10 Problems with Romance Novels

In my new book, The Perigee Moon, one of the characters will be a romance novelist. Mostly it’s for comic effect, but also the premise is that the author loves what she does, and only hopes to help a few romance-starved ladies be a bit happier because of her stories.

I wanted to research romance novels, and strangely couldn’t find any that were written in the 60s and 70s. Apparently these are out of print, and you can’t find them in the library, nor on Amazon. The only place I could find them was eBay.

Here are a few facts I found about romance novels when searching:

  • Many romance novels have the word “Love” in the title. I would guess upward of 40%. The word may also appear in regular  fiction, but not with the same frequency.
  • Romance novels are written according to a formula which must include conflict and sex. If it doesn’t have both, forget it, it will never be published. There are a minimum number of sex scenes allowed and a minimum of crisis points allowed.
  • Romance novels always have a Happy Ending.
  • There are sections at the library, specifically reserved for romance. A red heart on a pink background designates it at a  romance, at least at the library I visit.
  • Romance fiction is the largest share of the consumer market.
  • During economic downturns, the sale of romance novels goes up.
  • It has been identified that many women are addicted to reading romance novels, in the real sense, such that they neglect  their work, their families and ruin marriages.

While waiting for my decades-old romance novels to arrive, I researched a modern romance, thinking that it must be a lot like the older ones, but with more sex. I discovered I don’t really like them very much, at least the one I selected, which I did at random since there were about a billion to choose from.

And besides, an author can learn a lot about writing just from reading, not limited to what is liked but what is not liked. Here are a few things I noted while reading my chosen novel. I only got to Chapter Ten, I had had quite enough by then, and put sticky tabs on the pages where I noted some fun things to blog about.

Names and specifics have been changed to protect the identity of the novel.

1. Show vs Tell. Always, it is taught, show through narrative and dialogue what the character thinks. Don’t tell us. Here are a couple of examples of Telling Extraordinaire. This is common in romance novels in order to set up the conflict that must be there. That’s why romance novels don’t have to conform to the rules of other literature, because they are the soap operas of novels, and we know soaps are never subtle.

  • She shuddered as she felt the full force of feelings she thought she’d buried so deep she would never have to face them again.
  • He realized that he was standing at the bottom of the escalator, lost in memory, blocking other people from getting off…
  • Because he had walked away from her all those years ago, it had cut her too deeply, too completely, for her to risk passion again.
  • His intense nearly black eyes narrowed and he looked at her as though seeing her for the first time, hearing the wistfulness and sensitivity so unlike her usual manner.
  • She was the only woman whose mental and physical response to him had made him reach down to the deepest parts of himself, satisfying needs that were less tangible and more enduring than lust.

2. Overused back story. It’s always convenient for anyone who could have helped out or intervened in a situation in order to make it less  traumatic for the heroine, to disappear. In this case, our heroine is left without either parent at the same time she is left by the bad guy hero and has just learned she is pregnant.

Then her parents had stepped on the wrong airplane and died in the kind of crash that left little to be buried except her own childhood.

3. Lazy descriptions. Yet again, a beautiful woman. Not a subtle way to describe our heroine. It should have been much less obvious. Let’s ix-nay the grimace. And also the rainwater eyes. And who likes pixies anyway?

She grimaced. She didn’t need a mirror to know that she was small, slender, and appealing if you liked pixies. With her pale blond hair and rainwater eyes, she made great photo material….

 4. Too unrealistic. Here he is thinking thoughts that wouldn’t have been in anyone’s head as they contemplate death. He returns  to the story, so he obviously didn’t die, and would more likely have been thinking about how to get out of a rather, um, precarious situation.

When he’d hung head-down over a chasm, looking at his own grave two thousand feet below, it had been her face that came to him, her voice that he heard. He regretted losing her more than he’d ever admitted to himself until that moment, when it was too late.

