The Unwritten Rules of Romance

They aren’t written down anywhere, but there are several rules romance authors must not break, or they will Suffer Consequences. All writers of romance know them, and most of us are champing at the bit to break every one of them. Some of us, in fact, already have.

1. There can be NO CHEATING. Once the two main characters meet, they are not allowed to sleep with anyone else. They can’t flirt with anyone else. They can’t even look at anyone else. If they do, it’s cheating, they’re bad, and they’re going to hell. In my book, The Blue Paradise, the main characters meet, enjoy a quick vacation fling, and then go their separate ways, albeit determined to keep in touch. They don’t talk exclusivity, they don’t get engaged, they certainly don’t marry, but they’ve met, so according to this rule, they’re not allowed to dip their wick anywhere else for the rest of their lives. By virtue of a couple nights of hot, steamy sex, they are now chained together forever.

What bullshit. Who made this rule, and by what authority did they foist it on all romance writers? 

Well aware of this edict, I purposefully (and regretfully) softened a scene where one MC hooks up with a third, inserting a phone conversation between that MC and his vacation lover where they agree not to lay claim to each other, i.e., “Yeah, have some fun. I don’t see a problem with it. I’m on this side of the state and you’re on the other.”

I still got crucified, because real life must not intrude on fantasy, i.e., romance. A couple reviewers cried “cheating!” (though there was none; if you’re not yet in a relationship, how can it be cheating?) and that was that.

But even if my MCs were cheating, so what? Cheating happens, and writing about it makes for great drama. Think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, or The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.

2. There can be no major character death. Aside from the ubiquitous “movie of the week” where some female is always dying beautifully of cancer while everyone weeps huge salty tears over her gorgeous D-cup body, major characters are not supposed to die. It’s a RULE for romance authors. They must meet, fall helplessly in love, and stay together forever. Again, real life need not apply. 

I haven’t broken this one yet, but I know one writer who did and her book sold well. I’d tell you what it is, but if you haven’t read it, this gives away a major plot point, so I will desist. Just know that some authors are bravely going where the rest of us hope to follow.

The first book to break this rule in spectacular fashion was Love Story by Erich Segal. A short, clever, funny book, it was refreshing on many levels… and it broke a major rule by killing off the main character via cancer. At that time, this was NEW. The book was a bestseller and broke hearts everywhere. Then they made it into a movie that did well, too.

Those “movies of the week” I mentioned? They all stem from this one book. Now it’s a trope: beautiful young woman gets cancer and dies.

If you want to go back even farther for this one, think Romeo and Juliet by some guy named Shakespeare. Franco Zeffirelli made this play into a sumptuous movie starring two beautiful young people. Both main characters die, and there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

But it’s not allowed in the m/m romance genre. See Rule #3.

3. There must be an HEA ending. That’s “happily ever after,” and the only other acceptable ending is HFN: happy for now.

I wrote a short novella about two guys who meet, bounce off the furniture for a while, and at the end, break up. Yup, they decided to part for a very good reason, but the publisher said, “Nope, can’t do that. Must have an HEA. Rewrite it!”

I still regret it.

While the revamped story is good, it wasn’t the story I wrote. I bristled over having to change the ending, but I did it because I wanted to be published.

In fact, the original version of the second story in that series also had an unhappy ending. There was a reason for that! But the publisher insisted I change that ending too, thereby making the first story incomprehensible and downright stupid.

In the third story, the MC finally gets his HEA. Taken altogether, we get a character and story arc that is interesting. But because of this RULE, it doesn’t hang together and makes no sense whatsoever.

Now that I have the rights back to those three stories, I plan to restore the original endings and release them as a set. Now they will fit together the way I intended them to. I have no problem with an HEA that makes sense.

So there you have it. Want to write romance? Observe the rules. However, if you self-publish, you can throw them out the window and let the chips fall where they may.

