A Crash Course in Romance Sub-Genres

Romance GEnreBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome to the second to last post in my genre rundown. I hope you’re feeling more confident when it comes to genres (a topic that gives most writers a headache). Today we’re taking a look at romance.

What Is Romance?

A romance is a story where the central focus (and the core conflict) revolves around a romantic relationship between two people. Unless you want angry readers, a mandatory ingredient is a happy ending.

If you’re writing romances, it would be a very smart move for you to join your local chapter of the RWA (Romance Writers of America). Because of how big and popular romance is as a genre, romance writers have more awards to pursue than any other genre, but the most coveted are probably the RITA (for published novels) and the Golden Heart (for unpublished novels).

Defining Romance Sub-Genres

Romance is slightly more complicated when it comes to classifying it than are the other genres because, along with the sub-genres per say, you also need to define the heat level of your romance.

Heat level in romance refers to how intense and explicit the intimate scenes are. Romance novelist Starla Kaye gives an excellent overview of heat levels in romance at her website, including what publisher lines print them and the classifications given to the various levels by different publishers.

Once you know your heat level, you can pick one of the following . . .

Contemporary Romance – As the name suggests, contemporary romances take place post 1960. This is kind of a catch-all category for romance that doesn’t fit in any of the others.

Historical Romance – The line dividing a historical romance from a contemporary romance is, frankly, a little fuzzy. If your book is set pre-1960, you’re probably safe calling it a historical romance, but my suggestion for this one is to find out what your ideal publisher defines as historical and go with their dividing line. If you plan to self-publish, look at how similar books are categorized on Amazon.

Western Romance – Set in the American frontier, or in a contemporary “western” setting such as the Canadian prairies or Australian outback, western romance readers expect to experience horses, cowboys, and a simpler way of life (though not a simpler plot line).

Gothic Romance – Gothic romance combines romance and horror and often involves a mystery. The darkness and terror should complement the sexual tension between your main characters.

Regency Romance – Set in regency-era (circa 1790-1820) Great Britain, it takes more than just a location and time period to make a successful regency romance. Readers expect wit and fast-paced dialogue like that found in Jane Austen’s novels. This sub-genre is less likely to include open discussions of sex than the other sub-genres (but a lot of subtext and innuendo can replace it). Marriages of convenience, false engagements, mistaken identities, and large differences in social class are popular elements.

Romantic Suspense – Romantic suspense is the most plot-driven of all romance and usually involves a strong heroine who finds herself in a dangerous situation. The key to a successful romantic suspense is to blend both elements so that neither overwhelms the other.

Paranormal Romance – Paranormal romances usually involve a romantic relationship between a human and a ghost, vampire, shapeshifter, werewolf, or some other non-human or quasi-human being. They can also focus around psychic abilities. Unlike with fantasies, the romance rather than the otherworldly elements is central. Kait Nolan’s Red and Jennette Marie Powell’s Hanger 18 Legacy are examples of paranormal romance. (As is Twilight technically.) Many people get confused about whether their book is urban fantasy or paranormal romance, but the answer is actually simple. If the core conflict of your book revolves around the romance, you’re writing a paranormal romance. If the core conflict of your book revolves around something else, even if it has strong romantic elements, it’s an urban fantasy.

Inspirational Romance – Inspirational romances will always fall to the most conservative end of the heat spectrum. If you want to sell an inspirational romance, don’t try to push the envelope. The envelope isn’t going to budge, and you’re just going to end up with a lot of very painful paper cuts. Inspirational romances always end either in marriage or the very strong potential for marriage, and the characters’ faith journeys need to be central to the plot and their relationship. Inspirational romance can serve as an umbrella category for the other sub-genres as well. For example, you could be writing a romantic suspense that’s also an inspirational romance because of the faith element to it (ala Dee Henderson’s books). Author Jody Hedlund writes inspirational historical romance.

If you’re writing a romance, regardless of the sub-genre, I strongly recommend you read Jami Gold’s post What Makes a Romance Believable?

Where does your book fit? What do you love about romance novels? What do you hate?

I hope you’ll check out the books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, including Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction and How to Write Dialogue.

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