Romance Structure and genre expectations

So, I’m going to try to do a “this is romance structure” thing.

The idea is to do each of the genres in turn, so you guys understand what makes a romance a romance, what the expected romance structure and tropes are.

Two things to remember: first, structure doesn’t make the genre.  It’s expected in the genre, but it doesn’t define it.  So even if your science fiction has this structure, if the emphasis is on the science fiction/futuristic stuff/how society has changed, it’s not a romance, or even a science-fiction romance.  It’s science fiction with a romantic subplot.  Second, every genre has accepted “shortcuts” that make its story easier to tell and which will seem like total lunacy to someone not willing to be immersed/learn them.  I’ll list this for each genre, but I’m not judging.  These are simply short cuts so common to the genre they’ve become embedded in the genre and might be invisible to the habitual reader.  There’s no point at all if you’re not a regular reader sitting there and judging the genre.  It is what it is, and the fact you see these breaks in logic doesn’t make you smarter, it just makes you not an habitual reader of the genre.

We all know romance structure, right?  Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl.  Sure.  But there’s more to it than that.  It’s more soemthing like this:

Girl (most romance is told from the female perspective) meets boy (actually these days they’re usually both in their late twenties, early thirties) and something special happens.  It must be obvious from the first moment that there’s attraction there.

For some reason (possibly having to do with circumstances) girl is afraid of boy/put off by him/thinks he hates her.  Boy might think badly of her or, because of his scars and background, might be afraid to let himself go, to trust her fully.

If this is a contemporary/now normal romance there will nonetheless be sessions of intense making out, complete with sensations that are beyond what the human body is (possibly) capable of feeling.  Depending on the kind of romance…  Well, let’s say that it’s a traditionally published one, where they’ve been pushing more sex-per-emotion lately: the make out sessions can go all the way and beyond.  I mean, my giving a book flying lessons the fastest happened when a writer took a regency virgin from zero to anal sex within the first ten pages of the book.  BUT the decision on how far between romance and erotica you’re willing to go is yours and, if traditional, your editor’s.  It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.  It sort of broke the neck of my disbelief, but I promise you it has a lot of fans.

Anyway, you have the meetings and make out sessions — it’s harder to do if you’re writing a clean/no sex/sweet romance, because you have to convey all that attraction without what my best friend growing up called “rolling the melons”.  You’ll have a lot of significant looks, sparks when their hands meet, etc. — a lot of the meetings will devolve into arguments/sparring/etc, in which the characters think they’re in opposition, but we can see the underlying compatibility.

This is when the secondary plot starts and picks up steam.  Secondary plot? what secondary plot?

Any romance of more than about 10k words has a secondary plot.  I honestly think this is to slow down the internal timing, so that the main character, despite their frightening attraction, has enough time of knowing each other, etc, so that the reader “buys” that they have had enough time to fall in love.

But also the secondary plot supports, builds on, and pushes along the main plot.

It is almost a cliche these days for the secondary plot in a romance to be that the woman is chased/abused/involved in plots by her ex husband.  In regency this might be a guardian or a step brother or something.  The plot can also relate to the man’s past and make him seem more frightening/scarier which keeps them apart.

The plot can be any other genre or sub genre, including mystery or fantasy, or it can be romance, even.

If it’s mystery it should either start pretty close to the beginning or we should have hints where the guy reminds himself he’s here to hunt a murderer and could Ms. so and so, or her husband, father or fiance be the murderer, or the woman has dreams of waking from sleep walking with a corpse at her feet.

For romance, if you’re wondering how romance can be the secondary plot of romance, consider Pride and Prejudice.  The secondary plot that keeps them apart, underlies Mr. Darcy’s supposed perfidy, and makes the reader think all is lost, is Jane’s romance with Mr. Bingley which Mr. Darcy intrudes upon to keep them apart.  In the same way, Whickam’s not quite romance with Lydia is what brings that bit of misdirection to an end as Mr. Darcy’s wholly benevolent behavior in that case makes us realize he really meant everything for the best.  More importantly, it makes Lizzy think so, thereby bringing about the HEA, ie Happily Ever After.  Romance must have a happily ever after.  What if you just had this idea for being really clever and sneaky and they don’t get together in the end?  It’s not clever or sneaky and you’ll straight-up p*ss off fans of romance.

