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Romance writing guide

Romance stories are incredibly popular and the biggest selling genre by far. Plenty of people try their hand at writing romantic stories for a wide range of reasons, but some struggle more with it than others. In theory, writing a romance novel isn't that difficult compared to other genres as, depending on who you write for, there are a whole range of expectations, formulas and rules for writing one. This means there's less work to do in terms of story structure and world building as you already know where the story will go, assuming you follow the formulas that is.
On the other hand, some of the best romance stories break the rules and formulas, avoid the cliches and tropes, and forge a romantic story in their own way. These stories often still share elements with the cliche-filled romance stories, but I'll delve into that later.

In this guide I'll delve into a variety of elements you may wish to keep in mind when fleshing out your romance story, but not all of it may apply depending on the type of romance story you write. I'll delve more into cliche-avoiding stories than cliche-following stories, but this'll become clearer in the guide itself. So let's delve into it.

Cliche or not cliche

Many romance stories follow a typical plot of "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" or a variation of this. They're often filled with other cliches and tropes to varying degrees as well. To some this is far from enjoyable, to others it's exactly what they're after. So what kind of approach should you go with? The answer depends entirely on both what you enjoy writing and who you're writing for, as well as what your goals are. Do you want to sell a lot of books or focus on critical acclaim? Do you want to write for teenagers or middle-aged women? Do you want to write something new and original, or give your own spin to an existing plot?

To put things in perspective, consider the 4 top selling fiction authors of all time. At the top is William Shakespeare followed by Agatha Christie, both obviously critically acclaimed writers with estimated sales between 2 and 4 billion copies from only 42 and 85 books respectively.
Number 3 is Barbara Cartland who has written 723 romance novels with sales between 500 million and 1 billion copies. Number 4 is Danielle Steel who has written 120 romance novels with sales between 500 and 800 million copies. What do number 3 and 4 have in common besides writing romance novels? Their stories were generally formulaic.

The reason their formulaic stories are still so commercially successful is because it's what many readers look for, combined with the fact many romance novel readers tend to stick to writers they know and like instead of constantly searching for a new author to read. Does this mean all romance readers prefer formulaic stories? Of course not, but that's part of why it's important to know who you're writing for.

Character development

Many romance stories are, at their very core, about two characters who grow to love each other, so character development is crucial for an engaging story. Fortunately you know where the characters are at the end of the story: in love and together. Unless you're going for a more bittersweet story akin to La La Land or 500 Days of Summer, but even then you know where they are at the end.
From this point it's easy enough to backtrack to a starting point by stripping or changing certain characteristics of each character that will force them to grow throughout the story.

For example, at the end of the story the loving couple has started a business together and, by working together, have made it a successful one. By backtracking to a beginning point we can have one person be a workaholic who needs to enjoy life more even if they don't see this themselves, and the other could be a creative spirit with big dreams, but who is perfectly content with their current life and doesn't put in any effort to make their dreams come true.
Mix in a bunch of other character traits, ideally a few incompatible ones, and the story could quickly become a developing romance between two people unsure whether they're willing to give up their current lives to pursue a relationship with each other that could improve both of their lives dramatically. The workaholic could help the dreamer realize their dreams, while the dreamer could help the workaholic enjoy life in a more balanced way.

This example could work in both a cliched and less cliched story, the details will dictate this. But the point is to have two people who are imperfect grow over the course of the story to be better together than they were alone. In cliched stories you may find one person is already the perfect person and the second is the only one who grows and changes for the other. These stories are usually written with a main character who is similar to the target audience (geeky girl, a divorcee, etc.), so keep this in mind.

Reader's Love

Character development leads to readers bonding with the character as they overcome themselves and other obstacles, but romance stories often involve characters the reader could fall in love with too, especially if the point of view character is a subtle or not so subtle representation of the target audience. It's why Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey were so popular, for example. In the first, an average, teenage girl who ends up in a love triangle with two model-like boys who also happen to be a vampire and werewolf respectively. In the latter an average, timid woman who ends up being desired by an attractive billionaire. The mix of high commercial success and the generally negative critical response speak for themselves.

But back on point, the reason many people read romance novels is to feel the excitement of falling in love vicariously through other characters as well as their passion. They offer escapism from real life, they often offer ideal partners (especially in cliched stories), and it can offer experiences love when the world itself lacks love so often. So writing a romance story about characters who the reader can relate to and fall in love with are more effective than a romance story between two unrealistic characters, unlikable characters, or characters the reader just cannot connect with on a more personal level regardless of the reason behind it.
By unrealistic I don't mean a vampire falling in love with somebody, that obviously worked, but characters falling in love without there being a reason for it or a way to do so. If your characters fall in love "just because", something needs to change.

