THE BLOG
10/16/2013 07:31 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

What Makes A Great Romance Novel?

I like to have imaginary dialogues with bumper stickers. Pasted images and taglines on the backs of cars reveal a lot about the state of the world and the mentalities of the present moment. One such message encountered remains particularly intriguing:

"Your body is a temple. Mine is an amusement park."

When I was a little girl I hid romance novels under my bed so I could consume them without discovery (sorry mom). I think the secretive ritual made reading the books all the better. Maybe now that I've gone public with love of my romance novels, they'll lose some appeal. But I don't think so.

Why? Because romances that are truly well-executed demonstrate mastery at sustaining tension. The taut emotion and pacing of this genre are what draw such massive readerships. Romance novels compose an exceptional genre, an audacious fearless genre that holds the highest market share of the publishing world. Snap.

But what makes a truly fantastic romance? Do readers want to gain entrance to a temple or buy a ticket to an amusement park?

On October 22nd my first romance novel will hit bookshelves. As a writer, I'm a neophyte to the genre, but in creating this novel, I held fast to what I've discovered as a reader will make a romance I'll truly devour at first read, and come back to savor again and again.

Have enough story.

Romance novels center around the love story of one couple, of course. Contrary to the popular song lyric, however, love is not all you need. At least not in the writing of a successful book. If the narrative relies too heavily on its two central characters the entire novel risks seeming small, petty even, the characters utterly self-involved and their world much too limited. Consider what Romeo and Juliet would be without Mercutio, Paris, the Nurse, Friar Laurence, and even Rosalind. Or Lancelot and Guinevere without Arthur, Merlin, and Morgan Le Fay. For a reader to escape into to a book its world must be filled with full-realized people and places. The characters' relationships should be a web of meaningful connections. No action without reaction. No choices without consequence.

But not too much story.

I'm not recanting my earlier testimony, honestly. Rather, as a reader I've encountered romance novels where the romance gets so buried in the larger narrative that the book no longer holds to the category. While I don't want my love story to be one dimensional, it must feel essential to the book. This admonition represents the tricky balance every writer of romance must establish, maintain a breathless, heart-stopping romance while keeping it tied to a compelling, broader narrative. I've discovered it's the books that deftly manage this balance that keep me turning pages into the wee hours of morning and drive me back to the bookstore in search of other titles by the same author.

Sex

Another point that might seem obvious, but I've reached great heights of frustration waiting for the romance to show up in a so-called romance novel. I'm not equating sex with romance, and when I say 'sex' I don't mean the deed itself, but rather everything that leads up to that physical culmination of romance. Building physical and emotional tension lies at the heart of an irresistible romance. Stolen kisses, a brief touch, salacious daydreams, and almost-but-not-quite encounters all contribute to a reader's investment in the novel's central relationship. I've come across a surprising number of romance novels where no tantalizing scenes appeared until the last third of the book. Delayed gratification has its merits, but also its limits.

A last aside, (fussy and personal), regarding historical romance: maintain sensitivity to a modern reader's ability to stomach forgotten English.

An example: I was more than a little surprised when, in the midst of a particular romance, I slammed up against a tension-ruining wall. It came in the form of a single word.

Pulchritude.

Dear author, as a former professor of history I appreciate that you're writing a historical romance that takes place in the early nineteenth century and focuses on the lives of the oh-so-proper British upper crust. But please, please do not believe you sustain my rapture if you force me to swallow a word like PULCHRITUDE amid otherwise transportive titillation.

For me pulchritude does not evoke its actual meaning, "beauty which pleases the eye." Instead, it brings to mind, "one who is adept at projectile vomiting."

In the midst of satin stays, heaving bosoms, and sultry gazes I cannot stomach pulchritude. Not for the sliver of an instant. And yet, much to my dismay the word appears not once but a few dozen times in the narrative.

The Sum of its Parts

Romance novels that neglect the components I've mentioned create disruptions that remind me of the amusement park on that bumper sticker. Without them I'm being thrown out of the story as violently as if I were being whipped around on a carnival ride or rammed by a bumper car.

As with any book, preferences will vary, and my point is not to disparage tastes that differ from mine, but the design of my ideal romance is filled with candles, intrigue, dark corners, ritual-like seduction, forbidden trysts, and hints of the arcane - much more appealing to this reader than carousels and roller coasters, clowns and fun houses.