Not everyone might admit to enjoying romance novels — or, at the very least, novel romances — but just about everyone secretly loves the excitement, intrigue, drama, and tension that unfolds in a good romance, and everyone likes a good love story.
If you're a budding writer, dipping your toes into a romance novel is often a great way to start. This universally-relatable genre is, after all, uniquely fun to tackle. As a bonus, it's easy to draw inspiration from your own life as you outline plot ideas and craft characters for your story.
Writing any novel is unabashedly terrifying, though, especially if you're hoping to (self-)publish your book once you're done. You'll have to do all the hard work yourself, but there's no rule against using all the tips you can get your hands on. We hope that you will feel a little more confident about sitting down to write with this short guide under your belt!
Writing a Romance Novel: The Basics
Romance novels have been popular since the ancient Greeks roamed the world — and this genre can best be described as one in which love, relationships, and all the drama that so often surrounds romance form the very core of the plot.
Romance novels differ from novels that feature romance in this fundamental way, but romance novels can have strong sub-genres that include all your favorites:
No matter what niche a romance novel falls into, readers flock to the story for the romance, and the opportunity to temporarily escape their own lives to find drama, inspiration, happiness, or laughter in the plot. This light-hearted escapism is ultimately to thank for the fact that romance remains the most popular genre of all time!
A Look at the Essential Elements of a Romance Novel
Any good romance novel shares its anatomy with any good novel, period. Fiction that satisfies readers contains a few universal elements — and if you're thinking about penning a romance novel, you'll want to make sure that you're setting yourself up to include all of them. Let's take a look!
A novel's theme is the underlying message, or common thread, that runs through the entire work. Commonly-used themes, that can work in romance novels as well, include judgment, survival, coming of age, suffering, heroism, and rags to riches. A thematic statement can be used to narrow this down even further, and one example would be "sometimes love really is enough — are you willing to sacrifice everything for it?".
The setting is the broader world in which the plot of a romance novel unfolds, and this world-building aspect of the novel usually determines the sub-genre.
Sci-fi romance novels may, for instance, be set in the far future or on another planet — and the main characters may not be human. Contemporary romance novels are set in a world that resembles our own, while historical romance novels could unfold in ancient Egypt or in Enlightenment Europe. Fantasy romance novels may feature elves or other magical creatures, and be set in a whimsical world. Romance novels can also be set in dystopian worlds full of suffering.
The setting may not be the primary element in a romance novel — that's reserved for the love story itself — but they set the mood.
People who read romance novels ultimately seek someone they can root for, so it's important for your protagonist to be relatable; something that almost always means flawed, but likeable. The protagonist's love interest should also be nice enough that your readers don't spend the entire novel hoping the two don't end up together! However, it's also important to throw an antagonist or two into the novel to create tension.
Build-up, climax, resolution — this sequence could describe just about any novel, and for a book to be enjoyable to read, it is essential for conflict and tension to lie at the core of the story.
In a romance novel, the build-up should include the chapter in which the primary characters meet for the first time, and begin having romantic feelings for one another.
The conflict can be described as the obstacles standing in the way of the relationship, or the reason the two characters can't be together. Maybe your protagonist's love interest is already married to someone else, and the two are carrying on an illicit affair. Perhaps your protagonist is in love with her boss, and pursuing the relationship would get one or both of them fired. Your romance novel could be set in an alien world, where inter-species romance is frowned upon, or perhaps your protagonist's love interest has just agreed to go on a mission to save the planet when the two meet, thus forcing them apart.
They're in love despite their challenges, so readers will get to enjoy plenty of romantic tension and drama — all of which keep the plot interesting.
In the end, however, it's important for your characters to finally find a way to be together. Without this satisfying resolution, your novel can't truly be called a romance novel.
How to Write a Romance Novel: A Step-by-Step Guide
The process of writing a romance novel can be divided into four main tasks — brainstorming, organizing your ideas, sitting down to actually write the novel, and editing. Not all romance writers will tackle each of these steps in the same order, but it's all got to be done. By following these steps, you'll develop a framework that allows you to establish a routine, and routines are definitely your friend. Most romance novels are between 50,000 and 100,000 words long, so your book-writing journey is definitely a marathon, and not a sprint!