Communication & interaction

For a romance story to work, the love birds need to be able to interact and communicate with each other. It doesn't matter if they communicate through spoken words, written letters, sign language or body language, but communication is essential to get their feeling across.
Having said that, in cliched romantic comedies where "boy loses girl", the loss usually happens because they don't communicate like regular human beings. If you're familiar enough with romance stories, especially movies, you'll probably be able to think of some in which the conflict could've literally been solved with a single phone call or conversation as adults. Anyway, if this is the cliche you're writing for, communication may, at specific times, be thrown out of the window to forcefully enhance the drama.

In less to none cliched stories, communications and interactions are often what drive the best parts of the story. Flirting, the characters figuring out whether they like each other, blushing glances, passionate moments, moments of fear and doubt, working out misunderstandings or seemingly incompatible traits, and so much more all rely on communication and interaction.
So ideally all of this seems obvious, how else would characters fall in love, right? But communication is still done wrong in plenty of stories whether it's through terrible dialogue, creepy "acts of love", out-of-nowhere declarations of love, and far more. Some of this falls down to writing skills, but some of it can be remedied by simply thinking things through more. For example, there's a difference between a character waiting at someone's door or inside that person's apartment regardless of how they got in there, or between sending a dessert the characters never got around to eating the previous night with a cute note attached to a workplace and showing up at that workplace unannounced, or worse, showing up wherever the other person goes (that's just being a stalker).

Writing Style

I won't delve into this for too long as writing styles aren't unique to romance, but consider how you describe characters, scenery and especially intimate moments. It doesn't matter if you write dialogue in a cheesy poetic way like "Her eyes are like a thousand sapphires glistening in the radiant sun of a summer solstice", a less cheesy poetic way, a realistic way or any other way that still fits within the bounds of who you're writing for, but make sure the language you use doesn't take people completely out of the story. It's one thing to compare blue eyes to a thousand sapphires and another to compare them to the radiant light of a tanning bed or the deep blue of the flag of Australia. Some of you may be thinking "What? Nobody would make such comparisons, that's so weird.". To all of you who do (and everybody else), I urge you to Google "bad lines from romance novels". They're hilarious, confusing and outright bizarre to say the least. Do note that some of them are from more adult-themed novels, so young readers beware. Younger readers could watch the Star Wars prequels instead, and find out about sand and haunting kisses and uncontrollable puzzles.

Obstacles

Good stories are about overcoming obstacles in whichever form they come, this is no less true for good romance stories. Whether it's disapproving parents, societal pressures, personal incompatibilities, distance or something else entirely, overcoming an obstacle leads to a satisfying payoff you can't get otherwise.
Obstacles add weight to the romance too, as overcoming an obstacle means the person is worth this effort. Overcoming personal obstacles, as in personality traits, is often more meaningful as they're tied into character development, but they're by no means the only ones that work. A common trope of these is the flirtatious, promiscuous guy changing to be a one-woman guy for the main character, but being more subtle and arguably more realistic tends to work better.

Don't overdo obstacles, however. When one character attempts to overcome an obstacle it has to be realistic enough a person would do this for another, which depends on how much they love the other. For example, flying across the world to live with the one you love is understandable, but doing the same for somebody you've been on two dates with is less believable or at the very least ill advised.

The Love Triangle

A typical love triangle is a very common trope in romance stories, but that's because they work. They automatically mean higher stakes as at least one person will end up hurt, there's the element of choice, the element of two people chasing the same love interest, and the possibility for two characters the target audience is really into. A love triangle doesn't have to be between three people though, the before-mentioned obstacles could be a type of love triangle where it comes down to choosing between a life of general comfort and creating a new, but uncertain life with a potential loved one. Or between moving away from friends and family to be with a potential love or giving up on them in favor of staying with friends and family.

Love triangles aren't the only way to write romance stories, obviously, but they're very effective because they're the simplest form of conflict you can use. You can add more choices, perhaps a "love square", but they tend to become harder to balance. Ultimately choices tend to boil down to only two choices after using deduction to sift out the less favorable choices anyway. For example, if a love interest had the choice in life between pursuing a career full time, going travelling around the world, or pursuing a relationship with somebody living elsewhere, one of these choices will usually be less favorable than two others, turning it back into a triangle.

