Writing romance is perennially popular, and romance novels continue to sell in great numbers. Learn how to write a romance novel and avoid clichés in your love story ideas, themes and characters. Start with these 9 romance writing tips:
- Know the romance genre (and your own subgenre) inside out
- Choose love story ideas that allow character development
- Show how characters’ backstories and personalities affect their relationships
- Learn how to write a romance novel using flawed (rather than perfect) characters
- Make obstacles to your characters’ romance interesting but believable
- Avoid writing bad sex scenes (unless part of your story)
- Limit overused romance plot tropes
- Avoid clichéd romantic character descriptions
- Turf clichéd romance character types
Let’s examine each of these ideas closer:
1. Know the romance genre (and your subgenre) inside out
When you don’t read widely within the romance genre (or your own romantic subgenre), it’s easier to use worn-out plot or descriptive details without realising.
Clichés in the paranormal romance subgenre, for example, include:
- Mythical human hybrids as troubled, ‘bad boy’ romantic heroes. At the very least, give your shape-shifting bad boy a twist or invent your own, unfamiliar paranormal mythological hybrid
- The special, unique hero/heroine: The romantic protagonist is quirky or different and this point is driven home relentlessly
Reading widely within your genre gives you an overview of what stories, plots and character types the romance market is already saturated with. This will help you prioritise story ideas and arcs that offer newer angles on old themes.
2. Choose love story ideas and themes that allow character development
Character relationships that feel real foster readers’ investment in how stories unfold. Believable characters develop and change over the course of a novel. Some love story ideas allow more character development than others.
If you look at a classic, mainstream love story, for example The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, the story’s core events do plenty of groundwork for further character development:
- The romantic duo, Allie and Noah, are thwarted by the wealthy Allie’s disapproving family
- The pair meet while Allie is on holiday, but she returns to the family home in Charleston. Distance tests their commitment
- Noah enlists to fight in World War II while Allie volunteers at a hospital for the wounded
These are just some of the circumstances – distance, background conflicts, interfering relatives – that broaden the central story theme (‘forbidden love’).
Although forbidden love is a common romantic theme that could stray into cliché, Sparks includes external forces that develop his characters and test their commitment to each other. Not making the main characters the only agents of their entanglement (and separation) adds greater breadth and realism than if they were simply inseperable from first meeting. It also allows greater romantic tension and suspense.
3. Show how characters’ backstories and personalities affect their relationships
One of the reasons why instant attraction between romantic leads feels clichéd is that the connection doesn’t feel earned. In life it’s equally common for the beginning stages of a relationship to be full of uncertainty and confusion.
Romance characters’ personal histories shouldn’t be entirely absent from the story. To create a sense of how your characters’ pasts affect the present, think about:
- Templates: Parental relationships often shape people’s ideals (or, in the case of toxic relationships, fears) when seeking out a romantic partner. How might characters’ primary romantic fears and goals tie back to the templates they’ve been given?
- Past romantic relationships: A character recently out of a hurtful relationship could spring into a rebound relationship to forget, or might be closed to any new romance. Think about the motivations driving your characters’ romantic behaviour and create a visual diagram of the causes and effects that drive them
You don’t have to share each character’s romantic or family history with the reader explicitly. But ask these questions about your characters so your romantic scenes are built on foundations of believable character psychology.
4. Learn how to write a romance novel with flawed (not perfect) characters
Part of why believable character psychology and history makes characters more interesting is that the reader sees not only external conflicts influencing their behaviour (e.g. the interfering mother in The Notebook) but internal conflicts too.
While it’s feasible that two characters have no considerable baggage, conflict is a key ingredient for making a story dynamic and adding degrees of unpredictability and uncertainty.
Example character flaws that could create challenges in your fictional relationships include:
- Anger management issues
- Emotional frigidity
- Oversensitivity or its opposite, lack of sensitivity
- Hyper-critical or judgmental tendencies
- Jealousy and insecurity
- A dominant or submissive personality (if either cause frustration for a character’s other half)
- Narcissism or lack of confidence
Clichéd romance stories often show growing chemistry that is reduced down to repetitive physical gestures – blushing, tensing, gazing, touching. Yet an emphasis on embodied expressions of chemistry sometimes ignores the psychological and emotional strengths and shortcomings that shape how we relate to each other.
