Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Romance Story

You walk into a book store, eager to find a new story to consume.  You might head to the Young Adult section and pile your basket full with Becca Fitzpatrick, James Dashner, or Veronica Roth books.  You might linger in the Fantasy and Sci-Fi section, hunting for Octavia Butler or digging up the newest Writers of the Future volume.  Maybe you're looking for a great mystery, western, or you can't wait to read the newest Jodi Picoult.  Then you turn the corner and your heart races.  You realize, somehow, you've made a wrong turn, and you're now standing smack dab in the middle of the Romance section.

If you beat a hasty retreat and never look back, you might be missing out on something.  According to the Romance Writer's Association, the Romance genre generated 1.368 billion dollars in sales in 2011, and made up the largest share of the U.S. consumer market, at 14.3%.  That is nearly double the sales of the second-highest selling genre for that year.  In a world of ever-tightening budgets, Romance continues to grow, while publishers are forced to either cut down on, or at best, maintain the number of newly published books within each genre every year.

So if your mystery section lost a shelf, it might have been taken over by that section you try to avoid.  What is it about romance stories that sell so well?  Believe it or not, it's not sex.  In fact, one of my favorite authors in the genre, Carla Kelly, avoids pushing her characters into the physical aspect of their relationships.  (Any LDS readers out there should really check out her books Borrowed Light, followed by Enduring Light.  You have to read them both to get the full Romance-genre effect, and you have to read them in that order.  Don't switch them up.)  There are hundreds of books like this, that fall into the Romance category, but aren't based on the physical side of things.  It's about the emotion, the relationship, and most importantly, the characters.

How does this differ from a romance plot in, for example, a fantasy novel?  Well, for starters, Fantasy is usually about characters embarking on some kind of adventure in a strange new world.  And while you may find a Romance with Fantasy elements, it's vastly different than Fantasy with Romance elements.  Here's how:

  • In a Romance novel, the plot centers around the character's relationship with one another.  No other element in the book matters more.  If the story finds the world hanging in the balance, and that takes prescience over the relationship, it's probably Fantasy first, Romance second.
  • The struggle takes place inside the character's head.  Her family doesn't approve of her choice in husband, or he has never wanted to be tied down to a wife, and they spend the majority of the book trying to overcome these obstacles.  She'd have to come to grips with the fact that in marrying for love, she might very well lose her family.  He would have to realize that the pros of being married outweigh the cons of losing the woman he loves.  (These are just examples I'm making up, by the way, and very basic examples at that.)  The obstacles are occasionally more substantial: she ends up in jail, at which point he probably rides to her rescue.  Or vice versa.  Maybe the world really is working against them.  But 9 times out of 10, the conflict takes place inside their heads.
  • The biggest rule of Romance: there is always a happy ending.  No matter how hard the characters fight their feelings, or what the world throws at them, they always get a happy ending.  When you look through other genres (such as Fantasy) you start to see how big a difference this really is.  Characters die, good guys lose, sometimes things end well, but the boy doesn't get the girl.  Not so in Romance.  The happy ending is King.

And that's pretty much it.  I can see why Romance is the highest selling genre.  When you pick up a Fantasy, you might be able to count on the world being put right by the end of the story, but your characters won't always get a parade in their honor.  They won't necessarily end up with the person they loved, and they will most likely lose a few of their friends along the way.  They achieved their overall goal, without finding what makes them happy.  It's a scary prospect, especially if the series happens to be upwards of three volumes long.  (Or--gasp!--twelve or thirteen books the size of a cinder block.  I'm talking about you, Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind.)

Romance is a safe bet.  You get struggle, with the promise of resolution.  You watch the characters evolve, grow, and become the people they were meant to be.  And at the end of they day, you close the book with a smile, satisfied that the author--and the genre--delivered what they promised.

Next post, I'll talk about what every genre can glean from Romance, and how you can apply those elements to your own stories.  Until then, I encourage you to check out Marian's Christmas Wish, a holiday favorite of mine that is about as mild as Romance comes. 