1. Settle on a Sub-Genre for Your Romance Novel
You may already know precisely what kind of setting you want to place your main couple into — but if you don't, that's OK, too. In this case, first consider what sub-genre you are going for. That could be historical romance, sci-fi romance, contemporary romance (basically any romance novel set in our own world), dystopian romance, or fantasy. What genres do you enjoy, and what kind of world do you see your main couple in?
Not all sub-genres are setting-based — some romance novels fall into the sub-genres of comedy, Christian fiction, or even mystery/detective stories.
2. Craft a Couple Your Readers Can Root For
Often called heroes and heroines, these are the two people you're trying to get together in your romance novel. These two main characters should be three-dimensional, and to make sure that they don't fall flat, it helps to tick all of these boxes:
- Admirable personality traits. Both your narrator and their love interest should be likeable to hold your readers' attention — and they should have qualities that allow your readers to at least understand how someone could fall in love with them.
- Interesting characters are never perfect. They have deep flaws, just like all human beings do. Annoying habits, past mistakes, financial trouble, a messy divorce, an incredibly stressful job that involves long hours — whatever flaws you add help to add depth to your character. Ideally, you'll make sure that these flaws aren't just apparent to the reader, but also to the other half of the main couple!
- A past (or backstory) that includes pain and suffering. That's what makes people interesting, after all.
- All main characters also need to have a "want" or a "goal". Because you are writing a romance novel, however, that one's already pretty much predetermined for you — your hero and heroine, heroine and heroine, or hero and hero, want to be together more than anything else in the world.
- A body. Describing what your characters look like is essential, and in romance novels, your main couple should generally be attractive, but not excessively so. This helps them seem desirable but relatable.
- A personality. Are your characters introverted or extroverted? What are their passions? What do they feel insecure about? What are they afraid of? What do they spend most of their time doing?
The further you develop each character, the more compelling your romance novel will be — readers want to root for real people, not cardboard cut-outs, after all. As you develop your main couple, keep in mind that while they should be compatible, it is always a good idea to create ways in which they don't quite jive. Not all the tension in your romance novel needs to be external; sometimes, the main source of conflict lies in the fact that your hero is scared to commit after being in a toxic relationship, for instance.
It is crucial for there to be other compelling characters in your book, besides the main couple — without them, there would be little opportunity to create tension. These characters may not be quite as deeply-written as the main couple, but should still have three-dimensional personalities and clear motivations.
Minor characters that often feature in romance novels include friends, the couple's parents, coworkers and bosses, children, and exes.
3. Get World Building!
Aim to create an immersive and believable setting for your romance novel. Your main couple doesn't exist in isolation — they're part of an entire backdrop, which is your setting. Even in contemporary romance novels that unfold, for instance, in New York or a tiny Texas town, you will want to flesh out the setting to make it come to life. Show, rather than tell, by adding descriptive visuals that make your readers feel like they are right there with your characters.
If your setting is more complex, like an alien planet or a paranormal underworld, however, it is important to take extra care to make the setting seem natural. Don't start your book with long technical introductions to the futuristic colony spaceship your couple meets on, or describe the black hole the planet they're from orbits in excruciating detail. It's a romance novel, and that's what your readers are expecting.
4. Decide on a Target Age Group
No novel is written for "everyone", no matter how much the author would like that to be true, but that's especially important in the context of romance novels. Deciding on a target age group allows you to determine how much graphic detail you can (or want to) include in your romance novel, as well as what kinds of conflicts are appropriate to tackle in the book. It's also crucial if you're hoping to get your book published, as literary agents will always ask this question, too.
5. Unleash the Trope Bonanza
Yes, really. If you were writing just about any other kind of novel, you would be warned to stay away from overused tropes again and again, and told that nobody wants to read a book they've already seen 50 other version of. That's not quite true when it comes to romance novels, which are popular because they're familiar and comforting.
Some of the commonly-used tropes you may want to include in your romance novel include:
- The savior. Your narrator's love interest saves them from an impossible situations, or helps them heal from an unbearable trauma. Everyone loves the idea of a strong partner they can count on, no matter how hard things get and regardless of the obstacles, so this trope is a much-loved one.
- Friends to lovers. Your characters could have been friends with a secret crush forever, only to finally end up together.
- First love, usually best suited for the young adult genre.
- Enemies to lovers is another interesting trope that always plays well with the audience.
- Long-lost love — high school sweethearts meet again after 30 years, for instance.
