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Writing the Romance Novel: What Is a Romance Novel?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What makes books “romance novels” as opposed to “fiction with a romantic theme”? The general litmus test is that if you take the romantic thread out of the story and you still have a story, it’s not a romance novel. The romance plot is the main plot of the novel; everything hinges on it.

Billy Mernit puts it this way: “Rather than asking, ‘will the hero obtain his goal?’ the central question posed by a [romance] is: ‘will these two individuals become a couple?’” (p. 13)

Gail Martin gives the definition this way: “. . . Romance is the story of two people with individual goals and needs, the physical and emotional attraction that holds them together, the conflict that separates them, and their coming together . . . to embrace in love and commitment.” (p. 4)

Leigh Michaels adds an important facet to the definition (emphasis mine):
“. . . The core story is the developing relationship between a man and a woman. The other events in the storyline, though important, are secondary to the relationship.” (p. 2)

Now that’s clarified—the story focuses on the development of the relationship between a man and a woman—we must take the definition a step further (which Gail’s definition begins to do) and define the general structure of a romance novel. Billy Mernit boils it down to three basic elements:

1. Meet: Girl and boy have significant encounters.
2. Lose: Girl and boy are separated.
3. Get: Girl and boy reunite
(pg. 4)

I would add one more to his list:
4. HEA: Girl and boy have a happily ever after ending.

Some call this a formula; most experienced writers consider it our basic plot structure.

In a true romance novel, there must be a lose—something that threatens to tear our hero and heroine apart forever. In the movie Return to Me, it’s Grace revealing to Bob that she was the transplant recipient who received his dead wife’s heart. In Pride & Prejudice, it’s Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. In Sense & Sensibility, it’s Edward’s previous engagment (and seeming marriage) to Lucy Steele. In Jane Eyre, it’s the existence of Rochester’s first wife.

Whether it’s another woman (or man), a secret revealed, family objections, a war, a near-death experience, believing the other is dead, or whatever you can think of, the major conflict of your story must have a very logical and realistic chance of pulling your characters apart forever. (We’ll get into this a little more later in the series.)

For Discussion:
From your favorite book you listed yesterday, or from a favorite movie, pinpoint and briefly explain the three basic key elements (meet, lose, get) of the story. Does your WIP follow this structure?

8 Comments
  1. Tuesday, April 15, 2008 3:24 pm

    Okay, I’ll try this, but I’m going to use a more current novel that I’ve read, not necessarily a favorite. As more and more times I’m finding that the ‘lose’ part doesn’t always seem strong enough, and to me, if it were strong enough, would it really be fixable? That’s what I’m up against lately, what makes a major conflict believable enough to sustain the length of the novel, but still be fixable for the HEA to happen. To me, it’s more a combination of conflicts, the working through of those smaller ones that keep me reading, as right away I know the major one is going to be overcome by way of give and take of the main characters, if nothing else.

    Just picking a copy off my bookshelf, in one of the LI’s I have, the “lose” was that the heroine was only temporarily visiting and when her father recovered she was destined to return to a powerful job she loved and worked hard to achieve such high recognition in (a top realestate agent). Right away I say, so? Because it’s a romance I know right away that this heroine will either rediscover her love of this small town and decide to give up her high paying, high power job or life there with the hero, or the hero will decide to move to the big city, give up his family run business.

    The point is, I know, everyone knows that the main conflict, ‘lose’ aspect of the story is going to be overcome. So to me, it’s about building those smaller scene conflicts that reveal your characters more and more with the layering they provide that in turn makes you care more and more about them to be vested in seeing how they get to that final realization that love will prevail.

    Sorry, I know I’m being the devils advocate here, but does anyone agree with me?

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  2. Tuesday, April 15, 2008 3:27 pm

    Sorry about the run ons. Can you tell I’m passionate about this?

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  3. Tuesday, April 15, 2008 3:30 pm

    This is such a juicy topic. From what you’ve posted, and now reading Writing the Romantic Comedy, I already have some basic framework for my book. I can see how these elements hold it together.

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  4. Tuesday, April 15, 2008 3:36 pm

    For a movie, I’ll do, Pretty Woman.

    Meet: Professional guy picks up the hooker at the side of the road, not intending to, of course. He needs help with driving his friend’s standard.

    Lose: A hooker isn’t exactly the type of woman this professional should fall in love with.

    Get: She decides she’s not turning back to the old ways and he decides he doesn’t care what others think, she’s the woman for him.

    See, the basic circumstances never change, she will always be a past hooker, it’s the hero and heroine’s desire to accept the situation that determines the HEA.

    I love this movie because it really shows that love can win over anything if you’re willing to let it, but again, I knew right at the beginning that she was going to change her ways and he was going to choose to ignore what others thought. It was interesting characters, the fact that I cared about what happened to them that made me keep watching and in fact rewatch this movie over and over again through the years.

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  5. Tuesday, April 15, 2008 6:35 pm

    I’m going to go with South Island Stowaway by Essie Summers.

    The Meet: When Julia stows away in the back of the wrong car and tumbles out at the feet of Adam’s fiancee, Miriam. Miriam storms off. The isolated farmstead is cut off by a landslip, leaving Julia trapped with Adam’s family.

    The Lose: Adam’s engaged to the uber-efficient Miriam. Even though Adam swears it’s over, Julia persists in feeling guilty about causing the rift and tries to get them back together, though she’s sure Miriam isn’t right for Adam or his 100 year old farmstead.

    The Get: Adam saves Julia’s life and is finally able to convince her that his engagement to Miriam is truly over, has been since he fell in love with Julia.

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  6. Tuesday, April 15, 2008 9:22 pm

    See how this exercise can help in writing your one-paragraph summary? 🙂 If we can do it for someone else’s story, surely we can do it for our own, right?

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  7. Leslie permalink
    Tuesday, April 15, 2008 9:38 pm

    The last true romance I read was It Had to be You by Linda Windsor.

    The meet was the H/H meeting on a cruise ship. The lose was that the hero was grumpy because of his family and the heroine’s heart was shut off due to family deaths. I think there was also a misunderstanding at some point but I don’t recall what it was. And of course there was the HEA moment at the end.

    What I loved about it was the humour situations that they got themselves into. Since I knew they would end up together, that is what kept me coming back to reading it.

    As for my wip – the “lose” is a doosie (at least if I can write it correctly), so yes, I had been plotting along the Meet, Lose, Get lines.

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  8. Thursday, April 17, 2008 3:44 pm

    I most recently finished A Passion Most Pure, so that’s what I’ll do. AWESOME book, btw. GO GET IT!!!!! I think every romance writer and reader needs to read this book. It was the closest thing to a perfect romance that I’ve ever read.

    OK… enough gushing!

    Meet: Initially in grade school, then again in high school. This is where the crush develops. Inciting incident/meet: catching the man she loves kissing her sister.

    The Lose: He doesn’t share her faith and she refuses to compromise. He also proposes to her sister, then tells Faith she’s the one he really wants. Then he goes off to war.

    The Get: Colin comes to believe in God while fighting in France, then comes back to find out she’s engaged to someone else. But he lets her go and prays God’s will for her life. And then HEA!

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