5. Make obstacles to your characters’ romance interesting but believable
Tension is a key ingredient of story. In a mystery novel, it’s often an unknown murderer’s identity. A romance novel (or movie or series) has ‘romantic tension’. The reader/viewer senses chemistry and attraction brewing, and the primary question is ‘when (will they be together)?’
Obstacles to your characters being together supply the bumps in the road that make your characters’ journey towards each other interesting and credible. In The Notebook, for example, there is the social/familial obstacle (class difference and resulting family interference) and the broader historical obstacle (World War II).
Avoid romantic obstacle clichés such as the go-to soap opera favourite: Random cases of amnesia. (On the other hand, Alice Munro’s fine story ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ subtly explores love and forgetting in the context of ageing and Alzheimer’s).
Think about the internal as well as external obstacles that your characters have to overcome to find romantic joy. Are there details of setting, for example, that might impede them (e.g. rising costs of housing in the inner city force a character to move far away from their love interest)?
6. Avoid writing bad sex scenes (unless part of your story)
Because sex and sexuality are such personal things, it’s hard to write sex scenes that translate, that readers from diverse walks of life will find erotic. What we find sexy is personal as well as cultural. Bad sex writing is often the least subtle. Avoid over-the-top similes and metaphors (unless you’re aiming for winning the ‘Bad Sex Award’). Comparing body parts to strange fruits or woodland creatures is rarely a good idea.
There are exceptions to every rule. Clichéd sex writing often tries too hard to titillate and excite readers. Attempts to be poetic using metaphorical language and euphemisms easily become purple prose.
Cautions aside, you might want to describe an awkward, uncomfortable sex scene using exactly this type of baroque language. Ultimately, the degree of eroticism should fit your story, your characters, and your genre.
One way to write good sex scenes is to leave more to the reader’s imagination. When in doubt, be direct. Call parts and actions by their names.
7. Limit overused romance plot tropes
A ‘trope’ in fiction is a significant or recurrent theme. The word’s often used to refer to a theme that is so common that it has become clichéd. Vaguely medieval settings and dragons, for example, are fantasy tropes.
There are countless romance plot tropes. For example, in YA and teen movies, there’s the plain girl who transforms, a la Cinderella, into a great beauty overnight, winning the attentions of the most handsome boy in school.
TV Tropes points out more problematic romance tropes, such as ‘But Not Too Foreign’. In this cliché, a romantic hero (usually the man) has some partial ‘Other’ ethnicity but is still sufficiently similar (visually or culturally) to not make his partner (and, by extension, the assumed audience) too uncomfortable about their own position, privilege or prejudice.
The problem with romance plot tropes is they often ring untrue. They indulge in wish fulfillment and fantasy that might repeat unimaginative or even damaging stereotypes (e.g. the notion a woman must change everything about herself to attract a self-centred, oblivious prince charming).
To write interesting and original love stories, familiarise yourself with the most common romance tropes and think of ways to subvert your readers’ expectations.
8. Avoid clichéd romantic character descriptions
Character description is where many authors dip into cliché. Beginners in all genres often reach for eye colour or the size of characters’ eyes in character description. Yet there are much more interesting (and telling) ways to describe characters, visually and otherwise.
Beware clichéd and dead metaphors for appearances and love. Describing characters by comparison to the planets, for example. In the episode of the sci-fi cartoon Futurama ‘I Dated a Robot’, the central character Fry starts dating a robotic clone of American actress Lucy Liu. Futurama satirises romance clichés (and the idea of dating what is ultimately a computer) when Lucy Liubot says in a monotone: ‘Oh, Fry, I love you more than the moon, the stars, the… POETIC IMAGE #36 NOT FOUND’.
Such is the deadening effect of cliché, the nondescript, comical error message, ‘poetic image #36’ is the most original and striking metaphor for an unimaginably big love in this sentence.
