Genre Lessons: Romance

Image adapted from photo by Flickr user Jamoor

Image adapted from photo by Flickr user Jamoor

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to read more widely — at least one book in every genre (including nonfiction topics). I’ve also joined a book club of librarians reading a different genre every month to help us make more informed recommendations to patrons. January’s genre is romance, and in the last few weeks I’ve read two YA and one adult romance. Here’s a summary of what I learned about the genre — both what readers connect with and what writers are doing.

1. Little to no denouement. All three books had a build-up to the climactic moment when the characters get together (in the YA books) or decide to get married (in the adult book), but the story always stops right after that. I guess it makes sense — the whole book is about the relationship, so once it’s where it’s supposed to be, there’s no reason to include anything else. But to a non-reader of romance, it felt a little jarring. I’ve spent the whole book rooting for this couple; I’d like at least a paragraph telling me what happens to them!

2. Lower stakes. At no point was I worried a character might die or make a decision that would completely sabotage their future (drop out of school, get fired, permanently alienate a friend or family member, etc.). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes I really want a book I know I’ll be able to pick up and put down quickly, one that I know will have a happy (if somewhat predictable) ending. The lower stakes allow the writer (and the reader) to focus more on character development. I thought this was done very well in the YA books I read, though most YA tends to have at least some coming-of-age/character growth involved. I thought the adult book fell a little flat here — the female protagonist changed a little, finally standing up to her gold-digging mother, but her love interest started out and ended up as exactly the same person. Maybe I would’ve been more okay with this if he hadn’t been a viewpoint character, but after he was given that face time, I wanted to see him more affected/changed by their relationship in some way. Also, every time there was an opportunity for some real conflict in the adult book — an ex showed up, the protagonist ran off scared — it was quickly resolved — protagonist and girlfriends conclude (correctly, and somewhat conveniently) that the ex was trying to stir up trouble, love interest is patient and accepting without question. Again, some people are looking for this type of book, but I was especially annoyed by it after reading (and agreeing with) all this writing advice about raising the stakes and making your characters suffer throughout the book. Conflict equals excitement; its absence equals boredom, which equals readers finding something else to do. The YA books I read both got this — characters were sufficiently miserable (wow, it feels horrible saying it like that, but hopefully you get what I mean) before they reached their HEA.

3. Viewpoint do’s and don’ts. Both the YA books I read were in first-person with a single narrator, but the adult was in third-person with multiple narrators. When it started out in third limited following the female protagonist, I kind of expected to get her love interest’s perspective at some point. It would’ve been a great way to round out the story and further develop both characters by seeing how other characters (both main and secondary) view them. And I did get his perspective, but only a little, and I felt like those scenes didn’t really add much. Because he had no conflict of his own, all we got to see was him talking with a buddy about his relationship and thinking about how much he loved the female protagonist. And then we started head hopping even more, to minor characters, for a couple paragraphs at a time — with no line break or indication that we were about to switch narrators. This was jarring, and felt like it was done entirely for convenience — the author wanted to show something that was happening when neither protagonist was present, so she had a secondary character take over. I think a close third with one narrator would’ve helped the writer tell this story better. But this is where we see the subjectivity of the book industry — this book, which I wasn’t crazy about, was a bestseller, and the author has written numerous bestsellers both before and since.

So, that’s what I’ve learned from my study of romance. I didn’t go too in-depth with this; someday I’d like to read a few more adult romances by different authors, to get a better feel for the genre. But for now, I’m going to take a break from romance and explore another genre. Maybe horror?

Do you read or write romance? What do you like/dislike about the genre? What lessons do you think other writers can take from studying it? Please share in the comments!

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