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Romance Genre Definitions Part 1

Monday, August 22, 2011

On Friday, Lady DragonKeeper asked:

If you have time, Ms. Kaye (or anyone who wants to answer), I was wondering what your definition of “chick lit” is?

How about let’s step back and take a bigger-picture look at some genre definitions. For years, lots of different types of books have been lumped under an umbrella labeled “romance.” This to me is a misnomer, because romance is a genre with very specific expectations for characters and plot structure. Instead, I believe that Women’s Fiction is a much more appropriate umbrella under which these different genres should be grouped. Why women’s fiction? Well . . . because these are stories that are targeted for and meant to appeal to female readers. So let’s start defining them.

What Is a Romance Novel?

  • “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” (
  • “Rather than asking, ‘will the hero obtain his goal?’ the central question posed by a [romance] is: ‘will these two individuals become a couple?’” (Billy Mernit, Writing the Romantic Comedy)
  • “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.” (Leigh Michaels, On Writing Romance: How to Craft a Novel That Sells)

In a true romance novel, the plot of the novel is the developing relationship between the hero and heroine. Everything that happens in the story, either in the main plot or in the subplots, needs to advance and/or affect the romantic relationship.

If you can eliminate the romance and you still have a viable plot (even if flat), it’s a novel with romantic elements, but it’s not a romance novel, whether it’s a contemporary or a historical setting.

There are three elements which must be present for it to truly be a romance novel:
1. Boy and Girl Meet
2. Boy and Girl Fall in Love
3. Boy and Girl Have a Happily Ever After Ending

There is an optional fourth element which can come between #2 and #3, which is Boy and Girl Are Torn Apart, Seemingly Forever. Critics of the romance genre call this “formulaic.” Those of us who write it call it our basic plot structure.

The happily ever after ending is one of the most important parts of the genre. Whereas all fiction should have a satisfying ending, romance must have a happy ending—or else it’s technically not romance. The “ever after” part of this ending varies throughout the spectrum of the genre (steamy romance/erot*ca may end with more of a “happily for the near future” ending).

The standard for the romance genre is that the story is experienced through both the hero’s and heroine’s viewpoints, in third person, past tense. There are authors who challenge this standard and do it successfully, but this is what the typical romance reader is looking for.

      Examples: Do I even need to point out all of my books as examples of standard romance? Even in the historicals (with the possible exception of Ransome’s Quest), I follow the genre expectation—though I don’t always use the “lose/separation,” because too often that can come across as contrived/forced—and that’s the last thing I want to do!

What Is Chick Lit?
Chick lit is a subgenre of romance/women’s fiction that features a “career girl in the city” main character—whether that city is New York, L.A., Chicago, or Nashville. It’s written in first person, present tense featuring only the viewpoint of this main character. She’s usually someone who’s obsessed with fashion (shoes, clothes) or some other aspect of pop culture (classic movies, celebrities, a certain TV show past or recent). The chick-lit heroine is snarky, sarcastic, sometimes naive, sometimes jaded, and has been thwarted in love—whether it’s a string of bad relationships in the past or a long-time unrequited crush on someone seemingly out of her reach.

There is almost always a strong romantic thread in chick lit, usually with the female protagonist suddenly discovering herself with two admirers she must choose between. However, unlike a true romance novel, she may not end up with either of them. One is typically an “ordinary guy,” the other is usually more worldly, experienced—not to mention wealthy. In general-market chick lit, it’s not unusual for the main character to carry on multiple relationships at once, including sleeping with more than one man, regardless of the depth of her feelings for each one.

A variation on the “career girl in the city” theme can be “city girl in the country” or “country girl in the city.” A very important aspect, though, is her job—either she’s looking to establish a career (usually in fashion, publishing, or entertainment), she’s burned out on it and looking for a change, or the book opens with her losing or quitting her job and trying to figure out what to do next. While there is a romance thread, the romance takes a backseat to the story’s focus on the main character’s internal journey.

While the genre boomed in the late 1990s through the mid-2000s, it fell out of favor with readers who grew tired of finding the same characters, the same situations, the same predicaments in every cookie-cutter story. There are a few authors who are still successful with this genre (though most publishers have reclassified them as romance novels, since the “chick lit” label makes even romance readers turn up their noses these days) by shaking things up, making their characters, settings, and situations unique enough to keep readers coming back for more.

      Examples: The most famous examples of chick lit are Sex and the City and Bridget Jones’s Diary in the general market. In the Christian market, the two most successful and popular chick lit authors are Laura Jensen Walker (Miss Invisible, Daring Chloe) and Tamara Leigh (Faking Grace, Restless in Carolina).

So that’s Romance and Chick Lit. Tomorrow, we’ll look at some other romance/women’s fiction subgenres. But for now, let’s discuss:

Taking into consideration the definitions above, name your three favorite ROMANCE novels. And, if you read chick lit, name your three favorite CHICK LIT novels.

  1. Monday, August 22, 2011 12:50 am

    My three favorite romance novels are: Along Came Jones by Linda Windsor, Velvet Song by Jude Deveraux (the first one I ever read), and Guardian Angel by Julie Garwood.

