The beautiful thing about writing romances is that you can incorporate them into all genres. If you perform a search for your preferred genre and add romance, you’ll find a wide range of choices. Within those choices, you’ll have books marketed as romantic sci-fi and sci-fi romance. It might not seem like a big difference, but the subtle change of words significantly impacts the content and target market.
What’s the difference between romantic fantasy and fantasy romance? In short, the word count dedicated to the romance plot. If it is a romantic fantasy, the main plot is a fantasy plot, and the b plot (secondary plot) is romance. In a fantasy romance, the emphasis is on romance.
If something is marketed as romantic, less than 50% of the plot is geared to the romantic interest. In a romantic fantasy, there are different expectations of character development and interpersonal development. In traditional fantasies, the character’s development is triggered by outside events. The MC rises to the challenge or fails. Most non-romance genres are plot-driven. In a mystery, the MC is compelled to follow the clues and solve the problem. In sci-fi, the character is motivated to attack an alien base or explore the galaxy.
Romances, however, are character-driven. The MCs in a romance must address internal and interpersonal conflict with the love interest to be in the right head and heart space to engage in the romantic relationship. Until those conflicts are addressed, the couple can’t have their happy-for-now or their happily-ever-after ending.
If someone positions their book as fantasy romance, readers expect the romance plot to take precedence over the fantasy element. Some words that would have been dedicated to world-building and backstory will be allocated to the romance arc. When deciding to read a fantasy romance, flip through the pages to get a sense of how much world-building and back story there is. Like in fantasies, some are high fantasies, and others are low fantasies. A high fantasy book is set in a second world which may or may not include magic, orcs, goblins and the like. A low fantasy book is set on Earth and may have magical elements.
One last element to consider when positioning your book or selecting a book to read, and that’s the heat level. There is a tendency for higher heat (explicit sex or higher sexual tension) in fantasy romance. I’m certain there are romantic fantasies and non-romantic fantasies that have explicit sex on-page, however not as much space is dedicated to it. In high-heat romance (regardless of genre), more words are allocated to describe the attraction and sexual encounters. Some audiences will accept high heat, regardless of genres, and others won’t.
Bottom line: know your audience and know which expectations to meet and which ones to break.
What are your expectations when reading a romance arc? What percentage of the book do you like the romance arc to take?
Reach out to me on Twitter @reneegendron to let me know if you prefer romance or romantic and why.
I'd like to thank @SStaatz for the blog topic suggestion.
Fluff. It’s the distractions, the pointless subplots, the loose ends, the unnecessary details that distract a reader and diminishes their enjoyment of your work. How can a writer ensure that a book is engaging through the entire story?
Conflict. Make sure there is enough conflict in your story to keep your character busy. Make sure the conflict challenges your MC and forces them to change. If the conflict is quickly resolved, then it’s uninteresting to read. Readers want to see your characters squirm, and they want to see them dig deep and muster the courage to try again.
I’ll focus on external conflict, but the principle works the same for internal conflict. Make sure the conflict requires several try/fail cycles. Each time the character tries to resolve the conflict, they fail but learn something. When the character tries again, make sure to make the problem more complicated, so they aren’t always doing the same thing over and over again.
I struggled with this in A Gift of Stars. It’s my first fantasy romance book and the first in a series of 29 (which are all written but in need of editing). Remember, I aim to write 50% romance and 50% non-romance plots. One of the main problems with the non-romance arc is that the MCs’ problems (attacks from raiders) are predictable and don’t force a change on the part of the MCs. I have 13 raider attacks of various sizes throughout the book, and I’ve been mulling over which to cut, which to reduce, and of those that remain, how to make each attack unique.
This article is as much a service to you as it is to me as I figure out how to sharpen that fantasy arc. Thanks for reading.
All right. Thanks for letting me take that detour. I hope it didn’t cause the plot of this post to sag.
