The romance genre is, without a doubt, the biggest genre in independent publishing. In a 2017 survey, indie distributor Smashwords found that almost 50% of their sales came from romance novels — almost five times more than all of non-fiction combined! And when you take a look at romance readers, there’s little wonder.
Fans of the genre are notoriously voracious readers, buying multiple books a month on average. Once they hook into a new author, chances are they’ll go on to read everything that author has published. But that doesn’t mean that romance fans aren’t discerning — quite the opposite, in fact.
In a new free online course, former Harlequin editor Kate Studer reveals a number of elements that readers have come to expect — nay, demand — from their books. If you’ve ever had an urge to write a romance novel, here are four things that you’ll need to deliver in order to satisfy readers.
1. A setting they’ll want to revisit time and time again
There’s a reason why so many romance novels are a part of a series. While the story of a couple’s romance will always reach its inevitable conclusion (see below), fans often don’t want to let go.
If a writer has done their job, they will have invited the reader into a world that’s both vivid and comforting. It might be smalltown USA, a village in Regency Scotland, or the offices of a PR agency that’s packed with lovable weirdos. As soon as they’ve turned the final page, readers should be homesick for this place they’ve never been.
With that in mind, the setting of a romance novel should fit like a warm sweater. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be any conflict in the story. The bitter pill just needs to be tempered with a spoonful of molasses.
2. New twists on familiar tropes
The romance genre is defined by its tropes. Chances are, within the first 20 pages, you’ll be able to guess where the plot is going: that the heroine will possibly lose her mother’s bakery, only to find love with the handsome musician who helps her organize a concert to save it. Readers do want to see those tropes in play, but they don’t want to see them play out exactly the same way every time.
In her course, Studer uses the classic trope of the unplanned pregnancy. Depending on the story, it could play out in a number of ways: “What if the heroine doesn’t want children? What if the hero doesn’t see himself as a father? What if one of them previously lost a child?”
If you’ve written a fully fleshed set of main characters, their motivations and personal histories will allow you to move through these tropes in a way that’s not clichéd or wholly unbelievable.
3. A shifting point of view
Point of view is something authors need to decide on before they start writing a book. A story told from the perspective of a single character will not be enacted the same way as one told from multiple viewpoints. So which is right for your romance novel? According to Studer, there’s generally one answer to that question:
“Most commercial romances feature shifting dual perspectives. The reader still gets to experience things from both sides, allowing them a deeper understanding of the overall narrative arc.
“But don’t let your hero and heroine sound too much alike. Give them each a distinctive voice. All authors have favorite words or expression that pop up in their writing — just make sure that these common phrases aren’t shared by both of your POV characters. “
4. Happy endings
There are a million ways any story can end — but not so much with romance. According to almost every romance editor we’ve spoken to, happy endings are non-negotiable.
“At the end of the day, your hero and heroine need to choose each other over all else,” Studer says. “There doesn’t have to be a proposal or a wedding, but you do need some confirmation that everything is definitely going to work out. Romances are, after all, fairy tales, and you need to leave readers satisfied with a happily-ever-after.”
Romance readers are not a monolith, but most of them are not looking for tragic endings. If they wanted that, they would pick up some literary fiction. Your characters and readers will have gone through an emotional wringer in your book’s second act – so the conclusion should relieve that tension with a satisfying sigh.
If these four points make sense to you, perhaps it’s time to embark on writing your first (or next) romance novel. If the sun’s in your heart and you’re ready for love, then why not pick up your red quill and make a splash in the most exciting corner of self-publishing?
Martin Cavannagh is a writer and a member of the team at Reedsy, an online marketplace connecting authors with the industry’s best editors, designers, and book marketers.