Multiple Couples

If you want to explore multiple aspects of relationships, it's often better to do so through several different couples rather than forcing it all into one. It allows for more realistic set ups, a wider range of emotional scenes, but also means juggling more characters at once. But it works, if done well, just look at Love Actually or Crazy, Stupid, Love.
The added bonus of having multiple couples is that they could interact with each other, perhaps by providing emotional support through friendships, or by accentuating how one of the relationships isn't doing that great compared to the other when they're on a double date, or even the cliched cheating within two couples.

You don't have to flesh out all relationships for this to work. The focus of the story could remain on one couple (with or without love triangle), and each individual may seek advice from friends or family who are in a relationship to see how they manage theirs. There are plenty of ways to show different views through different relationships, but making sure each character is fleshed out as a character, rather than just a plot device, is definitely a strength.

Supporting Characters

Obviously not all characters need to be part of a relationship or have their lives revolve around one, plenty of other characters could offer support in a wide range of ways to help drive the story to the twists, turns and conclusion you wish.
To use the workaholic example from earlier, one character may be a great source of motivation to bring a project to the next level and act as both a source of bittersweet conflict (potential choice of giving up this life) and a source of potential future joy (if the character chooses this career and the success that comes with it). So supporting characters do more than just supporting the main characters, they can support parts of the story in meaningful ways. It's something to think about when creating a supporting character. The stereotypical friend with a shoulder to cry on could be more than just a shoulder within your story.

Location

Another element to keep in mind is the location of your story. It may seem like a trivial element at first, but the location will dictate how your characters respond to their surroundings (city dweller, country person, etc.), what kind of dates they can go on (beach, restaurants, clubs, etc.), how romantic a location could be described as (sunsets, city view from a hill, stars at night, etc.), and a whole bunch more. Each location comes with a potential for problems and advantages. A city generally always has some shops open or subways running, for example, but fresh flowers can't always be picked from nature. Stars are far more abundant out in nature where there's little light pollution, but so are insects.
Travelling obviously overcomes some of these differences, but travelling (far) isn't always likely or an option, like on a first date.

If you know your audience and you're writing for them rather than yourself, I'd recommend basing the locations on their identities and preferences as it makes it easier for them to identify themselves with the main characters. In either case consider the difference in effect the following two sequence examples:
- They met by accident at a local supermarket when they both grabbed the same apple, and went on a first date at a restaurant near her apartment. It went really well and 3 dates later they travelled to the countryside for what was supposed to be a quiet camping trip. 75 mosquito bites and a growl they could've sworn came from a grizzly bear later, and they promptly decided to head back the safety of their city.
- They met by accident at their farmer's market when they both grabbed the same apple, and went on a first date at the only restaurant in town. It went really well and 3 dates later they travelled to the nearest city for what was supposed to be an exciting city tour. The combined noise of countless cars and travelling people, and a run-in with a drunk who reeked of cheap aftershave and regret later, and they promptly decided to head back the tranquility of their town.

There's no real difference between the two examples in terms of the plot, but different people will react differently to each example. Some identify more with the city dwellers who'd avoid the mosquitoes at all costs, while others identify more with the townsfolk who can't stand the hectic life of a city.

Focus

Last, but not least, remain focused on what your story is about. If it's about two teens falling in love for the first time, focus on this. If it's about a couple going through the difficulties of balancing life's responsibilities with finding time for each other, focus on that.
Take a step back once in a while and consider whether everything makes sense within your story universe. If, for example, your story contains the murder of a side character, is your story set in such a setting that there would be place to explore love? Or would this brutal act disrupt the lives of the main characters to such a point they'd be broken and in need of time to mourn? And, more importantly, is your story about love persevering through such dire circumstances or is the murder plot starting to take a bigger spotlight?

Sometimes it comes down to whether you're experienced or knowledgeable enough to write a specific storyline. Do you know enough about divorce to include it as part of a secondary couple's story to show a potential future for the main couple? Or how the death or disease of a parent of one of the characters could affect their relationship with their partner? What about the difficulties a single parent faces when stepping back into the dating scene? Chances are you, like myself, can't say you know enough about one or more of these. Regardless of what you include in your story, I highly recommend leaving complex topics like these out if you don't understand them enough to do them justice, or doing enough research to make sure you can. It'll make your story all the better for it.

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