Romance novels are the highest-earning genre of fiction, but they are also seriously underrated. In 2014, NPR reported that romance novels generated $1.44 billion in annual sales, literally dwarfing the rest of the literary market by millions. And according to wordsrate.com, romance continues to be the fastest-growing genre and contributed 66 percent to adult fiction growth in 2022.
If you are not yet convinced of the gravitas of this genre, consider that the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy by E. L. James is the best-selling romance novel series of all time, reaching over 150 million copies sold. In the UK, it is the fastest selling paperback of all time and the best-selling book of the decade.
Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen has never been out of print since it first graced the shelves in 1813. And during lockdown, sales of the book shot up 22 percent in the UK. It remains one of the world’s most beloved books.
Given this, perhaps it is time we all paid the romance genre a bit more attention. Read on to find out more.
What is a romance novel?
Romance novels have often been labelled with unsavoury terms such as “Mummy porn” and it is true that most readers are women (82 percent according to Romance Writers of America), but many people might be reading romance novels without realising what they are.
According to Romance Writers of America, romance novels have two basic elements: “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” In other words, the phrase “happily ever after” fits.
From here, things can vary widely, particularly regarding the amount of sensuality in the plot that can range from chaste kisses to everything hot under the collar. Settings can also be distinct as can the characters and the time period (historical or contemporary). This basically means there’s a lot of variety for writers to get creative, and they have a lot of subgenres to choose from.
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Subgenres of romance novels
Historical: Anything set before 1950 is considered historical. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, that became a famous movie, is probably a good example of this although today it’s not without its controversy given the topics it broaches like slavery and even marital rape.
Contemporary: These novels are set after 1950 or after WWII and therefore reflect more current conventions on sex, relationships and even marriage. For example, they might include LGBTQI stories, stories of an empowered heroine, true love in a more modern workplace and plenty of modern problems and themes.
Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin is a novel that also became a movie and is a good example of a contemporary romance featuring the idea of a love triangle and morals regarding friends and relationships.
Erotic: In erotic romance novels, sex is often key to the story’s development and these novels can be highly explicit. Fifty Shades of Grey is probably the most obvious example in this genre with plenty of steamy elements that get the pulse racing.
Inspirational romances: These novels strongly feature religious or spiritual beliefs in the plot. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert falls into this category with the writer’s year-long pursuit of worldly pleasure, devotion and what she wants from life.
Romantic suspense: In these stories, a suspense unfolds a mystery along with the love story. Twilight could come into this category, although it also fits the fantasy romance category.
There are many other subgenres of romance that include the paranormal, gothic, western, fantasy, comedy (think Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding), steampunk, and young adult.
How to write a romance novel depending on the genre
Romance novels can be formulaic, and to some degree they need to be as the sales and popularity of the genre proves these frameworks are highly effective. What do we mean by formulaic? Well, basically it equates to having characters meet and fall in love, but face obstacles or events that put that relationship in question. In Jane Austen’s time, that was often finances and social standing. In a contemporary novel, it could be a love triangle or a long-distance romance. Ultimately, the novel has to resolve if the characters are going to make it or go their separate ways.
As the romance genre contains many subgenres, there is no one way to continue from here but here are a few pointers.
Find your niche: Choose from the subgenres above by doing some research or deciding what you might want to write. There are plenty of options, so you should find something that suits your interests and writing style. Perhaps you want a romantic tragedy like The Great Gatsby or the eventual happy ever after ending like Jane Eyre?
Set the stage: Your subgenre will probably determine your stage: if it’s contemporary on a college campus, historical in a quaint village at the turn of the century, in a gothic castle in medieval Europe, or somewhere in outer space.
Write strong main characters: Perhaps you’d like a goofy character like Bridget Jones, or a sharp witted one like Elizabeth Bennett. Remember, good characters don’t just have to have chiselled good looks or stunning beauty, they should have emotional depth and vulnerability, so they are three-dimensional in their own right with realistic motivations, desires and flaws. The way the characters interact should be dynamic, relatable and engaging. You want your readers to root for this relationship to work.
Use the tried and true: Romantic devices that continue to work include the notion of friends or enemies becoming lovers (like Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice), that one helps the other (consider how Margaret Hale helps John Thornton in North and South when she comes into a fortune and he is bankrupt), or that they choose each other all over again (like in The Notebook).
Intimate scenes: These don’t necessarily mean sex, or almost sex. They can be electric touches or chaste kisses, or scenes that build up and fade out before the final act. However you write it, consider your audience and how that scene should play out. Perhaps also consider how writers in your chosen area write their intimate scenes.
Secondary characters: The cast of characters that surround the main couple often play an important role in the story. Think of the quirky supporting characters in the romantic movie Notting Hill and how they helped the plot along. The supporting characters can be the shoulder to cry on, part of a love triangle, the wise input the love stricken heroine needs, and so on.
Series: Series work very well in romantic fiction. Obviously you want to resolve the question of the initial romance in the first story, like in Twilight, but perhaps consider the complications that romance might bring in the next story or introduce other storylines of other characters from the first novel.
A happy ending: The traditional happy ending of the romance genre is one of its most tried-and-true elements and its implicit promise. No matter how difficult the challenges are, the couple should end up together, whether that’s happily ever after, or just for now.
It goes without saying that romance literature can be highly lucrative, diverse and allow a writer to be as creative as they want. There are plenty of reasons to give it a go, and if you’ve read this far, it might be time to start.
If you’re keen to learn more about this genre, it can be helpful to consider what editors look for in this genre. Our fiction editing services can provide plenty of assistance if you decide to tackle it and want to share your manuscript with us.
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