Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Essential Ingredients of a Romance Novel

I recently posed the question 'What do you consider to be the essential ingredients of a romance novel?' to several reader sites.
Although the question itself was unstructured, I have grouped the responses under headings below.

1. The Hook

- As a reader, I want to be drawn in by the blurb. That's how I buy my books, so catch my attention.

- I want the first chapter to engage me right away. I'm impatient, so I want to see why I'm reading this novel. Hook me with banter, a mishap, something that keeps me reading through the first two or three pages.

2. Flow of story and when to include sex

- My biggest essential is that the story flows and does not feel forced. Flow is important to me as a reader, be it in the relationship between two or three, I want them to fit. I like sex in my story, I'm human, but I don't want it forced if the particular storyline doesn't lend itself to the couple having sex until way towards the end of the book then don't put it in. As a reader, I'm jarred out of the fantasy if something doesn't fit - be true to your characters.

- For me, I like sex, but it needs to make sense and, if it takes most of the book for the hero and heroine to get together, I don't have a problem with that, so long as that's the best described sex scene in the book. I am reading one where the two finally did it and it was supposed to have meaning and feeling and yet it had less description and feelings put into it than the opening sex scene with nobody important having sex. That's a big downer. It's supposed to be all "sweet" and everything, but it seems as though the author relied too much on "telling" words rather than "showing" words and it really irked me because I had liked the story thus far. Now I'm not sure how I feel about it.

- I dislike sex scenes for the sake of sex scenes. There has to be an underlying plot to the story, and then when it's right for the characters to get 'down and dirty', it makes it that much hotter for me. If they have been going at it like bunnies from the moment they meet, it loses its impact.

- I don't mind if sex does not occur until the end so long as tension builds up virtually from page one.

- Get to the sex fairly quickly. now I know this flies in the face of some editors, who like to drag the inevitable out over chapters, but as a reader I'm impatient. I don't mind if there is conflict that pulls them apart and they have to find their way back to each other, but get them tucked in fairly early. That's why I love stories about couples who are married and must find their way back to happiness. Since I love erotics, I like hot sex, but then that's me. When they say sex sells, "they are right."

3. Conflict/ Friction

- There has to be something standing in the way of the HEA that needs to be overcome by the characters. Something that shows me, the reader, their true identities and how deeply their love is for each other. Nothing gets the tissues flowing more than sacrifice for the sake of love.

- It's not necessarily the 'romance' part, but what leads up to it. Yes, romance needs to be woven through the story, but the conflict, whether internal, external, or both, needs to hype up the romance.

- I think that tension and conflict are key. To me, a romance is about two people who have the capacity to love, finding each other, conquering whatever problems that separate them and making a choice to stay together. In conquering conflict, they can then continue through life knowing that they are strong enough to overcome the many other problems that will occur.

- Conflict moves the story forward, even if it prevents a character from taking the path they wanted to - it makes them work for their daily crust and happy (hopefully) outcome.

4. Characters

- I need good, solid, complex characters and I need to be put in their heads from the beginning. I need to be able to care about them. If I can't identify or care about the characters, the plot or storyline won't matter because I won't read one.

- I especially appreciate the authors who can make you feel the emotions of the characters as they are feeling them, whether it's fear, happiness, love, sensuality, eagerness etc. The dynamics between the characters also needs to feel real, logical. I prefer showing to telling and the use of dialogue or memories to set the scene and provide back story.

- Having an element of a character's personality that I can relate to also helps. Some little 'human' element (even in paranormal stories) that makes the character more 'real'. A tough ass dragon shifter who's afraid of mice. A vampire with a crooked tooth. A werewolf with dandruff... Well, you get the picture. Some little humorous element that allows you to feel that a character isn't to good to be real. Makes you believe you can meet that man of your dreams somewhere down the line.

- 'Essentials' for me are that the couple fits together and that their romance sounds natural and not far-fetched. I also like a lot of fun in novels even though drama has to be included.

