So, What Exactly is Romance?

When we first starting planning Swoon Reads, it quickly became obvious that everyone has their own idea of a romance novel. Does it have to end happily ever after? What about those great romances that make you cry? And do the main characters have to end up together forever or is just for now okay? How do you define romance? The most popular answer seemed to be: You know it when you see it. Which, while true, wasn’t really helpful in creating a new imprint.

However, with the help of a couple of essays written by the bestselling adult romance author, Jennifer Crusie, we did eventually come up with a working definition of romance:

A romance is a love story with an emotionally satisfying ending.

The first essay, “I Know What It Is When I Read It: Defining the Romance Genre,” details how Ms. Crusie and the rest of the Romance Writers of America PR committee arrived at their definition of romance, and it gives you a very good idea of just how broad the romance genre can be and how difficult it is to define.

But, personally, I found the second essay, “Emotionally Speaking: Romance Fiction in the Twenty-first Century,” to be even more helpful. She starts with the same basic definition of romance (I know she uses “cathartic” instead of “satisfying”, but it still works, I promise), breaks it down, and proceeds to explain, bluntly and in detail, exactly what kinds of stories fall under that definition and which ones don’t. For example:

If your story is about two people who have no problems except for an almost pathological inability to communicate, try another genre. If your lovers don’t have real problems that cause a believable struggle, there’s no emotional catharsis when they finally commit at the end. And romance is about emotional catharsis.

She also warns against irony, distance, and tragic endings. And she doesn’t stop there, she discusses the importance of reading:

“Understanding the definition isn’t enough, you have to read widely in the genre to understand the subtleties therein. If you’re a lifetime romance reader, you’re way ahead of the game” and explains that “there is no formula and no average romance reader. You’re writing new, original stories for a reader who is exactly like you, only a little bit smarter.”

Then, as if all this wasn’t enough, in the second part of the essay, she goes on to give a lot of great advice on characters and story, that culminates in this:

So the way to write romance is to:
a. write fascinating protagonists who fall believably in love and
b. struggle to form a relationship and grow as people and partners
c. while contending with fascinating antagonists in pursuit of a goal that is vital to them
d. in a well-written emotional narrative that shows the conflict in action on the page
e. and concludes in a satisfying, optimistic, and psychologically plausible ending that convinces the reader that the hero and heroine will be together

Sound a little daunting? It does to me. But, she’s also right. Romance can hard to write, but when an author really gets it, a good romance can be absolutely wonderful and something that is incredibly satisfying to read.

We understand that it’s not easy, and that’s why we are so impressed with and thankful for all the writers who have submitted their manuscripts to Swoon Reads.

I think I’ll end with one last quote from the essay:

“Writing is not about playing it safe, it’s about taking risks to put the truth on the page.”

Thanks for sharing your truths with us.

And read the essay. It’s worth it.

— by Holly West

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