Let’s say your MC has to venture out into space with a platoon of soldiers to deal with an antagonist. During their mission, they are attacked by pirates, and two of the platoon members die. One of those who died was a medic, and now the crew has lost a core survival skill. Along their journey, they go through an asteroid belt, and someone is injured. Under normal circumstances, the injury would be easily treated, but the medic has died, and the simple enough injury isn’t so simple to the non-medic crew. Oh, did I mention the injured crew member is also the pilot?
Such missions usually have a depth of skill to ensure there are a backup medic and pilot, but you can arrange your story so that the back-ups don’t have the same degree of competence or confidence. The difference in skills creates new problems, a new conflict between crew members, and new issues the MC must address to fulfil their mission.
If you wanted to write a longer book, you could add additional conflict between the characters. One character has access to the engine room and has locked everyone out because they are having a personal crisis. The other characters must access the engine to repair it. If they don’t repair it within one day, it will overheat and break down, leaving them stranded. Note that I added a ticking clock (one day). You can add additional complications by having an infestation of the food supply, and several of the crew members can’t eat what remains because of the differences in their biology. That’s another ticking clock, and that will change the interpersonal dynamics of the crew.
A word of caution. Don’t create problems for the sake of creating problems. Make sure that each problem relates to a fear or weakness of the MC. The more problems you throw at a character’s weak spots, the more you force growth or regression. Character development isn’t linear. People regress to bad habits and behaviour when stressed. Stress them out. Have their father call at the worst possible time. Have the boss move up the deadline of a project, which conflicts with a required medical procedure. Have the MC’s child fall ill, and the MC’s car breaks down on the way to the doctor. The MC doesn’t have the money to take a cab, it’s too far to walk, and the child’s just thrown up on the MC’s shoes. Oh, it’s windy and hot, it’s dinner time, but the MC hasn’t eaten since last night. Oh, and the boss texted the MC that they’re fired.
In the sequence outlined above, there’s a reasonable progression of events that make the situation plausible. Even in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, the events need to make sense. The order in which the problems and conflict happen also need to make sense. Usually, it’s a minor problem that snowballs into bigger ones. However, you can structure your story to start with a larger problem the MC is confident they can handle, and a progression of smaller problems drown the MC and the last, tiny, small, easily fixable problem of running out of mint tea, snaps the MC’s patience and they spiral downward. One problem too many.
People want to see that progression and root for the MC who finally stands up for themselves or cry for the MC who sees their lifelong dreams turn to vapour.
A second way of writing longer pieces without adding fluff is to force the character to choose. By the third or fourth chapter, the MC is presented with a difficult choice. The author can dedicate one quarter or half of the book addressing the consequences of the choice and the character’s efforts to get back to where they were at the ¼ mark to resolve the central conflict.
In forcing the character to make a choice, you can also change the outcome of the book. The choice can become the best thing that’s happened to them or the worst. The choice can damage key relationships for the MC, and the MC spends the rest of the book trying to repair trust. The choice can have explosive consequences on an environment or planet.
A choice must be tied closely with stakes. Stakes refer to what is gained and lost. Gains and losses come in many different forms. They can be a personal sacrifice of not having a career. It can be one error that costs them the scholarship and their only chance out of their poverty. Stakes can relate to self-worth, finances, family and friends (loss of), environment, culture, and community. Some characters are motivated by gain, and others are motivated by fear (of loss). Figure out your character’s motivations and play around with them to see how they relate to choices.
Let’s take, for example, Bertram. He’s the lead character in my first western historical romance. He faces a choice of telling the woman he intends to marry who he truly is or carry out hiding for the rest of his life. He’s hidden his true self for 30 years, and the one other person to whom he’s revealed his real identity brutally rejected him. Ruthanna, Bertram’s romantic interest, has the choice of fulfilling her father’s dying wish and securing her mother’s and sister’s financial future or saving Mack, Bertram’s brother.
These choices have an emotional, psychological, financial, and/or moral consequence on the characters. They are not to be taken lightly, and the decisions force character growth and the book’s direction.
How will you alter your try/fail cycle to lengthen your story? How will you sequence your problems (minor to significant, catastrophic to minor, personal problems first followed by work problems, etc.)? How will you manage your stakes? What choice do you force your MC to make?
