The Rules of Romance

posted in: On writing | 37

I’m in the throes of editing. I’ve written a good story but it needs some restructure and it needs a lot more romance. That last is a skill I have yet to properly master but I know and understand it must be done. Apparently I was quite successful in my Iron Admiral books, but not so much in Morgan’s Choice and Starheart, which are principally action-adventure stories with romance as a side dish. (See books for more info)

Many people scoff at romance. Sure, there are pot-boilers – as there are in every other genre, but it isn’t necessarily an easy genre to write well, as I have discovered. I’ve also learned there are Rules. You know me and rules, know ’em so you can break ’em. The one that really, really bothers me about romance is the one that says ‘when the hero and heroine first set eyes on each other, they shall have no eyes for anybody else’.

I kind of understand the reasoning, here. It isn’t about reality, it’s about an ideal, if you like. But it comes down to male versus female needs/wants/desires. Alan and Barbara Pease, who wrote an iconic book about body language, also wrote another book entitled “Why men want sex and women need love”. To me, the argument they give is compelling and they could easily have used ‘males’ for men and ‘females’ for women in the title because the behaviour is found in many, if not most, species. (I know some species form a monogamous relationship – but even the fabled swan mating has been shown to be not quite so monogamous as we’ve been led to believe.) Males spread their sperm around to father offspring. Females are usually shouldered with the job of raising said offspring. They need the support of a loving male to help them do so. Fair enough.

Now back to our mythical couple. It’s love at first sight. But there are problems and setbacks and she knocks him back. We have a frustrated male. Yet when I suggest he would go and find consolation in the arms of an acquaintance, friend, or hooker, this is deemed wrong. I’ll bet it’s realistic, though. Men’s urges and motivations aren’t the same as a woman’s. Is it just that (as a friend told me) women read romance to escape reality?

Any thoughts on all of this, people?

37 Responses

  1. Into which pigeonhole does this book fit? | Greta van der Rol

    […] and it must have a happy ever after (HEA) ending or a happy for now (HFN) ending. I talked about the rules of romance here. But every genre has ‘shades of grey’ (yeah, yeah). Science fiction ranges between […]

  2. jaristophanes

    I’m putting some romance into one of my books and I’ve already broken the rule about live at first sight. They don’t hate each other, but they are a bit indifferent at first. I was planning on making their relationship a slow burn. I hope I haven’t fallen at the first hurdle though. Yikes!

    • Greta van der Rol

      Oh, I don’t think you have. It doesn’t have to be love at first sight. But it’s worth reading back through the comments, it really is.

  3. Cheryl

    Greta I think you did a wonderful job with Morgan’s Choice. The romance fit with the characters. It’s not right if it doesn’t fit in with the story line. I thought the Admiral’s reactions were very natural given the circumstance of the story and I really liked it. Good Job! Please keep writing. I would love to hear more about that civilization.

    • Greta van der Rol

      Thank you so very much. I know not everyone was taken with Ravindra – but I put a lot of thought into how he would react, given his background. And I’d say the same for Hudson.

  4. Toby Neal

    I 100% agree. It also bears mentioning that arousal in male humans is usually visual while arousal in females is more relationship/courtship/activity based.
    Though I personally, find a fine set of shoulders and and nice pair of hands quite melty.
    PS are you seeing a boost in traffic to the blog since Triberr?

  5. sambradley11

    But, what if they know each other, as in a work situation, but haven’t gotten together yet. She’s dating his best friend and because the loyalty between the men, he won’t interfere. She doesn’t think he wants her, because he doesn’t know how to express it … and won’t. Once they get together, it’s different. I think it’s the “Lays eyes on each other” that’s the problem. Maybe there are things that stand in the way of them getting together – often themselves.

  6. Shannyn Schroeder

    Hi Greta – Interesting topic. I read and write romance and you have a point, but… it’s not that the hero won’t think about looking elsewhere, he just can’t act on it and follow through. The idea is that it’s not very heroic for him to cheat.

    Now, if the hero and heroine have just met and they’re not a couple yet, and they haven’t discovered true love, it’s okay for them to be with other people. The only problem you have with that is how it feeds into your overall story arc and the romantic story arc. It’s not conflict for them to be dating a bunch of other people before they get together. And having them with other people keeps them from being together. The point of a romance is to get them together. If you have them with other people, there has to be a real reason for it.

    I don’t know if that helps much, but it’s my 2 cents.

  7. Barry Selby

    This is an interesting conversation. What drew me in the first place is I wrote a (non-fiction) book titled Rules Of Romance, 50 Ways To Love Your Lover, which describes 50 principles that will make or break a relationship. I coach and speak to singles and couples on relationships and romance, and also happen to be an SF geek!

