Love Potion: the formula to writing a bestselling romance novel

For too long writers have been discredited for writing romance novels. The genre is often looked down upon by the hardcore “literary elite”, but what we true literature lovers know, of course, is that romance writers have arguably the most skilful way with language.

Though formulaic, romance novelists are in the business of capturing hearts; making a reader feel genuine emotion over fictional characters, devote days to rooting for them to get together, and sometimes even making them cry. Can you do that, sci-fi writers?

Furthermore, fans of the romance novel are die-hard book consumers. Over ⅓ purchase more than one new book every month, devouring their way through stacks of romance novels-- primarily in eBook format. Because of this, romance is at the very top of the commercial fiction sales pyramid. If you do it right, romance is a lucrative genre where you can quickly and easily gain an army of dedicated fans of your work. And due to its formulaic nature, it makes it incredibly easy for you as an author to “hack”; turning out several new novels per month when you get good (no, really!).

Tempted? We don’t blame you.

We’ve researched and gathered together the formula to writing bestselling romance novels. A love potion from us to you, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Follow the formula

As mentioned before, the romance genre is entirely formulaic. Luckily for its fans, that is part of its draw. Readers are consuming your book because they want the comfort of reading what they know. Some examples of well played-upon romance tropes are:

  • Friends to lovers to strangers to lovers

  • Bad timing and fated soulmates

  • Love triangle

  • Fake relationship

  • Second chance at love

Under the twists, turns and clever surprises you incorporate into your plot, the basic structure of two characters finding love against the odds is what the people want. Give it to them! The cookie-cutter structure style of the genre is also responsible for the high consumption rates by romance fans, and the reason it can be so lucrative if you can write it quickly (and well).

It’s all about escapism

As every author knows, keeping the audience in mind when writing your book helps guide a lot of otherwise difficult creative decisions. The most important thing to know about romance readers is that they are looking for escapism; (a way of avoiding an unpleasant or boring life, especially by thinking, reading, etc. about more exciting but impossible activities*). Effective escapism requires you to build an immersive and realistic world (plenty of concrete nouns and descriptive writing), and three-dimensional characters. Give your reader a setting they can really sink their teeth into, and allow them to fall in love!

*Cambridge English Dictionary

The reader as the main character

Speaking of escapism, it is important to remember that the main character should be someone the reader relates to, and can picture themselves as. It is not enough to build a realistic world and expect your audience to go along with it; they should be able to see parts of themselves in your main character.

Luckily, this is easier than it sounds. As stereotypical as it may seem, the average reader of romance novels is female (84%) and between the ages of 30 - 54 (41%). Feature relatable struggles: failed romance, romance struggles, a tricky job or difficult family members. Above all, make sure your main character is an innately good person.

Physicality factor

Romance is all about the physical. Think tension building, descriptive sensation, and desire; both acted upon and thought about. When building your characters, think about how they fit together.

  • Who is taller? Who is bigger?

  • How do their physical traits fit together?

  • How do they interact at the beginning of the novel?

  • How does that change?

  • How does the change reflect the shifting dynamic of the relationship?

Develop the physicality factor subtly throughout your novel by increasing the frequency and description of touch to build up a level of physical and emotion tension. Graphic novels are an entirely separate sub-genre of romance, so you do not need to be writing all-out sex scenes to score 10/10 on the physicality scale.

What’s the sub-genre?

Romance can be stylistically realist, but if you’re just beginning to delve into writing romance from another genre, the great news is that often romance is split into further sub-genres. Is your novel about two lovers finding each other to the background of Ancient Greek mythology? Are they unlikely allies working together to investigate the disappearance of a missing friend? Picking your sub-genre adds some metaphorical meat to the bones of the standard romance novel.

Every character needs a flaw

Jealous exes, devious family members, unfavourable character traits, and inconvenient commitments. Give the relationship you are building a reason to take time. While it is tempting to write and compelling to think about, “love at first sight” skips that important tension building your readers want!

Flaws have a number of benefits for you as a writer:

  • Make your characters more three-dimensional

  • Help you to grow steadily towards your characters arriving at their relationship

  • Give validation to the part of the novel where their relationship breaks apart

  • Show how your characters are willing to grow/ change for their love

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows (great!)

Before you can bring your characters together in a big, beautiful, emotional climax, you have to make them struggle to get there. Whether they are driven apart by external or internal factors, they should have to overcome large hurdles to be together, usually resulting in both characters making a change or sacrifice for the other. The flaws and motivations you write into your character profiles are the tools you can use to create friction, convey growth, and round out the key players in your novel into three-dimensional characters your reader wants to invest in.

Take the BFF test

The best friend character is an often-overlooked part of the romance novel. Have you ever noticed how almost every romantic comedy features a quirky best friend? Well, they serve a multitude of purposes that make it far easier for you to write your novel and engage your readers:

  • They give your main character the chance to be the protagonist

  • Provide an excuse for your character to voice their thoughts without you needing to use exposition

  • They give you a way to tell the reader more about your protagonist’s character by contrast

  • They provide comic relief when the plot gets too heavy

  • They give you a way to paint the love interest in a good light

Be sure to write a well-rounded best friend character (think Bobbi in Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends), and then weave them naturally into the plot.

The happy ending

For readers of other genres, the journey is what makes the book worth reading. To fans of romance, the driving motivator for consuming novels is the happy ending. It is vital that the time your reader has spent invested in your characters coming together has not been wasted. Whether you leave off with the protagonist and love interest together, or with the promise of them getting together in a future part two: romance is not a romance without romance!

Publishers love series potential

If you’re writing for the love of writing, this may not be a top priority for you. However, if you are writing with the aim to have your work published, it is important to bear in mind that publishers like to hear you have plans for developing your standalone novel into a series. Even better if you go in there with a plot for your second novel, and best if you arrive with a rough draft of the sequel. It may seem excessive, but it is a guaranteed source of income for the publisher and greatly increases both the likelihood of you being published, and the amount of time and money they’ll be willing to spend on promoting your novel.


To summarise:

  • Follow the formula

  • Provide the reader escapism

  • Give the characters flaws

  • Allow the relationship to break apart before coming together for the final time

  • Always get your protagonist and love interest together in the end

Good luck with the writing and publication of your bestselling romance novel! We love to hear thoughts from writers on our blogs, so please get in touch if you have comments, feedback, or requests for future topics

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