Writing from the Heart: What Makes a Good Romance Novel?

Warning: Like any good adult romance, this blog contains content not fit for children.

Romance novels are like sexual fetishes—just when you think you’ve come up with something new, a brief Google search tells you someone’s already forged that path. Of course, that doesn’t mean your book is any less likely to succeed.

Romance, especially, seems to thrive on a well-worn story arc: An unlikely couple meets, falls in love, is torn apart, and must overcome all obstacles to be reunited. Toss in a few steamy scenes based on age appropriateness and target audience, and you’ve got a hit!

But basic plotline aside, what makes a good romance novel?

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The first step to writing a great romance is to understand where your talents are best suited. Imagine you’re on a “choose your own adventure.” The scenario goes something like this:

It’s sunset. Harley, the emotionally distant, but incredibly handsome cowboy, meets you out by the barn, just as you’re preparing to go home for the night. You’ve noticed him watching you these last two weeks, and you’ve had your eye on him. The tempting curves of his back and shoulders under his Fruit of the Loom white T-shirt; that chiseled jaw and those startling blue eyes, full of promise and mystery. You step out into the yard and find yourself between him and one of his newly dug fence posts. Does Harley . . .

A) sweep you off your feet and into his big, strong arms, whereupon he kisses you long and slow until you’re sure no one has ever experienced a love like this?


B) rip the clothes from your body, tie you to the fence post, and commence all sorts of R-rated shenanigans upon your ravished, fully-consenting flesh?

If you chose A, you might be best suited for bodice rippers—those beloved front-of-the-grocery-store novels, like the ones written by Danielle Steel or Judith McNaught. If you chose B, you’re perhaps more in line to write erotica. In this vein, of course, is the notorious Fifty Shades of Grey series by E. L. James, or the perhaps better-written and no less thrilling Dinosaur Erotica series by Christie Sims and Alara Branwen.

These are just a couple of the most well-known branches of romance fiction. In fact, romances—like their protagonists—come in all shapes and sizes. From historical romance to LGBTQ romance to fantasy romance to paranormal, holiday, Christian romance, and more!

But finding your niche is just the beginning. Here are three essential ingredients to creating a successful romance novel love potion.

1. Relatable, yet fantasy-worthy protagonists

Romance writers have a tough job. They must create characters who aren’t only attractive and orgasm-inspiring, but also realistic and sympathetic. Flawless, yet flawed. After all, if we don’t like them, why should we root for their happiness? In between hot bods and sexy, husky tones, protagonists must have qualities that prevent them from achieving that “happily ever after” too soon.

The flaw is he has back hair like nobody's business when the full moon rises.

The flaw is he has back hair like nobody's business when the full moon rises.

To ensure you’re writing characters others will want to see get lucky, spend some time with your protagonists one on one . . . or one on two if you’re into that. Flush out their insecurities, their annoying traits, their core hopes and dreams, their drive, and their passions. Find out what makes them tick and what makes them attracted to their counterpart. Know what drives them away.

Keep in mind that while a really great thriller or adventure novel may be able to push a reader through to the end on a wave of adrenalin, a good romance novel is character-driven, not action-driven. No one’s going to sit through a bedroom scene—no matter how hot you make it—unless the people between the sheets are characters the reader deems deserving of getting laid.

2. What else? A jaw-dropping climax

No, we’re not just talking about THE climax—or hopefully, more than one. But more on that in a minute. We’re talking the literary climax midway through your noxel, reached after intensive rising action, leading your reader through to a very satisfying resolution.

For a lot of writers, part of what makes crafting romance so difficult is achieving the right balance of rising action and romantic encounters. It’s easy to lose sight of the story in the wake of all those sex scenes. And for that matter, romance writers are challenged to not only build tension and character arcs, but to build on romance as well, both in the physical acts and in the emotional connection.

Even Mr. Grey gets out of the house once in a while . . .

Even Mr. Grey gets out of the house once in a while . . .

Best-selling author of LGBTQ erotica Deanna Wadsworth advises writers to ask themselves these questions when writing a new sex scene: “What is the point of this scene? Are [my] characters experiencing something pivotal?”

In a 2015 guest post for Rainbow Romance Writers, Wadsworth writes, “Even in erotica, a sex scene should enhance character development and drive the story forward. **REMEMBER** If you can eliminate a sex scene and the plot or story does not suffer, then it did not need to be there.”

By focusing on your story’s plot and not just on the sexy scenes in between, you’ll find you’re able to bring your readers a worthwhile climax that’s every bit as satisfying for them as it is for your characters. And speaking of satisfying . . .

3. A sexual buffet

Just look how satisfied Emma Stone is!

Just look how satisfied Emma Stone is!

Normally I don’t like comparing sex acts to food, but let’s face it: If restaurant offerings were scenes in a romance novel, the Golden Corral would be every reader’s wet dream. Think variety—a sexual buffet for the senses. Readers don’t want to relive the same encounter over and over. Or for that matter, the same verbs.

Do yourself a favor, and before you hand your book over to a likely trepidatious neighbor or friend, consider each romantic encounter with a critical eye. Does each one offer something different? Is there a new tone or involvement from a new part of the body? Consider adding in a scene that’s unusual for your characters. If their escapades are typically more vanilla, toss in something racier, or vice versa. There are no rules, so don’t be afraid to shock—and potentially delight—your reader.

Another tip is to run a ctrl-f on your story. Look for words like “suck,” “fondle,” “breast,” or “hard.” These are great nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but if you’ve used the word “boob” 100 times in as many pages (please, no), it may be time to open a thesaurus. Luckily, author and blogger Laurel Clark has already done the work for you with this delightfully naughty blog of alternative words and phrases, perfect for romance writing. Some of our favorites are “honeypot” under “lady bits” and “his length” under “man parts.” Be sure to check out part two of her “Sexy Thesaurus” blog as well, for an even longer list!

Whether your passions lie in human romance or something more beastly (centaur romance, anyone?), why not give writing from the heart a try? Once you’ve lubricated the mind and stroked those creative muscles, you may find you have all the inspiration needed to create a best-selling, blush-worthy novel.

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