Updated: Jun 28, 2020
Ah, Romance. It's poems and candlelight, fairytales and candlewax (if you're into that).
It's also one of the most stable genres on the market. You can always depend on romance to be a commercially reliable genre to publish, because people are, well, horny. And lonely. Probably some combination of the two? And nothing is more satisfying as a guilty pleasure than picking up a book with some hot bod on the cover and a title that says "yeah, this author made that up in two seconds." I say this as a romance author who makes up her titles in two seconds. No shame, y'all.
Before I launch into a discussion of how to create a sexually charged (and balanced) literary masterpiece, the type fit for both Barnes & Nobles as well as gas station shelves, let's get one thing straight (or gay, or lesbian): writing romance novels is awesome. I don't care if the genre has a bunch of lame stereotypes surrounding it. Some of the best authors in the world moonlight as romance novelists, and some romance novelists are simply fantastic writers. And for all the crap people give the genre, that obviously doesn't stop them from buying the books, according to the data. So throw out that guilt, photoshop that bare male torso, and steam up that laptop screen, my friend, because you should never feel like less of a writer based on other people's judgments about what you write.
So what goes into a compelling romance novel? I'm glad you (silently) asked.
1. Beep Beep - A Character-Driven Plot.
In a typical work of literary fiction, the plot drives the characters - it consists of the events which act as a catalyst for character development, dialogue, and all that good stuff. Cool. Now slam dunk that information into the trash, because the opposite is true for romance novels.
Really, guys, do you pick up a book with picture of an airbrushed Fabio on the cover because you want to know about the plot? Do you look at that bosomy temptress lounging beneath the title and think "wow, I can't wait to see what deep and meaningful weltanschauung this lady has?" If you do, that's fine...but I've got to say, you're really an outlier.
No, people pick up romance novels because they want to get lost in Fabio's deep, seductive bedroom eyes and cheer on the voluptuous vixen, Priscilla, as she fights to be with Lord Hootentooten the VI despite the machinations of his evil yet also devilishly handsome step-uncle twice removed. We read these stories to fall in love with the characters as they fall in love - or lust - with each other. Call it living vicariously, call it kind of depressing, but we want to escape our normal lives and day-to-day relationships and experience a passionate, impossible romance (make sure to dramatically roll your rrrs when you name the genre). So when you write this type of story, start with your characters and let the plot grow out of them.
Who are they? What are they like? What attracts them to each other? The plot is about two people who want to be together, full stop. Whatever events occur need to be tied into that central theme. So think witty dialogue and steamy, probing stares - they're more important than a traditional exposition. And the climax? Well, let's just say that in the romance genre, the name speaks for itself.
2. Feeling Tense? GOOD.
What do all of the greatest love stories have in common? Drama. People don't get teary eyed when they hear about Karen and John meeting at their Greek Week community kegger - it's just not compelling. What we want to hear about, when it comes to romance, are the odds two people had to overcome to be together.
These are the kinds of things you fantasize about while laying in the bathtub with candles burning dangerously close to your synthetic and apparently flammable shower curtain. A passionate, forbidden love, perhaps, or a dashing hero emerging victorious after battling his foes to the death, his hair windswept and his shirt conveniently torn to expose his perfectly sculpted chest as he sweeps you off your feet.
The things that make a romance passionate are often the trials and challenges two characters had to face to finally, uh, come together. This can be a conflict of values, family divisions, supernatural woo-woo stuff, inner conflicts, outward danger, dark secrets...if it's a b**** to overcome, it's probably going to create the passion you want between your characters. Sexual tension arises naturally from this as the protagonists experience the highs and lows of facing their odds. The more they're kept apart, the more they want each other, and the more the reader wants them to end up together. Just as the characters are experiencing highs and lows, you want your readers to feel that delicious push and pull that keeps them on their toes and wanting more.
Think of it as a seduction - give a little, take a little, and keep the dance going. Ramp up that tension and cackle evilly as you throw yet another roadblock in front of your helpless heroes.
3. Ready, Set, Setting.
Within the extremely broad genre of "romance," there are dozens of sub-genres that define the kind of characters and challenges your story will contain. My personal favorites are historical (especially cheesy Scottish Highlander themed history) and paranormal. You've also got your contemporary, cowboy, knight, billionaire playboy, mafia, and straight up BDSM themed novels. The list goes on.
One of the key parts of defining your sub-genre is the setting you choose. Whether it's a misty moor, a scenic Montana ranch, or a vague cosmopolitan city that happens to have building codes for sex dungeons, the setting is where the magic happens. Literally. It's where the characters are. So don't neglect it.
Just as the plot is mainly character-driven, the tone of a romance novel is often setting-driven. Setting the scene means thinking up a few seductive details that create a strong image in your readers' minds - that way the fantasy can unfold naturally *insert eyebrow wiggle here.* The key here is not to overdo the descriptive language to the point that it overwhelms character interactions. Quite the opposite; your setting should inform the way your characters behave, both toward one another and toward the other supporting cast members.
Setting can create that tension I mentioned before, or maybe inspire an important piece of dialogue. It can inspire the characters to cozy up or face danger together, become suspicious of one another or let their hair down a bit. As a writer you should consider exactly what kind of images and symbols set the mood you're going for and work outward from there.
Unless it's a sex dungeon. Then the setting is kind of self-explanatory.
4. Read, Absorb, and Then...Have Fun, Kid.
I could go on and on about the technicalities of writing a story, but the best part of the romance genre is that no one gives a sh**! We aren't here for a pulitzer or to impress those professors back in the MFA program you got conned into selling four years of your life for. No, we romance writers are here for a good time, not a long time. People generally pop out romance novels because, well, it's fun. What a concept!
The best work you'll ever do in this genre is the work you do when you just let your mind run wild. Should all writing be this way? Maybe, but realistically the heavier genres just take a lot more out of you as an artist. And that's wonderful in its own way - but take my advice. When you write a romance novel, just smile, pour yourself a double, and do whatever the hell sounds like a wild ride. Try out those ridiculous ideas you've been keeping on the back burner. You want a vampire-faerie-greek god love triangle? Hell yes. You want to indulge every rugged cowboy stereotype you've ever seen, heard, or thought of? Amazing. Do it, tell the story of Chet Diablo, a gun-toting ranch hand with a shady past.
With the advent of successful, and sellable, self-publishing options, your ideas can be as kinky, weird, and fantastic as you want them to be. Even if a major publishing house wouldn't necessarily take the risk on your story, you can still reach a bunch of salivating, dedicated readers. Like a pack of hungry, horny hyenas, just waiting for you to throw that juicy book their way.
I really do need to work on my metaphors.
Anyway, my point is that the romance genre is by far the most dynamic and open-minded one out there. Whatever your "thing" is, I can pretty much guarantee there's someone who wishes you'd write about it. So, don't hold back!
Oh, and if you need some sculpted and/or bosomy models for your covers, I've got some great recommendations (ripped shirts and kilts not included).