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Romance Novels: What Are They, Anyway?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"Une soirée" Jean Béraud, 1878

“Une soirée” Jean Béraud, 1878

Yesterday, we pondered the question of whether or not a book that is labeled/marketed as a Romance Novel needs to have a happy ending. I thought we could look today at what we’re really talking about when we throw around the term “Romance Novel.”

A little background on my experience with this genre: I have a Master of Arts degree in Writing Popular Fiction, where my area of specialization was romance, my thesis was a contemporary inspirational romance novel, and my critical research paper was on the conventions of the romance genre, reader expectations, and the evolution of inspirational romance as a separate genre. I have eleven novels that have been published (but I’ve been writing romantic stories since I was twelve years old); my debut novel, Stand-In Groom, which was also my thesis novel, was published by Barbour in January 2009. My eleventh novel, An Honest Heart, was published by B&H Publishing in 2013. After a break of a few years, I’m currently writing a new historical romance, which I hope to be handing over to my agent in the fall to start shopping it to publishers.

All that said, I am nowhere near considering myself an expert on the romance genre. However, I think my background makes me a little more knowledgeable than the average bear.

What is the definition of a “Romance Novel”?

According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), the leading authority on the romance genre (emphasis mine):

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction.1

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.2


In Writing the Romantic Comedy, Billy Mernit puts it this way: “Rather than asking, ‘will the hero obtain his goal?’ the central question posed by a [romance novel] is: ‘will these two individuals become a couple?’” (p. 13).3

Or to put it the way I was taught at one of my first writers’ conferences: If you take the romantic thread and the happy ending out of the story and you still have a story, it’s not a romance novel. It’s a novel with a romantic subplot. It could even be a love story (which, minus the romantic thread, wouldn’t have a story; but minus the happy ending, would). It’s just not a romance novel.

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).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).5

Now that’s clarified—the story focuses on the development of the relationship between two people and ends happily/optimistically—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: H & H have significant encounters.
2. Lose: H & H are separated.
3. Get: H & H reunite
(pg. 4)3

I would add one more to his list:
4. HEA (HFN): H & H have a “happily ever after” (“happily for now”) 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 the happy outcome to our story. This can be a conflict that seems to tear our beloved characters apart forever; or it can be a challenge that they both have to face together—but without the successful resolution of this conflict, they may not get their happy ending.

In the movie Return to Me, the “lose” happens when Grace reveals to Bob that she was the transplant recipient who received his dead wife’s heart. In Pride and Prejudice, it’s Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. In Sense and Sensibility, it’s Edward’s previous engagement (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 and depriving them of their happy ending.

Works cited:

1“The Romance Genre.” Romance Writers of America. RWA. n.d. Web. 22 March 2016.

2“About the Romance Genre.” Romance Writers of America. RWA. n.d. Web. 22 March 2016.

3 Mernit, Billy. Writing the Romantic Comedy. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2000. Print.

4Martin, Gail Gaymer. Writing the Christian Romance. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2007. Print.

5Michaels, Leigh. On Writing Romance: How to Craft a Novel That Sells. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2007. Print.

  1. Tuesday, March 22, 2016 9:10 am

    Maybe next time you write about romance novels, you could make the description more inclusive. There are many “boy meets boy” and “girl meets girl” romance novels.


    • Tuesday, April 5, 2016 12:11 pm

      Yes, I am aware of that, and thanks to your reminder I realized that in my paraphrasing of Billy Mernit’s “steps” of the romance, I left it gendered the way he had it in his book—which I have now corrected. However, I can’t change any of the remaining examples of gender-specific language—those are all in the quotations from other writers’ books.



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