The 10 Things Every Romance Novel Needs
Romance is one of the best-selling genres in mass-market fiction with a large fan base of readers who just can’t get enough. In today’s post, I’m going to go over the ten conventions that must be present in your romance novel in order to satisfy those readers and to write a story that works.
I’m also going to show you how these conventions manifest in three popular movies—Pride and Prejudice, Something’s Gotta Give, and Twilight. Why movies? The simple answer is that movies require less time investment than books. If you haven’t seen any of those movies, I hope you’ll watch them after reading this post.
Before we get into the conventions of romance, let’s go over the basics.
What makes a romance novel?
Romance novels center around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make their relationship work. Most of the time, the relationships end “happily ever after,” or at the very least, “happily for now.” Beyond that, romance novels can have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have various levels of sensuality. They can include various subplots as long as the love story remains the main focus of the novel.
Why do people read romance novels?
People pick up romance novels because they want to experience all the emotions of falling in love without all the vulnerability and risk. In order to give your reader the emotional experience they’re looking for, you have to deliver the obligatory scenes and conventions of the romance genre.
What are Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?
Conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of roles, settings, events, and values that are specific to a genre. They are things that readers intuitively expect to be present in a work of genre fiction whether they consciously realize it or not.
Obligatory scenes are the key events, decisions, and discoveries that move the protagonist along on his or her journey. These key scenes are what will evoke emotional reactions in the reader—and when coupled with your genre’s conventions—will give the reader the experience they’re looking for.
In other words, if you don’t deliver the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre, your story just won’t work. So, what are the conventions of a romance novel? Let’s take a look (spoiler warning).
What are the conventions of the romance genre?
#1. A Love Triangle
The first convention you’ll want to include in your romance story is some kind of love triangle. And by that, I mean you need to have someone (or something) who’s competing for the affections of one (or both) of your lead characters.
Without a love triangle or a rival love interest, there’s no possibility for your protagonist to have a moment where they must choose between one person or another. And usually, it’s not just about choosing between two people -- it’s more about choosing what kind of person the protagonist wants to be going forward. So, for example, there’s usually a “good on paper” guy who represents the heroine’s comfort zone (or no need for change). And then, there’s the guy who pushes the heroine out of her comfort zone and causes her to blossom into the best version of herself. On the surface, it seems like she’s choosing between one guy and another, but in reality, she’s choosing what kind of person she wants to be.
And on that note, sometimes the rival isn’t actually flesh and blood -- sometimes the rival manifests as a choice between the romantic relationship and something else. For example, putting career advancement before the relationship or continuing with an addiction instead of giving up the addiction for the relationship.
- In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth has three men interested in her throughout the story—Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, and Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy, as one of the richest men in the area, probably has multiple women hoping to win his affection, but Caroline Bingley is the person we see as most interested in Mr. Darcy throughout most of the story.
- In Something’s Gotta Give, both Dr. Mercer and Henry hope to win Erica’s affection. In Erica’s cases, she is essentially competing against the all the younger women that Harry could date.
- In Twilight, Edward, Jacob, and Mike have feelings for Bella and compete for her attention and affection. However, of the three case studies, this is the weakest love triangle because Bella doesn’t really ever consider Mike or Jacob as a potential boyfriend (in this movie at least).
#2. Helpers and Harmers
The second convention you’ll want to include in your romance novel are characters that fit the role of helpers and harmers. By helpers, I mean there should be at least one character who’s in favor of the romantic relationship. This person will do whatever they can to help the two main characters get together. You’ll also want to have characters who are NOT in favor of the main romantic relationship -- these are your harmers. They’ll do whatever they can to harm the budding romantic relationships. You can even have multiple characters who act as helpers or harmers to the central relationship.
- In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s mom, Mrs. Bennet, acts as both a helper and a harmer. She’s all for seeing her daughters marry rich men and does whatever she can to make that happen (sometimes to their detriment).
