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How Not To Write A Romance Novel

While romance isn’t my go-to genre, clean Christian romances do comprise some of my fiction reading. Even in novels that aren’t strictly romance, such subplots and scenes do seem to weave themselves into the story more often than not.

Make no mistake – I appreciate a clean, sweet love story in its place. However, a number of trends in many of these stories cause me to wish for more books without a romantic element.

Today, I present my top pet peeves in romance novels. 

1. Failure to talk out a misunderstanding

Over and over, the tension and conflict in the plot (the downward spiral, the point at which everything that’s been going beautifully begins to fall apart) is based on a single incident: there’s been a misunderstanding and one or both of the lovers refuses to talk it out like a normal person would.

The cause of the misunderstanding may be varied: perhaps the heroine has learned new information about the hero; perhaps the couple had a pointless argument; perhaps one of the lovers saw their beloved doing something and immediately jumped to wrong conclusions. No matter what the instigating factor may be, the effect is almost always the same: complete and sudden alienation. One of them leaves town, or refuses to answer phone calls from the other, or gives them the ultimatum of “never coming back again.”

While this might be acceptable in rare circumstances, any logical person who truly loved someone else would at least give the other person a chance to explain themselves. Just ask that one question! Just let them give that single-sentence explanation! Just see them one more time! As a reader, I find it frustrating and unrealistic that someone in love would so completely shut out their beloved without even one last conversation. When a book plot relies on this, it comes across as weak and unrealistic.

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  2. Characters kissing who are practically strangers

I may be sheltered, but do people actually do this? I can’t conceive of having the urge to kiss a stranger, no matter how attractive, let alone actually acting on the impulse.

  3. Instant attraction followed by denial (and possibly pursuit of someone else), yet inevitably the instant attraction wins in the end

Why is love at first sight such common theme in books? It may indeed happen in real life, but not nearly as often as stories portray. Personally, I prefer a slower introduction to the person. Let’s get to know them as a person first, then as a friend, then as a lover. Physical appearance isn’t the only (or even primary) cause of attraction, especially for a Christian.

But even given that instant attraction, why must authors make the character deny that attraction – even to the point of dating someone else? I understand that it increases the tension and conflict for the sake of the plot, but please: don’t take the easy way out by creating unrealistic situations simply to advance the plot. There are many creative and realistic ways to create tension. If the character must deny her feelings or date someone else, don’t let her treat the hero as if her only desire is to marry him the day after she meets him unless you’ve justified it well with the rest of your plot.

   4. Beginning the book with a character who is in a serious relationship or engaged immediately meeting another love interest

Sometimes this second love interest appears before the reader even knows that the main character is engaged or in a relationship. While nothing is inherently wrong with this plot line, it’s a bit frustrating to me as a reader when it seems a character (in this case, the first love-interest) is thrown in simply for plot tension without being thoroughly developed as his own person first. When I know that ultimately the main character is going to end up with the second love-interest anyway, I’m not motivated to connect with the original love-interest at all.

   5. Kissing to find out if the relationship works

This one might irk me slightly more in movies than in books. A kiss isn’t the ultimate determining factor for compatibility. Talking it through as a couple might be more difficult to write as an author, but it is much more impacting and interesting to read as well as much deeper with more potential to advance the plot.

Determining compatibility isn’t the only time this unnecessary kiss is used. What about when a couple had a fight and both parties completely misunderstand each other? Let’s just have them kiss and be friends (that is, more than friends).

Life doesn’t work like that. The broken trust needs to be restored. Apologies and explanations are needed, as well as a plan to avoid similar conflicts in the future.

A kiss doesn’t solve real life incompatibility issues; a heartfelt conversation may. Don’t take the easy shortcut of a kiss when something deeper is needed.

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  6. Detailed focus on appearance or sensual factors

This is something more than just a pet peeve to me. It is a point many Christian readers disagree on, and I’m not here to presume to decide how you should set your reading standards. I’d simply like to explain how I’ve set my own personal standards in this area. If you haven’t consciously thought this through and determined God’s standards for yourself, I’d simply encourage you to prayerfully seek Him and then follow wholeheartedly whatever He reveals as you meditate upon His word.

That said, here’s what I mean by this point.

A marriage of convenience where the couple is constantly thinking about how they don’t share a bedroom. A love-at-first-sight story where every outward detail of appearance is hashed and rehashed through the character’s eyes. Excessive descriptions of small nuances in appearance or sensual behavior. Lustful thoughts. Personally, I don’t need to live these thoughts through the eyes of the character. Even as a reader, I want my own thoughts to remain 100% clean and pure, and in pursuit of that, I don’t need sensual descriptions to fill my mind with. Even if I don’t internalize or visualize them at all myself, those words have still entered my mind and must be taken captive and replaced with words of Truth as I renew my mind by God’s Word. If my job as a believer is to meditate on God’s Word day and night, why should I even let any trace of impurity enter my mind in the first place through what I read? Saying I’m seeking God’s purity and then also reading such descriptions, even if I mentally reject them as I read, is counterproductive to advancing His kingdom.

  7. Romances with no other interesting or relevant plot or point

If all that’s in the story is the romantic plotline, I always feel that something’s missing – that the book lacked depth. Even if the story is a romance, excellence and depth of plot is achieved through skillful subplots. Real life romance itself is unavoidably tangled up within the fabric of daily life – jobs, school, chores, family matters, friendships, financial concerns, and mundane daily activities. Even when romance takes over one’s life for a brief period, the other elements remain.

This isn’t to say that a book must show all these details. Certainly a book can effectively focus on a love story, but if I as a reader feel that the character is no more than her love life, that’s a sign of both an underdeveloped character and an underdeveloped plot. Give a glimpse of who the character was before she met her love interest; show us what hobbies or interests she as; flesh out a struggle in another area of her life. When other elements are included, the romantic plot is proportionately stronger because we understand the character more thoroughly.

I’ll be back later to talk about underused elements of romance novels I’d love to read more of – until then, what are some of your romance novel pet peeves?

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4 thoughts on “How Not To Write A Romance Novel

  1. Pingback: Writing Romance? Try These! | RestingLife.com: Written Rest

  2. I love point 8. So true when you read a romance you are fully invested in the ‘happy ever after’ resolution of the couple getting together at the end, if nothing juicy goes on in the middle it’s a bit anti-climactic! Tx

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