Let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter. Reach out to me @reneegendron
I’d like to thank @_levangelis_ for the topic suggestion.
The beginning of a novel sets the tone, pace, and world of your book. The first line entices a reader, the first paragraph draws them in, and if you can pull them all to the end of the first chapter, hopefully, you’ll hook the reader for the entire book.
Depending on your genre, you might need to hook the reader by the end of the first paragraph, first chapter, or first three chapters. Literary fiction is usually more forgiving to slower starts than, say, romance or action-adventure novels. Some science fiction and fantasy also lend well to slower beginnings.
Some readers prefer to be eased into the story, allowing three or four chapters before the MC beings their quest. In romance, there is a growing trend to start immediately into the problem or issue. In crime fiction, there’s a strong tendency to begin a novel with the crime. In many markets, readers don’t have the patience to allow three or four chapters before the book’s main problem or plot begins. We are no longer live in gentle times, and writers are no longer paid by the word.
Get to the point.
If you need pages and chapters of backstory to explain the conflict, work on condensing and improving prose. More often than not, pages of backstory can be condensed in two or three sentences to orient the reader.
The question was raised where do you begin your story? The simple answer is the closest to the main problem or conflict of the book. What does that mean in actual terms?
Here are some questions you need to ask:
- At what point does your story become interesting?
- At what point does your MC have to make a critical decision? Leave a little bit of room to show the importance of the decision, the stakes, the conflict, and the world, then dive right into the story.
Where to start depends on your genre, your story, and whether or not your story is linear. If you want to tell a non-linear story, you’ll likely use in media res. You’ll insert the reader moments before an explosion or some catastrophic event and spend the rest of the book showing how your MC got to that point.
Man of Steel, The Dark Knight Rises, Sin City, and Pay it Forward are examples of movies told in a non-linear fashion.
In The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, there’s a prologue to situate the reader. The first chapter begins with a crisis of a dying father. The reader is plunged into an empire in crisis. The story isn’t told in flashbacks, but the MC is confronted immediately with a problem.
In my story, James and Mirabelle (working title because I always come up with my titles once the story is edited and ready for a cover, release September 2021), the opening paragraph launches the non-romance plot. Here it is unedited:
Investigator James Acker stood over the corpses of three dead moose. One cow and two calves. Their tongues an unnatural shade of blue, their eyes glazed over, with froth coming from their nostrils. James swatted away the cloud of flies, only to have them buzz around the carcasses one second later. “See the nostrils?”
“Poison,” Game Warden Maya Gladstone, his partner, said.
By the end of the first chapter, the reader is introduced to the romantic interest, and the story chugs along from there.
A strong beginning sets the tone and pace of the book. If you start with an action scene, the reader expects to be more action throughout the book. If you start with the MC sitting on their veranda contemplating the world, that also creates certain expectations for the reader.
In my short story (2.5k words), A New Start (upcoming anthology release date July 2021), I start with a bit of tension.
Arthur Osborne pressed flat in the brush alongside a road, his fingers curling around the stock of his Brown Bess. One squeeze of his finger, and he’d drop the enemy soldier in his sites.
The reader doesn’t know why Arthur is crouching, only that he’s concerned, and he’s armed. There’s also one cue as to the period with the mention of the Brown Bess (a musket). Readers are plunged into a historical.
In my fantasy romance, A Gift of Stars, I plunge the reader into immediate action. (I hope to have this book released in 2021, but this is my baby. It needs professional line edits. I’ll forgive myself for errors in other books, but not this one):
A southerly wind blew the dry needles on the yellow cedars sending an eerie moan through the forest. A shiver raced down Lord Sanders Maksiner Persungen’s spine. He spun on his heel, sword ready, knees bent, ready to lunge into combat. But there was nothing behind him except a dense forest, shadows that played tricks on his mind, and more questions.
There is an immediate sense of tension and conflict (who is he fighting?) and stakes. In a world of sword combat, fighting is up close and personal, and there is always a risk of injury. We’re introduced to the romantic interest by the end of the first chapter.