These days if writing a contemporary romance, a wedding might not be sufficient for your readers to think that the characters will stay together, particularly if the characters are already multiple-divorced.  Usually it takes the birth of a child for the HEA to stick.  This or an intimation that they settled down happily, like a real couple, are also needed if you find that your characters are married at the beginning of the romance (usually a marriage by connivance, contrivance or arrangement.  Forced marriage is a recognized sub-genre.)

Things that will seem peculiar if you come from other genres: In romance, narration is often two-voices, but unlike the neat divisions of other genres, it doesn’t happen in sections separated with ***** but sometimes sentence to sentence.  This is a narrative necessity, because if you’re not in both their heads you won’t know that they’re just saying these things because they’re scared or something.

Those of us who come from other genres might NOT be able to do this.  However the fans expect it, and might ding you if you don’t.  OTOH in the hands of a master — Heyer — you won’t even notice she’s “jumping heads.”  And if you read her a lot, to get the feel or whatever, you might find that you’re doing it in your science fiction which will make your editors wonder if you lost your mind.

Things that seem stupid but are short cuts to speed up the story in the genre: the locking of eyes and the “knowing” there’s something special there.  Physical touch that brings out reactions not known to humans not suffering of seizures. The way they keep thinking of each other.

All of these are essential, because if told realistically it would a) be boring and b) take forever to write out.  These short cuts get the plot moving.  No, romance readers don’t think that’s how life works, it’s just that these “contrivances” have become invisible to them.

Something to remember: if you’re running a subplot — and you probably are, if your story has any length at all — the subplot should end before the romance.  Ie. Jane and Mr. Bingley get engaged before Lizzy and Darcy; Lydia and Whickam get married before Lizzy and Darcy; or when it’s a mystery, the mystery gets solved before the characters decide to get married; the thriller plot gets solved, etc.  Your happy ever after is the last thing, that sends the readers off happy.

Homework: read Pride and Prejudice; Georgette Heyer’s Venetia; Madeline Hunter The Seducer.  For bonus points read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca which is usually called a thriller, but which if you analyze closely, both in structure and theme is a romance.



50 thoughts on “Romance Structure and genre expectations

  1. Homework? But, but, but…. *sigh* Yes teacher.
    Can’t say that I will be trying this genre out. having an idea of how it breaks down and is assembled is good though. In the meantime I think I will see if I can dig some of those books up for reading.

    1. Considering the volume in romance sales; this might be money to pay for your mortgage, 3rd bypass operation, daughter’s wedding, etc.

      1. Not to mention since I’ve given the genre a shot I have really seen what a page turner can be. When you can get me compulsively reading something whose plot I figured out by page three that’s some good storytelling and writing.

    2. Given one of the homework is something I’ve argued is the greatest novel in the English language (and have read a time or two) I’m willing to give it a shot.

  2. I’ve read two of those and quite a bit of Heyer to boot. I’ve also read material from a few contemporary authors, though the sex scenes get a skimming. The only author who has ever written sex scenes I found interesting was Lois McMaster Bujold (in her cross-genre series The Sharing Knife); I finally figured out that she was writing the emotional end rather than the physical one.

    There are, after all, only so many ways you can write “Insert Tab A into Slot B.”

      1. But the current philosophy in certain circles is that it’s your duty as a conscientious author to promote “alternative” displays of romantic interaction. After all, we all learned two administrations ago that oral isn’t really sex, and it was recently explained to me in much more detail than I wanted that anal was The Lord’s loophole for young ladies who wanted to remain virgins for their wedding day.

        1. I miss the fade-to-black moments.

          I’m going to re-read Arthur Machen’s The White People. Then The Great God Pan.

          Sex all throughout, and nary a body part under discussion.

          John Norman and Sharon Green: always fade to black.

        2. As someone who read books on writing sex scenes because he was writing “alternative” displays of romantic interaction that you’re still writing emotions and specific sensations.

