Let’s Get Romantic

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.


  1. Oh, yes – I have had fun incorporating a romantic element in my books – usually with a twist. (couple marries for all the wrong reason, has adventures and children … and then fall in love, disillusioned widow finds a romance with practically the only – and nerdy – man she knows who has never, ever let her down, traumatized survivor is courted very gently by a guy twice her age ….) all kinds of scope, but within a larger story.

  2. … romances are more complicated than this, as are the good classical romances …

    It is worth noting that when new the works of Burroughs and Haggard were considered romances. And C. S. Lewis would not have blinked on hearing his space trilogy described as such. As is so often the case, the definition of ‘romance’ has shifted over the years. You will often find boy-meets-girl in Burroughs and Haggard; Lewis not so much.

    1. Keep in mind, “romance” once meant “a story like the Romans told”, aka an epic. Burroughs’s Barsoom novels are sometimes called “Planetary Romances” because they fit both definitions of the word.

      1. You know, the Gor series might qualify as Planetary Romance too. For values of “romance”.

        1. From what I saw in a recent documentary, John Norman is shocked and scandalized if people tell him his fantasy series has a sexual element.

          Apparently he’s like J.K. Rowling, who once claimed she had no idea Harry Potter counted as fantasy until somebody told her it did.

          The mind boggles.

            1. Heh. It was a bonus feature on the DVD release of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode OUTLAW OF GOR. And yes, Shout! Factory totally made a documentary all about John Norman and the Gor series. Just because.

          1. “Apparently he’s like J.K. Rowling, who once claimed she had no idea Harry Potter counted as fantasy until somebody told her it did.”

            I remember Larry Correia saying on his blog that he thought he was writing horror until he was told that his book was actually urban fantasy.

            1. I guess it’s true…sometimes the author really is the last one to know.

              Sometimes. 🙂

  3. Chuckle Chuckle

    1634: The Bavarian Crisis by Eric Flint & Virginia DeMarce.

    Some of the readers thought it was a “romance” between two of the main down-time characters.

    Virginia DeMarce didn’t see it as a “romance”. He was looking for a bride for purely dynasty reasons (ie he needed an heir). She decided that he would be a better husband than the man her father had chosen (ie not love on her part just “he would better”).

    Mind you, there was a true romance beginning between two of the minor characters. It didn’t end in marriage as he has to work to convince her that marriage with him doesn’t mean “her career” will end. [Smile]

  4. I figure: I might not like romance, but I might crank one out to make some quick money. Then I realized it’s a lot more difficult that I thought. There’s a whole mindset to adopt, since I keep wanting to get past all the stupid kissy-face scenes and figure out who dunnit and how to stop the doomsday device.

    Thanks for the handy advice. I’ll keep it in mind when my heroine is abducted by the flying saucer full of leonine cat people aliens. Then the pheromones start to kick in…

    Yeah I know what that sounds like, but the big question is: will readers pay for it???

    1. If you are not familiar with it, look up the anthology _Get Off the Unicorn_ by McCaffrey and find the story “The Thorns of Barevi.” (I think that’s the one. Kidnapped woman, alien, danger, soft-core result). It might give you a few ideas/things to tone down.

      1. Much obliged! I’ll check it out.

        The biggest obstacle, however, is always the explicit scenes. It’s so boring.

        Am I the only one who finds written sex scenes boring? But I find most in-depth descriptions of anatomical functions boring.

        1. Just do two excessively detailed handshake scenes totaling three pages per book.

  5. And I recall from some even-then old book I had in the 1970’s…
    “How was that movie you went to the other night?”
    “Oh, same old story. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Bot build new girl.”

