What classifies a story as a romance?
The answer to this question varies with different readers, depending on what each desires from a romance novel. Of course, readers expect to see a love story, but not all of them agree on how they want that story to unfold.
Like any other piece of fiction, the romance story needs to have a clear arc with conflicts and resolutions, but the challenge of weaving a relationship into this arc is overwhelming for many writers.
While there is no exact formula for writing romance fiction, there are some specific elements that can be used as a guide:
1. Let the characters come from different backgrounds.
There should be something in one of the characters or in his life that the other longs for. While this doesn’t have to be true for every romantic story, it is prevalent in many of the well-known ones.
In Dirty Dancing, a character nicknamed Baby is spending the summer at a prestigious summer resort with her family when she comes in contact with one of the employees, a dance instructor named Johnny. She is first drawn to his “secret” world behind the scenes of the resort. This interest becomes focused upon Johnny and develops as she gets a taste of freedom and a glimpse into a life outside the “box” she has grown up in.
In The Bridges of Madison County, Francesca is left alone for a weekend when her husband takes their two children on a 4-H trip. When a stranger, Robert, shows up looking for directions to a bridge he needs to photograph for a magazine, Francesca develops an interest in him. She is first attracted to his life of travel and freedom, but the focus of this attraction quickly shifts to Robert.
Titanic follows the same pattern with the wealthy, prominent Rose falling in love with a poor, homeless artist who wins his way onto the ship in a poker game moments before it sails. Trapped in a predictable life of social events and obligations, Rose falls in love with the idea of Jack’s life of roaming from one place to another. The story unfolds as this love shifts to Jack, and Rose dares to think of a life with him and no boundaries.
Each of these stories demonstrates the concept of one character longing for something in the other. It is this longing that ignites a flame that eventually becomes the love, or lust, between the characters.
2. There should be a conflict that prevents or affects the relationship.
A romance story, like any other story, needs to include some sort of conflict. This conflict needs to complicate the characters’ relationship. If done properly, the struggle becomes the true romance element of your story.
In The Bridges of Madison County, Robert is out of reach because Francesca is married. In The Notebook, Allie falls in love with Noah partly because of their differences, which is what also drives them apart. Years later, circumstances bring the two of them back together, and she has to choose between the seemingly perfect man she is engaged to and Noah.
A conflict can arise in many forms. It can come from an outside source, from between the two characters, or from within one or both of the characters in the relationship.
3. Don’t introduce the first love/sex scene too soon or without emotion.
The conflict in a romance story often happens soon after the couple has participated in an intimate encounter, so lead up to that scene slowly, then follow through with a struggle. Readers want to see the subtle signs of attraction between the two characters. Give them a light brush of skin on skin as the characters pass in a hallway or fingertips lingering on the palm of a hand a second longer than necessary. A steamy love scene in romance fiction is certainly okay, but it will have a much greater impact on the readers if they are led into it slowly. Without the cues and story behind an intimate scene, it is simply sex with no emotions involved. Unless a reader chooses a romance novel for the sole purpose of enjoying the sex scenes in all of their explicit details, he will want to feel emotion when he finally makes it to this encounter.
4. The story does not always have to end with the couple living happily ever after-together.
The temptation is great to wish for the “happily-ever-after” ending in every romance novel. However, some of the greatest love stories are those that do not have the typical “love story” ending—the most famous of these being Romeo and Juliet.
The Bridges of Madison County is another example of this. I love how it ends, but there is a part of me that begs Francesca to push the truck door handle down and jump out of the truck on her final chance to choose Robert. She doesn’t jump out of the truck, but when her husband tells her on his death bed that he appreciates her for giving up her dreams for him, it is confirmation she’s made the right choice. This is the sort of detail that makes a not-so-happy ending a good ending, nonetheless.
Decide what type of ending you want before you begin writing your story. If you are working toward a happily-ever-after ending, give the readers moments when they believe it won’t happen. If you choose not to let the couple end up together, make the readers believe at some point that they will. You cannot build these elements into a story unless you know where it is going.
5. Tie the romance element into a bigger plot.
Weave the romance element of the story into a plot that is greater than just what is going on with the couple. Create a back story for each character in the relationship then let them come together. Show us how separate life experiences either strengthen them or drive them apart. In both The Notebook and Titanic, the female character is stuck in a life of expectations. The stories both deal with life decisions and the consequences of these decisions. In The Bridges of Madison County, there are the underlying moral issues woven throughout the story. Gone with the Wind is as much a historical novel as it is a romance. So, think bigger than the relationship, then work your way down to it.
Be careful not to make the above concepts too obvious or simple. Following a set of guidelines does not mean writing “cookie-cutter” stories. Consider your main story plot first, then weave the romance into it using the concepts as a guide.