          “Insert” is not a sensation or an emotion and neither is “licked”. If that is all sex is for you I suggest writing tumblr captions not erotica or romance.

          I don’t care if it is missionary straight sex or gay leather men flogging the real thing to write is the emotional journey…hell, just based on the ability to short hand because “everyone has done it or at least seen it on TV” you can get away with less of the journey on the missionary straight sex than the leather men.

          *wonders where this soapbox came from*

          1. I know someone who is both writing romance (with sex in) and not particularly sexual. I wonder if said person took my advice to assign a desirable food to each character (such as coffee or chocolate) and write sex scenes with that kind of imagery in mind.

      2. A little of both for me. I don’t care for detailed bathroom or dismemberment details either. Which is odd considering that the actual biology (e.g. stuff like autopsies and cutting specimens up) don’t bother me at all when I’m doing them myself. Pretty fascinating really.

        I think it may be because that sort of thing, in stories, is improper, so normal sentiment finds it squicky. Or so I guess. (Pace Pilgrim’s Regress & the Abolition of Man). Maybe.

        But the boredom, oh yes. Of course, I get that way with other people’s navel-gazing emo introspection, as well. That’s very much the outlier in my experience. Normal people seem to have an infinite tolerance for voyeurism.

    1. There is a book called “I Give You My Body” by the author of Outlander (having a moment and I can’t remember) that can be summed up as “writing a sex scene is about writing sensations and emotions not mechanics”. I recommend it because it at least got me to where I didn’t giggle my way through writing a sex scene even if I still think it sucks. At least now I know what I’m after.

  3. One writer who interlaces all kind of things with her romances is Ann River Siddons. I heard part of _Low Country_ on the Radio Reader, was so fascinated by the use of setting that I read that book, and then four others that she’s written (she has dozens out.) She’ll work thriller, family saga, disaster-thriller, mystery, all kinds of things into what’s basically a romance. OR she crosses genres and you think it is a romance but it’s really contemporary fiction. Romance readers seem to devour the books, according to the librarians I’ve talked to about them. And her use of place… dang, I wish I had her command of setting and how she uses it as a character.

  4. Based on this description, the series I’ve been reading as poolside fluff isn’t a romance. Which I would have argued anyway, since the main characters now have two children and are still having the steamy sex scenes. It isn’t paranormal either, despite being billed as a paranormal romance, since the people with paranormal powers are mostly aliens. It’s more like pulp SF plus sex scenes written as if it were romance/erotica. (Gini Koch’s Kitty Kat series)

    1. It’s “paranormal” because Aliens and Humans can’t have children. 😉

      Just getting started on it but that’s a “minor problem” concerning enjoying it. 😀

    2. I’m having that experience with my attempt at erotica. At some point enough plot showed up I think it is just out and out detective with a lot of sex.

      The only thing that doesn’t have me completely convinced is the PI falling for the Femme Fatale is the real end of the story instead of finding the missing person.

  5. It’s expected in the genre, but it doesn’t define it.

    I’ve seen the point made that genre can be defined as a set of expectations & conventions. (Hal Clement’s “A Question of Guilt”, for example, is definitely a work of Hard SF, even though it takes place in Ancient Rome.)

  6. Which brings up the very real problems of writing a mainstream love story – and NOT attracting the Romance readers, who have their expectations and hate having them contravened. Especially when it gets to running Amazon ads – where the copy has very few characters to make a distinction.

    My only bad reviews have come from readers who didn’t read the descriptions, or look at the cover, or peruse a review or two, or read a page or two of the Look Inside or the sample – as hard as I tried to make those all point AWAY from Romance.

      1. I’m having a hard time dealing with it – still have a few advertising ideas to try. But I don’t have a publisher’s push behind me – and indies don’t write that many big book-type mainstream novels (that I can tell).


        1. You said love story, so I guess showing an action scene or a creepy atmospheric scene for the cover is out of the question?

          Any other particular genre you could try to attach to?

          Isn’t there a sub-genre called ‘women’s fiction’ (assuming that’s what the book is) for example? If you market it as that, or another sub-genre, then the readers wont be looking for those beats and that structure?

