Oh John! Oh Marsha! Oh boy, is it a Romance?

Alma T. C. Boykin

So, having failed to learn my lesson, today’s topic is romance as a genre. That is, keeping in mind that genre is about marketing. Romance as a term goes back to before romance as a genre, and romances used to be adventure stories that might or might not include a romantic-love element. Today, the kissing is the goal of the story. (Not the Glasgow Kiss, either*.)

At the basic level, a romance story is one where boy meets girl, emotional sparks fly, there’s probably kissing, and love ensues. There might or might not be sex, depending on how sweet or steamy the story is. Romance readers tend to have strong preferences, and it is a genre where knowing the beats is critical to sales for most subgenres and categories. Some authors can blur things, but the beats are still more important than in some other genres.

So, the “beats” or elements that readers of romance will, in general expect are: Character introduction, meeting (meet cute or otherwise), rejection/refusal, turning point or slow realization or chemistry at work, realization of attraction, second rejection, crisis and acceptance, kissing, deneument. There are lots and lots of sites that list these, with more or fewer examples of actual stories. Some should be familiar from all genres, and the story pattern of meeting, tension/release, increasing tension, climax, conclusion are found in every genre, with the possible exception of some slice-of-life and literary fiction subgenres. There absolutely has to be an emotionally satisfying Happily Ever After, or at least until the next book in the series.

  1. The characters. Depending on how you write, the story is one or two PoV. The opening introduces the hero and heroine** and hooks the reader into the story.
  2. The meeting – he and she meet while walking dogs and their leashes tangle, or his company buys out her business, or she calls in to his radio show, or he is a Special Forces Type recovering in the hospital and she is a physical therapist or nurse or counselor or . . .***
  3. Oh Ick No! – Both parties respond like two protons. They dislike each other, or misunderstand each other, or he takes something the wrong way, or her dog wets on his leg, or . . . This adds tension to the story and raises the emotional stakes.
  4. Slow Realization – he and she are told that they would work well together, or he discovers that perhaps he misunderstood, or she learns that the beautiful blonde is actually his sister and not his current lady friend, or he realizes that closing her store might be bad PR, or . . . And she learns that he actually likes the same kind of music that she does, or whatever. Both parties realize that “You know, he/she might not be as terrible as all that. Maybe.”
  5. Toleration becomes affection maybe – the two parties work together and start becoming friendlier, even fond of each other. They find more in common, or bond over shared stress [see D. Grant’s tactical romances for examples of this, and a few others]. Perhaps there is something here . . .
  6. Forget it! – No way, there’s another rejection. He says something that reminds her why she swore off dating forever. He decides that he’s not risking his heart or hers if he gets sent back to The War (or something similar with physical danger). Their families threaten mayhem of they continue on. She puts her foot in it Big Time and he storms off. Again, raising tension is the key. Romance is all about emotion.
  7. Crisis – they have to work together, he rescues her, she realizes that she was wrong and comes after him to apologize and swear love, Blackie Desquane can only be defeated if both of them cooperate . . . She keeps the monster inside him from doing Something Terrible (PNR [Paranormal Romance]), she comes racing back to the castle to save his life and admits that she loves the beast.
  8. Kissing or Thingie – they admit that they are in love, kissing follows, or at least a sincere hug and perhaps an offer of marriage. In some genres, sex follows, if it hasn’t appeared already.
  9. HEA – all is well, the problem is solved, our couple are a couple, wedding bells chime, or a ring is presented, or what have you.

Now, all of these can be present in a scifi or fantasy, or urban fantasy story. My Elect series, which I started as an allergic reaction of certain PNR tropes, hits these beats. However, not all of them and not obviously, so I market it as urban fantasy. Plus it is not as steamy as a lot of PNR, which is another reason not to irk readers who are expecting something way beyond kissing, and anticipate it early in the book. A lot of my stories have a romance, but are not Romances in the modern marketing sense.

Does you story lean more heavily on relationships and emotion, or on other genre elements? That’s what determines how you will market the book. Unless you are Lois McMasters Bujold, who can do both at once and get away with it. (Or your fans decide that it is a romance and vote for it to be a romance award winner. *coughJohnRingocough*)

*Unless it is a certain subgenre of romance, which you really do need to properly tag and describe in yours sales copy so readers don’t get a big surprise.

**Male/male or female/female or other romances use the same overall structure. If you write those, I will assume that you also know which additional tropes you need to include.

***For the love of mud, do a little research. Don’t have your hero doing PT for a shoulder injury and bench 250 lbs a week after complete shoulder repair. Or have a doctor knowingly flirt with a coworker in the same department or with a patient unless charges of harassment are part of the plot line.

Image: Pixabay – Image by Jess Bailey from Pixabay

23 thoughts on “Oh John! Oh Marsha! Oh boy, is it a Romance?

  1. I have noticed that in Romance, as opposed to a love story in general, you must have not only a HEA, but that the biggest obstacle is internal.

    You can do a love story with external obstacles but it’s not romance.

  2. If you look at Romance as a subgenre of Relationship stories, that progression of events can be used with very little alteration for a Buddy Cop/Odd Couple story.

