The "Rules" of Contemporary Romance--from a major romance reviewer

GK’s note: We’ve had a few posts about the line between contemporary romance, women’s fiction, chick lit and literary fiction. (There’s even a quiz, if you’re interested.) My friend, the author of this post, writes for a major book-reviewing outlet. She’s witty, pleasantly cynical, and—yes—delightful in real life.

We all found it odd that she, of all people, was assigned to the romance department. Happily, you get to benefit from this strange juxtaposition.

Here you are, the “rules”—or, more accurately, the often unfortunate, now-cliché patterns—of romance novels, from a reluctant top reviewer. And yes: GK believes you can do much better.


After reading what I think amounts to at least two hundred trashy romance novels (note that not all romance novels are trashy, and not all trashiness is romantic) in the last two years, I am beginning to consider myself a reluctant expert on the subject.

I decided that the only way to maintain my sanity is to foist off what I've learned onto anyone who will listen. Writing a contemporary romance? Great. You should know the rules (some consciously adhered to, some not) before you break them.

Yes, these are tongue-in-cheek.

And yes, these are the rules I hope you will break. Please see my conclusion before you get your lingerie (specifically chosen for that rich, romantic vampire) in a twist.


#1-- Only rich people fall in love. Because if you can't whisk someone off to Paris at a moment's notice, you can't possibly show them how much you love them. Rather, only rich men fall in love. Women can have independent careers, but they never worry about anything as mundane as the rent... which leads us to...

#2-- A career is something that happens while you're waiting for a rich man (or in some cases, a rich vampire) to sweep you off your feet. If there is ever a choice between pursuing your career, maintaining friendships and enjoying daylight versus becoming a blood-sucking immortal fiend of the night who forsakes all human contact and can't practice medicine anymore, a woman will always choose her man.

#3-- Only white people of European descent fall in love. They also are the only ones who become vampires, get to time travel or do anything cool--especially the guys (see rule #1). Also, all the guys in question have accents. Never indecipherable or annoying accents, but always really cute ones that get American girls excited.

#4-- Minorities are allowed to fall in love--but only once their white best friend/the protagonist does.

#5-- The best friend of the heroine and the hero must also always fall for each other. But they also must always get it on offstage. They are also almost invariably more interesting than the protagonists.

#6-- Beautiful women come in all shapes and sizes, and anyone who says differently is an ignorant ass. This must be repeated at least three times per book.

#7-- Beautiful men only come as 6'+, brawny, aggressive, with long flowing hair (and “manhoods” exceeding nine inches). Facial hair is optional, depending on the author. Furry chests are becoming popular again, but of course, any man with a furry chest does NOT have back hair or hair anywhere else they aren't supposed to. And remember, they're rich too.

#8-- All women are self-conscious about the curve of their derrieres; all men love them well-curved. Somehow, this comes up in every book, and yet real women haven't realized that, yes, men (and, for that matter, women) love these curves.

#9-- Everyone is a good kisser and has perfect breath all the time.

#10-- Foreplay, for the most part, can be accomplished with smoldering looks and approximately 200 pages of sexual tension. And while an occasional woman loves to perform oral sex and an occasional man will do the same, the greatest sexual satisfaction (and guarantee of mind-blowing, always mutual and simultaneous orgasm) comes from less than five minutes of missionary.

#11-- Only vampires and other supernatural creatures engage in kink. Kink in this case can be defined as anything that does not fit into the narrow perimeters of #10.

In conclusion:

I know that you’re probably looking at this list and feeling some pretty legitimate criticisms coming on—particularly if you’re a genre enthusiast.

It’s no fun having escapist fantasy where the protagonists have to struggle to pay their bills all the time—so of course rich is key. But that doesn’t mean that the only romantic gestures worth a damn are grandiose ones.

Sometimes it’s the little things that count, and those are few and far between in romance fiction. J.R. Ward (The Black Dagger Brotherhood series) does a good job of bending these rules--at least here the vampires come with a dose of homosexuality, kink (edge play!) and psychological problems.

The career thing is trickier, because again, this is escapism. Now there’s a whole other line of feminist critique that we could go into about the choice to opt out of a career, etc. etc. (if you’re interested in a good debunking of that in a larger way, I suggest reading Gloria Feldt’s No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change The Way We Think About Power and Leadership) but, let’s face it, for a lot of us, fantasy involves not having to work. Totally fine, but could we also see some assertive women who know how to draw boundaries? THAT is sexy.

So what does make a good romance novel work?

Surprising the reader is key--within the genre conventions, of course.

Heroes who aren’t Neanderthals, but who are funny, warm (under a gruff exterior, naturally) and protective without being overbearing—these are sexy and fun.

Women who are intelligent, directed and happy with themselves, even before they find a man, and are happier and still directed afterwards—love those.

Original supporting characters, ideally witty, who serve as good foils.

Flirtatious dialogue—before you get to the deep penetration, please.

Surprise me with something I haven’t seen before, something that will actually make me laugh out loud while I read—because, if that happens, I’m almost guaranteed to like your book—even if it’s another story of a Scottish laird and his reluctant, fiery bride who is forced to marry him against her will.

