How to Write a Romance Novel
So you want to write a romance novel. Who can blame you? As the most consistently read and purchased genre in all of literature, it’s no secret that people love... love. You’ll hear me say this a lot--if you want to write romance novels then the best way to learn how is to read them. Lots of them. There’s nothing more obvious than reading a romance by someone who’s never actually bothered to crack one open. (This is true of all fiction, but today we’re talking about kissing books.)
Romance presents a unique challenge compared to many other genres because not only do you need to contend with plot and setting, you also have to manage three separate arcs: your main character, your love interest, and the romance itself. A well-written and satisfying romance combines all three of these seamlessly.
Once you’re sure becoming a romance author is for you, it’s time to get started. If you’ve never written a book before, you might want to check out this article: How to Write a Book, which outlines the basics and will set you on the right path.
In this article, we’ll get specific about how to write a romance novel and offer a template on how to write a romance novel outline at the end.
Subgenres of Romance
Romance is a pretty massive genre unto itself, so you might want to narrow down what kind of romance appeals specifically to you. This will affect your settings, your characters, and sometimes the tropes you’ll use. It might also influence things like the point of view, tense, and heat level you choose to write in.
Let’s start by examining some of the more common sub-genres that exist within romance. This isn’t an exhaustive list and there’s nothing saying you can’t combine these into your very own hybrid of two or more options, but it’s helpful to start with the basics.
YA novels encompass all subgenres of writing with a romance arc being the common factor. Young adult romance can fall into (almost) any of the subgenres listed below and generally focus on first loves and first kisses with minimal heat and fade to black scenes.
Some popular YA romance authors include Sarah J. Maas (Throne of Glass), Leah Johnson (You Should See Me in Crown) and Tracy Wolff (Crave).
Fantasy romance encompasses the magic and tropes that readers love about fantasy and marries it with a romance arc. The romance might drive the main plot or simply act as a secondary arc.
Some popular fantasy romance authors include Laura Thalassa (The Bargainer), Jennifer Armentrout (From Blood and Ash) and Grace Draven (Radiance).
Not to be confused with fantasy, paranormal romance (often abbreviated to PNR) focuses on modern real-world settings where one or more of the characters is a little less than human. Think vampires, werewolves, angels and demons or whatever else your imagination can conjure.
Popular PNR authors include Nalini Singh (Psy-Changling), JR Ward (Black Dagger Brotherhood) and Jaymin Eve (Shadowbeast Shifters).
There’s a rise in popularity of sci-fi based romance where settings can run the gamut of different planets or galaxies and feature love interests that are out of this world. Aliens, monsters, cyborgs and creatures that are limited only by your imagination.
Popular science fiction romance authors include Ruby Dixon (Ice Planet Barbarians) and Tiffany Roberts (The Kraken).
Historical describes settings that are older than fifty years. Though regency romance tends to dominate in this category, it also includes settings where you might find knights, vikings, pirates and more. Increasingly, there is more interest in non-Western worlds as we see stories set in periods like the Tang Dynasty, for example.
Popular historical romance authors include Julia Quinn (Bridgerton), Jeanine Lin (Butterfly Swords), Alyssa Cole (An Extraordinary Union).
These types of novels feature uplifting stories with little to no physical contact and can include numerous settings from Western to historical to contemporary. They tend to align with faith-based values.
Some popular spiritual romance authors include Belle Calhoun (Seven Sisters), Nicole Deese (All that Matters), Jennifer Deibel (A Dance in Donegal).
Contemporary romance probably makes up the largest sub-genre of romance offering dozens of variations within it. We might even refer to these as sub-sub-genres. There’s billionaire, military, thriller, suspense, mystery or mafia romance and the list goes on and on. A lot of contemporary romance falls under the category of ‘romcom’ where every day situations like a workplace or small town are the backdrop for your setting.
Popular contemporary romance authors include Talia Hibert (Get a Life, Chloe Brown), Alisha Rai (The Right Swipe) and Sarah Hogle (You Deserve Each Other).