Have a great couple of weeks everyone!


  1. I don't read a *ton* of the romance genre, but it's harder for me to love a book without a pretty significant romantic plotline, and I've realized recently that even though I don't aspire to write genre romance, the stories in my head are always fundamentally romances at heart.

    I might differ from romance readers in that I sometimes get irritated with the HEA (happily ever after). I like to see characters make tough choices, lose in love sometimes, come to each other a little bit broken instead of magically making each other whole. I like when love grows slowly through shared trials, rather than being tested by them, if that makes sense.

    But I'm always a sucker for a romantic plotline, whether it's spicy or sweet :)

    1. I think that's is how I got started reading romance. I can't take more than one every few months--they get boring really quick, but I found that I prefer stories that center strongly on romantic plots/subplots, whether it's YA, Fantasy, etc. Sometimes you do need loss and heartache, but I've learned a lot from the happily ever after, too. :)

    2. I'm with you guys. I like a strong romantic plot/subplot in my fantasy, UF, or YA genres. But a lot of times, I've been disappointed in the romance. But when a writer nails it, it is awesome.

      I've read a few genre romances, not very many, so maybe I need to branch out a little more, and read a few more. I'm sure it could help my writing, but like you, Trisha, only in moderation. :)

      I don't think I'd ever write genre romance. It is too restricting. Like Sarah, I don't always want a HEA, and I like reading books where I'm not guaranteed one.

  2. I'm right there with Sarah--most of my favorite books have a major romance. Unlike Sarah, however, I like everything to end up happy, if possible, and if it's not possible, I want to know quite early on (I'm thinking of The Fault In Our Stars, and how much I loved it, ending notwithstanding).

    I don't think I've read a plain old romance in the past decade at least. Obviously I'm in the minority. The major two reasons are that I like my romances PG (though perhaps I might dip a toe into PG-13 on occasion) and that I have stereotyped romances as having clunky exposition and stilted dialogue. Obviously, I don't actually KNOW, because I'm not reading them. Given how much I love a good romance, that's too bad. I'm excited to try out Carla Kelly--I've never heard of her before.

    1. Stick with the 3 I mentioned. Some of her older work can get a tad bit racy, but it's still mild compared to mainstream romance. I'm pretty forgiving when it comes to a line of silly dialogue with her. She does a fantastic job in general that I can't help but love her writing.

    2. I didn't mean to say that I don't like happy endings, just that I find the romance novel version of a happily ever after ending to be a little too pat sometimes. In other genres, the romantic subplot has a little more freedom to deviate from the formula or defy it altogether, and the male character doesn't have to be as idealized. But I do read and enjoy romance novels, just not too many in a row. :)

    3. I know what you mean, Sarah. The romance genre has the most rigid set of rules of any genre I've encountered. Unfortunately, most stories are constrained by the rules rather than enhanced by them. It seems sometimes that some authors notice they've hit the end of their 75,000 words or such and just slap on a happy ending at random (the more babies in the epilogue, the better!)

    4. "I hate you Reginold," (74990 words) They kiss ,have lots of babies ,and
      live happy ever after. Let's get this sucker on the kindle.

      I don't read as many romances as I used to, mainly because if you read one story about a Scottish lass and her love, amazon assumes you must like every half dressed man in a kilt, and those picture in the suggestion queue can get super racey.

  3. I actually like romance novels quite a bit, but only because I've managed to find a select few authors whose dialogue and prose and plotting absolutely sparkle. I think one of the major strengths in well-written romance is the character interaction. A good romance (that doesn't rely on some stereotypical villain to cause tension) is all about how two characters interact.

    In general, I like dark endings and twisty plots. But sometimes, if I'm feeling low, it's nice to pick up a book with a guaranteed happy ending.

    I can recommend some authors if anyone's interested, but most are decidedly past a PG-13.

    1. Ack, hit send too soon. I meant to say that some of my favorite romance authors are Julie Anne Long, Courtney Milan, and Meredith Duran.


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