9. Turf clichéd romantic character types
Besides romantic plot clichés, romantic stories that lack imagination often feature clichéd character types. The brooding, sulky romantic hero is one. If you think about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, what makes Mr. Darcy an interesting character is not so much that he is brooding and sulky but the subtleties of how Austen changes this perception of Darcy’s nature over the course of the novel.
Other clichéd character types (as Anne Marble lists here), include the ‘Evil Other Woman’, the romantic hero’s conniving mistress (this category often includes the romantic lead’s ‘evil’ ex-wife). This is a character type authors sometimes use to explain why the romantic lead has a negative or even misogynistic view of women. This is the woman who has ‘ruined’ a romantic hero for other women. Yet each character should ideally have their own credible goals and motivations, and should not merely exist to push your primary romantic leads closer or supply their complications.
Work out your cast of romantic characters using Now Novel’s guided Idea Finder and get feedback on your romance writing from the Now Novel commmunity or a dedicated writing coach.
25 replies on “How to write a romance novel: Avoid romance writing mistakes”
Love the post! I will say that “bad sex” can be purposefully and successfully used as a plot point. lol I did just that in The Merry-Go-Round.
I’m glad you enjoyed it! Hadn’t thought of that. And of course a sex scene can be used to comical rather than erotic effect.
Wait, how are we supposed to know what a bad sex scene is?
I don’t like too much detail in sex scenes so anything explicit (this part went here and that part went there) is “bad” to me. Also I hate metaphors and euphemisms in sex scenes – it just seems cheesy and childish to shy away from naming things as they are. When I write a sex scene I usually just do the lead up to it and then fade to black and skip to the post coital cigarette so to speak. The details of what went where or heaving bosoms and thrusting members are left out (I skim these parts when reading romance myself anyway as I find them boring and offputting). Which of course means I never really write a real sex scene.
Must I? Or are there readers who will read romance and not mind the lack of explicit on the page sex?
Hi Miss Cellany, you raise a good point. I think the best any author can do is write the kind of sex scenes you want to read. Obviously, a certain type of category romance (such as Harlequin Blaze) is more likely to be explicit than a book that emphasizes the relationship and emotional aspect more. I’d say if you’re steering clear of purple prose and ludicrous descriptions you’re in the clear.
Good to know, thanks for replying 🙂
I find the best way to find if a sex scene is bad or not: Get critique partners.
I want to write a romance story that has a science fiction setting. The main character is an alien and his relationship develops alongside the main plot. Would this be considered sci-fi or romance? Or both? I really want to put it in one category.
It would be both. There are romantic science-fiction where the focus is romance but it just so happens to be in a science fiction setting. By the sounds of it, the main genre would be science-fiction and the subgenre is romance.
The reason is because you said the MC’s relationship develops alongside the main plot. If the main plot was the relationship, the main genre would be romance with the subgenre of science fiction. Of course I have very limited information.
You can absolutely have a romance story in a science fiction setting.
Thanks for the post! But this is a little discouraging, as I get the message: basically, avoid everything that has been already written, which is almost impossible! anyway, thanks again
Hi Maria – I’m sorry to hear you found it discouraging! The idea isn’t so much to avoid everything that has already been written but to avoid simply lifting and transposing the most obvious or common tropes without giving them your own stamp (be it a new, interesting character, setting, specific sequence of plot points or other detail that sets your own work apart). Ultimately, one can also afford to use tropes and cliches more in some types of genre fiction. This is why it’s good to have a good editor as they will point out or help you reconsider any particularly rote/unoriginal passages.
I am writing a romance and am concerned that the two do not meet till about 9,000 words in. The story will be just shy of 60,000 words. She is on her way to collect him and so he is mentioned. But there are obstacles to overcome – such as her mother being assassinated, family and duty – oh and escaping the planet she is currently on.
Do you think they should hook up sooner?
I’m writing a romance and my characters meet a few months before the plot starts. Like – they meet at a party in June and then turn out to study at the same university course. The story actually starts in late October. Is it acceptable?
