I mentioned in doing my overview of my writing career a couple of weeks ago that romance was the wrong path for me to go down as a writer because although I liked love stories, I didn’t actually like romance novels. I’ve mentioned this difference in the past, but it was long enough ago that I should probably address it again. I’m going to refer to the Romance genre using the capital R to distinguish it from the idea of romance/relationships/love stories.
Like most genres, there are certain expectations for Romance. For instance, in a mystery, the sleuth is expected to solve the case. There are two key elements that define a book as a Romance:
1) The love story is the main plot. Most of the conflict and character development comes through the relationship. One quick way to tell whether a book is some other genre with a romantic subplot or a Romance is to see what happens if you remove the romance/relationship/love story. Do you still have a story at all? For instance, there is a romantic relationship between Marian and Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and they even end up together, but you could easily change their relationship from a romance to a friendship, reluctant partnership or family relationship without changing anything else about the story, so it’s not a Romance.
2) The romantic couple must end up together. This is key, and I think it’s very misunderstood by Romance detractors. A Romance is about an emotional journey. It’s not about the suspense of whether the couple will end up together. Having that assurance that they will both be alive at the end and happy together is what gives readers a safe space to drop their emotional guard and go on that journey. It’s basically the emotional literary version of a roller coaster. Most people wouldn’t enjoy a roller coaster that was actually dangerous, where there was a chance you really could plunge to your death. A roller coaster is fun (for those who are into that sort of thing) because it’s thrilling enough to allow you to feel like there’s a chance you’re taking a risk even though you know you’re perfectly safe. A Romance novel allows you to feel like your heart could be broken while being secure in the knowledge that it will all work out in the end and your heart won’t actually be broken. Without that assurance, your guard would be up and you might not let yourself feel all the feels. I think this is one reason I struggled so much with Romance and don’t enjoy it that much as a reader. I’m not in it for the feels. I tend to read for curiosity about what will happen, and I keep forgetting to write emotion into my stories, which means I don’t do well with plots that are about emotion. I’m also not a fan of roller coasters.
A lot of things that are commonly thought to be romantic are not Romance because they don’t meet this requirement — things like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Titanic, most of those “romance” books written by men that have sad or tragic endings, like The Bridges of Madison County.
Back when I first started attempting to write Romances, it was expected that the couple would be engaged at the end of the book. They had to make some kind of commitment for it to be considered a Happily Ever After (HEA). It’s a bit looser now, so the ending can be just that they’re together in a relationship — though often a book with that kind of ending where it’s way too early for an engagement will have an epilogue showing them in the future at their wedding or with their children, so you know they stuck it out. Or there are the series that follow a group of people, like a friend group, family, or small town, so that the couple from one book will be secondary characters in the next book and you’ll see them planning their wedding in the background while the main characters are having their own relationship.
Readers get very testy when this rule is broken, which is why authors of other kinds of books that get mislabeled as Romance get upset when their books are mislabeled. It’s not that they don’t want to be tarred with the brush of Romance but that they don’t want to deal with angry readers who are expecting something they’re not going to get. My Enchanted, Inc. series kept getting labeled and promoted as Paranormal Romance, and it wasn’t ever meant to be. It was fantasy with a romantic thread. I would get angry e-mails about any book that didn’t specifically end with them making a full commitment, and that promise was never even implied by me.
Those two rules are pretty firm, but there are other expectations that come with Romance. A lot of them were actual guidelines for Harlequin category Romance that people tried to apply to other books, but some are unwritten rules/expectations that might get broken in rare circumstances, depending on the book but that are more likely going to be there. One is that the couple needs to meet fairly early in the story—otherwise it’s hard for the main story conflict to be about their relationship. I remember my romance writer friends getting outraged about the movie Sleepless in Seattle being called a Romance, since the couple doesn’t meet until the very end. Another thing editors look for is the couple having an instant, strong attraction that is contrasted with whatever conflict is keeping them apart. That was a note I frequently got from my editors. I tend to write the slow burn, where the attraction grows as they get to know each other, but my editors wanted the thunderbolt—they were in instant lust, but then they had something getting in the way that made it difficult for them to act on the lust. And they want a lot of conflict between the couple. I don’t know how many workshops I went to where someone said, “If he’s a firefighter, make her an arsonist,” to show just how opposed they should be. That never clicked for me. If I’m a firefighter, an arsonist is going to be a turnoff, no matter how hot (no pun intended) he is.
This was where I started to figure out that maybe Romance wasn’t where I belonged. I like the stories where the characters fall in love along the way while doing something else and am not interested in them being at odds with each other while still being attracted. If I’m at odds with someone or don’t like them, I’m not going to be attracted to them. I only start being attracted to someone once I start liking them, and I tend to write that way.
I think movies have a lot to do with the confusion among the general public about the difference between romantic and Romance. It’s not just that romantic dramas in which the couple doesn’t end up together get mislabeled as Romance, but most romantic comedies are iffy as to whether you could get them published as Romance novels. One of those unwritten expectations is that once the couple meets, there’s no one else. They don’t date other people. You don’t get real triangles in a Romance. But triangles are big in rom-coms. Romance writers often sniff in disdain about the rom-coms where the hero or heroine were actually involved with other people during the movie (another reason they insisted Sleepless in Seattle wasn’t a romance—the heroine was engaged to someone else during most of the movie).
When the “chick lit” genre came along, it was more like the romantic comedy films, though really, I think it was just the way the British write romance. That genre is generally considered dead now, but if you read British contemporary romances, they’re pretty much chick lit. In the US, we’d call these books “women’s fiction” because they’re more about the woman’s journey, with the love story as a subplot. They broke a lot of the Romance rules, especially that part about the heroine not being involved with anyone other than the hero. I remember the old-school Romance writers being rather outraged about chick lit for that reason.
I wrote an essay for a book about Pride and Prejudice about how P&P was more chick lit than romance. The romance is fairly central to the plot and the couple ends up together, but I think the main plot is more about Lizzie finding her place in the world and figuring things out. She’s presented with other potential options and rejects them. She spends more time dealing with her wacky family than she spends with Darcy. He does get his character growth from the relationship, which is a Romance thing, and I’m not sure you could remove the relationship without changing the story too much, so it’s a fine line and I think you could fall on either side of it. There have been retellings of this plot that were very much Romance, and there have been versions that weren’t, like Bridget Jones’s Diary.
So, this is why I don’t consider myself to write Romance, even though readers often see my work as very romantic, and why I prefer to get my romantic content outside the genre. There’s a difference between Romance and romantic, and my work is romantic without being Romance.