          1. Don’t want to market as women’s fiction something that has the best reviews from older men!

            If there were an equivalent men’s fiction…

            And the cover is already very NOT Romance – it is wistful and atmospheric. Not creepy, though.

            Through an interesting turn of events that I haven’t reversed yet (ie, I picked the keyword ‘suspense’ for the Amazon description list of 7 words or phrases), it’s now listed under mystery, suspense, and thrillers – and it hasn’t made the slightest difference.

            Several people here have read it, and given it very nice reviews.

  7. Interesting discussion.

    Maybe I’m weird. I read everything by Larry Correia and Tom Kratman but will sample any thing written.

    Most of the time I’m into hard SFF.

    I’ve sampled romances but the only ones I liked were by Modean Moon. She’s a Baen author and I stumbled across her looking for science fiction. Her books seem to fit your description with a very occasional dip into the supernatural.

    Looking back, maybe I like her stuff because it’s well written, historical accurate, and satisfactory to read.

    And realistically, that’s what I want in a book.

    1. I walked into this joint a couple of years ago as a confirmed military sci-fi type. Drake. Pournelle. Like that.
      Within a MONTH (!) (maybe two. or three.),they had me reading this girly crap. And loving it.
      Of course, it did help that the girly crap stories include the Queen of the Fae shooting a troll in the back three times with a .44 magnum.

  8. Speaking of romance with the paranormal subgenre, one thing that keeps jumping out at me whenever I chance to look at one of these para-roms is this whole concept of fated or destined mates. Any thoughts on this phenomina and whether it makes the book easier, better (skipping the whole ‘falling in love’ part) or more difficult and worse (skipping the whole ‘falling in love’ part)?

      1. It can be hard to distinguish between that and the trope that there exists a type of ONE PERSON for you. There are probably a gazillion (if you’re normal) and rather less (if a weirdo) but you don’t want to screw up the opportunity if it arises.

        Though the SF-nal only-one-person ever can be fun – from a storytelling perspective. For most of the folks involved it would probably suck….

        Oh. There’s an idea. Make it real, workable, and fun for the intelligent species involved…

      2. So how do love triangles fit in? If you’re writing for a romance audience, should any love triangle have an obvious solution (Alice may think she’s got a tough choice between Bob and Charles, but it’s blatantly obvious to the reader who she’s supposed to end up with) ? Or is it okay to have some genuine suspense about who Alice is going to end up with as long as everyone ends up happily paired off at the end?

    1. It’s a trope. With the PNR (Paranormal Romance) that’s thinly-disguised erotica, and in most of Science Fiction Romance that’s same, it’s a way to skip all the falling-in-love & relationship-building and go straight to the sex., then back-build the relationship as needed.

      In a way, it’s like the ice-monster prologue in fantasy: a way to skip all the world and character introduction, and go straight to “People are fighting ice monsters! Dragons! War magic!” then backfill with the main characters and plot and backstory as needed.

  9. My one (so far) hard SF novel has a romantic subplot. I therefore foolishly did not tag it as hard SF like I should have. This was a mistake. Do nor make my mistake when you go to market your hard SF novel.

    1. Linkage please? I do like my emo with a healthy amount of gunfire and technological speculation.

      Dear authors: part of the reason I read MGC as a mere schmear illustrator is because you reliably hook me up with my reading fix.

  10. Venetia is absolutely delightful and shows a master at work with the omniscient point of view. I’ve only read it five or six times over the years.

  11. Sweet…I just started writing a romance idea (that “nurse novel”) yesterday (see the Tina Manners blog) so this is very useful.

    Thank you.

      1. I just remember the one scene where Glen Close gives what is possibly the most vicious burn I have ever heard. She’d been giving the male lead a hard time about not achieving his goal of seducing Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, and he had responded as to how he had gotten the woman she had pointed out to him to the point of “doing things that even a professional would balk at”, and she tells him, “One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat”.

        1. Close is sooooo good in that movie. Actually, I don’t think there’s a bad performance in the film. I keep thinking I need to show just the opening to my students for our lead-up to the French Revolution. Just the opening, mind.

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