- In Something’s Gotta Give, Zoe (Erica’s sister) and Marin (Erica’s daughter) both encourage Erica to go out with Dr. Mercer, and eventually, to pursue a relationship with Harry despite her initial dislike of him. Harry and Erica act as harmers (to themselves) because they each have such strong views on life and love, and their own set of insecurities and fears. You could also say Dr. Mercer acts a harmer—although I don’t think it’s truly his intention to keep Erica and Harry apart—he just wants Erica to himself.
- In Twilight, most of the Cullen family is happy that Edward has found someone to care for, but Alice and Esme are the two that readily accept Bella with open arms. Rosalie is very against Bella dating Edward—mostly because she’s human and that could bring problems and danger to the Cullen family. She’s also jealous of Bella’s humanity and her ability to have the life that Rosalie lost when she became a vampire.
#3. A Specific External Goal
The third convention you’ll want to include in your romance novel some kind of external goal or something outside of the relationship driving the actions of the two main characters. For example, maybe the heroine wants to climb the corporate ladder by getting a specific job title. Or maybe your hero wants to raise a certain amount of money to save his veterinarian practice. They might even have to work together, or solve a crime together, or keep a secret together, or whatever you come up with. Whatever it is, this goal needs to be something specific and timely that your characters think will bring them happiness or fulfillment.
And this goal does not have to relate to love, because usually, that’s not what’s on the protagonist’s mind. Usually, they want something else and love is not even on the table. So, to give your story depth, make sure there’s something other than love that your protagonist is going for. This will also help create conflict for your protagonist when love does enter the picture and they have to choose between this external goal and love, or figure out how they can still achieve this external goal and still have love, or whatever the situation is.
- In Pride and Prejudice, we learn that none of the Bennet girls will inherit Longbourn after Mr. Bennet dies. Therefore, they need to find husbands if they want a secure future. Elizabeth is all about supporting Jane and Mr. Bingley. She also wants to avoid being matched with someone like Mr. Collins.
- In Something’s Gotta Give, Erica needs to break through her writer’s block and finish her play. Harry needs to get healthy, so he can go back to the city and keep up his social life.
- In Twilight, Bella’s first goal is to live with her father and integrate into life in Forks, Washington. Once Bella learns Edward is a vampire, she realizes that he’ll stay physically seventeen forever and that she’ll continue to age. After that, her goal is to become a vampire so that they can be together forever. Once James enters the picture, her specific goal shifts into survival.
#4. Masculine and Feminine Sensibilities
The fourth convention you’ll want to include in your romance novel is some kind of line between masculine and feminine sensibilities. In other words, there should be distinct differences in the ways that your two lovers view and approach love and all of its responsibilities. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to have a male and a female protagonist playing stereotypical gender roles. Even in LGBTQ stories, there needs to be a difference between “masculine” and “feminine” sensibilities. You can think of this as male vs. female, Mars vs. Venus, or Yin vs. Yang energy. This is important because it helps create a push/pull dynamic between your two main characters.
- In Pride and Prejudice, most women don’t work or have a way to provide for themselves. Therefore, women are dependent on the men in their life, and a woman’s future is determined by who she marries. A lot of women in this story view marriage through this lens, but Elizabeth refuses to marry for anything other than true love.
- In Something’s Gotta Give, Erica views love romantically and is able to vicariously fall in love over and over again through the characters in her plays. Harry is more about lust and the physical side of relationships and doesn’t see himself as a man who will ever get tied down in a serious relationship.
- In Twilight, Bella is pretty much a damsel in distress who needs to be taken care of or rescued throughout the entire story. Because of the time period that Edward was born in, he has very old-fashioned ideas about love and his role as the man and the protector in the relationship.
