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WHAT ROMANCE READERS WANT
By Tessa Shapcott
I’ve worked in the women’s fiction industry for over twenty-five years as an editor and a writer. Though a lot has changed in the world since the nineteen-eighties, including women’s status in society, romance has proved to be a remarkably consistent, stable genre, both in terms of its readership (still one of those most universally popular) and what its audience wants.
This is a good and a bad thing. Good, because it means that the romance novelist can really target her writing to a large but defined market. Bad, because an author could be lulled into a false sense of security based on a generalized perception about what’s wanted and lose the very thing that matters most: her unique voice. It is very tempting to think you just need to write to a formula—the very notion with which those of us in the romance industry are beaten around the head on a daily basis by our detractors, and which romance readers hate!
Romance readers know what they want, and as an author you need to know what those expectations are and meet them. I will talk about the key six here. But do take my advice on board with this caveat: use it as your starting point; it’s your choice what you write and how you meet readers’ needs. Above all, be yourself; write from the heart. Because this is what a reader of romance craves most—to hear that special voice of yours as they turn the pages, bringing to life the elements that they love and look for, but in an original, different, and memorable way.
Before we launch into the big six, let’s just pin down what the romance market is and what it looks like.
The publishing industry divides the romance genre into two sectors: category and mainstream. Category romances are also known as series romances, and are usually written to a specified length, a defined promise and prescribed level of sensuality, and are packaged in a strongly branded way. Mainstream novels are often referred to as single titles; as that title implies, the story stands alone. Generally, they are longer and give the writer freedom to explore, allowing for more characters, a level of sensuality that fits the story and sub-plot development.
Both category and mainstream can be broken down into sub-genres; for example, contemporary, historical, western, paranormal, and erotica, to name but a few.
And, though the approaches to writing for one or the other are perhaps different, readers of both category and mainstream have very clear expectations.
Expectation One: escapism. The romance reader wants to be entertained, carried away, to be uplifted. Picture the women you know; my guess is that they’re all multi-taskers, living too-hectic lives, doing incredible juggling acts to keep family, friends, and companies happy and functioning. And sometimes things just don’t turn out well, no matter how hard we all try. It’s a no-brainer that reading romance offers respite and relaxation, a chance to dream and indulge in what might be and see that result in a satisfying completion or an unashamed, full-on happy ending.
So there has to be at least a touch of fantasy in a romance novel, maybe more depending on the sub-genre you’re aiming for. Make it your business to find out what the women around you see as their ultimate escape fantasy, the kind of guy they’d like to do it with, the kind of loving they would like to receive from him… and anything else that strikes you as bringing that little sprinkling of magic.
Expectation Two: the romantic relationship must be at the heart of the story. Lest that seem like an obvious statement, you would be surprised at how many writers don’t make it so; they get diverted by minor characters or plot threads and the central relationship becomes a hurried, shadowy affair, crowded out by other concerns. So, the advice here is short and sweet: take care to keep your focus on the romance from the first page, and on every page thereafter; it’s of the utmost importance to the reader to have a strong and developing emotional connection at the core of the novel.
Expectation Three: characters who engage the reader’s imagination. I learned early on in my romance apprenticeship that readers need the heroine to be their gateway to the story—they want to experience the romance through her eyes—and that they want to fall in love with the hero. Therefore, you as the writer should be walking the miles in your heroine’s shoes; step into her skin, see the world through her eyes and your reader will too. She’s got to be empathetic and likeable, so whether she’s strong, sexy and saucy, or gentle, reflective and building her self-esteem, she’s also positive, determined, and loyal. As for your hero, it’s helpful if you can fall in love with him yourself first—and then be prepared to share your fantasy. In every survey of readers, Alpha males still rule the roost; there’s something irresistible about a man who conducts life on his own terms. But Alpha doesn’t necessarily mean domineering or macho. The flawed man or the bad boy are just two kinds; an Alpha can also be the guy next door—so long as he’s as strong and sexy as your heroine, a rock she can depend on, with grit, charisma, and a code of honor that will see him through challenging times.
Expectation Four: a believable plot. Fantasy means that anything can happen—right? Ultimately, yes. But how the hero and heroine make the journey to their happy ending has to be rooted in reality for the reader to engage and stay engaged. Readers want to see their own experiences and situations mirrored, the universal emotional truths that shape their real-life relationships worked though and then spun off into the correct resolution, courtesy of a convincing, well-executed storyline. In the business, it’s known as believable world building, and its key is using characterisation and emotion to lead and generate, rather than always letting the plot dictate what comes next.
In romance plotlines, you may find yourself revisiting familiar scenarios; that’s okay. Human relationships tend to worry at the same things. However, don’t be tempted to give a conservative or copycat makeover to a well-used situation; push yourself to think of those unique twists and turns, those unexpected solutions that will make your story original and exciting.
Expectation Five: conflict. Of all the elements in a romance novel, in my experience writers struggle with this one the most. It’s a scary word, conflict; it conjures up thoughts of bad emotions like anger and revenge, and we want everything in our fantasy romance gardens to be rosy, don’t we? Again, ultimately we do. But the road to that destination needs to be a little rough, because that’s how reality is, and it makes for a much more enjoyable story. Conflict adds suspense and tension—that delicious feeling of anticipation as the reader turns the pages, wondering what will happen next.
Creating good conflict is an art. Too much of it in a story is uncomfortable, exhausting, and boring; too little is uncomfortable, dull, and boring. Look to your main characters and their emotions in order to build and grow the conflict between them. What’s keeping them apart? What are the personal inner struggles that they bring to the relationship, and that create barriers? What are the motivations that divide or unite? How much does their sexual attraction cause sparks? How do your characters manifest and resolve their conflicts—by action or discussion? Think of conflict like an ocean tide; it ebbs and flows, comes in and goes out, and is driven by the emotional weather, as to whether things are stormy or calm.
Expectation Six: sensual content. Romance and sensuality go hand in hand. However, the amount of sensuality in a romance novel can vary a great deal. Indeed, the market segments itself partly on the level of sexual content and explicitness. Some readers enjoy just a little, some like more but want it delivered slow and seductive, and there are others who want it fast and hot, frequent, and descriptive.
There’s nothing worse than bad sex! Thus, you must be honest with yourself and write only what you feel comfortable with. Also, never look on sex as an element that has to be inserted (if you’ll pardon the pun) at set intervals. It has to fit your characters and be part and parcel of the plot. Look to the developing relationship to define and drive how the sex occurs, its level of steaminess and its role in supporting the expression of emotion. Make sure that your love scenes move the story forward, and aren’t just there for a quick thrill!
Be mindful, too, of how women relate to sex and use it as an emotional expression. There are times when they, too, just want a no-strings affair. But mostly, closeness, intimacy, faithfulness, and consideration are big incentives. How it feels matters more than how it looks.
That’s a great maxim for writing romance generally: how it feels matters more than how it looks. So, when you’re ready to write, know what readers’ key expectations are, but do also remind yourself of that caveat we discussed earlier: above all, be yourself; write from the heart.
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