Let’s admit it. Even if some of us (er, like me) are a bit ‘bah humbug’ about Valentine’s Day, we all love a good romance. Imagine life without Gilbert and Ann, or Rochester and Jane, or Heathcliffe and Catherine.
To honour St Valentine, Melbourne author Heidi Catherine unveils the key ingredients to the perfect romance novel.
Romance gets a bad rap. Not romance itself thankfully, but more specifically romance novels. It wasn’t until I decided to try to pen one myself that I learnt just how difficult they are to write. And it gave me a whole new respect for the genre.
After years of reading romance, attending courses on writing romance and doing some actual writing of romance myself, I’ve managed to learn a few things. In celebration of Valentine’s Day, I’m going to let you in on the top ten things I believe every romance novel must include …
10. ? Excellent writing ?
Some of the most beautiful and clever words I’ve ever read have been found within the pages of romance novels. Yet somehow people turn up their noses, dismissing them as ‘easy reads’. What I’m certain most of these people don’t realise is how incredibly hard an easy read is to write. I challenge you to string together tens of thousands of words into a novel that flows, makes perfect sense, has a fresh and interesting plot and makes the reader care enough about the characters to read until the end. Achieving all of this takes excellent writing.
9. ? A gripping opening scene ?
The most important chapter in any novel is the first, the most important page is the first, and it’s no surprise that the most important sentence is also the first. This is your chance to hook your reader and convince them to sit down and spend a few hours letting you whisper a story in their ear. So as tempting as it is to start writing your story at the beginning – don’t! Start at the good bit, the exciting bit, the scary bit. Whatever the bit is that’s going to grab hold of your reader’s attention. If your heroine is destined to be kidnapped by a rich and handsome sheik while on holiday, don’t start with her getting on the plane. Start it when the sheik grabs her by the arm at the busy marketplace and drags her into his sheik mobile. If the getting on the plane bit is important, you can always feed it in later as backstory.
8. ? A likable heroine ?
It’s not always necessary for main characters to be likeable. We didn’t need to like Rachel in The Girl on the Train because we were reading her story, not living it. Romance readers are different. We don’t just read the heroine’s story, we step into her shoes and become her. We fall in love with the hero, swoon whenever he comes near and cry tears of joy when he asks ‘us’ to marry him. We can’t be the heroine if we don’t like her. She needs to be someone with enough relatable traits that we can picture ourselves in her situation, without making her boring. Let her make jokes, but don’t let her swear. Let her fight back tears, but don’t let her fall into a blubbering mess. Let her be independent, but definitely not bossy. If you want to be best friends with her, you’re on the right track.
7. ? A hero to fall in love with ?
Given that your reader is the heroine, obviously she needs someone to fall in love with. This is the tricky bit as we all have different tastes. Some heroes will resonate more strongly with certain readers than others. I heard a story recently of someone who’d created an exceptionally hairy hero as that was the author’s personal taste. Not that there’s anything wrong with a hairy man, but this is dangerous ground. I think it’s safe to say that most women prefer their men a little less on the hirsute side, which means if you start talking about hairy backs you’re going to lose a big chunk of your audience. There’s a reason most heroes in romance novels are tall, muscle clad hunks with sparkling eyes and good hygiene – that’s what most women like. So give your audience what they want or risk losing them to another author who will.
6. ? Secondary characters ?
These characters should support the story of your hero and heroine without taking over. Even though they are not the star, they need to be there as your reader will find it hard to believe that the heroine doesn’t have any friends. Also, being a loner won’t exactly help us to like her. So unless your hero and heroine are marooned on a deserted island, you’re going to need to think about who else plays a part in their story and how you can stop them from taking over.
5. ? A romance ?
This might sound obvious, but I’m putting it out there. Make sure your characters have earth-shattering, knee-quivering, amazing … chemistry. They need to fall in love in a way they never have before or ever will again. This is the real deal here and if they miss this chance at love they’ll be doomed to a lifetime of playing Candy Crush while watching The Bachelor. The romance will drive your novel forward so make it a good one. As for the heat level, that’s entirely up to you. Some readers like their romance sweet, others spicy. Write whatever you’re comfortable with or your cringing will show in your writing. The trick is to try to block out images of your parents reading your work.
4. ? A conflict ?
The challenge with romance writing is not so much how to bring your hero and heroine together, it’s how you’re going to keep them apart. As nice as it would be to tell a story about a couple meeting and falling in love, that’s going to get boring very quickly. You need to put obstacles in their path to drive them apart. Whether it’s a heated conflict, separation by distance or a misunderstanding, you must find a way to create trouble in paradise. This is what will make your story interesting and drive your reader crazy in all the best ways as they long for a resolution.
3. ? A resolution ?
As fun as it is to mess with your characters by putting obstacles in their path, at some point you need to clear the way for happiness. Resolving your conflict and bringing your hero and heroine back together will be the climax of your novel (yes, I did use that word intentionally…)
2. ? Keeping it real ?
Although creating obstacles is important, don’t get so carried away with your plot that you leave your reader shaking their head in disbelief. You need real characters in situations that feel real, no matter how outlandish they are. In the first romance novel I ever attempted to write, my hero had a habit of storming out of the room in a fit of rage every time things didn’t go his way. This was an excellent way of keeping him apart from my heroine, but it became not only annoying (making it hard for the reader to fall in love with him) but it was over the top. Not surprisingly this manuscript is still sitting in a dark place on my computer waiting for me to re-write it with a far less stroppy hero who has a more realistic (although less convenient) way of delaying his happily ever after with my long suffering heroine.
1. ? Happily ever after ?
Sigh! This is the reader’s payoff for sticking with you through all those pages. You’ve gripped them with your story from the first sentence, put them in the shoes of the heroine, given them a hero they’ve fallen madly in love with, teased them with hurdles to be leapt and finally cleared the path for a happily ever after, never to have stretch marks, grey hair, wrinkles, hairy backs or god forbid a break up. Your excellent writing has allowed your reader to escape into a perfect little world. Don’t finish your story too quickly. Let your reader wallow in the bliss a little before you finish.
Heidi Catherine is the published author of three short romantic stories as well as the winner of Romance Writer’s of Australia’s award for best unpublished manuscript. To find out more visit: www.heidicatherine.com