As the name implies, erotic is all about the… heat. While spice levels vary from book to book in the genres above, there is only one setting in this category and that’s HOT. Under this heading, you’ll find erotic romance, where the relationship is still front and center, versus pure erotica where sex is the star.
Popular erotic and erotic romance authors include Sierra Simone (New Camelot), Katee Robert (Neon Gods), and Penelope Douglas (Birthday Girl).
Tense and POV
There is no right or wrong when it comes to tense or point of view in romance. This is where doing your research comes in. After you’ve read a whole bunch of romance books (you did that part, right?), decide what appeals to you and why. Take a look at your chosen subgenre. While there is no wrong answer here, it can be useful to mimic what the bestselling authors in your genre are doing.
A lot of romance books are written in dual POV, alternating between the two love interests. Again, there is no right or wrong way to do this--some stories will lend themselves better to a single POV and some need to be told from both sides. Try both out and see what works for you.
Obviously, you can’t have a meaningful and satisfying love story without a few compelling characters. Characters don’t need to be perfect or good or moral all the time. They don’t even have to be likeable--what they do need to be is developed and interesting. Most of all, what they need is a properly realized character arc.
Character arc definition: A character arc is the internal transformation your character takes from the beginning to the end of your novel. This is where your reader sees them move in a positive direction toward self-actualization as they cast off old baggage, break bad habits, and move beyond what is standing in the way of their happiness.
Finally, one of the most important things is that your characters have chemistry. If they’re boring together, then their relationship will be too. What sets these two apart from each other? How are you going to create tension or conflict between them? Why are they perfect for each other?
Even if you’re writing a dual POV romance, typically one of your bleeding hearts is still your main character. Who is the one that grows and discovers themselves more? Who is the one that has more to lose or gain? What kind of main character have you created? Do they believe in love? Or have they given up? Are they open to a relationship or have they sworn off love forever? What do they need to overcome to find their happily ever after? Your main character should have a defining trait that makes them interesting: Maybe they have a cool job. Maybe they’re a chosen one. Maybe they’ve just experienced a major life event that alters the course of their normal life.
The counterpoint of course is your love interest. While they are obviously just as important as your main, they are the ones who will support your main character in their growth. But don’t ignore this character--they too should have something to lose. Something should stand in the way of true love, and your main character is going to help them figure it out.
The best friend. The confidante. The supportive family member. Your characters need someone to lean on, someone with whom to discuss their relationship woes with, and someone to lovingly remind them when they’ve got it all wrong. Just be sure this secondary cast doesn’t overshadow your compelling main characters, but do think about how they might star in a sequel. It’s very common for romance series to focus on a different couple for each book and it often focuses on these peripheral characters.
Dabble’s Story Notes feature offers a simple and visual way to keep track of all your characters, including any notes you want to take to help enrich their backstory.
Romance Novel Beats
As we discussed at the beginning, a good romance balances character growth with the progression of the relationship that develops between your love interests. Below are the key elements you need to help guide you in the direction of a well-plotted and well-paced novel.
As with any story you need to establish the current state of being for your main character or characters. What does their life look like? Why aren’t they in a satisfying relationship right now? What do they want? What is standing in their way? Why should we care about them?
This is it--this is the moment their eyes meet across a crowded room. When one of them bumps into the other spilling their coffee and sending a stack of Very Important papers flying off a balcony. When one of them rescues the other from a tree they’ve been chased up by a rabid bear. You get the idea. A meet cute is the moment when the relationship either starts or changes. Your characters may already know each other, making their ‘meet cute’ a turning point when their story is about to transform or it might be the first time they’ve ever seen each other. Funny, cute or dramatic, this moment sets the tone for your whole novel.
Your characters have now met and the turning point introduces an element to increase the stakes. Something that changes the whole nature of the game. They’re forced to work together on a career-defining project. They end up trapped during a snowstorm in a room with only one bed (see tropes below). They make a fake dating pact to help each other out (more tropes!). Whatever it is, this is the catalyst that drives the rest of your story.
Things are getting more and more tense between your characters. They’re reaching a boiling point as life continues to throw them curve balls. Maybe they kiss. Or almost kiss. (Or maybe they do a little more.) Whatever happens, there’s no turning back now--these two kids are destined for each other (whether they realize it yet or not).