    Relationships between characters are nearly always a main theme in my stories, but they are usually non-sexual (or non-“Romantic”) in nature.

    1. Paul’s right. Paranormal Romance is a subgenre that has romance between a non-human (or formerly human [werewolf, some vampires]) and a human. There are other elements that separate PNR from just “she loves a werewolf and he loves her.”

  3. Because I’m writing what pleases me, it’s difficult to put into a neat box. Thus, I write science-fiction romance (set on a terraformed Mars) but it’s NOT! NOT! NOT! “I was the alien’s love slave” which is the subgenre that much sci-fi romance falls into.

    You’ve seen those covers with oiled, half-naked alien male torsos and unusual and exciting appendages. If you want more info, look for “Ice Planet Barbarians” where the series name says it all.

    How do you describe something that’s as sexy as Jane Austen in space? Blake Smith’s “The Hartington Inheritance” (which was delightful) is probably my closest comp. It’s not space opera either.

    The great advantage of following genre tropes is you can market it better.
    It would also help if I was a faster writer.

    1. Rather give one than receive one. 😉

      Glasgow kiss (plural Glasgow kisses)

      (Britain, euphemistic, humorous) A sharp, sudden headbutt to the nose, usually resulting in a broken nose.

  4. Question on 4&5, how does one typically nail down how those work with the characters involved?

    I think I’ve got parts for all of the rest, including a way to legitimately quote Monty Python in a dramatic scene in a scifi, but I think I’ve got a bit of a gap in that part in the middle.

    1. As the characters grow and gain detail and depth, ways for the realization and attraction to grow become apparent. For example, in the first Elect story, the main characters realize that they have to trust each other because they may have a mutual enemy. As they spend a little more time around each other, each one observes that the other has some very good qualities. Now, in this case, the heroine still thinks that the hero is “just” a talking dog, and is considering ways to get a non-vaccinated stray back to the States, but . . .

      1. I think I see, and how it would work with them. And I think I see how it fits both characters’ need lines.

        The common ground is both characters are profoundly isolated, and in the context they initially end up interacting, both view it as a completely safe area. Because she is literally a monster from myth, she can dreamwalk to a degree, or at least get pulled into them. (I need to establish the rules of it.) So, from her perspective, it’s an area where nothing can tie back to her. I suspect I can also foreshadow the real mechanics of her curse as well. From his perspective, this is all a fever dream in his head, so not real.

        Since her first dreamwalk is also the “call to action” her first dismissal is assuming he is an idiot when he rejects the call. However, she keeps coming back because the dreamscape is comfortable. (She does not realize it but it’s an area where she is not under the control of the curse.) She only develops a respect for him when he actually starts to take charge of his life, which is also his core problem in the story.

        The second rejection is when he decides that this is going to far for something he believes he made up in his head and shuts the door.

        I’ll have to think about how he finds out it wasn’t all in his head when they meet again in person. I sort of suspect he tells her pretty much everything, as he sees it, which provokes a drilling on proper operational security, but I don’t think it pulls the full story out of her yet.

        Building on the curse not running her in dreamspace, that implies that it does in person, and likely makes her behavior very erratic in person. But because of the earlier dreamscape stuff, she’s gotten into the habit of not putting on the show for him, so he gets to see behind the curtain, as it were, which likely ends up in him poking at the discrepancies until she eventually tells him everything. The remainder of the second act is each of them trying to convince the other to walk away from being monsters, and each convinced that they cannot. Which continues until she messes up, loses control and essentially has to fake her own murder and skip town. Which prompts him to try and break free, which goes sideways, which ends up with her having to use the power of cookies to break a high powered laser (need to do research on that. I know this will crack a laser, but not 100% sure if you can crack a glass casserole through improper cookie baking technique), and the main resolution for both characters.

        Sorry for the wall of plot. The parts of that arc just finally clicked together. Still need to work out some other arcs, but I think those two are the core theme line.

        1. “Rubber ducky programming” happens around here. No problem. 🙂

          Keep in mind that IF you are selling your story primarily as romance, you have to have those beats. If you are writing sci-fi or fantasy that happens to have a romantic relationship in it, you can play a little looser with the “rules.”

          1. Cool. Yeah, while their arc is the core of the story, I’m definitely not planning on marketing it as a romance. For one thing, beat 8 specifically never happens, and beat 9 is not a conventional HEA. The characters are reasonably satisfied with how they end up, but it’s not quite the sort of payoff one would expect from a romance. Finally, the story that kicked this off is more a business/suspense style so it would probably be too much of a genre whiplash. (These two are characters in it. This story came out of asking where did they come from and how did they get there. It kind of got out of hand. She, apparently, can chew scenery at Shatner levels.)

            But the thing is, even if it will be marketed as SciFi western, if how they work doesn’t ring true and drive the audience, I think the whole thing falls apart.

      2. Hi, ok, I give up. Which of your series has been nicknamed the Elect?

        I’ve read Familiars, Merchants, and Colplatschki series. I admit no getting into the older dragons in space series. Have I missed one or has something been renamed?


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