    In regard to your original question, and dealing with what’s true in the now, rather than the future: A man who is rejected by a woman he’s interested in is generally more likely to either retreat and walk away and/or seek a different partner. If she is playing hard to get, and he recognizes that, he will likely enjoy the chase and keep after her. From what you wrote, it seems they both know they love and want each other, and he recognizes that she has issues and stuff in the way, and will, gallantly, pursue her, as long as the obstacles are not insurmountable. Men don’t usually understand women that well, which makes dating and relationship so interesting!

    Of course, this is factual reality, rather than fictional possibility!

    • Greta van der Rol

      Thanks for that very real insight. In my fictional case the serious attraction/love is certainly there but for him, in particular, there is an apparently insurmountable obstacle to them being together. She’s mainly suffering from a previously broken heart, although the cultural differences between them is also a factor, but he has to marry the ‘right’ woman and she isn’t ‘right’. (She is in the end, but that’s the story, isn’t it?) I hope you’re following the conversation, because I’d be very interested to know how you think he’d react.

    • Faruk

      well first off. its your book dammit. the caehactrrs emotions and behaviors should be true to you. sappy or not. try to put your self in your caehactrrs’ shoes. where would you draw the line in your own life? one way to avoid being terribly sappy is to think of the worst sappiest movie you have ever seen, and write down the places that are off limits. then pick the best movie you have ever seen where the romance is subtle, yes inspirational and memorable. Also remember that you cant please EVERY reader that’ll come across your book, so dont break your back trying to write something that’ll please everybody. oooh!!!!! and a good way to avoid being sappy is by making the romance part more suspenseful. dont have it straightforward and open right at the begginning. its these things that’ll make ppl want read more.

  8. Noelle

    Okay. I have to weigh in here, as a romance reader and writer. “Rules” are…flexible. In genre romance, the ONLY real rule is the happy ever after, because that’s the entire point of the genre. It is a fantasy, as others have mentioned. Romance readers don’t read for the ending, we read for the romantic journey. HOW do two people fall in love? (And I just noticed Steven said this already, so here’s a +1). πŸ˜€

    Now, that’s not to say there aren’t unspoken rules, but these will vary with the reader. For example, there are some who say if the hero or heroine sleep with anyone (adultery or not), the romance is over. C’mon, though. How realistic is that? There are plenty of readers who will forgive indiscretion. It’s not easy to show that they trust again, but it can be done. This falls in with the “can’t look at another” type of thing. Not true. In fact, there are plenty of books I’ve read where the heroine not only falls in love with one, but it follows her life and she has multiple loves (see Bertrice Small for some good ones). There are stories where the hero and heroine are friends for a long time, dating and sleeping with others before they get together. My point is, love at first sight isn’t necessary. Attraction, however, is usually a good idea, even if they don’t act on it.The real “rule” here is to make it not sleazy. If he’s interested in one, it won’t work for him to start seeing/sleeping with three more. Realistic, maybe, but not heroic.

    Another unspoken rule is forced seduction. Some people lurve this. Me, not so much. While I’ve read every last Johanna Lindsey book, multiple times, there is one I will never read again because it included several scenes that amounted to rape. Yes, it was in the late 70s, or 80s, and that was all the rage, but no thanks. In my mind, you canNOT come back and tell me there’s a love story if the hero has ever forced her. Ever. There was a recent debut that included this, too. It’s one of only 2-3 books I’ve ever not finished.

    So, that said…is your love story believable? If so, don’t worry about the “rules,” spoken or unspoken. Just tell the story.

      • Claudiu

        You want enough rcomnae to have the readers wanting the two characters to get together so badly they would do anything! The best thing to do DON’T get them together. Readers love books like that they just dont know it. Longing glances, accidental brushing of the shoulders, almost there kisses those are the kinds of things that will make butterflies go through the reader’s stomach and leave them hoping (and turning pages) for more. Think about it HP, The Office (and a ton of other TV shows) have the characters that are destined to be together clumsily learn over time that they were meant for each other. Sappy rcomnae like twilight has none of that. They didnt start off as friends, they didn’t slowly and painfully fall in love, and they didnt give the readers anything to be hoping for. Less IS more when it comes to rcomnae. Don’t give the readers what they want unless you want (until the end) unless you want it to be boring.GL! I hoped I helped you.

  9. Steven J Pemberton

    Since the readers of romance are mainly women (yay stereotypes!), the heroes of romance novels tend to be men as women would like them to be, not necessarily men as they really are.

    And yes, anything marketed as romance has to have a happy-ever-after ending, so you don’t read one because you want to know how it ends. You read because you want to know how the characters will get to that happy-ever-after, seemingly against all the odds. Romance isn’t the only genre that does this. Does anybody watching, say, a James Bond movie ever seriously think the villain is going to win?

  10. carver22

    I’m with Pete on this one. Surely, according to the ‘rules’, if the ‘happily ever after’ is a given, all the obstacles they have to overcome en route to it are patently nonsense. It may be desirable to hope that everyone in the world will find a partner and that the image that sums up civilisation is one of happy couples skipping through the tulips, but what a tedious vision. Equally, those which suggest ALL men and ALL women behave in specific, predictable ways encourage a vision from which surprise is missing. If you don’t know it already, read what’s claimed to be the first ever novel, La Princesse de Cleves and check out the heroine’s ultimate stance. I’m going to nick a version of it for my present WIP – a sequel to The Figurehead, in which romance crept up on me as much as it did on the characters.