    My three favorite chick lit novels (coming from a very small list, I haven’t read many) are: Miss Invisible and Dreaming in Black & White by Laura Jensen Walker, and Faking Grace by Tamara Leigh.


  2. Monday, August 22, 2011 1:21 am

    This is really hard for chick lit I would say Camy Tangs Sushi series would be one of my favourite chick lits. I did like Faking Grace too.
    I am not sure about favourite romance books. I think I have to say The first in the Canadian West series by Janette Oke only because it got me back into reading. The falcon and the Sparrow by M.L. Tyndall but I cant pick a third one its often the last one I read.


  3. Monday, August 22, 2011 1:35 am

    Always hard to choose so there are the ones that come to mind today!

    Romance novels: The Trouble with Tommy by Elizabeth White (actually a novella but I have loved it for years!), The Convenient Bride by Denise Hunter & Freefall by Kristen Heitzmann.

    Chick lit: Splitting Harriet by Tamara Leigh, Stealing Adda by Tamara Leigh & Let Them Eat Cake by Sandra Byrd.


  4. Monday, August 22, 2011 7:35 am

    Thanks, Kaye. This is one of the best and most succinct explanations of the romance genre that I’ve read.




  5. Monday, August 22, 2011 9:11 am

    My three favorite Romance novels are: The Princess by Lori Wick, Streikers’ Bride by Robin Hardy and the Twilight Series, although I know that’s probably debatable as to what genre it falls in.

    My favorite Chick-lit is Enchanted Inc. by Shanna Swendson, Save the Date by Jenny B. Jones and Let them Eat Cake by Sandra Byrd. I don’t read much chick lit, I’m not one for snarky characters as you can tell by my picks. I never expected to write one. But it wouldn’t be written any other way. I’ve tried categorizing it as Women’s humerous fiction to help the marketing angle toward agents, but I don’t know if that helps or not. But short of placing in the Stilleto contest, no other contests or groups want to touch the chick-lit genre with a 10 foot pole.


    • Monday, August 22, 2011 9:21 am

      I believe Save the Date fits all the criteria for a Romance novel rather than a Chick Lit novel (third person/past tense, hero and heroine’s viewpoints, and a HEA ending), doesn’t it?


  6. Charmaine Gossett permalink
    Monday, August 22, 2011 9:39 am

    Of the chick lists, I like all of Tamara Leigh’s books, They are so fresh and help me understand the younger generation (I’m 78). Great characters, current topics.
    Of the classics it is hard to decide. I think first of Jane Austin. PRIDE AND PEDJUDICE is my favorite of her books. .The Brontes are too brooding and dark.


  7. Monday, August 22, 2011 10:31 am

    Asking a librarian for book titles is like asking a pianist to recite song lyrics . . . 😉

    Chick-lit: Hard one, because I haven’t read many, but in the Christian market, I like Janice Thompson’s “Weddings by Bella” series, and Lisa Wingate’s “Daily Texas” series. Both series are job-centric, first-person, and humorous.

    Romance novels: “Knight in Shining Armor” by Jude Devereaux (went through a heavy Devereaux phase about 20 years ago, and STILL love them), “Jane Eyre,” one of my first faves as a teen, Grace Livingston Hill books (especially the later ones, with more suspense).


  8. Kav permalink
    Monday, August 22, 2011 12:04 pm

    This is great, Kaye. Okay — would it be safe to say that chick-lit is also continuous. Same woman in subsequent books? I have to say that I’m not a fan of chick lit BUT

    I LOVE Siri Mitchell’s contemporaries based in Otter Bay…Fade to Blue,A Shore Thing and Sweet Water. They are told in first person — though the heroines aren’t totally jaded. They are jaded maybe about one aspect of their lives. They have other chick lit elements — like the heroine focusing on a job, have a couple of romantic interests but the romance thread is strong and carries through the whole plot. I would have categorized them as Romance Fiction, but now I’m not sure.


    • Kav permalink
      Monday, August 22, 2011 12:08 pm

      Whoops — lost a couple of sentences there. It’s Julie Carobini who writes the Otter Bay series!!!!!!!!! Siri Mitchell’s The Cubicle Next Door is another favourite of mine and I think of it as another crossover between RF and CL — Again it’s told in first person and the heroine has attitude. And it’s hysterically funny! But the romantic element is strong.


  9. Monday, August 22, 2011 1:21 pm

    Awesome post, Kaye! Your descriptions make this so much more concrete for me.

    Tamara Leigh is a major fave of mine! Anything she writes is LOL-worthy, but Stealing Adda is probably my favorite of hers. I also loved The Cubicle Next Door by Siri Mitchell.


  10. Monday, August 22, 2011 7:58 pm

    While I like Chick Lit as movies, I don’t care to read them. I’m not a First Person girl, preferring to get into the guys thoughts and watching him fall for the girl.


  11. Lady DragonKeeper permalink
    Friday, August 26, 2011 2:00 am

    THANK YOU so much for taking the time to write this post, Ms. Kaye! It’s explained in an easy-to-understand way. =D

    Off the top of my head, Julie Lessman and Julie Klassen have some very good romantic novels with that “optional fourth element” which often had me think “Will it really end like this?!”

    “Confessions of a Shopaholic” series by Sophie Kinsella comes to mind as “Chick Lit” … though I haven’t read them.



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