- Taboo love — your protagonist's love interest may be married or in a relationship, belong to a different species, or come from a radically different cultural background wherein the character's families would disown them if they got together.
- Love triangles are very common in romance novels as well, and instantly create tension and conflict.
6. Craft Your Plot
Not every writer crafts their entire plot before they sit down to write their novels — some simply begin writing and let their inspiration lead them. If you have never written a novel before, though, you may find it helpful to have at least a broad idea of what should happen in your novel. You can use novel writing software like Scrivener or Ulysses to outline your chapters. While you can always make changes later, this helps to keep you on track. Romance novels that move at lightning speed may be hard to follow, while sudden "dips" in the pace of your plot can cause readers to lose interest. As a general rule, something should always be happening to move your plot forward.
So, you're writing a romance novel? Do not try to be original by giving your main couple a heartbreaking ending. Save that for other genres. When you advertise a book as a romance novel, you're promising readers pain, tension, conflict, and drama, for sure, but you're also promising them a fairly happy ending that can leave them feeling satisfied.
7. Edit Your Romance Novel
Once your first draft is complete, take a moment to pat yourself on the back — you've penned an entire novel! Even if you're not happy with it, it's been a long journey and a lot of work. You deserve credit for that. You may want to take a step back to allow the novel to percolate and mature in your mind for a little while. After that, though, if you have any intention of publishing your romance novel, there's a lot more work in store for you.
We'll give it to you straight — nobody, not even the best writers, can effectively edit their own work to perfection. If you are hoping to be traditionally published, hiring a professional editor is a must. Should you be considering the self-publishing route, instead, you can absolutely dump your poorly-edited, typo-packed, novel on one of the ebook platforms, but that won't put you on the path to success. Hire an editor, then, but before you do, you can do plenty of the polishing work on your own.
The stages of editing include:
- Reading your entire novel cover to cover, and taking notes wherever you notice that something is "off". You're looking at the broader picture, here — hunt for character inconsistencies, pacing issues, or plot points you're completely unhappy with. Begin by making the changes you need to make at this macro level.
- Examining the flow of each chapter, and ensuring that something important happens in each one.
- Looking more closely at your paragraphs, sentences, and word choices, and experimenting whether small changes could improve your novel.
- Weeding out spelling and grammar mistakes, and making sure that you follow a consistent style (meaning, for instance, that you should not alternate between writing "three" and "3", but stick to one).
After you've polished your romance novel as much as you can, you can ask beta readers to offer feedback.
8. Publish Your Romance Novel
Did you make it through all the previous stages? You're now in the stage where you can consider self-publishing your romance novel, or start querying literary agents. This step is optional. Lots of people write novels they have no intention of publishing, and you can certainly leave your novel on the shelf for a while before taking this scary but exciting step, too.
Key Tips to Help You Write a Successful Romance Novel
So far, we've taken an in-depth look at all the things aspiring romance novel writers should consider as they craft a compelling story that readers will love. The actual writing process may, however, be the most daunting for you — and setting up a routine or schedule, as well as creating the physical and mental space you need to be able to focus on writing, plays a key role in getting you to the finish line.
To make sure that you can write, and write consistently, you may want to:
- Set a block of time aside for novel writing every single day, every working day, or every weekend day — whatever realistically works for you. This will "force" you to keep writing, and eventually, get you into a routine where your brain mentally prepares itself to go into "novel mode".
- Some writers instead set themselves the goal to produce a set number of words per day, and this can be just as effective.
- Let go of the idea that you need to feel "inspired" or "creative" to be able to write. It's true that your writing will effortlessly flow from your mind when you're in the "zone", but writing is a skill you can develop by practicing it.
- Create a calming and comfortable work space where you will not be interrupted by others. Decorate it with things that get you in the mood, and keep it clutter-free.
- If you're a perfectionist, commit to refraining from editing (or repeatedly deleting paragraphs you have already written) while you are writing. Tell yourself that you have to write three pages, 2,000 words, or keep writing for an hour, before you can edit or delete anything. OK, you can fix typos, but don't agonize over your syntax or vocabulary until later.
- Do you feel completely lost? Take a break from writing and read good novels yourself. Immersing yourself in beautiful language is bound to inspire you.
Above all, keep going. Promise yourself that you will finish this romance novel. It doesn't have to be good, but it has to be finished. You can do it!