Have you ever dreamed of becoming the next Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, or John Green? Have you ever wanted to write that New York Times best-selling, blockbuster movie-contracting, romance-for-the-ages novel? Then grab your laptop and beverage of choice and put your butt in a seat, because I’m about to break it down for you. Here is everything you need to know about how to write a romance novel, the tried-and-true recipe that every market-successful writer follows (whether they realize it or not).
As with any novel, there are three main elements that must be addressed: setting, character, and plot.* Every other element of fiction writing falls under these three categories. Let’s break them down:
- Setting – the time and place in which the story occurs. This determines what genre of romance you are writing and sets the mood. When does your story take place – what time period? Past, present, or future? Where does it happen – in a small town, in a major city, or a completely made-up world? What time of year is it – around Valentine’s Day, or a summer fling, or the holidays?
- You’ll notice that author Nicholas Sparks sets the majority of his novels in small towns in North Carolina, which is where he grew up. Many authors recommend writing from personal experience. Although this can make your story more authentic, feel free to experiment with unfamiliar settings – just realize there will be lots of research or imagination involved.
- Also, setting is especially important in the romance genre because it determines where your main character and their love interest meet – this can set your story apart from the thousands of other romance novels out there. Will they meet at a bar? At work? Through mutual friends at a party? While on vacation? On FarmersOnly.com? At a yoga class? Running from the law? Is she a medieval princess, and he her servant? Do their lives collide in a chance encounter? Or was it purposely set up? It can be as traditional or unorthodox as you like.
- Characters – The more unique and relatable your characters are, the more your story will stand out from the rest and get readers hooked. First, choose a main character and then decide on a point of view. Is your story from the perspective of a man who has fallen in love with the female main character, like A Walk to Remember? Is it written from the perspective of the heroine, like The Fault in Our Stars? Both books are examples of first person POV. Perhaps you have two dueling first person perspectives, such as in Veronica Roth’s book Allegiant. Or maybe you prefer third person POV, in which none of the characters narrate.
- Once you’ve picked a main character, a point of view, and a handful of secondary characters (best friends, sidekicks, old or current significant others, parents, bosses, siblings, etc.), it’s time to bring them to life. Here’s my personal favorite checklist to fill out in order to develop each of your characters. The better you know your character, the more memorable they will be to the reader. Is your leading lady shy and quiet, or is she strong-willed and outspoken? Is the main man charming and romantic, or is he endearingly dorky and awkward?
- Plot – This determines whether or not yours is a romance for the ages and truly sets your story apart from all the rest. All pure romances (note: the love story is the main plot, not the sub-genre) are the same in that attraction develops between characters (or sometimes it develops in only one character and is not reciprocated – either way, attraction develops at some point!) and is the main focus of the story. But how that attraction begins and develops into love – whatever kind of love it may be – is what will make your readers fall in love with your story. It doesn’t have to be a literary masterpiece. High School Musical may not have won an Oscar, but it did have a love story that kept audiences rooting for Troy and Gabriella through three movies.
- There must be some sort of conflict that the characters attempt to overcome in order for their love to succeed. This is what drives the story and engrosses the reader and will literally make or break your book. Until we know what a character wants, we don’t know what the story is about. Until we know what the stakes are, we don’t care. Odds are you already have the ultimate love story in mind – I know I did when I started writing The Last Summer Series. But just in case you need a bit of inspiration, here’s my favorite list of romantic conflicts. Maybe it’s the ever-popular love triangle such as in Twilight (think Edward-Bella-Jacob) or The Hunger Games (Peeta-Gale-Katniss), or the man’s pursuit of an uninterested woman (like Adam Sandler in 50 First Dates), or maybe the couple mutually falls in love.
Still need to be inspired? Do what I do: curl up on the coach with a fuzzy blanket, your best friend (human or animal), and watch a bunch of romance movies. My go-tos are Hallmark movies, as cheesy as that sounds, but A Walk to Remember and The Notebook are also personal favorites. Older movies can bring about inspiration (think anything Audrey Hepburn), as well as timeless love stories like Titanic and Pride & Prejudice. Finally, put together a list of your personal favorite love stories and identify what makes them so appealing.
More than anything, write the love story you most want to live, or the story you find most romantic or admirable. That’s what I did, and I have no regrets.
*Note: These are the main elements of storytelling. These do not have to do with writer’s craft, a totally separate category which contains elements like diction, imagery, syntax, tone, theme, similes & metaphors, etc.