Hi Kasia, thank you for sharing that. That sounds perfectly acceptable to me. To clarify, does the story begin after they’re already dating? Showing the build-up before two characters get together is more traditional in romance. But you could also start with them already being together and then fill in their backstory as the story proceeds.
It starts when they’re just colleagues: they get on quite well but don’t really trust each other because of personality traits and different views. They get closer when the girl has to make an important decision about whether to go on strike and risk losing her part-time job or to keep quiet and be hated by her coworkers. and when the boy is falling behind with university stuff and struggling with some problems concerning his family. They start being together like in the second half of the story. Then there’s some drama, but everything ends with them being happy for now.
And the boy’s toxic mother who tries to isolate her kids from their father (who actually did nothing wrong, but the court decided to have the mother take care of the kids – common stuff in my country) would make him have problems trusting women. Would it be a cool take on the cliché?
That’s an interesting side development, I’d say say so, Kasia. So some ways to build their trust would be to show in small ways how the girl is not like his mother so that he realizes his fears are not applicable in their dynamic.
I’d say it sounds like a good arc and a believable situation that brings them closer together – they’re both going through it and look to each other for support.
I’m trying to write about some puppy-love (so I’ll have cliched stuff). How can I get through that it is meant to be viewed as a childish sort of thing? He’s also supposed to be a jerk, so I’m trying to balance making him seem like the ideal romantic interest while dropping hints that he’s not really worth the hype. Any advice?
Hi Alma, thank you for reading the blog and for your question. I would say brainstorm some of the elements of so-called puppy love (for example, an intense ‘honeymoon phase’ that both lovers mistake for the ‘real’ thing, not realizing the amount of work relationships take).
As for the male partner being a jerk, perhaps he might use subtle put-downs that seem like playful banter or sarcasm at first but turn out to be darker, more about control? Other signs of narcissim (such as excessive self-focus) would suggest he’s a jerk too. Good luck!
Love your content Jordan, very well-written!
Everybody loves a book that can give them butterflies in their stomachs. Romantic novels give an emotionally satisfying narrative to readers.
You may also check my blog aboutThe Secrets to Writing a Great Love Story
Hope this will also help. Thank you.
Hi Gerald, thank you for the kind feedback, and for sharing your blog. Happy New Year!
I’ve never written a romance of any genre, I mostly write or wrote fantasy, and that hasn’t been for a while. Anyways the plot of my story is this on one hand we have Noah who is very insecure and takes nothing seriously. On the other hand we have Elizabeth who takes everything way to serious and usually over analyzes every little thing. The couple were involved in highschool but lost touch somewhere after that. I think with this initial setting it would work if I do a sort of “right in front of your face” style. Any and all suggestions are more than welcome and appreciated. Thank you in advance.
Hi Jake, thank you for sharing that. It sounds like a potentially explosive mix between Noah and Elizabeth, since due to Noah’s insecurity, he might find Elizabeth responding seriously and overanalyzing things more frustrating than someone who is more secure in themselves. It sounds an interesting dynamic.
Re: Not having written much romance, I’d suggest reading as many romantic novels as you can, different kinds. A good read for a story of two very different lovers is Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (a personal favourite). Other stories are often the best teachers.
You can read more of our romance articles here, too.
Jordan thank you for your input I will surely read the above mentioned book. Though after uploading the question I brainstormed ideas wife my sister and fiance, who are both avid romance readers. It was eventually decided to base some of their traits on something that hindered me and my fiance at the beginning of our relationship.
Noah is insecure and has a hard time opening up to women because the last time he did fully the woman he was with left him. Elizabeth still over analysis everything and the reason she does this is because the men she’s been with have been purely sexual. And somewhere over the course of this Elizabeth developed this unhealthy notion that sex is true love. So all in all I think it would still be a good dynamic.
Noah an insecure and untrusting man who’s looking for someone he can connect with. And Elizabeth who has low self-esteem and over analyzes everything and is looking for a man who wants more then her body. Again thank you and God bless.
It does sound as though you’ve put a lot of thought into your characters’ backstory and the psychological factors that drive their behaviour. It’s a pleasure, glad to help. Good luck with your story!