This may seem like a strange question, but it is one I encounter a lot. Maybe not in the actual question form, but from people who think they know the answer and oh so obviously don’t. In fact, even writers who say they write romance don’t always know what makes a romance, at least when looking at the term in the genre romance sense.
I, like many published romance authors who are members of Romance Writers of America (RWA), judge RWA’s big contest, the Rita. I haven’t started my entries this year, but in the past I have received books entered as romances that just weren’t. In fact I have received books that had zero romance in them. Yes, there was a boy and there was a girl….uh and that is where it stopped. (An aside…the Ritas have a box for judges to check that says either “not a romance” or “wrong category”. If a certain number of judges check the box for one book, it will be disqualified from that category.)
So, what makes a book a romance novel?
Not a clear enough answer? Okay, I’ll go a little deeper, but first let’s clarify a bit. My definition is for today’s genre romance. It is not for classic romances written two hundred years ago, or even literary books that might be romantic. This is for genre romances.
Okay, so there is romance. Someone (in mainstream fiction this still means two people) falls in love. But and this is huge, not only do these people fall in love, but the story of their romance is KEY to the novel. How key will vary by sub-genre (in romantic suspense the romance plot may take up less than half of the book), but if you yanked the romance plot out of the book, the story would fall apart. You would not have a book that stood on its own. Period. No way around it.
This does not mean any of the cliches you hear about romance is true. The hero and heroine do not have to meet on page one–although since the romance is one of the, if not the, key plot line you can see how this might be a good idea. The hero doesn’t have to be rich or dashing. The heroine does not have to be a virgin or feisty. You just have to have a romance!! And that romance has to be important to the book! Very important!
Oh, and if the book is a GENRE romance there had better be a HEA (happily ever after). In murder mysteries the reader wants the killer caught. In romances we want the love to last. Just the way it is.
And that, people, is about it.
One last word of warning. You can not tell a romance by its cover or what is written on the spine. You may in fact pick up a book that says “romance” on the spine. This does not sadly guarantee that what you are reading is in fact a romance. What it does guarantee is that the publisher and their marketing team think the book will SELL better as a romance. Yep, that’s right at times books are labeled or packaged just to sell the book. But you now will know if you are reading a romance, right? And how? Because there will be romance important to the overall success of the book in it!