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What Makes a Compelling Romance Novel?

Posted in: Perfecting your Craft on December 7, 2018 Leave your thoughts 💬

Ann Leslie Tuttle worked at Harlequin Books — a division of HarperCollins — for over 20 years, most recently as a Senior Editor. During her tenure, she acquired and edited NYT and USA Today bestselling authors in romance, women's fiction, and mystery, including Sylvia Day, Julia London, Lisa Renee Jones, and Hank Phillippi Ryan.

If you know how a story will end, why would you want to read the book?

That’s the question that romance writers constantly struggle to answer. Readers come to the genre knowing they will (almost) always get a happy ending in which the protagonists find and profess their love.

To entice readers, writers must therefore deliver a fresh premise with strong, evocative prose and pacing that gets to the heart of the story — usually beginning with the protagonists meeting in the first chapter. These will be the elements that usually prompt someone to pick up the book and start reading. Most importantly, the writer’s crafting of the two main characters and their emotional journeys is what will keep the reader hooked.

Having been an editor working on romance titles for well over 20 years, I’ve seen both debut and experienced authors struggle to create compelling characters whose emotional push-and-pull is strong enough to sustain the length of the story. Over the years, I’ve pulled together my own list of trouble spots — and ways to surmount them — that I’d like to share with you now.

Trouble Spot #1: Characterization

The best lesson I ever received in characterization was at a writers’ conference, where an author who was pitching me told me that she wrote horoscopes for a living. The writer took that skill and developed such detailed horoscopes for the hero and heroine in her story that she knew precisely who they were regarding their tastes and personalities, what obstacles they faced, what had occurred in their past or backstory, etc.

While I wouldn’t recommend that every romance writer start building astrological charts, I would encourage you to make sure you really know who your protagonists are. Delve deeply into their stories so that they’re not just one-dimensional stereotypes. Indeed, the more (believable) hardships they’ve endured in the past, the more material you will have to mine.

Keep in mind that while stories featuring large families are popular with readers, it can often be a challenge to write about a presumably tortured hero who comes from such a loving, happy home. But if he’s served in the military or lost a close friend in a childhood accident, he may have other emotional reserves upon which you can draw.

Logan, the traumatized US Marine in Nicolas Sparks's The Lucky One (image: Warner Bros.)

The main problem with poor characterization is that, without a strong enough sense of your main characters, it can be easy for secondary characters (especially a zany best friend or an acquaintance with their own troubled past) to take center stage. You’ll find that readers become more invested in these characters than the hero and heroine, who inevitably seem one-note, bland, or clichéd by comparison.

Trouble Spot #2: Appeal

In addition to knowing your characters, you need to make sure they will appeal to readers. Yes, they might have been burned by love before. And yes, they might seem unapproachable and standoffish to most people. But it’s their vulnerability and their need to be loved — and to know they are worthy of love — that is such a draw to us as readers. After all, who doesn’t love seeing a charming-yet-determined heroine melt the barricades that a warrior has built around his heart — a barricade so rough and hardened that even most men are afraid to approach him?

As for your heroine, most readers now want to see heroines who are strong and empowered — even most historicals now have a strong feminist beat! She no longer depends on the hero for her sense of self, happiness, and livelihood. Many readers, especially younger audiences, also want to see a heroine who has it all. Maybe she is the billionaire or the CEO who is the one hiring the hero (like Fifty Shades of Grey — but in reverse).

Trouble Spot #3: Relevancy

Me Before You

The adaptation of JoJo Moyes's Me Before You, (image: Warner Bros)

It’s important to stay abreast of current events and the political climate. This will not only provide you with fresh ideas that are ripe for exploration but will also make sure your protagonists reflect the current culture — and that the situation they face is believable. After all, with cell phones, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will rush into a dangerous situation without first calling for backup or putting a safety plan in place!

Trouble Spot #4: Plotting

Don’t forget to watch for plots that can undermine your protagonists. For instance, the love triangle can be especially hard to navigate. Having a spurned ex — especially a decent one that is not a clichéd stereotype or the evil boyfriend — can undercut the main characters’ relationship, because their love and happiness left someone else out in the cold. Even if the author intends to tell the ex’s story as a sequel, I’ll often leave the writer a comment noting that the ending is bittersweet for readers.

Trouble Spot #5: Conflict

"Oh, Mr. Darcy!" (image: BBC)

In the end, it’s all about the emotional conflict our romantic leads must surmount that makes their story so compelling

The emotional conflict is not to be confused with the external one. The external conflict usually revolves around an issue of miscommunication, perhaps differing career and money goals — or if you want to kick it up a notch, an external threat. (This is particularly effective when one of the main characters is on the run, or in hiding.)

For example, the heroine might have left town eight years ago, believing her high school boyfriend didn’t love her simply because he never got her note or phone call — this is the external conflict they must resolve if they want to patch things up. Or maybe the protagonists believe they can’t be together because one lives on the East Coast and the other on the West Coast. These kinds of conflicts can usually be overcome by a heartfelt conversation or compromise, but it sometimes involves uncovering the main players in a global threat and taking them down.

A strong emotional conflict boils down to either a question of trust or fear. For instance, if your hero lost his first wife to cancer, it’s understandable that he won’t want to run the risk of ever experiencing that all-consuming pain again. Or if the heroine shared her deepest secret with an ex who betrayed her trust, she’s probably reluctant to open up to a new partner.

In each of these emotionally fraught cases, the conflict is deep and will require some growth on the part of your hero and heroine to recognize that, despite high stakes involved, love is worth putting oneself on the line.

Even if one of your characters first realizes and even confesses their love, the resolution of the conflict should take up most of the book (Elizabeth and Darcy, anyone?). If you’ve created a conflict that is sufficiently compelling, there should not be an instance where both the protagonists confess their love, only to be driven apart again by some external threat or unsolved thread.

Yes, readers may know how your story ends. But with multi-faceted protagonists, emotional appeal, great plotting, and a strong conflict, they will still want to travel with the characters as they overcome each milestone on their journey to finding love.

For more help with writing great romance, you can also take inspiration from any of the books on these lists:

What are some of your experiences writing romances? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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