How do you know where you start your story is interesting? Here are some questions for you:
- Does the opening line convey conflict?
- Does the opening paragraph indicate stakes or conflict?
- Does the opening line contain backstory? If so, why is the backstory needed as an opening line?
- What do your beta readers say of the first page? Ask ten people to read the first page of your book. Ask them for honest feedback if they would be inclined to read on. There are countless free beta reviewer and critique boards that you can post one page of your work to receive feedback from people who don’t know you. If you can’t convince strangers to read past the first page, you need to rethink where you start your story. Remember, an author’s career is built on convincing strangers to read your work.
Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter. Where do you begin your stories and why? Reach out to @reneegendron
I’d like to thank @louSchlesinger for the topic recommendation.
Romances rely heavily on character development. Each character has at least one internal conflict they must resolve before being in the right head and heart space to be in a romantic relationship. And, both characters need to resolve a conflict between them to earn their happy-for-now or happily-ever-after ending.
I’ll preface my discussion on character needs by saying I don’t write bully romances. I don’t write stories or books in which one character coerces the other into a romantic relationship. I find such relationships abusive and would never present them as an ideal relationship or a type of relationship worth pursuing.
I mentioned this because of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs(1). Abraham Maslow created a template of human needs. At the base of the pyramid where physical needs such as food, water, and shelter. The second tier of the pyramid is safety needs, in which an individual seeks freedom from threats and violence. The third tier pertains to belonging and love. The fourth tier relates to the need to improve one’s self-esteem, and the capstone is self-actualisation, in which an individual pursues their passion, a creative outlet, or something that brings them joy.
In most cases, people need to meet their physical and security needs before having the time and energy to pursue a romantic relationship. Yes, many individuals and characters live in precarious circumstances who dedicate time, effort, and resources to building loving relationships. Hardship does foster solidarity. It can also incite crime, hatred, and violence. The pyramid of needs is a guide, not an absolute progression between ties.
What does your character need from a romantic partner? Space and support to achieve all of the tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I’ll tie this back to my second paragraph, in which I stated I don’t write bully romances. There are some tropes in which an extremely rich and powerful character provides their romantic counterpart’s physical and security needs in exchange for a romantic relationship. Often, the one with more money and power coerces the other to stay, belittles the other’s attempts at independence or the pursuit of personal goals, or prevents them from working towards their dreams. There are many other coercive strategies used to ‘keep the other romantic partner in line’, but I won’t explore them here.
Each character has different needs. Needs change according to where they are in their journey and the overall point in the book. For example, Giselle’s story in Memories of a Walk on the Beach in Heartened by Crime. She wakes up on a beach without memory. Her primary need is to figure out who she is. She’s found by Cyprien, who takes her to his house and provides her with shelter, food, and protection from an enemy. As the story progresses, Giselle remembers, and her perception of the threat changes. Fearing for her life, she escapes from Cyprien. She regains more of her memories, and the new information again shifts her needs. The last revelation bumps her up to her need for love and belonging and protecting her love interest, Cyprien.
What did Cyprien need from Giselle throughout the story? His arc remained constant. He needed her to maintain his need for love and belonging.
Let’s consider a riches to rag tropes. Sometimes the character leads an unfulfilled but rich life, and due to a bad wager, an aggrieved parent, or misfortune, the character loses access to money. They end up broke and homeless, and they bump into the romantic lead. The romantic lead may help them on their feet, find a modest place to stay, save them from gangs, or some other act of kindness (remember, I don’t write bully romances). The relationship progresses, and the character learns a trade, gets a minimum wage paying job or uses their skills to build a business, and they work their way back up the hierarchy of needs. Sometimes characters in this trope will work their way up to self-actualisation as they realise how hollow and vacuous their previous life was.
What are the needs of the romantic counterpart? Sometimes, the one who fell from lofty heights recognises the importance of character and helps build up the romantic counterpart’s self-esteem. Sometimes it’s self-actualisation as the formerly rich person may regain access to their fortune or amass a new or use their contacts to open doors for their romantic interest.