  6. Then of course there was the time that John Ringo won romance novelist of the year for “Ghost.”
    John used to post snippets of ongoing works at Baen’s Bar for us bar flies to pick apart and offer comments on. He had this concept cooking in his back brain, which if you know John isn’t at all surprising. Wasn’t at all SF, more of a Tom Clancy sort of action adventure, so of course Baen wouldn’t be interested. And of course it caught Jim Baen’s attention wherein he ordered John to submit the manuscript.
    Ghost is essentially three novelettes loosely tied together as the adventures of a broken warrior with inner demons he’s trying to keep under control. There is a fair amount of kinky and somewhat gratuitous sex.
    John himself calls it fantasy as much of the premise is intentionally impossible in the real world.
    Anyway, Baen published the book and it was fairly successful. Then a bar fly (don’t recall who, besides statute of limitations has run out) discovered this on-line contest for best romance novel and posted that information on the Bar. And as they say, the rest is history.

  7. 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.

    Hold on, I want to hear more about this because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the internet, it’s that fighting shipping is pointless. Heck, characters not even in the same work will be shipped with other characters so if you’ve figured out how to pre-sink ships, I need more details on that.

    Otherwise give me any two characters, and I bet you I can find a fan fic of them shipped somewhere on the internet (unless the work is too obscure – and no I won’t write up the fan fic just to win the bet).

            1. You didn’t mention searching the adult fanfic websites, or the sites that have hentai doujins…

    1. Oh, I usually have them note something about the other person they REALLY don’t like, or be put off by them physically.
      My work is, I’d bet, too obscure.

  8. Shipping is fun … so long as you don’t take it too seriously. And avoid the people who do take it seriously.

    1. Containerized shipping was one of the hundred best things to happen last century.

  9. *Wake up. Check this out.* “Good thing I’m not making any plans to do this sort of thing.”

    *Checks ATH, and is reminded.* “Oh wait, I shelved that one project because I figured I would have to do Romance plots, and have no clue. Especially if the Romance plot ended up being the main plot.”

    Since I’m looking at the Regency era, and might have at least a Romance sub plot, I figure I’m potentially going to have people expecting a Regency Romance. I’m not sure what those expectations are. I’m not sure how to square them with the likely constraint of a military operating in the back of beyond.

  10. I was mildly surprised when a love triangle developed in the Cat stories. No, not the one you are thinking of, a rather different one. Mildly surprised, because at this point I’ve given up trying to make my characters stick to my grand designs.

    Now back to the novella that was supposed to be a short story and that is letting my finish it 6 years after starting.

  11. ‘Romance’ not equal ‘love story,’ even if you have to market as such, and hope a few of the Romance (capital R) readers have wider tastes.

    I would never try writing a Romance – because I don’t read them. But I do read classical love stories (Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice…), and I think they’ve influenced me.

  12. Boy and Girl meet, or meet again, and fall immediately in love… but something keeps them from declaring their love or keeps them apart… they struggle as they fall deeper in love but the obstacles seem insurmountable… Oh, no! All is Lost!… and then it isn’t lost and all is HEA.

    Which only bugs the heck out of me when the “what keeps them apart” is stupidity.

    Important note there on clues to who to pair up…
    Romance writer: I don’t understand why everyone thinks that BOB is supposed to be the hero.
    Me: Well dear, you’ve given Bob curly hair and mentioned his eye color on page 5.

    But what I find most interesting is how to *not* do that with a not-romance. If Sarah or anyone else has ideas, please share them. One of my pet peeves is this “every relationship is sexual” thing. (ie., Ernie and Bert,) I’d like to see *profound* relationships portrayed in fiction that aren’t sexual ones. Loyalty and dedication and friendship and real bonds without sexual potential.

    1. Despite all the fujoshi fanfic writers, the main relationship of Naruto is not yaoi. It is about a friendship established through violence to the point of *gory spoilers*.

    2. MCA Hogarth’s Mindline and the rest of the series. She writes furries that aren’t… well, aren’t anything in common with the stereotypes of furries, with a hard SF explanation and solid world-building why. And the two protagonists have a platonic relationship, despite any and all expectations. Do recommend.

Comments are closed.