Rules of romance

Wow, I’m getting worse at this all the time. Sorry.

Within the last week or so, on a forum thread I was reading, a writer that I was helping for a bit was kind of frustrated. He talked about writing romances and was upset, or displeased, with the way romance readers often seem to want the same thing. Many were asking him to make sure his protagonists ended together and HEA, which is not something he usually does. Why do they demand this, he asked.

I have to agree that many romance readers do seem to want the same thing. And that’s okay.  If they want the geek to get the pretty girl, or the highwayman to fall for the lady, or the brooding male to find hope and love, that’s good with me. There are a lot of writers out there who can write these things, and put their own spins on it, and my feeling is read what you want, and if you don’t like it or get tired of it, there’s plenty of other things out there to read.

But to answer the question, the first thing I’d say is that it’s not much of a romance if your two leads don’t end up together at some point. One of the things I’ve found in writing romances is that for most of them, the excitement and enjoyment comes from your two leads overcoming whatever obstacles are in front of them. These could be internal, like a person afraid to trust after being hurt, or external, like a third party physically keeping the two leads apart (something I’ve mentioned is used a lot in nonhuman romances).

To have your protagonists deal with all of their obstacles and not end up together is tricky.  It can be done, but it seems to me that the reason that keeps them apart is something big, like death. (I’m guessing this is Love Story territory, but I’ve never read or seen it.)I had reasonably good luck with a non-HEA romance when I wrote a story called Who Cares What I Wear? It’s been long enough that I think a spoiler warning is unnecessary. 🙂

I set this story  up as I wrote it so that the reader knew that Emily and Ben were no longer a couple and that Emily was quite hurt about the whole thing. Purposely, I tried to lay a foundation that made it seem possible that Ben had found someone else and broken up with Emily. Towards the end, as Emily talks to her friend (and Ben’s), Neal, the reader learns that Ben died suddenly, apparently during the course of a robbery.

I considered ending the story with Emily’s death, and her relief at knowing she’d be with Ben. Then I thought, that’s a wussy ending. Emily is better than that. So Emily goes on, finally releasing some of her hurt and knowing she’ll always love Ben. So there was a romance where the two leads were not together (if one considers Ben a “lead”), but as I said, they did not choose to be apart.

Choosing to be apart seems to violate the idea of the romance, to me. If you’d like to write that story, where the leads decide that for whatever reason, they cannot be together. That’s fine. Not every story needs that kind of ending, although I think it’s likely that a romance story may need it more than others, because as I said, if your leads are not together, then where is the romance? I think otherwise, what you have may be a well-told story with romantic elements, but not necessarily a romance.

I think there’s always room for a well-told story, no matter the genre. And I know I’ve said that what keeps some of these genres fresh is playing with some of the rules or themes or commonalities. Vampires can be much more interesting if allowed out in the sun, or if unaffected by crosses and holy water. Werewolves are a little more intriguing when shape-shifting is not limited to the full moon. And the same goes for romances — let’s have women who make the first move, men who are not all alpha males, things like that.

But if you are going to mess with the goal of the traditional romance, then you have to be ready for criticism and perhaps consider that what you have is a good story, but not a romantic one.


3 responses to this post.

  1. I think the HEA or the HFN is a big part of the definition of a romance. If the couple ends up apart and not involved with each other, that’s some other kind of story. It could be a suspense story, or a thriller, mystery, science fiction, women’s fiction, or literary. No one has to end up together in those. But readers of romance want couples to end up prevailing and holding onto their love. I know that’s what I love most about the genre. I like knowing love will (somehow) conquer all. 🙂


  2. Posted by tinajennifer on October 23, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    My favorite romance author is Nicholas Sparks, and I’ve read almost all of his work – still missing a few books – but ‘A walk to remember’ and ‘The best of me’ are two of his very popular books, where the two leads doesn’t really end up together in the end. I love books or online novels that can keep my attention at all time, at least from after the first 5 pages. I love the fact that you expect something to happen, and hoping for a happy ending, you end up with the total opposite. I do of course also love, when stories and novels have a happy ending, where the two leads end up together and live happily ever after, just like in a fairytale, but not after a few obstacles on the way to happiness


  3. Posted by Lady Falcon on October 24, 2012 at 8:22 am

    Not much to say as I agree with you Eve. If the two main characters don’t end up either HFN or HEA then its not a romance. Yes, a good story is a good story no matter the genre.


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