In When a Scot Ties the Knot by Tessa Dare, the FMC has safety needs in a pretend relationship. When the MMC arrives, he must have shelter and safety for his men. As the book progresses, the MMC helps the FMC with her esteem and self-actualisation.
There are four ways for a romantic partner to provide for their partner’s needs in a non-coercive manner. They are:
- Doing it for them (be careful not to infantilise or make helpless your character. There must be a logical reason why one character is doing it for another)
- Creating opportunities and space for the character to figure it out on their own. This includes letting the other person fail and being there encourage another try
- Collaborating to reach personal and mutual goals
Take the book you’re reading and see which needs are required for each character and flesh out how they meet their personal needs and how their romantic interest is helping them meet their needs. Let me know on Twitter what their needs were and how they met them. @reneegendron
I want to thank @ericlinuskaplan for the topic suggestion.
Ah. Sex scenes. They can be scintillating, pointless, or boring. In this blog post, I’ll go over what makes a great sex scene and things to avoid when writing them.
The first thing about sex scenes is to know their purpose. Sex for the sake of sex bothers readers because it doesn’t add to the story. Sex needs to further characterisation, advance the plot, and serve a purpose in the book.
If your character is running away from the antagonist and your MC is dodging bullets, they don’t have time for sex. It makes no sense to duck into a warehouse, find some random person, have sex, then run away, narrowly escaping enemy agents, spies, aliens, or whatever else you throw at them.
Sex must advance the plot. If you’re writing erotica, in which sex is the plot, the type of sex (location, heat, partners, etc.) must define the characters. Some characters are shy, and their personality will influence locales and types of sex. Other characters are more forward, and how and when they choose to have sex must reflect their personalities.
How can sex advance the plot?
- relieve tension (Only if it’s not a chase scene. No one has sex while driving away during a car chase)
- demonstrate a level of commitment in a relationship (particularly true for romances)
- serve as an internal conflict for the characters (intense attraction towards one another vs problems with committing to a relationship because of unresolved issues)
- demonstration of characterisation (an MC uses another person for personal gratification, develops a romantic relationship, etc.)
Where do you place sex scenes in a book? Usually, except in erotica, after the midway point of the book. Why? The reader needs time to understand your world and character. If you place a sex scene too early in a book, the reader won’t understand its function.
Sex scenes work best as a counterpoint to other plot points. They can follow a moment of intense emotional intimacy or a spot where the characters feel confident they will accomplish their goals (and then after sex, things fall apart in many ways). Or sex scenes can serve as complications. For example, your MC finds out the person they just slept with is married with children. Additional complications include their spouse is pointing a loaded shotgun at your MC, who is still naked in bed. To give your MC a terrible day, have the spouse be in organised crime, and your MC is heavily indebted to them. Not an ideal time to renegotiate the terms of the loan, eh?
The second thing about writing sex scenes is to understand your genre. Do people expect to read a sex scene in a ____ book, and if they do, what degree of heat do they expect? Most genres lend well to sex scenes, but it hinges on how well you’ve set up the story and expectations. You set expectations by having a clear blurb and back cover. If you hint there is high heat (explicit sex), readers will know what to expect. Readers who don’t like high heat won’t buy your book (and that’s okay).
How do you set up the heat levels (to manage reader expectations?) Sexual tension. Sexual tension is defined by how much (or not) your character notices the love interest. The more your MC pays attention to the love interest, the more prepared the reader is for a high heat scene. If, however, you play down those reactions, the reader is prepared for a kiss scene or a fade to black scene.
Let’s compare two examples. The first is from my short story Frontier Love in my collection Heartened by Crime.
Mr Adams stood tall and proud, the tip of his nose red, a blue scarf pulled tight around his neck. “Here.” He reached out and cupped her hands, bringing them inside of his cloak.
Heat surged through her body. Curse her mittens and his clothes for being in the way. This must be why English ladies swooned.
