hero and love interest. Remember, the longer you can keep your lovers apart and build the tension and conflict between them, the more their love will feel earned and have readers screaming, “Just kiss already!”

Ready to write romance that your readers will swoon over?

If you use the three essential ingredients (an incomplete hero, counterpart, and complication) and the tips above, you’ll be on your way to creating a swoon-worthy romance readers can’t help gushing over.

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