10 Things I’ve Learned about Storytelling from Romance Novels

I got started reading romance novels pretty young (like when I was barely in middle school). And I’m not talking about teen romances. I’m talking Virginia Hensley, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, and Heather Graham. In fact, my very first romance novel was Graham’s A Pirate’s Pleasure. I used to sneak them off my mom’s bookshelf, or go with her to her night job as a library circulation clerk and read the books off the shelves. One evening, I read The Wolf and the Dove in just one evening. Since I grew up in the 80s, 80s historical bodice-rippers were my primary reading material. Yeah, way to screw with your undeveloped mind!

After years of reading romances – the good, the bad, and the horrid – I’ve gleaned some important lessons that I try to incorporate into my own writing (though I don’t write straight-up romance). Now all of these are, of course subjective. And one person might view them differently than I do. *shrug*

1. “Deus ex Machina” is just stupid

This literary device does not work in ANY genre. It’s a lazy way to resolve things and often damages the strength of your characters. If my main characters are not smart or brave enough to get themselves out of trouble, do they really deserve to appear in print?

Now, I’m not opposed to a character getting help at a critical moment from another character or through magical means. But the help has to be well laid out so it doesn’t come from nowhere.

2. Characters Need to Get a Life

There is nothing more unsatisfactory than characters who have no interests or cares outside of their love interest. The lack of hobbies, career goals, or deep relationships outside of the love interest makes me want to puke.

So, I try, try, try to make my characters complete people before they ever meet a possible love interest. They have their own lives with their own worries and passions.

3. Love (a.k.a. Lust)-at-first-sight has got to go

I really had thought this nonsense had gone out with the 80s. Nope.

People can be attracted at first sight, not gonna lie. And I do think there are very rare occasions when two people meet and instantly know they belong together. But that doesn’t mean they are grabbing each other’s crotches and moaning into each other’s mouths within hours of meeting each other. Gross!

4. The slow, tense burn is VERY sexy and satisfying

Often my favorite part of a romantic story is the slow build-up. I love when I can feel that sexual tension between characters and it’s drawn ever tighter as the story progresses. Sometimes, that can be sexier than a full-on sex scene.

5. Steamy sex scenes do NOT make up for a paper-thin plot

There is plenty of free erotica/porn on the Internet. Readers don’t need to pay for a romance novel (especially given the rising prices of books/ebooks) that is 80% sex scenes and 20% plausible (or not, depending on who you read) story. Check out Literotica.com if you’re just interested in the sex.

I don’t usually write love scenes. I’ve attempted a few short erotic stories, but in my longer works, explicit sex just doesn’t ever seem to fit in with the story. So I don’t put it in. Sex scenes are great, as long as they make sense in the story and serve to highlight the plot rather than detract from it.

6. Match your dialogue to the setting

I think most authors will say that convincing, witty, and provocative dialogue is always hard.

My views on this might not be shared by most, or even many, other authors and readers, but I try to match my dialogue to the setting and feel of my story. Meaning, if I am writing a high fantasy-type story, I don’t have characters saying thinks like, “This food tastes weird” or “Wow! That monster’s huge!”

7. Imperfect is perfect

I get that romance novels are supposed to be fantasy, but too often that fantasy ends up being the exact… same… thing… from author to author and novel to novel the women are perfect pixies and the men are brooding giant underwear models. Given the fact that there are so many ethnicities, body types, and facial features in the world why is it so hard to find characters that seem… real. Characters can still be attractive and authentic, or at least DIFFERENT.

8. Maybe think of NEW characters and plot-lines for each book

I just read three romance novels by the same author in a row. Every single one of those books had the same basic plot-line (hero and heroine are desperately attracted to each other but they’re supposed to be enemies but hero KNOWS she’s his one true love but she’s not sure but she’ll give it a try but…); same type of characters (pixie-ish/elvish petite woman with long curly hair and lots of spunk, hero is at least 6’6″ [that was seriously in there every. single. time.] and dark and brooding); even some of the dialogue was the same (I can’t tell you how many times I read the phrase, “Um, okay.” I suspect this author just cut and pasted one book to another and made some cosmetic changes to “fool” readers.

Look, if you’ve only got one story in you to tell, just own it. Nothing to be ashamed of. But stop peddling that same tired dreck by putting new makeup on it.

9. Alpha, Not Psycho

I’ve already written about this subject here, but I think it bears repeating. Heroes with dangerous mental/emotional issues are NOT sexy. I’m not saying a hero can’t be tormented/haunted. But what a hero DOES with those problems determines whether he’s boyfriend/husband material or whether the heroine should be calling the cops on his ass. As with “love-at-first-sight” plots, I really thought this trend had gone out with the eighties brand of bodice-rippers. But lo! the emotionally disturbed, bully of a “hero” is still alive and kicking. Bleh!

10. Get a job, ya bum!

Have you ever read a romance novel with an uber-rich hero? Did the author give a plausible explanation for WHY that hero is so rich (other than he’s a thousand-year-old immortal)? Just because a being is long-lived doesn’t guarantee wealth. The accumulation and KEEPING of wealth takes brains, strategy, intuition, and guts. It also takes careful and consistent management. So many romance novelists use a hero’s wealth as a character trait. It just IS. But some of my favorite heroes have worked for their wealth. They have strong interests and business savvy. SO sexy!

For myself, I give my heroes jobs of some sort and try to show the hero engaged in that job with gusto!

2 thoughts on “10 Things I’ve Learned about Storytelling from Romance Novels

  1. Judith McNaught was definitely one of my favorites (Something Wonderful especially). And I’m with you, those romance novels certainly inspired me to write so I don’t regret reading them at all.

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  2. My mother introduced me to historical romances as a way to get me interested in reading again (Judith McNaught was my favorite). I was bored by so much of the mandatory reading in school. My first attempt at writing a novel was inspired by those tales, and I still love a good romance, but you’re right on so many of those cliches. It’s time to move forward.

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