Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again—and they live happily ever after! This is perhaps the oldest plot synopsis in literature, but we keep coming back for more. Just how it works varies from culture to culture, publisher to publisher, writer to writer, but we human beings do like our romances.
According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance fiction is a $1.8 billion industry (2013) and owns 34 percent of the U.S. fiction market (2015). That’s a lot of love—and good reason to write in the genre. There are a number of romance subgenres—from contemporary to historical, paranormal to suspense, erotica to young adult—but the important thing to remember is what makes a story a romance. Again, according to the RWA, “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” In other words, the romantic relationship is the core of the story, and happily-ever-after is a must.
Is it a Romance, a romance, or a love story?
There is, of course, a wide range of how a romantic relationship is portrayed in fiction, from “sweet” to “extremely hot.” Here’s my take on it:
In what I call a “capital-R” romance, there will be explicit scenes early and often. Marriage is not out of the question, but if it happens, it will be toward the end of the story—or even after it’s over. When the characters are not actually acting on their physical desires, they’re generally thinking about doing so, and that passion remains central to the relationship, the character development of both parties, and the plot throughout the story.
In what I refer to as “little-r” romance, passion is certainly not off the table, but it is generally not the complete focus of the story, will happen later in the plot, and authors will usually leave the reader at the bedroom door. The relationship between the two characters is built on much more than physical attraction, and while “love at first sight” is not out of the question, the relationship that develops throughout the story will generally prove a lot more complex—and, in my opinion, much more interesting—than that found in the “capital-R” romance.
The love story is all about a growing interpersonal relationship between a man and a woman that leads to a lifetime commitment. I always think of love stories as those in which the focus is less on “falling in love” and more on “being in love.” In other words, the relationship comes first, and the romance comes out of that relationship. That does not mean sparks won’t fly between the two characters from the very beginning—in fact any love story would be pretty boring without them—but friendship comes first, romance follows, that final step will for sure wait until after marriage, and the reader will not be present for it.
Should every work of fiction with a love story in it be considered a romance?
Absolutely not! Remember the RWA talks about “a central love story.” In other words, if you take the love story out of a romance, there’s nothing left. But if you take the love story out of another genre story, the plot can hold.
I love romance, and I generally have at least one in every fictional story I write. Are all my stories romances? Not at all. I actually have only two novels that I consider romances, because if I were to take the love story out of either of them, there wouldn’t be much of a story left. For the others, however, the love stories contained therein, while certainly a big part of the story, are not critical to the main plot. For example, in one of my science fiction novels, Jane and Captain Konner don’t have to fall in love, following the starship captain’s rescue of the kidnapped earth woman—the rest of the story would work without that relationship blooming—but it was really cool that they did when I wrote it, and their love story made the novel more fun for me to write. But The Stars of Dreams (Book 1 of The Commonwealth Chronicles) is not a science fiction romance; it is, rather, science fiction, because the story would work perfectly well, if the two characters hadn’t fallen in love at all.
The same can be true of any hybrid genre story. Whether fantasy, mystery, suspense, science fiction, western, Christian fiction, or historical—whatever the primary genre—a love story can be present without turning it into a romance. It all depends on how critical that love story is to the main plot, and whether or not the plot can stand on its own without it. If it can’t, then you have written a romance!
The next time, we’ll look at historical fiction.
Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com