So are there rules to writing romance?

Dear Jennifer,

Ah, the “Rules of Romance.” I prefer to think of what your judge was referring to as “conventions,” by the way — encompass a spectrum of reader expectations for romance novels that is wider than the Great Plains. There are almost as many rules to romance as there are readers who read it and writers that write it.

Some folks want their romance book to begin with the hero and heroine meeting in the first chapter. Some think that if there isn’t a tight focus on the development of the relationship between the hero and heroine, the book isn’t a romance. Others don’t like the intrusion of secondary characters, suspense, history, paranormal or futuristic elements in their romance novels. The variations — and definitions — of what makes a romance a romance are endless.

That said, the one hard and fast rule of romance is that the book MUST HAVE A HAPPY ENDING. What that means for some readers is that the hero and heroine should be tucked up in bed (or at least somehow physically together) with a baby on the way at the end of the story. Others will take much more open-ended conclusions to the book as long as they are assured that this couple is going to grow old together.

The fastest way to turn your story into a “wall-banger” (as in, “I was so frustrated with this novel I threw it against the wall.”) is to drag your reader through four hundred pages of your hero and heroine’s travails and not end the story with them happily together.

Now, there is some discussion of whether a “hopeful” ending isn’t enough to satisfy the discriminating reader of romance. I define a “hopeful” ending as something like the ending of GONE WITH THE WIND when Scarlett, who has just lost Rhett, turns to the reader and says something like: “I’ll find a way to get him back. But I’ll think about it tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.” Whether this satisfies your potential readers is up for grabs.

My feeling is that the dyed-in-the-wool romance reader wants the assurance that the hero and heroine are DEFINITELY going to live happily ever after.

The only rules I think of when defining a romance novel — You knew I’d end up giving you my personal take on this, didn’t you? — are that:

1) the readers care about the characters.
2) the readers identify with the heroine.
3) the readers fall in love with the hero.
4) the readers believe that the hero and heroine are convincingly united at the end of the book.

Which, frankly, gives the writer a lot of leeway.

Lots of authors break the rules by which romance readers define themselves and what they read. I’ve been known to break them myself. But when you break the rules, it’s usually a balancing act. A couple of years ago, Robin Schoen pushed the boundaries of the kind of sex that is usually portrayed in romance novels in THE LADY’S TUTOR. (And launched the erotica/romantica market almost single handed.) But as I read the book, I was struck by how closely she stuck to the traditional structure of a romance novel: introduction of characters and problem, expansion of characterization and intimacy, a physical culmination at the mid-point, the introduction of a new problem, and the resolution of the relationship. So she got away Ð brilliantly, in my opinion — with pushing the boundaries, breaking the rules by staying so close to the traditional rhythm with which romances flow. By balancing one new thing against something very familiar.

What I’m saying here is that there are writers who will cross the Great Plains by following the wagon tracks of the writers who have gone before, telling traditional stories in fresh new ways. Realize that you’ll be pleasing a lot of folks if you chose to do this well.

Then there are other who will strike off for the mountains on their own, daring things that no one else has dared. Sometimes those are the writers whose careers skyrocket because readers respond to that special something different. Sometimes those are the writers whose careers wallow, collecting a few rabid fans, but never making best-seller lists, or big money either. Sometimes those are the manuscripts that editors don’t find acceptable by traditional standards. Or editors think those manuscripts are brilliant, but don’t know how to market this non-traditional kind of story.

If you’re going to be part of this second group, if you’re going to break the rules, I have some advice for you.

1) You must know what the rules are.
2) You must recognize what you hope to accomplish by breaking the rules.
3) You can’t break all of the rules at once.
4) And when you break the rules, you must break them very, very well.

Know where you fall in the continuum as you cross the Great Plains either toward publication or a career in romance. Look at your work. Think about what you hope to accomplish. What kind of a writing career you want to have, and what are you willing to sacrifice to achieve your goals?

And once you’ve answered those questions and have a better idea of where you want to go and how you’re going to get there — take your courage in your hands and give it your best shot.

Be brave and write well.

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