The Fabled Formula For Writing A Romance Novel

by Irene Vartanoff
Okay, you want to write a romance novel. There are good reasons to write one. Romances are the largest category of fiction sold. Because the market is so large, the royalties you earn tend to be larger than for other genre writing such as mysteries and science fiction (until and unless you develop a popular series character or world). Contemporary romances, for instance, are about everyday people and they don’t require a ton of research. It is possible to write a romance about whatever you know right now about human nature without making any character an expert in weapons or arcane fighting techniques, or dreaming up a brand-new dimension complete with its own science and a red sun. And romances often are very short. You can sell one that is only 50,000 words. Plus romances can be written anywhere, at anytime, by anyone. There’s no bias involved in selling one (although some characters or topics may not be easy to sell). So far, it all sounds wonderful. In fact, most people who never read romances are convinced that there is a formula to romance writing. So here it is, the fabled formula:

Step 1: Go to your local bookstore and take notes. First, look at what kinds of romance novels are taking up the most shelf space. Read their back covers and front excerpts. Then see which authors have the most shelf space. Are their romances covering the same topics as the types of romances that command the most space? Or are they writing something different? Are these authors old favorites, well-known bestsellers whose books have been made into television movies, or are they people you’ve never heard of?

Then take an informal survey of the types of romances that are on display. Are most of them historicals? Paranormals? Girl-next-doors? Some other subgenre?

Then prowl the bookstore for books that look like romances but are not filed in the romance section. Examine their covers for information about what makes them the same as the other romances, and what makes them different. Ask bookstore employees whose romances are selling the best and whom they would recommend. And ask why they think those are good romances to read. Do the same in your local public library. And at other bookstores.

Step 2: Obtain a batch of recently published romance novels. If you can afford to, buy several romances by the romance authors with the most shelf space. But only do this if the books are brand-new. No need to buy anybody’s reissued backlist title from ten years ago. And buy one or two by authors the sales people have recommended as the epitome of good or popular romance writing. Or, if you’ve got a good public library, go there and check out books by those major romance authors. But only the newest ones. Another option is to go online and read excerpts, but these won’t give you enough information about the whole book. Friends and relatives may have romance novels they’ll be happy to lend you. Pay attention to what they tell you about why they like these particular romances.

Step 3: Read the romances. Read them as fast as possible, ideally two or more a day, for several days. Very soon, you will begin to pick up a pattern. This is the most important step in the formula, but because many would-be romance writers believe they’ll just get bored reading the same sort of story over and over again, it’s a step they often skip. Do so at your peril. Ask yourself this: if you can’t stand to read a bunch of romances, how on earth are you going to get into the mindset of people who do? You have to please the readers if you hope make a good income from writing romance novels. So find out what readers like to read by reading books in the genre yourself.

Step 4: Write a romance that has all the elements common to other romances, using your own plot, characters and original words. These common elements are such things as conflict, sexual tension and a situation that keeps the heroine and hero constantly seeing each other as the story progresses. In your reading of romances, you should also have noticed that each writer has tried to come up with a unique and fresh story idea. Although you don’t have to choose the kind of romance plot that requires a lot of research, if you do decide to write an historical or a medical or crime thriller or the like, don’t make up fake details and expect that no one will notice. They will. Do your own research to ensure that your plot, characters and backgrounds are plausible.

That’s it. That’s the formula. To be a successful romance author, you’ll need to write a book that delivers most if not all of the elements found in already published romances. And in the same proportions, too. All formulas involve quantities, after all. So make sure that your romance is recognizably a romance, that it’s more about this heroine and this hero and their relationship than about anything else. Even if you write a romance that is different and original, it’s still got to deliver what romance readers expect and want, or it’s not a romance. Do not ignore reader expectations.

Simple, huh? That’s why they call it a formula. But like all formulas, if you fail to carry out any of the required steps, you won’t get the hoped-for positive reaction.

About Irene Vartanoff:
Irene Vartanoff is a longtime romance editor and writer who got her start in comic books. She is the author of several romance graphic romance novellas including Breaking All the Rules and The Egyptian’s Texas Spitfire. Under her comic book nom de plume, Poison Ivy, she contributes to the blog.