Finally, I have finished Part II of my post about the conventions of the Love Genre! Conventions, as I mentioned in Part I, are Genre-specific requirements in terms of the story’s cast and methods in moving the plot forward. While many authors object to ‘formulaic’ writing, conventions are about form, not formula.
If you’ve ever been reading a story that has a good plot and interesting characters, but you still just don’t like it, odds are the story is missing one or more Genre-specific conventions. To better understand why you sometimes just don’t like a book, and to avoid making this mistake in your own writing, you need to understand each convention in all its nuances.
Conventions that Create Interest
Unlike conventions that create obstacles, conventions that create interest are much more subtle and nuanced, and as a result, romance authors frequently omit them—to the detriment of their stories. External need, Rituals, Gender Divide, and Secrets all work together to weave a complex storyline that focuses on more than just achieving “Happily Ever After”.
Including an external need simply means that there has to be something going on in the book outside of the couple falling in love. The main character’s wants and needs must include something other than gaining the love interest’s affection. Ideally, the romantic relationship is what helps each character achieve the goal created by their external needs, but be sure that if you took the love story out, you could still write a story about the external need. This convention is also the piece that generally determines subgenre. For example, if the external need has to do with the protagonist escaping a serial killer, then it would be an action-romance.
In Rebecca Zanetti’s action-thriller romance, Hidden, Pippa’s external need is to remain safe and hidden from those who hunt her, while her love interest, Malcolm, is a federal agent whose external need is to find out what the group hunting Pippa has planned. These needs cause their worlds to collide, creating the impetus for the love story, but their external needs exist outside of it. Even if they never met, Pippa would still need to be safe and hidden from the cult that’s hunting her, and Malcolm would still need to work to uncover the terrorist plot the cult’s leader has put in place.
In romance novels, the lovers develop rituals of intimacy such as shared traditions, private language, and inside jokes. These take the form of small-but-repeated details that help make your characters feel like real people in an actual relationship. Private language might be a nickname or pet name that only the love interest calls the protagonist, or a random word that holds special meaning to both. Shared traditions could be big, but are often much smaller things repeated in key scenes, or even on a ‘daily’ basis. Whatever you choose, remember that the purpose is to show a deep level of familiarity between the characters.
In reverse harems, rituals are a powerful way to make sure that it feels like the heroine has a relationship with each guy, rather than a relationship with the group as a whole. In J Bree’s Hannaford Prep series, Lips has a special shared tradition with each of her guys. She and Blaise make each other playlists that they swap back and forth on an old iPod about once a week. With Ash, they sleep with him wrapped around her in the same position every night, and she and Harley have the shared tradition of putting sprinkles on French toast for special occasions.
The gender divide convention is the need for differentiation between masculine and feminine in the characters. This does not exclude LGBTQ+ stories or those featuring a strong female main character. It simply means that the couple must feature a character with traditionally ‘masculine’ traits, and one with traditionally ‘feminine’ traits. The main purpose here is to make sure that the characters compliment, rather than copy, each other’s traits. The lovers should be yin and yang, not two (or more) of the same.
Find Me by Ashley N. Rostek is a great example of a strong female main character who still provides a feminine contrast to her masculine counterparts. Shiloh is, in a word, a badass. She has extensive training in jiu jitsu, is an excellent shot with a handgun, and, at eighteen years old, lives alone and completely, competently takes care of herself. Despite all this, she also loves to cook and to take care of people. She is constantly preparing elaborate meals and taking food to the guys, or talking them through difficult emotional situations that they would rather just ignore. She often seems to understand what they are feeling better than they do themselves.
Of all the conventions, I believe secrets is the one that drives the love story. Ultimately, the belief of the characters in love stories that they must keep their secrets is what creates misconceptions, builds tension, and drives the characters apart until the plot finally brings them together. While the secrets our main character keeps from her love interest are the most visible (and frustrating), there are actually four types of secrets in romance novels, and the best books have all four.
- Secrets society keeps from the lovers: Kimberly and Xander don’t know that their parents had affairs and they are each being raised by the other’s biological father.
- Secrets the lovers keep from society: Kimberly and Xander keep Xander’s bullying of Kimberly a secret.
- Secrets the lovers keep from one another: Xander knows that the man who is raising him is Kimberly’s father, and mistakenly believes that they are siblings. He does not tell her any of this because his mistaken belief has led to feelings of shame over their shared attraction. Kimberly does not tell Xander about her eating disorder or the verbal and emotional abuse she suffers from her mother.
- Secrets the lovers keep from themselves: Kimberly pretends, even to herself, that she can handle the situation with her mother, up until the point that her attempted suicide proves otherwise. Xander pretends he can use bullying to resist his attraction to Kimberly until a drunken night results in an unintended hookup.
With so many moving parts needed to make a story as compelling as possible, it can be difficult for authors to know whether they have hit the mark. This is where consulting a developmental editor, or gathering a group of beta readers comes in handy. Having a trained professional or a group of readers with knowledge of your genre give feedback on your manuscript can bring to light a variety of issues you were too close to see and grant you fresh perspective and solutions to the problems you’ve identified but haven’t been able to solve.