Third Act Breakup
The stakes reach their highest point. Something happens to jeopardize your story’s happy ever after. This is the moment when your happy couple suddenly isn’t so happy anymore. Something gets in the way: a lie, a betrayal or a communication mixup.
This is the moment after the third-act breakup where everything seems lost. Your characters are at their lowest and it doesn’t feel like anything is going right. This is also the moment when your characters must make a choice on whether to fight for it or wallow in their loneliness forever. This section is often marked by grand gestures, flashes of inner revelation and/or sweeping declarations. You can have high stakes and draw this out over several chapters or it can be quieter and find its resolution quickly. Your story will help you decide this--there are no rules!
A romance has a ‘happily ever after’ or a ‘happy for now’ ending. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a romance. Full stop. You may have romantic elements in your story, but if it ends in tragedy or lacks an uplifting romantic conclusion, you’ve got yourself a book in another genre. Romance readers have expectations and the only tears they want at the Fin are happy ones.
Whether you are a plotter or a pantser (in that you prefer to write by the seat of your pants), Dabble’s Plotting Tool makes it easy to keep track of your beats, ensuring you’ve got a satisfying arc, while minimizing those pesky plot holes.
Tropes in Romance
Romance novels live and die by tropes. For the uninitiated, a trope is a literary device used to convey a beloved and time-tested theme that can define your entire story or just one scene.
If you don’t have a few tropes, I’m sorry, but you probably don’t have a romance novel. Stop. Go back. Try again.
There are hundreds of tropes out there and don’t worry if they’ve been ‘done’. People who love enemies to lovers will always love enemies to lovers--the difference is your book is going to have your unique voice and spin on it. Use tropes with abandon and embrace these familiar feels like your favorite blanket. Listed below are some popular tropes in romance novels.
Enemies to Lovers
They’re childhood rivals. They’re co-workers who can’t stand the sight of each other. They’re monarchs from warring kingdoms. Whatever they have against each other, we all know they’re actually totally into the other person--they just need a little convincing. Stir up a little pithy, acerbic dialogue and watch the sparks fly.
Friends to Lovers
One of them has pined for the other for years but they’re oblivious. They’ve both pined for each other but no one has the guts to say so. Some of the best love stories blossom from the strongest friendships. Lean into it.
This can go more than one way. They were madly in love once upon a time but circumstances forced them apart. Now they’ve found each other again--is it another chance at true love? Or, perhaps they’ve been married for years and the spark is gone. Light that match and rekindle it.
Everyone has heard of a good old-fashioned love triangle--which one will they choose? How long can they draw this out? What happens to the victor and what happens to the loser? (Loser in love--I’m sure they’re an awesome person.)
Romeo and Juliet are our most famous star-crossed lovers but the trope doesn’t stop there. Family conflict. Competing corporations. Rival monarchies. Something is keeping your lovebirds apart and only you can bring them together.
There’s only one… (bed/room/seat)
Nothing says romance is on the horizon like the last room in a hotel--and there’s only one bed! Your soon-to-be happy couple has no choice but to snuggle up… and what happens next is limited only by your imagination.
Sunshine and grump
Personalities play a big part in how your couple interacts with each other. While there are many possible variations on this, the sunshine and grump is a popular one. One is surly and broody while the other’s veins flow with honey. Game. Set. Conflict.
Who doesn’t love a fake dating pact? One wants their mother off their back about getting married. One is trying to make their ex jealous. One is trying to impress their boss and get that promotion. There are all kinds of reasons for fake dating (well, in books anyway) and obviously, when you tell yourself a lie for long enough, sometimes it comes true.
Sex in Romance Novels
Obviously, one of the most important aspects of any romance is the presence or absence of physical contact. How much, how little and how descriptive you go is mostly up to you, though there are expectations in certain subgenres. While there is no single definition for any of these, listed below are the general characteristics that define these heat levels.