I’ve lately noticed readers are getting tired of the same old story. The formula, which depends heavily on these rules, is wearing thin. My advice? Write what you want. The readers will find you.

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About Fenraven

Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is really hot most of the year. Find him on Twitter, Google +, and Facebook by searching on 'fenraven'.
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20 Responses to The Unwritten Rules of Romance

  1. I was going to have an MC die at the end of a story. In fact, I wrote it like that, but then I was faced with the dilemma of what happens to his lover (because it wasn’t going to be a single book). The second book would feature the lover falling slowly painfully for some convenient guy that’s around him, and that seemed worse than pulling a HEA at the end. But yeah, people like the familiar. You can tweak with it a little, but not too much.

    • I keep wanting to destroy all the conventions. 🙂

      • They do seem at odds with good storytelling. I mean, what matters is it works for your characters. Tropes are delightful things, they’re comforting, and you can mess with reader expectations by subverting them. They get stale if they remain the same.

        • I think the m/m genre has mostly been in a rut this last year. I’ve read, or tried to read, a lot of books I couldn’t bear to finish. I mean, why bother? I knew exactly what was going to happen.

          The best books are unexpected. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. I want to be taken for a ride!

          • I know it’s not really your style, but let me know if you want a copy of Geordi Loves Cthulhu. I promise, in addition to some sex, there’s also a surprise! Also, I’ve not read it, but I’ve heard good things about The Island, but it’s definitely dark erotica.

          • Free book offer? Hm, how can I turn that down? 🙂

            The only “The Island” I know is the movie with Scarlet Johanson and Ewan McGregor. Or are you referring to something else?

  2. Kate Aaron says:

    Heh, hurrah for common sense! Cheating? I’ve written it. MC death? Yup. No HEA? Purlease. There is an audience out there for those stories, despite the shrieks from some corners. As far as I’m concerned, the only requirement of a romance is, well, romance. Doesn’t matter how fleeting, doomed or ultimately tragic it ends up. And rules are there to be broken 😉

  3. Elin Gregory says:

    I like this. Thank you. I’m fed up with being told my work is all wrong because I haven’t followed the ‘rules’.

    • You’re welcome. Breaking the rules can be fun. 🙂

      • Elin Gregory says:

        I’m breaking the rules at the moment 🙂 I have a protagonist who bonks an ex in the morning, just because he can, then has a tender first time with the other MC in the evening. Not the least bit romantic.

        • Sounds terrific! While I have no plans to break the rules, if the characters want to do that for me, I’m backing them. 🙂

          I think it’s important to stay true to the story and the people in it, and not bend either one to fit some arbitrary rules.

  4. diannegray says:

    I totally agree with everything here, Theo. One of my short stories ends with two guys going to jail for murder when they didn’t actually do it. It won an award, but my father-in-law hated it because he said there was no ‘justice’ in the end. Well, that’s life! 😉

    • 🙂 That is life.

      Breaking the rules often means getting out of your comfort zone, too. While it’s harder for me to do that now, I still search for subjects that make me feel uneasy or inadequate; often, this produces something unexpected and better than I hoped.

  5. cmtrudell says:

    I’m a hypocrite because as a reader, I like the “rules,” and as a writer, I could care less. But, I’m not totally averse to 1-3 appearing in a story I read provided it’s well-written. If I read 300 pages of so-so plot, and the patience I’ve spent is rewarded by a MC death, then I’m left with “what was even the point of that?” Whereas if the story connected with me throughout, the tragic end is strangely more palatable.

    • Character death is hard to do. As a writer, I hate the idea of killing off someone I created and came to love. But sometimes, the story calls for it, in which case, I say do it.

      As a reader, I would probably scream and be tempted to throw the Kindle against a wall, but after I’d calmed down, I’d realize the power behind the move and appreciate the bravery of the writer.

  6. Sue Brown says:

    Hi Theo, I’ve been criticised a lot for not following the rules. I don’t and if the story demands it I’ll burn the bloody rule book.

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