What Makes a Romance a Romance?
So, what makes a romance a romance? A romance novel requires two basic components: a central love story and a Happily Ever After (HEA) for the two main characters. But is it that simple? Well, yes. And no.
All forms of popular fiction will likely contain a romance for the main character. The difference, however, between a romance novel and other types of fiction is that the developing romantic relationship will always be front and center in a romance.
Romances are defined by their tone as well as by their focus. Imagine for a moment that you want to write a novel with the following story line:
A few days before an English Lit professor is to present a recently discovered handwritten first draft of a Pulitzer Prize — winning short story by a deceased American author at a literary symposium, the author's only child — who also happens to be the professor's ex-wife — appears on the scene with two bombshells. The first is that their quickie divorce in Costa Rica five years earlier wasn't quite legal. The second is that the manuscript purportedly written by her father is a fraud.
The basic plotline could work as a romance or as a mystery. What determines its type is its focus and tone.
Focus refers to the emphasis you place on certain details of your novel. For a romance novel, the focus would be on the romantic relationship between your two main characters. After all, romance novels can have a variety of subplots but these books are ultimately about the romance itself.
One of the biggest challenges facing a new author is in keeping the focus firmly placed on the romantic relationship between the main characters. An easy way to maintain that focus is to restrict your use of subplots to those that support the romantic conflict.
In the example given here, the novel becomes a romance when the focus of the story is placed on the renewed romance between the professor and his ex-wife — now, his current wife who wants them to get back together. Tension is heightened with the addition of a deadline — the heroine will only have a week or so to win back her hero before the arrival of the new divorce papers.
The forged manuscript is relegated to a subplot that supports the romance. Because the hero authenticated the forged manuscript — and because the heroine will challenge that authentication once he makes an official announcement at the symposium — the potential for conflict in their romantic relationship is high.
Tone refers to the choice of language that you use to describe the events of your novel. All romance novels, regardless of their type and format, have a unique tone that sets them apart from other types of fiction.
More specifically, romance novels inspire an emotional response in their readers, although the specific emotional response can vary. For example, some books may inspire laughter, while others may inspire sadness or fear. All, however, will inspire a sense of awe at the redemptive power of love.
Because romance readers want to experience every aspect of a romance novel as though it were happening to them, details matter. The key, however, is to filter those details through the eyes of the point-of-view (POV) character.
Remember the English Lit professor who discovers he has a wife and a possible fraudulent manuscript on his hands? Just as the focus on the romantic relationship between the two main characters defines the book as a romance, the novel's tone should also establish its genre. This tone is usually set within the book's opening lines. Here is the opening for the novel in question:
He still wanted her.
Justin Stone stood in the doorway of his office and stared at the raven-haired woman sitting on top of his desk. With the telephone receiver pressed to one ear, head tilted back, short leather skirt hugging her tanned thighs, she had all the self-consciousness of a cat sunning itself in a warm spot. And he wanted her with an ache of longing that cut straight through to his core, even though he knew such a desire was wrong. She belonged in his past, not in his present. And certainly not in his future.
They had both decided that a long time ago.
(— Faye Hughes, Can't Fight the Feeling)
Notice how word choices can convey poignancy, desire, longing, and regret. The specific language used here serves dual purposes. Not only does it establish mood and begin to tell the story of Justin and Morgan, it tells the reader that she is reading a romance novel, as opposed to a mystery or a science fiction novel, by establishing the tone.