Writing a good sex scene isn’t all that different than, say, writing a good fight scene. Don’t focus on the play by play--focus on the thoughts, emotions and senses of your characters. Weave in dialogue, action and internal thoughts amongst the more pearl-clutching details.
This is the lowest level of heat. There may be some hand-holding and a kiss when they finally get together. Clothes always stay firmly in place on the page and doors are always shut tight if it does happen.
Fade to Black
Moving up the scale, fade to black includes plenty of make out sessions and possibly some touching. Dialogue focuses on emotions. A few items of clothing may come off but once things get heated, it’s time to ‘end scene’.
Here things get a little more descriptive. Kissing, touching and sex are all described on the page. Dialogue is a little more suggestive while descriptions tend toward euphemism rather than reality.
Similar to steamy but with more explicit descriptions and the dialogue to match. Includes naming of body parts and may involve sex toys and mild BDSM.
No holds barred. Go wild, my friend. Anything goes. Literally. Readers in erotic fiction want all the details, all the dirty talk and all the kink.
Note: I often get asked how to get over the embarrassment of writing sex scenes, especially more explicit ones. While most people feel self-conscious about it at first, the best way to get over that is to a) read sex scenes in the heat level you want to write and b) just get it on paper, no matter how painful or awkward it feels--the more you do it, the more it becomes second nature.
Until recently, romance novels have focused pretty heavily on one demographic. In recent years, there is a lot more focus on queer relationships, romance that includes BIPOC characters and other underrepresented groups like disabled or neurodivergent characters. There’s also a lot more focus on fat positivity.
If you want to explore writing romance in an identity that isn’t your lived experience, then you must do so with care. Research, of course. And then research some more. Read books by ‘own voices’ authors who have already written about these identities, and when you’re done, hire and pay for a qualified sensitivity reader.
After doing your research, you also need to ask the question about whether this is really your story to tell. Perhaps you’re better off leaving it to an author who does represent that identity. This is a personal choice and a decision only you, the author, can make.
How to Write a Romance Novel Outline
Introduce your setting. Where is this story taking place? What time period? Or is this a world you created? Who is your main character? Who is your love interest? What is their current state? What are they dreaming of? What do they want? What is their belief in love? What is standing in their way right now? What long held belief are they clinging to?
How do your two main characters ‘meet’? Do they already know each other? What happens that sets them on a course to a future relationship? Are they strangers? What are the circumstances of their first meeting? How does your ‘meet cute’ set the tone for your novel? How do your two main characters relate to one another? What makes them interesting? What makes the sparks fly between them?
What happens after the meet cute? What changes in their dynamic to up the stakes and propel the story forward? How do they interact? How do they talk to each other? Is it spicy and angsty or sweet and friendly? How are your characters challenged by either the love interest or the plot?
How are things shifting? What is driving up your stakes? What major event transpires to cement your main characters together? How are your character’s beliefs changing? How are they growing? How is the relationship changing?
Third Act Breakup
What is going to make the stakes even higher? What is going to drive your main characters apart? What truths are they questioning about themselves and the person who they now have feelings for?
How do your characters react to this development? What questions are they asking themselves? Are they going to do something about this? Are they going to fight for their love? Will they make a grand gesture? When do they say ‘I love you’ for the first time?
Happily Ever After
Do you have a happy ending or a happy for now? Hint: the answer is yes. How does your couple get there? What have they learned about themselves and each other? How have they changed? How have they grown?
Remember your list of tropes. Which ones will you include?
The inciting incident is the make-or-break moment for your story. It’s the catalyst for change. It’s the thing that sets your entire tale in motion. It’s the kick in the pants your protagonist needs to force a change in their lives they probably never saw coming. Novel openings are one of the hardest things to nail and you can’t do that without a compelling, disruptive, and logical inciting incident. But how do you create an inciting incident that will carry your whole story?
Do you have a story in you? Of course you do! Come write with us for the Dabble Writing Challenge.
Essentially, a beta reader is an (hopefully) objective third party who will read your novel or story and provide (hopefully) constructive feedback. A beta reader is not an editor, and often they’re not writers either, though there’s a good chance a lot of your beta readers are going to be authors as well.