I don’t expect all genre conventions to be turned on their head. They’re there for a reason, after all, but it takes a very good writer to take those conventions, own them and then write something truly special within their constraints.

And never use the word “tumescent.” Please.

Got it? Great. I feel much better for getting this off my chest.

Now I'm going to go write a review of a book about a time traveling Scottish laird and the American writer he falls in love with...


Susan said...

Ah, dear me. ::wipes laugh-tears from eyes::

Good post. So true, so hilarious, so still laughing.

"Also, all the guys in question have accents. Never indecipherable or annoying accents, but always really cute ones that get American girls excited." --> Spot on.

Accents = critical to romance (As long as it's not German, Dutch, or a random eastern European country. Not sure why, but they always get ignored.)

tenstorytreehouse said...

I'm completely ignorant of this genre, but really enjoyed the post... it almost made me want to write the novel that breaks every one of the rules. And now I HAVE to use the word "tumescent" in something that I write.

JB Lynn said...

Fabulous post!

Love "Only white people of European descent fall in love. They also are the only ones who become vampires, get to time travel or do anything cool"

I must admit that as a joke, I used "tumescent" in my last book (which isn't a romance novel) specifically because I HATE its use in romance novels.

Thanks for giving my a chuckle with my morning coffee!

Jude said...

haha my favorite is: #4-- Minorities are allowed to fall in love--but only once their white best friend/the protagonist does.

Jesse said...

WOW! And amen!

Gwen Hayes said...

I'm an unashamed lover of the romance genre--and I am ALWAYS on the lookout for great books your stated rules, lol.

I'd love to trade recommendations with you! Recently, I've discovered some great authors--if you haven't already, give Zoe Archer, Courtney Milan, Victoria Dahl (especially her contemps), Julie James, and Susan Sey a shot. They are all witty, sharp, and filled with smoldering sexual tension.

:) said...

By what page should it become evident that the heroine and hero will end up together?

A. page 87
B. page 32
C. page 2 (top paragraph)
D. page 55 of prologue
E. page xii of preface
F. Foreword
G. Dedication
H. More Prominent Author's Foreword
I. Back cover
J. All of the above, except A and H if you can't get an MPAF.

Seriously, though, I haven't written a romance, but there is romance in my YA fantasy, and so I'm wondering: how much does the "predictability" of the ending matter if a romance is written well and fun to read?

I enjoyed the post, too, thanks for taking the time to write it, mystery GK guest!


Mystery Romance Reviewer said...

If you're writing a romance, typically the ending is a foregone conclusion. In all the romance novels I've read, there has only been ONE time that the heroine did not end up with the guy she met around page 5... instead he died halfway through the book and she ended up with his tortured sexier nephew. I was surprised, I admit.

No one ever doubts that the hero and the heroine will get together. The tricky part (and where you can avoid predictability) is the types of obstacles they face, the way they interact with each other, and surmountable antagonists.

Readers want to know that these two deserve each other and that they fought the good fight to get there. There is no reason why the happy ending is ever in doubt.

Does that help or am I coffee rambling?

Toby Neal said...

I feel as disillusioned as a bad wedding night.

Gabriela Lessa said...

Love tip 9. So true! People in novels and movies all seem to wake up with perfect breath and can engage in long, sexy morning making out sessions, no toothbrush needed.

:) said...

Thanks, Mystery RR, that is very helpful!!


Anonymous said...

Of course this is tongue-in-cheek, but much is said in jest. Numbers 3 and 4 probably have some real validity in the publishing world.

It appears that writing about minority characters in a significant way or putting them on the cover can get your book pegged into the "ghetto" of the bookstore.

This is certainly what I've seen black authors complain about...just saying...

Anonymous said...

I am an enthusiast of the genre and agree with you wholeheartedly. No complaint here.

Actually, let me backtrack on that a bit -- JR Ward's Black Dagger brotherhood doesn't bend these rules as much as you posit. That series squarely upholds Nos. 1, 2, 3, 7, 9, and 11. And the only reason it doesn't uphold No. 4 is because there are no minority characters to act as second fiddle.

Jane Lovering said...

Great post, but I think we Brits differ slightly in our Romance. We don't so much have the rule that h/h must be together (and preferably in bed) by P4. We British like a slower burn and heroines who frequently fall for the wrong man first. Although, sadly, we do fall into the 'accent trap'. It's having those damn Scots and Welsh so close...

Mystery Romance Reviewer said...

Dear Anonymous,

I confess, it was after reading Ward that I came up with rules #2 & 11.

Additionally, and I didn't really get into this because it's worthy of an entirely separate post (indeed, an entirely separate section of critical theory), but the behavior of the male characters of these romance stories is such that-- if a friend of yours brought a guy like this home-- you'd take them aside and start asking about domestic abuse! Seriously! The fine line between 'protective' and sociopathically controlling isn't really always so well drawn, and I'm really never comfortable with that.

Ultimately, fantasy (and romance) is about breaking taboos, but one wonders what sort of responsibility authors have in being firm about those distinctions.