    • Greta van der Rol

      Well, I think Steven gave a good answer to this one. It certainly bothers me if readers think less of a man (single, a playboy type) is he lapses.

  11. pippajay

    I kind of fell into writing romance by mistake (I just happened to write scifi with a developing relationship in it, but was kind of blind to what my characters were up to!) so I love reading this kind of advice. And knowing I’m not the only one learning! πŸ™‚ But in mine, there’s no love at first sight, and the relationship is a lot more complicated as both characters have issues to overcome, apart from the outside conflict over which they have no control. I guess if you have your male seeking solace outside the main relationship, you might have him lose the reader’s sympathy, but I’m a firm believer in the author writing what they feel is right and the story. Tough one.

  12. Pete

    “β€˜when the hero and heroine first set eyes on each other, they shall have no eyes for anybody else’.”

    What a stupid rule.

    No jealousy? No sexual envy, no insecurity, no guilt or forbidden lust? Sounds like fantasy.

    • Jasmine

      To be honest romance novels do have plenty of all those things you’ve listed. After all, where would the conflict be otherwise? Not all heroines are put in life-threatening situations, after all. But the basic idea is that even if the hero or heroine DO look at someone else from the opposite sex, they aren’t supposed to want that person if they are going to end up together. Because, you know, romance novels ARE fantasy, in a way. That’s why women read them. πŸ˜€

      • Lavonita

        How about a ramnoce where the hero kind of wants a sappy ramnoce, but the heroine would rather die than have a you are my life now moment? Or maybe make it like Rizzo and Kenickie in Grease (not the whole pregnancy scare part. More like they know their made for each other, and they know they’d be the perfect pair, but pride gets in the way).

  13. Jasmine

    I believe we’ve discussed this a bit, Greta. πŸ™‚ I think the thing is that even though what you say is realistic, women don’t like that, and don’t really like to think that a man who is chasing them would go and screw around with another woman when he’s suffered some setbacks. I know it’s unfair, but that’s the truth. And when women go to read a romance they want the hero to basically be someone they can fall in love with, too. It’s okay for the hero to have flaws, but if it’s a flaw that would make your reader fall out of love with the hero then it’s best to leave it out. And having your hero seek comfort in the form of sex from another woman other than the one he’s after is a deal breaker. I mean, the guy certainly knows that because he never tells said women he’s done so because he knows it would make his chances that much harder!

    • Greta van der Rol

      We have, and that’s one reason I raised the issue – to find out what other people really think. It’s certainly true he wouldn’t tell the object of his affection. And that’s certainly a consideration.

      • Jasmine

        Have you talked to Noelle? She’s been writing romance quite a bit longer than I have and I’ve always found her insights into the genre to be helpful. I think the main point from that wall of text I posted is that if it’s something that would make either your heroine or your reader fall out of love with the hero, you should leave it out. But I could be wrong about that being the general consensus. πŸ™‚

        • Greta van der Rol

          I’ll give her a nudge. Look, you’re not the only one who has told me this. It’s just that pragmatic, ‘that’s how people act’ me needs to really get a handle on it all. See, I’d completely understand (from the outside looking in) if I guy had the need to scratch an itch. I don’t think it needs to mean he loves the lady any less.

  14. maryfollowsthelamb

    Romance novels you say? I suggest you read some Nora Roberts. The woman is the ultimate Queen of Romance.

    For me, the romance novel is boy meets girl, problems keep them apart but eventually are overcome and love reigns supreme

  15. MonaKarel

    Great topic. So far what I’ve read of your wonderful space operas has been more Sci Fi with romantic elements than romance. The romance is an integral part of the plot but it’s not the primary focus.
    According to those rules, if your forever couple strays, especially “on stage,” you’ve moved into the mainstream category, and out of romance. They can think about straying, or even start to stray, but they have to “feel” that it’s wrong and not follow through. Of course if there’s one of those “breaks” then all bets are off, as long as all parties know it’s a “break,” especially if one or both parties believes there’s no future for our couple. And doesn’t this sound like a TV episode? Was it Friends???
    I enjoy more of the falling in love in spite of themselves books, rather than instant bonding. At least to read, and sometimes to write. It helps when one of the two is more experienced, and recognizes the importance of the other person in their lives. When you have someone like Admiral Saahren, who was SO pathetic at inter personal relationships, then the reader has an extra added attraction–watching the Iron man melt in frustration.

    • Greta van der Rol

      Thanks, Mon. You’re exactly right about my SF. But the one I’m writing is aimed at the romance reader. That sounds so bad, like a pistol. It isn’t meant like that, but it’s a paranormal romance, so that’s how it has to be. I want to understand so I can get it right.

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