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Is romance getting harder?

Is romance getting harder? No, no, no, I’m not talking about 40 Shades or any other semi sado nonsense, that’s not romance, that’s just mindless titillation when compared with the enduring, gut wrenching, emotional tension of a well written love story.

Living in an open, tolerant (well, all things are relative) society is great, but it’s not so good for contemporary romance writers. Because powerful fictional romance isn’t about the protagonists being together, it’s much more about keeping them apart. The term ‘star-crossed lovers’ gives a clue. Love stories hinge on the concept of ‘what’s to stop them?’ and in our current ‘anything goes/who cares’ society, frankly, there’s not much to stop anybody doing anything.

Open-mindedness, ease of travel and (comparative) affluence has clearly made life much more difficult for contemporary romance writers. They now have to work much harder to create plausible constraints (emotional not physical) and friction (emotional not physical) to keep their lovers apart. But if they want to achieve the ‘tears on the pillow’ and ‘page-turning power’ of a real enduring love story that’s exactly what they have to do – they have to create two great, thoroughly believable characters who ultimately belong together but cannot actually get together for equally great, thoroughly believable reasons.

And finding those reasons isn’t easy. As a society we have moved on from those good (in the fictionally useful sense) old days of class conflict, xenophobia, faith incompatibility, virgin bride, anti divorce, homophobia, feuding families and so on. It’s certainly not always easy for couples nowadays, but these kind of ‘cross boundary’ liaisons rarely engender the stigma and taboo they once did.

A few prejudices do inevitably linger on, but on the whole they are more likely to generate a few raised eyebrows or even a giggle than ostracism, disinheritance or danger of death at the brother’s hand. When it comes down to it, there is very little now to stop him and her, or her and her, or him and him, getting together.

It’s so much easier in historical fiction where the writer can summon up chaperones, invading armies, fight to the death religions and brutal, all powerful fathers at the touch of the pen (or mouse).

Yes, of course there are still the conventional old chestnuts for contemporary romance writers to fall back on, the mistaken identities, the lost email, the huffy misunderstanding, even, in absolute desperation, the natural disaster, but it’s hard to string these along for 100,000 words without the reader flinging down their Kindle, turning to their foreign, cross-dressed, age-gapped lover and saying, ‘Oh for goodness sake, why don’t they just get on with it!’

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18 thoughts on “Is romance getting harder?

  1. I LOVE this blog post. You’ve put into words my exact feelings and writing frustrations. In fact, I’m struggling to define a reasonable ‘conflict’ between two characters right now! I don’t like to read the overly-contrived kinds of conflicts…and prefer to delve into/get lost in the motivations of the characters.

    Believable conflict in contemp. romance does seem to boil down to making your characters layered and vivid so that their emotional baggage is a believable impediment. I love these kinds of stories best, despite the overwhelming trends of paranormal, erotica, and ‘new adult.’ But, maybe that’s my age talking…LOL.

    • Thanks you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. But no, it’s not at all to do with age!! There are more extreme areas of the romance genre around nowadays of course, and diversity is good, but the vast majority of readers are still looking for a really compelling romantic story. What you are seeking to achieve is exactly what’s needed – real believable conflict that doesn’t make the reader think ‘oh, for goodness sake ….’. That’s why writing contemporary romance is difficult – but the problems are not insurmountable. If you can find a way to create empathetic characters with realistic reasons for being unable to get together straight away and you structure your story effectively there is no reason at all why is shouldn’t be successful.

  2. One of my favorite elements in romance is the emotional tension leading up to the moment they finally give into & embrace the connection they’ve been withholding for whatever reason (the reason is the part I think romance writers can really create some diversity in their plots). That tension is the reason I continue to turn the pages. If an author can draw me into becoming invested in the stakes of seeing the characters overcome the obstacles and finally get together, then they’ve won me over. Those are the kinds of romances I love to read and, consequently, the kind I strive to write.

    • Absolutely. If the emotional tension is plausible and the characters properly motivated (by the author!) then the reader can become full engaged and that’s what keeps you reading. One of the things I always say to my creative writing students is that writers are generally more successful if they try to write the kind of books they enjoy reading.

  3. I’ve never read romance and after all the fuss about 50 shades I had sworn to keep it that way. However, in the very first paragraph of this post you beautifully illustrated the difference between ‘Real romance’ and books like 50 shades – thankyou!

    • My pleasure! Yes there are huge variations within the genre – for me the key to a good romance is the level of reader involvement. If we can engage our readers then they will be sure to turn the pages until the end!

  4. I don’t write romance… my genre is Christian history (fiction) but I read a lot of romance novels for relaxation. I agree with what has been said… the characters have to be believable. The situations have to be realistic. Some books are predictable – it’s what happens to the characters and how they deal with life that makes the book rivetting.

  5. This is a great post and so true! I try to focus more on the emotional landscape and whatever has shaped my characters life up to this point and hope that draws in the reader

  6. Shannyn and Helen – just wanted to say, I totally agree too! Particulary since I’ve noticed that many of the happiest couples I know in real life got together with the minimum of drama… they met, got on, things developed. Scarcely a missed email or a huffy misunderstanding in sight. Nothing more to add but will be really interested to see what other people have to add to the discussion!

    • Yes, absolutely, but then fiction is often more exciting than real life!!!

      • Mostly, but not always. I’m currently reading a Jackie Collins novel, with a celebrity murder as one of the key plotlines. But it’s nowhere near as shocking as the current tragedy involving Oscar Pistorius. I’d never dare write anything along the lines of what’s unfolded today (esp the Valentine’s day link) because I’d be convinced my editor would trash it as completely implausible.

      • Yes, real life is often more tragic/bizarre than fiction!

  7. As a contemporary romance author, I totally agree. I think there are certain tropes that some people love to read (friends-to-lovers, marriage of convenience, reunited lovers) that still work very well with contemporaries. I also think that in today’s contemporaries, readers are looking more for the emotional hangups. We all go through life lugging around baggage from our pasts and readers like characters who are forced to face the baggage and get over it.

    • Absolutely, it is careful characterisation and authentic character motivation that are key and which make romances really work.

      • Davetmartin on said:

        This is very true. It’s the internal conflicts and constraints that are the most relatable to the reader. The other stuff – setting, scope, etc are the background. What keeps people reading is recognising themselves or others in the characters and the choices they make.

      • Yes, it is that sense of empathy that writers need to strive to achieve.

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