Seven Elements a Developmental Editor Will Look for in Your Romance

A developmental editor of fiction will always look at the parameters which are essential to all fiction, regardless of whether you’re writing a stand-alone or a series, a novella or the follow-up to War and Peace. However, editing a romance is different from other fiction genres as there are rules a romance must adhere to. You can break those rules, but then you must decide whether your story is truly a romance, or whether it’s more appropriate to call it ‘literary’, or ‘women’s fiction’, or even ‘chick lit’. It’s your story, so you write it the way you choose, but if you’re wanting to appeal to the romance-reading public, and especially if you want to publish with a traditional romance publisher, you’ve got to be aware of the following seven aspects.

Does it have a Happy-Ever-After (HEA) ending?

An HEA is one of the two absolute requirements for a story to be a romance. Whether you’re writing a sweet romance, hot and steamy erotica, an urban, cowboy, billionaire prince, supernatural or sci-fi alien love-fest, it must have an HEA or, at least, a Happy-For-Now (HFN) ending. If it doesn’t, it’s not a romance!

Have you created two or more compelling protagonists?

The essential nature of a romance is that two (or more if it’s a ménage story) people (or creatures, not to offend sci-fi and supernatural writers) will fall in love against all odds. The odds being whatever prevents them from believing they can fall in love. Bear in mind that whatever they believe, the plot line will throw obstacles in their paths. The characters who will fall in love by the end of your story must be fleshed out thoroughly, and we must be able to see the relationship tangle through their eyes. While we don’t necessarily have to like the protagonists, we must be captivated by them. The reader must want to observe how they behave, otherwise they won’t read any further. Questions about your protagonists: is it evident that he/she is larger than life? Someone who can’t be held back? Someone who is very rich, or foreign, or alien in some way, or a shape-shifter, or a seeker of forbidden fruit? And so on. Is he/she someone the reader aspires to be like, or feel superior to, or wants to understand better? Whatever your protagonist is like, and whatever feelings or questions they arouse in the reader, they mustn’t be boring.

Have you hit all the romance beats?

A must-read for any romance author is Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels (Gwen Hayes: 2016). Gwen has broken down romance into twenty essential beats or aspects that a romance story must contain. The beats fit well into the typical three-act plot structure: Act I – set up and incitement; Act II – escalating obstacles and final crisis leading to despair; and Act III – the finale with the climax and resolution. Each act is further broken down into component parts, without which your romance will wallow in self-pity. Or in simpler terms: two people meet who can’t or won’t fall in love, but like each other; they’re forced together somehow, start getting to know each other, and then with successive events reassess themselves and their potential love partner/s – but just as they get the hang of falling in love, they’re thrown apart at the end of the second act in a manner that seems irreparable. In Act III they realise what they’ve lost. A huge and glorious effort is undertaken to prove their love to the other(s), and it’s reciprocated. The resolution is their HEA or HFN.

Is the switch from ‘I can’t/won’t fall in love’ to ‘I love you’ believable?

So you’ve given your book to a beta reader or two and they’ve told you, yes, they like the story, and yes, they accept your characterisation. But they just don’t believe that one or both the protagonists could turn around from their starting position (e.g. ‘never again’/‘no one could ever love me’/‘it’s biologically impossible between alien races/mortal enemies’) and they fall in love. That’s a problem. The story has to be believable within its context. As a developmental editor I would immediately analyse Act II, which should be roughly the middle half of your book (Acts I and III being the 25 per cent before and after). Act II is where you should be changing your protagonists’ perceptions about themselves and their potential love partner(s). There must be events within your plot that make the reassessment not only possible, but probable. Try to imagine what would make you change your mind, given the events of your plot. Dialogue alone is not sufficient; there must be physical acts or scenes where your protagonists can observe for themselves that their preconceptions don’t hold water.

Are your highs and lows extreme enough?

So now there’s the transition from the black moment or crisis at the end of Act II into the climax of Act III. But why does it happen? If the crisis is black enough to be apparently irreparable, why does  one protagonist (at least) decide to do the impossible and try to repair the rift? Incidentally, if the crisis isn’t irreparable, then it’s not a true crisis moment and needs to be made still darker.

The reason must lie in the love-building of Act II. The high points within the second act must be high enough and each one must be higher/better than the previous one, to build the tension. So much so that the protagonists will realise after the crisis that what they had was the best thing ever. If the highs and lows aren’t sufficiently extreme, the reader either won’t believe the turnaround in the protagonists’ perceptions, or they simply won’t care – and probably won’t even get to the third act.

Does your romance sub-genre plot work around the romance arc?

Few stories are just romance. There has to be a plot that’s external to the romance arc, to create the setting in which the romance can take place. This is the sub-genre, such as sweet boy/girl next door, the element of suspense, the supernatural, fetishism or BDSM, dystopian or fantasy worlds, the historical or the aspirational. Whatever the setting or the world you create, there must be an associated plot woven through the romance arc. Often the external plot arc and the romance arc coincide, but they don’t have to. Nevertheless, both the romance plot and the external plot need to be developed as complete arcs, with nothing left hanging unresolved, in mid-air.

If you write an epilogue, is it too trite?

And finally, the resolution or epilogue. A romance must have a happy ending, but to make your protagonists fascinating from the outset, they must have flaws. Just because they’ve overcome their self-imposed prohibitions against love doesn’t mean that they’ve become perfect. That would be boring, trite, and unbelievable for your reader. Your editor will look at the resolution to see whether your characters’ traits still shine through in the ending – but in a manner compatible with their future happiness together.

You need compelling protagonists, an HEA or HFN ending, all the romance beats including extreme highs and lows, a romance arc from ‘I can never love you’ to ‘I’ll always love you’, another arc that’s external to the romance plot, and a satisfying resolution.

But all these features of your romance must be authentic, so above all, and with every element of your story, you must have believability. Keep writing, and enjoy your creative process!


Kathy Swailes

Betterwrite Associate Editor

Posted in Advice to Writers.

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