- I want believable characters who go that extra mile to stand out from the crowd, but still maintain that 'it could be me' aspect that connects them with their readers.

- It seems the bigger the journey the hero has to take, the more attractive he becomes when he reaches that 'ah-ha' moment.

- Give me a hero I can fall in love with. I love broken heroes, my particular favourites. Sadly for me, heroines are almost incidental and two heroes are an immediate buy for me.

- I do believe that the story is between the two main characters, so I would say at least 80% should directly relate to those characters. The rest is relative to the story, outside conflict etc.

5. POV

- Narration works for some stories, but not all of them. My favourite pov, which is never used theses days, is third-person omniscient. I love having three people in a scene and knowing what they all think and then watching the story unfold to see what happens. I never find it confusing or jarring when it's done right, but I guess that's just me.

- As a writer, I tend to split the book between hero and heroine more often than writing it from the heroine's point of view. At one time, I think writing from her point of view was the preferred method in Romance, but that was in mass market trade paperbacks from New York.

- Thank goodness writers are now able to write outside the box with e-publishing and are not forced to stick to the cookie-cutter plot nor one dimensional characters. I'm really happy that there is more freedom to write the story the way we see it.

6. Endings (apart from HEA about which there was almost universal agreement)

- I like all sorts of endings. Maybe I get used to having closure in romance novels, but I have since realized that I can appreciate almost any type of ending so long as it fits with the storyline and characters.

- My love of anime has taught me to appreciate the open-ending, even though I always do want closure, sometimes it's just nice to think that a good friendship doesn't have to end or change.

- I hate cliffhangers. I think it is an insult to my intelligence to think the only way I am going to continue to buy book 2, 3 or 4 is to make the ending of each book in a series a cliffhanger - I will stop buying books before I continue to read the series. If it is a series I really liked, I may postpone it until the series is finished, but if it is a series that has, say, more than 4 or 5 in a series and the author continues with cliffhangers, I will chalk it up to a loss and I won't look back. I'm an intelligent reader. If the series is good enough, I'll come back for more - that is why we have "Happy for Now".

- Although by no means an exhaustive list, the diversity of views expressed reflects the breadth of the genre. All comments included are direct quotations from the responses, which I found to be valid, interesting and revealing. - I hope that you enjoy reading them, too.

Sincere thanks to all those who took part

Megan Johns
The Path of Innocence
a 'must' read

Friday, 15 October 2010

Settings and Favourite Romantic Places


The question of what comes first, character or plot is often posed. However, for me, settings are just as, if not more, important.

I start with a pen portrait of my characters, but putting them in a particular environment really helps to stimulate my imagination so that I can develop them more fully. Setting defines the context within which the characters behave and creates an instant atmosphere. The culture, the scenery, the architecture, the people, the climate all play their part in building a mood, influencing what the characters do and hence plot.

For example, imagine a scene set in wild, rugged countryside and one set in Venice. Both are romantic , but the atmospheres they evoke are totally different and the way characters behave will differ accordingly.

I tend to write about places that I know and with which I feel a strong emotional attachment. If I can visualise a place, feel it around me, absorb its ambience, then put my characters there, it seems to kickstart my imagination and the plot follows.

In The Path of Innocence I used London suburbia, East Anglia and St Andrews in Scotland as the settings. The suburbs of London are neither sexy nor romantic, yet the very ordinariness serves a purpose in painting a portrait of a heroine with strong, parochial family values. It also sharpens the contrast with the hero who comes from an inherently more enigmatic, rural area with chocolate-box villages and large country estates. The setting of Fiona’s small, cosy suburban house compared to Roger’s large, cold, country manor fills in a lot of unspoken information about the background of the characters and we instantly know that one is the antithesis of each other.

