Claiming just under 60 percent of the total mass market paperback sales, romance is by far the most popular genre. Perhaps this is because no genre is as varied as romance. Or it simply might be that there’s a part of all of us that wants a happily-ever-after ending.
So what exactly defines a romance novel? Rita Clay Estrada and Rita Gallagher, the co-founders of the Romance Writers of America, say: “Any story where the main theme is love (One True Love) is a romance.” Along with the main theme of love, a romance novel has two important ingredients: sexual awareness and sexual tension.
There are four basic rules for writing the romance novel:
Rule One: From the first time they meet, the hero and the heroine are deeply aware of each other. They don’t have to like each other instantly, but this awareness escalates and culminates in the resolution.
Rule Two: The hero and heroine should be together as much as possible. When they are apart, the absent one should be kept in the reader’s mind through memories, yearnings, etc.
Rule Three: Each time the hero and heroine are together, their feelings should take on another aspect or reach another level. Their emotions will strengthen, shake, threaten—and as the book progresses—solidify the relationship.
Rule Four: The senses of the hero and heroine are sharpened when they are together. Whether fighting or on the verge of making love, sexual tension escalates with each scene.
At one time the term “romance” was used for any imaginative novel, and included genres now known as adventure, historical and science fiction. Romance was also used as a synonym for troubadour tales, dealing with courtly love. These days, the literary use of the term is confined to novels in which the main plot is concerned with a love affair.
The Romantic Novel
First, there is the romantic novel. The romantic novel typically contains a love affair that is treated with realism. This love interest will be presented as one part of the protagonist’s story. The affair may end happily or unhappily, or the romance may appear as an existing, ongoing, relationship. The protagonist may have more than one serious romantic attachment in the course of the novel. The romantic novel is sometimes known as “women’s fiction”. A lighthearted or acerbic version with a heroine in her twenties or early thirties is sometimes called “chick lit”.
The Romance Novel
The romance novel, on the other hand, is a novel in which the love affair is by far the most important part of the plot. The hero and heroine are rarely apart for more than a handful of pages and other characters are kept on the sidelines. The end will be happy, and there will be some kind of positive commitment and resolution. This may be a marriage proposal, a wedding or simply an affirmation that this love is forever.
Most of these romances are known as category romance, and are sold in “lines” which have their own guidelines and expectations. Straightforward modern-day category romances come in different models.
The “long contemporary” will be at least 70,000 words.
The “short contemporary” is usually around 55,000 words.
Then there are “sweet” and “sexy” romances which range from G-rated innocence to M-rated explicitness.
Different lines are slanted so that readers will know by the packaging whether they can expect mystery, detection, or thriller elements with their romance.
The placement of the love affair and the happiness of the ending are set in the contemporary category romance. In addition, heroes and heroines are expected to be well-matched in age, intelligence and ability. Some lines expect the heroine to have a high-powered job. Most still require the heroine to be attractive, even if she isn’t classically beautiful.
Heroes need not be classically handsome, but they are still more likely to be taller and more striking than average, just as they will be more commanding and powerful than the usual run of males.
The editors of many lines frown on manuscripts where either hero or heroine is connected with the arts. They also prefer not to have heroes who seem to be mechanics or farmers when the heroine and reader first meet them only to turn out to be something else later in the story.
The overbearing hero has gone out of fashion, and so has the virginal “schoolroom miss” heroine—except in a few subgenres like the regency.
All of this might feel restricting for the author, but the strict guidelines have come about from surveys and buying trends. Statistics prove that the books with the tall dark handsome heroes sell better, and those with the artist heroines, older heroine and mechanic or farmer hero sell substantially fewer copies.
The different types of romance (subgenres) are as varied as the people who read romances. In my next blog, I will discuss the different romance subgenres.
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