1. A STRONG HOOK OR CONCEPT. Anything that helps a publisher promote you and your novel is a plus. If you have what’s called a “high concept” (like Dan Brown’s shocking secrets about the Catholic church, or Jodi Picoult’s issue-related stories) and can communicate it simply and clearly in your pitch, you’ll have a better shot at getting noticed. Popular “hooks” in romance novels currently include secret babies, amnesia, marriages of convenience and mistaken identities.
2. SYMPATHETIC, MOTIVATED CHARACTERS. Be sure your protagonist always has something important and personal at stake. When choosing your point of view, tell the story from the viewpoint of the character (or characters) with the most to lose. In romance, readers typically prefer a strong heroine whose sole purpose isn’t to find a man. She is most often successful in her own right, at least on some level (even if she’s facing a difficult time), and this makes her the perfect complement to a strong hero. Paula Eykelhof of MIRA Books, who edits my work as well as Debbie Macomber’s, says, “Readers will care about what happens next only if they can care about your characters, connect with them in some way and feel interested in their personalities and their fates.”
3. EVOCATIVE SETTING. Use it for more than just backdrop. Make it interesting on its own merit, and even more interesting when peopled with your characters.
4. HIGH-STAKES CONFLICT. Any HEA is more enjoyable if it’s hard-won. Although many of the conflicts in romantic fiction may be internal (depending on the subgenre), plot needs to grow out of character. The greater the challenge keeping your characters apart, the more compelling the story will be. Make those challenges difficult but not impossible to overcome.
5. UNIQUE VOICE. To Jayne Ann Krentz, who also writes as Jayne Castle and Amanda Quick and has penned many New York Times bestsellers, voice is what sets one author’s books apart from all the rest. “Voice contains an author’s core values and worldviews and cannot be duplicated. Give one plot to 10 different authors and you’ll get 10 very different stories.”
6. CREDIBLE EMOTION. Emotion is the lifeblood of a quality romance novel. Readers want to be quickly enveloped in the fictional world and fall in love along with the characters. Because most people fall in love only once or twice in a lifetime, this is a way to relive that heady and exciting experience.
7. TIGHT PACING. Today’s busy reader prefers a story that moves quickly and doesn’t rely too much on interior monologues. Avoid letting your story become static. Keep the reader in the action. Use non-cliché metaphors and similes, and evoke the five senses wherever possible. As in most good writing, avoid passive verbs.
8. SKILLFUL LAYERING. Plots, characters and themes are all more interesting when there’s some subtext involved. Rely on the intelligence of the reader to pick up on subtle clues instead of making your story overly simple or obvious.
9. REVERSALS. Don’t play it straight. Add intrigue, surprises and new challenges, constantly ratcheting up the tension.
10. AUTHENTICITY. Avoid contrivances, coincidences and overly dramatic writing. They throw the reader out of the story and may ensure you never get her back.
Want to write better romance scenes and develop stronger characters? Consider:
On Writing Romance
Also check out these items from the Writer's Digest's collection:
Writer's Digest You Can Write A Romance
Writer's Digest No More Rejections
Writer's Digest The Wealthy Writer
Writer's Digest The Craft & Business Of Writing
Writer's Digest Weekly Planner
Writer's Digest How to Land a Literary Agent (On-Demand Webinar)
Writer's Digest Magazine One-Year Subscription
Writer's Digest 10 Years of Writer's Digest on CD: 2000-2009