Andrée-Anne (the FMC) is formal with her love interest—Mr. Adams. His gesture of placing her hands in his cloak is chivalrous and innocent by today’s standards. However, for Andrée-Anne and her period (colonial Canada), it is a provocative act.
Here’s another scene from the story:
She retrieved a shirt from the basket on her feet and frowned. She held her gaze on the stitching, enjoying the sensation of Mr Adams’ gaze settling on her. The tug to look at him turned into an irresistible pull.
“Whoever stitched these,” she said, “did a poor job. The stitches couldn’t have lasted more than a day or two.”
“It’s a way of guaranteeing repeat business.”
“It’s lousy business.” Her brows knitted together. “Better to be known for good work than poor work.” She threaded her needle.
His gaze was still on her, warm and curious. A tingle raced down her spine and settled low at her centre.
There’s an attraction, but it’s quite innocent.
As a writer, you could amp up the attraction, build up the heat (explicitness) as the story progresses, making a high heat scene expected and welcomed.
There’s the option of a fade to black scene or alluding to sex. Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist series does this exceptionally well (fade to black). Sherrilyn Kenyon’s The League series has excellent examples of high heat sex scenes.
Here’s the opening of Indebted to You in Heartened by Crime:
A splinter of awareness crept into Leigh’s thoughts. She lay on a comfortable bed, someone’s breath warmed her neck, and a protective hand rested on her hip. She lay naked, pressed against another naked body. A firm one at that.
Last night. Ah. The blond in the bar she had met while playing darts. The man with the seductive eyes, athletic body, and tongue that should be worshipped as a religion.
She sighed happily, then eased away from Steve’s embrace. Or was it Samuel? No. Something more unusual. Stockwell. His name was Stockwell.
“Where are you going?” He tightened his grip around her.
“I have to go to work.”
“At least let me make you breakfast.”
She turned to face him, took in his angled features and the hunger in his eyes. “I have to go.” She leaned forward, pressed her lips against his for the briefest of moments, and pulled away, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed.
The previous night’s sexual encounter was implied but not described in detail. When sex is nonexistent or is inferred, the book is considered low heat.
The more you increase sexual tension, the more the reader expects explicit sex.
You can increase sexual tension by:
- having the character increasingly notice things about the other person
- create intimacy by sharing secrets or insights only with the love interest
- create a sense of familiarity (finishing each other’s sentences, preparing coffee the way she likes it, etc.)
- being kinder or harsher towards the love interest (kinder if they are pursuing a relationship, harsher if they are actively avoiding getting into a relationship but can’t seem to fight the attraction)
- inside jokes
- a shared experience that only the love interests have
I’d like to mention a third point when writing a sex scene, focus on the emotions, not the mechanics. Readers will need general information such as location and position, but they don’t need every single motion. If you add emotion, you’re deepening characterisation.
Here’s an excerpt from James’ and Mirabelle’s story. It’s a contemporary romance I aim to release in 2021. It doesn't have a name because titles come last for me. I do know the name of the series, however. This is book one of the Outdoorsman Series. It’s written but not fully edited. All errors will (I hope) be corrected by release. That said, it’s a reference point for how to write explicit sex scenes.
Firm hands held her hips, keeping in her place, he licked her slick folds. He flatted his tongue against her. Wet, soft, tender. Bliss.
Bright energy coiled inside of her, tightening and twisting, racing up every nerve ending. Every sense focused on him. Gentle sucking noises drowned out all sound of existence. His masculine scent, a musk that was uniquely James. His hair tickled the inside of her thigh, and that one spot on his cheek he’d missed shaving electrified her skin. His fingers spread under her, in control but gentle. His hair still glistened from their shower, now tussled from her fingers.
She shifted left; he stayed with her. She squirmed, he laughed. She shied away; he pulled away. She arched against him; he stuck his tongue out, letting her roll her hips — seeking, feeling, on the point of breaking.
A thread snapped. Muscles spasmed in delight, sending cascading pleasure through her.
Breath fled on a sighed, “James.”
How will this article affect how you write sex scenes? Reach out to me on Twitter to continue the conversation @reneegendron