#5. External Conflict
The fifth convention you’ll want to include in your romance novel is some kind of external conflict. So, even though you’re writing a story about a person who probably doesn’t want to fall in love for whatever reason, the relationship conflict is not enough. Ideally, there’s also some kind of external conflict for your protagonist to face that relates to the specific goal we talked about earlier. So, for example, maybe your hero and your heroine are on opposing teams in some kind of sporting event. Or maybe they’re going for the same position at work. Or it could be something like the heroine’s family values don’t mesh with what the hero is offering and it creates conflict outside of her relationship with the hero. Things like that.
- In Pride and Prejudice, the fact that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy belong to different social classes is their biggest external obstacle. And it’s an obstacle made even more obvious by the behavior of Elizabeth’s mom, Mrs. Bennet, which eventually gives Mr. Darcy a reason to convince Mr. Bingley to stop pursuing Jane.
- In Something’s Gotta Give, Erica and Harry have opposing values from the start. Erica values romantic love and family, whereas Henry values promiscuity and being free to date whoever he wants.
- In Twilight, the fact that Bella is human makes it very dangerous for her to date Edward and be around his family. The Cullen family has vowed to not hurt humans, so when Edward brings Bella around, this puts their family values in jeopardy and creates feelings of opposition in some members of the Cullen family (like Rosalie).
#6. Internal Conflict
The sixth convention you’ll want to include in your romance novel is some kind of internal conflict for your protagonist to face, and hopefully overcome. So, this could be anything within either one of your main characters that stands in the way of their ability to open up to true love and be in this relationship. It could be something like a limiting belief, a bad habit, a character wound, a lack of confidence, major self-doubt, or anything like that. And usually, this is what your character will have to overcome by the end of the story IF they want to be in this relationship with the other person. We’ll talk more about this in a second. This internal conflict could also be some kind of warring thoughts or goals like if your protagonist really wants to climb the career ladder, but to do so means moving out of the country and away from their love interest.
- In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is full of pride and Elizabeth is full of prejudice. This holds both of them from finding and opening up to true love.
- In Something Gotta Give, Erica has a limiting self-concept that tells her she’s past the relationship age and that she’s no longer appealing to the opposite sex. Harry has a limiting self-concept that tells him he’s a carefree bachelor who doesn’t need love.
- In Twilight, Edward has a desire to drink Bella’s blood and therefore has a fear that he won’t be able to control himself around her. Bella has a solitary nature and doesn’t trust many other people, or let them into her life.
The next thing you’ll want to include in your romance story is a secret or two. And there are three types of secrets that are often present in romance stories–secrets that others keep from the protagonist, secrets that the protagonist keeps from others, and secrets the protagonist keeps from themselves. And this last kind of secret -- the secret that a protagonist keeps from themselves -- is the kind that’s most often present in romance novels, and that’s because the character often needs to admit the truth to themselves and overcome whatever’s holding them back from opening up to true love.
- In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth keeps her growing feelings for Mr. Darcy a secret. Beyond that, Elizabeth doesn’t see her own prejudicial attitudes toward the upper class until the end of the story. Mr. Darcy’s secret is that he was responsible for helping Lydia and Mr. Wickham marry, and for helping Jane and Mr. Bingley get back together. The secret he keeps from himself is that his own pride is getting in the way of him being able to accept true love.
- In Something’s Gotta Give, Erica keeps her feelings for Harry a secret from Dr. Mercer. She also believes that she’s too old for a romantic relationship, so she keeps her desire for one hidden from herself. Harry keeps his growing feelings for Erica a secret from Marin (who he’s dating in the first part of the movie) and from Erica. He also believes that if he’s in a serious relationship he will be tied down and unhappy.
- In Twilight, Edward keeps his true identity a secret. Once Bella finds out that he’s a vampire, she helps him keep this secret by not telling anyone what he really is. This, and the knowledge of what’s killing people in Forks, becomes their shared secret they keep from everyone else. At the end of the movie, Bella keeps her true intentions about meeting James at the ballet studio a secret from Alice and Jasper.
#8. Intimacy Rituals
The eighth convention you’ll want to include in your romance novel is some kind of intimacy ritual or rituals that occur between your two main characters. Couples develop intimacy rituals such as shared traditions, private languages, and inside jokes that they only do with one another. These types of rituals are important to have in your romance novel because it helps you create and enhance the intimacy and chemistry between your two main characters.
- In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy tease each other and exchange witty remarks whenever they’re in each other’s presence. Even at the end of the movie, when they’re finally married, the teasing continues.
- In Something’s Gotta Give, Erica and Harry chat online even though they’re in the same house. This continues even after Harry goes back to the city. They also have a kind of secret language with the white and black rocks.
- In Twilight, Bella and Edward are both very curious about each other and ask a lot of questions (which they both try to avoid answering). In a way, they have their own private language because once Bella knows Edward is a vampire, they can talk openly about vampires and werewolves with each other. It’s not something Bella can talk to her school friends or her family about.
#9. Internal Change
The next convention you’ll want to include in your romance novel is some kind of internal change within one or both of your main characters. So, usually, there’s something inside the protagonist that makes them believe that either true love isn’t quite possible or that it doesn’t exist or that they aren’t deserving of it. This is kind of what we talked about earlier with that internal conflict, but we’re taking it a step further. So, in order to open up and receive true love, the protagonist has to go through a period of self-reflection and change -- they have to ask themselves who they want to be, the person who cowers in the face of their fears? Or the person who pushes past those fears or whatever’s holding them back and becomes a better version of themselves? In most cases, this change occurs because the protagonist has met and/or interacted with the other character. So, character A inspired character B to be a better person or they helped them believe in themselves or get over some kind of moral failing that was holding them back from being their best self.
- In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy overcomes his pride, and Elizabeth overcomes her prejudice. As a result, they are both rewarded with true love and happiness.
- In Something’s Gotta Give, Erica overcomes her limiting self-concept that tells her she’s past the relationship age and that she’s no longer appealing to the opposite sex by entering a relationship with Harry and then Dr. Mercer. Harry overcomes his limiting self-concept that tells him he’s a carefree bachelor who doesn’t need love in his life when he realizes that he loves Erica.
- In Twilight, Edward overcomes his vampiric nature and his outdated belief that says doesn’t deserve the love of a human. Bella (temporarily) overcomes her desire to become a vampire (and give up her soul), and is thus rewarded with a relationship with Edward (and a new family in the Cullens).
#10. A Happily Ever After Ending
The final convention of the romance genre is the “Happily Ever After” ending. And this may be the most important one -- in fact, I’ve heard it said that if you don’t have a happily ever after ending, then you’re not really writing a romance. And I think that’s true -- that’s what readers want to see in this genre. But anyway, this is that awesome emotional payoff at the end of the story that answers the “will they get together or not” question raised at the very beginning. It’s the final moment to let readers sink into that wonderful feeling that love has won yet again.
- In Pride and Prejudice, we get to see Mr. Darcy ask for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage again and this time she says yes. The final scene in the movie shows Mr. and Mrs. Darcy wonderfully happy and in love.
- In Something’s Gotta Give, after confessing their feelings for each other in Paris, Harry and Erica enter into a committed relationship. In the last scene, we get to see them as a happy family unit meeting Marin, her husband, and their baby for dinner.
- In Twilight, after defeating James, Bella and Edward are reunited in the hospital. Because of the sacrifices they’ve just made for each other, their love has grown even deeper.
You might think that including these things in a romance novel sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many drafts I see that are missing these conventions or that don’t include these conventions in a meaningful way.
So, long story short, don’t skip over these conventions or leave them out of your story. Instead, use them to help you flesh out and construct your story and then figure out a way to deliver these conventions in new and unexpected ways.
If you do that, you’ll not only write a story that works, but you’ll probably gain fans for life, too -- and that’s the dream, right?
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Do you have these ten conventions in your romance novel? If not, how can you add in what’s missing? Can you identify these conventions in your favorite romance books or movies?