10 Do's and Don'ts to keep in mind when writing romance books

By Grace on Jan 15th, 2015


We all love romance novels. (If you don’t, why are you here? Go read some Proust or something.) They’re a perfect cocktail of plot and smut, with a healthy dash of escapism, and they make us feel better about our brains than indulging in yet another Netflix marathon. We’re literary, gosh darn it!

However, we all know that not all novels are created equal. Few things are as frustrating as picking up a promising new book, only to find that the characters are cardboard cutouts and the sexy bits are described in terms that even your dowager great-aunt would find inane. It’s downright heartbreaking! So, with that in mind, we’ve put together a list of our top ten do’s and don’ts in the wonderful, wicked world of romance.
  • #1'Studly, yes; stalkers, no!'

    I realize that not everyone shares the same dreamboat. You may prefer a nice, masculine luxury yacht, while some of us girls really dig a dinghy. In romance novels, there are some constants; he’ll probably have great hair and biceps the size of my thighs. He’ll probably be a great listener, even if it’s only because he’s constantly stunned into silence by our heroine’s impossible charms. He’ll probably be a little too assertive, and a little possessive, and a little controlling... wait, what?

    There’s nothing wrong with a series featuring a protagonist who, for all intents and purposes, is the Brawny man. The problem is, too many authors let “manly” bleed over into creepy and possessive. Is the protagonist literally stalking our heroine? Does he spend half the novel shaking the objections out of her? Then we may have a problem.

    In short: confidence is sexy. Controlling behavior? Not so much.
  • #2'Hey hey, ho ho! That thesaurus has got to go!'

    Synonyms. They’re fun, and they seem innocent enough, but they break hearts. I never, ever want to see another vagina described as “weeping,” or a male erection called a “love dagger.” Genitalia should never cry, and NOBODY WANTS TO GET STABBED IN THEIR NETHER REGIONS. There are entire articles dedicated solely to complaints about sexual synonyms in romance novels, so there’s no need for me to go on. Just.. for all of our sakes, try and toe a line between “using the same phrase every time,” and “using outlandish terms that I never want to hear associated with sex ever again.”
  • #3'Fantastical mystery orgasms > Six-page treatise on martian cuisine.'

    Oh my gosh. We are all so excited for your steampunk lesbian werewolf time traveler trilogy. This is going to be a series for the ages. Not at all like your erotic zombie pirate thrillers set on dystopian Mars. Where did those go wrong, anyway?

    Oh, right. The part where it was an erotic zombie pirate thriller, set on Mars. Look: much like kink, I am always in favor of romance that isn’t afraid to wander in to the fantastic or the paranormal.The problems arise when authors get so enthusiastic about their world building (they only eat dried space-elf hearts! There are sixteen kinds of werewolf, and they are all really, really aroused!) that the actual plot gets lost. A romance should be about romance, at the end of the day. If you lose your focus on that central, driving part of the plot, then you’ve lost us entirely.
  • #4'The Name Game.'

    Feel free to give your character an “interesting” name--but please, rein yourselves in a bit. I realize that names matter, that you’re trying to convey something about this character without having to be overt, but we do not need thousands of male characters named after archangels and ladies named after greek mythology. Middle point, guys. Find a middle point. Go buy a baby names book, and for every “Elowen,” all we ask is that you toss us a nice “Jeff” or something. I thank you in advance.
  • #5'If only Hero Man could save me from my Collapsing Spine Syndrome!'

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a hunk swoop in to save the day when the odds are stacked and our heroine has her back to the wall. It’s sexy! One question, though: is she truly up against something that requires assistance, or is he saving her from a sudden onset of the stupids?

    Few things are as frustrating as having a perfectly capable, intelligent lady who inexplicably melts just so the guy can save the day. I don’t know why this happens; we spend a third of the book being told just how badass she is, and then, in the second act, she just turns into wobbly lady jell-o. Is it to make the hero’s job easier? If our guy needs a woman to suddenly forget how opposable thumbs work just to seem impressive, maybe he’s not that much of a hero.
  • #6'He’s her WHAT?!'

    Earlier, I mentioned steampunk lesbian werewolves, and the time travelers who love them. I wrote it as a joke, but you know what? I would buy the hell out of that book. Insane plots help keep things fresh. How many times can you read about a disgraced nobleman and the heiress who loves him before you crave fresh air?

    There are levels of weirdness that we don’t touch, though. Here’s an easy litmus test for whether or not your plot line is too weird: in the real world, would your character be immediately, justifiably arrested? If the answer is yes, then you should probably dial it down a notch. I’m all for weirdness; I am NOT into incest, underage sex, or beastiality.
  • #7'I hate you so much that I want to slap you repeatedly with my pelvis!'

    Have you ever seen the movie Desk Set? It’s an old fifties flick wherein Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey spend an entire film sniping at each other before tumbling into love, and I just adore it. It’s one of the first “two people hate each other right up until they make out” romantic comedies. Unfortunately, a lot of writers picked up the formula and forgot the part that makes it actually work: the part where you can tell that, beneath their superficial differences, these two people really, really like one another.

    The bickering part is always fun--you can pack in a lot of humor and intellect, which is a real turn-on. But I’ve seen too many novels jump straight from “I’ll murder you in your sleep!!” to “I’ll watch you all night, thinking about how beautiful you are, while you sleep!” without actually bothering to fill in the gap. And that isn’t romantic; that’s just a harrowing tale of two damaged individuals with a nemesis fetish.
  • #8'Kink me up, Scotty! But no MEANS NO.'

    I’m down for all sorts of kink, from questionable romance to outright, deep and dirty BDSM. Sometimes vanilla just isn’t what you’re in the mood for, and nothing puts a buzz in your britches like something a little more racy. I’m all for our intrepid heroine spending half the story strapped to a table, so long as she’s into it.

    You know what really, really isn’t sexy, though? Straight up assault. All those old-timey bodice rippers where she’s been kidnapped by pirates and the captain “teaches” her to stop being so gosh darn frigid? Ick. BDSM novels where the “subs” aren’t in on the joke? Nope.

    Consent: the sexiest part of every sex scene.
  • #9'Maintain your drama to hump ratio.'

    I don’t necessarily expect a Regency romance to have as much downtown time as, say, a more modern novel about gigolos and the women who love them. But if you’re making me slog through six chapters of feelings for one scene of sexy times, you may have missed the mark.

    The feelings are still vital, of course! We have to actually know these people, so we can get to like them, or we won’t give a hoot when they start doing the horizontal tango. Don’t write straight-up erotica. Or do. I’m not the boss of you! Just don’t publish it as romance.
  • #10Keep your characters relatable--don’t condescend to your audience!

    There is an army rattling around in my head comprised of men whose masculinity is defined entirely through swear words and a willingness to jump to violence, and women whose femininity is defined entirely by their complete inability to take care of themselves. Women whose only traits are their sexual “innocence” and utter confusion about their own emotions; men who are apparently terrified of all feelings, forever, and can’t use their words. Ladies AND dudes can be complex! Where are my guys who are perhaps a little more goofy than gallant? Or my ladies who’ve decided it’s their turn to save the day? Come on, give it a try. I promise--we’ll read it!

Of course, it all comes down to a matter of taste. I can’t claim to speak for everyone! So feel free to let us know in the comments--what are your top do’s and don’ts?