Scotland is more readily identifiable as a romantic setting and this description of Crail Harbour taken from The Path of Innocence is the perfect setting for falling in love:

She listened to the soothing sounds of waves lapping gently against the old stone harbour walls extending like protective arms around a cluster of small fishing boats, and she swallowed a deep lungful of air so fresh that you could taste its purity. Squinting against the sunshine, now brilliant in the clear, blue sky, her gaze spun over the red-roofed cottages which crowded down to the water’s edge, some whitewashed, others the warm, natural shades of sandstone, grey flints, green and blues, all huddled together in a kaleidoscope of colours.

I do not generally write long descriptions and often a few details might be enough to give the reader a flavour of the scene, but in my mind I will have a very clear picture of where they are at.

Some places, like Italy, which happens to be the setting for my work in progress, are inherently romantic. Others that have inspired me to write include Normandy in France and Snowdonia in Wales, the former possessing a quiet charm and a certain sense of timelessness, whereas the latter with its wild, rugged mountains and fast running rivers provides a more dramatic backdrop. What happens and how the characters behave is influenced greatly by where they are.


Having recently blogged about the importance of settings in creative writing, I would like to share one of my personally favourite romantic places.

As a lover of mountains and open spaces, Austria with its cable cars and rack and pinion railways, its musical associations with the Sound of Music and Mozart, is a firm favourite. However, a lesser-known gem is its southernmost province, Carinthia, offering a more tranquil setting with the added benefit of plenty of sunshine.

This is a province of over a thousand lakes, of which the largest is Lake Worthersee at 17 km long. The water here is reputedly so clean that you can drink it and, at summer temperatures of 25 C, as warm as a tepid bath. To simply find a shady spot and sit gazing over the expanse of water glistening like a blue-green diamond is so mentally restoring. Every now and then, a splash will confirm a body plunging into the water for a cooling swim, an occasional water-skier might flash past, or a rowing boat drift languidly by, and above it all the horn of the lake steamer intermittently cuts though the air like a trumpet fanfare. A feeling of serenity lifts you to a different plane as you absorb the atmosphere and sense all your cares tangibly ebb away.

The lake became a favoured summer retreat for Austria’s aristocracy in the 19th century and it still attracts the rich and famous with some exclusive hotels and romantic lake villas. However, my preference is to stay in a landhaus in a slightly elevated position which affords beautiful views over the landscape on balmy summer evenings. Eating out on a flower-bedecked terrace, gazing across the lake towards the floodlit Gothic church at Maria Worth nestling on its peninsula, is a magical sight renowned for inspiring many composers by virtue of its sheer beauty. Small wonder that couples from all over the world travel here to get married. The distant backdrop of mountains form a spectral outline and, to the north, the resorts of Velden and Portschach glitter like jewels, although their promise of night life holds little temptation when there are such riches here.

The continental climate translates into a Mediterranean atmosphere - very friendly, welcoming people and excellent cuisine, essentially rich and flavoursome, yet also mild. A typical meal in the landhaus might be mushroom soup with cream and herbs followed by melt-in-the-mouth roast veal with a side buffet and then perhaps a bilberry dessert. Pleasantly replete, guests sip after-dinner coffees on the terrace and the gentle hum of their voices melts into the soft background sounds of a folk music CD . A few children might play on the grass then, as night falls, disappear indoors to play a board game. Some couples might drift away, perhaps to bed, or maybe to take a boat to a night club or the casino. Others, like us, remain to sit beneath the stars and drink in the intoxicating alpine air. There is an almost ethereal quality which is perfect for the melding of souls.

All around the province are mountains offering a dramatic contrast, notably Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain, and the old city of Klagenfurt offers many cultural attractions, with its beautifully restored Renaissance buildings and their charming arcaded courtyards that provide an esoteric setting in which to enjoy the mandatory kaffee und kuchen.

It is a truly magical region which, mercifully, has escaped the clutches of mass tourism. Hopefully, it will remain one of Austria’s hidden gems for many years to come.
Photo of the church at Maria Worth: