Everyone knows the standard Romance structure: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl. Or the vice versa. Or the versa vice, mix and match sexes and attraction at will.
The truth is most modern (i.e. since about the eighties) romances are more complicated than this, as are the good classical romances (see Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer for elucidation.)
Because most of us aren’t Heyer (or Austen, for that matter) though, and also because, I THINK most modern books (not just romances) have less tolerance for bloody stupid characters, a lot of the romances (or the ones I like) have a good dose of something else, usually mystery.
So the plot line becomes something like:
Girl is accused of heinous crime
Girl runs away, and falls in circumstances that allow her to meet the hero (I’m not at all shocked and surprised, given the blurring lines between romance and erotica how often this involves the girl acting as a prostitute. Only, of course, it will be her first time, and…)
Hero finds out her past and either storms out or she runs.
Hero solves mystery and redeems her.
He/she forgive each other
They have a kid together (these days just marriage is not enough to convince people the couple will stay together.)
Now, because the structure is so well known, whatever excuse you contrive to drive the couple apart and bring them back together, I think I’ll explain other issues related to romance/writing/reading romance.
1- PLEASE, kindly and for the love of BOB (Heinlein) stop saying that every book with a romantic subplot is “really a romance.” I’ve had this said of Darkship Thieves, and managed not to laugh in the person’s face. When you say stuff like that, all you’re saying is either “I have never actually READ a romance” or “It has icky kissing.” (Ditto for x or y sf book has too much sex. You have no clue what modern romance is doing, how often and how explicit. Not that anyone ever told me this about my books, but seriously, now.)
2- Yes, it is possible for a romance to have mystery, or for a mystery to have romance, or a science fiction to have romance.
The difference is that in Romance, the relationship is central (yes, I’ve written it, as work for hire/ghost, so that I can’t tell you titles, or author’s names. No, it wasn’t Fifty Shades — rolls eyes –) to an extent that makes us primarily writers of other genres uncomfortable. You just discovered a dead man? Never mind that. What you really want to know is how he FEEEELS about you.
If you read a romance or two you’ll realize the palpable difference.
3- That said, a romance is a very useful thing to pop in a book about something completely different. Need your character, who is supposed to be this competent super-woman to act like an idiot? Have her thinking about how sexy that guy is. Or that girl. Or vice versa, or versa vice.
Romance it is well understood makes most people a little nuts. If you need someone to completely misinterpret something, be it a new scientific formula, an alibi in a murder or a minor case of licanthropy? Have the character confused by being attracted to/having a fight with/trying not to be attracted to the person they’re actually attracted to.
4- Just because you’re not interested in romance, doesn’t mean romance is not interested in you.
It is one of the tropes of romance to “ship” (relationship) any two characters of opposite/same sex (depending on the romance) who appear on the page together a lot, particularly if one notices the other a lot.
Be aware of this when you’re telling your science fiction/thriller/mystery plot. If you don’t want a romance between those two characters, you need to give strong signals of that, or you’ll find the most unlikely characters paired. (Weirdly when the background romance is hetero your readers often find a gay pairing, and vice versa. The number of women ya’ll were sure Lucius in A Few Good Men really was in love with…)
This is a corollary of “the first character the reader finds, he follows, whether that’s the protagonist or not” Unless you inicate otherwise, the first couple the reader can identify as going together, they’re going to “ship” whether true or not.
5 – When I was in my first year in English, and I know longer remember why, my teacher let fly: Jane is in love with Jane, Jane is in love with Jim, Jim is in love with someone else, who is not in love with him.
Remember that in any Romance, whether real romance or a background to another tale, there might be more than a romance or even a triangle. This is very useful because of that other saying “All is fair in love and war.” The things people will do when they are attracted to someone else are often a complete violation of character you couldn’t get away with for any other reason.
Use romance. Be aware of the leads you’re laying down, and follow them. Do not leave it till your readers explain to you that your main character really fell in love with the alien in chapter three… because by then it’s too late to fix.
Next Week, back to structure: Many kinds of Mystery structure.