5. Too convenient storyline. Obviously, the hero doesn’t know about the child, and the heroine isn’t about to tell him, so it’s just a little bit too easy that the kid just happens to be away for a week, thus allowing our hero to remain uninformed as to the existence of his offspring. And the “Oh wait! Now I remember!” is a bit of an eye-roller.

A quick glance at her watch told her that she still had plenty of time to pick up her daughter at the ranch, which served as a school bus stop. Then she remembered that Annie was spending the week with her closest friend, at the ranch.

6. Sappy metaphors, or putting Thesaurus.com to good use. The following is after the heroine has poured water on the seats of a  hot Jeep that has sat out in the Arizona (or some Southwestern state) sun in mid afternoon.

She wished she had something as useful to pour on her smoldering memories.

7. Typical sex scenes. Romance novels describe sex in more detail than other literary works, which allude to it (preferred) rather  than expound on it. It’s also common practice to use cute phrases for body parts like “button”. Romance novels are not explicit like erotica, but impart way too much information. We all know how it’s done, we don’t need it ‘splained. I especially like “pouting promise”. Ah, alliteration.

  • He’d kissed her then, a kiss that had narrowed the world to the heat and hunger of their joined mouths.
  • He wanted to pour himself into her, filling her until she overflowed and turned to him with her own need, her own demand that he be part of her until they were one and that one burned with an endless fire.
  • Finally, lured by the pouting promise of her breasts, he pulled his mouth away from hers.

8. Conflict that is too extravagant. The whole premise of this story is trumped up to make the differences between the couple so drastic there can’t possibly be a solution.

  • (Our heroine reflecting on the hero leaving years ago) Then he’d walked away without a backward look, never calling, never writing, tearing out her heart and leaving her to bleed in silence.
  • (Meanwhile this is what our hero is thinking) Emotion shook him, a fury he hadn’t felt since he’d discovered that she had aborted their baby.
  • Hate him. Hug him. Scream at him. Soothe the lines of exhaustion from his face. Take a piece of muddy rope and strangle him. Kiss him like the world was burning down around her.

 9. Dialogue that is unbelievable. This is said by another guy to our hero for the sole purpose of informing the reader that the hero is one smart guy! It’s the author’s attempt to show through dialogue I think, but it doesn’t ring true. No one would say this.

I’m a real fan. You’re the only writer I’ve ever found who was as accurate as he was exciting to read. The story you did on the discrepancies and order of precedence between drawings and specifications was nothing short of brilliant.

10. Men saying or thinking things that, in the real world, they never would.

My God! Did I hurt her so badly that she refused to trust anyone after me? Did she really mean it when she cried out her love in my arms?

I hope I do not offend any romance novel lovers with my critique. Likely, there are good and well, not so good, ones. The one depicted here is in the latter category.

What do you think about romance novels?

 

6 thoughts on “10 Problems with Romance Novels

  1. I feel pretty similar to you, I think. I’ve been known to pick up a romance novel for the amusement. They’re kinda like that too-sweet candy you only eat once every few years, and it’s more than enough, though.

  2. I do not like romance novels. At all. They are incredibly sappy and unrealistic. I also think you’re right – romance novels can be addicting and destructive for a woman’s marriage… almost like porn. Romance novels engage the emotional side of sex, which is what women love, so they can be just as erotic as pornography, even if they’re not as explicit or graphic. They can give women very unhealthy expectations. Very interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

  3. The only “romance” novels I’ve enjoyed have been Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series–which get listed as Romance because of some steamy scenes, but in which the steamy scenes are not the centerpiece or purpose of the story. In other words she wrote a Real Book, which got the “romance” label tacked on after the fact. With that single exception (which may, after all, be a case of mistaken identity–Gabaldon’s novels are far too well-written and engaging to keep company with the rest of the romance section) I couldn’t agree more with your break-down of the ickies. 😉

    • Kana, if I were Ms. Gabaldon and had intended my novel be regarded as other than romance, I would definitely not be happy about it. I will have to check out the Outlander serioes, thanks for commenting and glad you agree!

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