As a writer of contemporary romance, I’m always reading within my genre to learn from the current greats, to figure out the craft and to make my own stories even better. Besides, I was a reader long before I ever penned a single romance novel, so I love to read. Last week I finished reading four books in one week–He’s So Fine by Jill Shalvis, In Your Dreams by Kristan Higgins, Heroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and Indecent Proposal by Molly O’Keefe.
Yeah, I often binge read. It’s my treat, the way I’ve learned to push the world away, and the only relaxation I get most of the time. For kicks, after I finished reading all four in quick succession, I decided to diagram the four books onto the Plot W–a modified Blake Snyder (Save the Cat), three-act plot structure to try to figure out why these stories worked so well and analyze them. Here’s what I learned is important to me in a contemporary romance:
Compelling Stories. I found compelling can come in many different flavors and many different ways. In each of these books, the author gave me great characters to love. But in addition to the compelling characters, there was something else that drove me to read the story, that engaged me, and drew me in.
In the Shalvis book, besides the love story between the hero and heroine and the camaraderie between the hero and his two best friends, the component that sucked me in the most and kept me reading was Lucky Harbor, the community the author created. The setting is so compelling, I want to live there and inhabit that space with all those beloved characters I’ve grown to know and love throughout the series. It’s a huge draw. And I eagerly await every single release.
In the book by Kristan Higgins, it was the characters’ struggles–the internal conflict that was so compelling to me and kept me turning the pages. Not only did the internal conflict keep the main protagonists (hero/heroine) from getting together, that flaw also kept them from the growth they needed in order to fully acknowledge and realize their love for each other. Seeing them overcome that barrier was totally worth the suffering on their part (and mine).
In Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ book, beyond the memorable, three-dimensional characters, the Gothic tone and the twisty plot also kept me engaged and guessing. Because I’m a writer, I do understand tropes, and I grew up reading Mary Stewart, too. So I figured out a few of the key plot twists before they were revealed, but I was delighted to find out I understood the fabric of the story. And, in the end, I adored the hero and the heroine.
And in O’Keefe’s book, the characters’ emotional journey hit such highs and lows I couldn’t help but hold on and enjoy the ride. The story was emotionally engaging, compelling me to continue to read. O’Keefe often gets the emotion spot-on in her novels–whether it’s anger, love, desire, distain, stubbornness–the emotional resonance is why I continue to pick them up each and every time she releases a new one.
Heat. Yes, I need heat, lots of heat, in my contemporary romance. I read a wide range of romance, but it’s important to me that the romance is central to the story and that someone gets burned by love and lust. It doesn’t matter to me if the romance/sex is a slow burn or an instant inferno that rages out of control burning up the pages. What matters most is that there’s plenty of sexual tension, attraction, love, and good old-fashioned sex. Yeah, baby. I enjoy experiencing that feeling of falling in love and into desire along with my hero and heroines.
Universal Core Stories. When authors pull on universal tropes or core stories that I understand, I connect immediately with the characters and their plight. I’m more willing to buy stories that fall into certain trope categories. Core stories and core struggles appeal to readers because they are universal battles we all have seen or experienced in some form, therefore we empathize with the plight of the characters.
Some of the tropes used by the four authors I read last week were: Shalvis–Fish Out of Water, Secret Identity; Higgins–Ugly Duckling, Marriage of Convenience; Susan Elizabeth Phillips–Beauty & the Beast, Ugly Ducklying, Fish Out of Water, Gothic/Suspense tropes, Second Chance at Love; O’Keefe–Other Side of the Tracks, Marriage of Convenience, and Secret Baby. These core stories (and many others) are woven into the fabric of our culture and they touch us deeply in layered and complex ways.
Strong Conflict Lock. An important conflict lock–where the hero and heroine are at odds that creates a barrier big enough to keep them apart for most of the story. In He’s So Fine, the conflict lock is that she’s got a secret and he can’t abide lies. The external conflict is (heroine) her secret identity; the internal conflict is that she doesn’t tell the hero the truth about her identity when she should–therefore it becomes a lie by omission. And in In Your Dreams, the internal conflict for him is PTSD and the external conflict is his interfering ex-wife. Her internal conflict is her lack of self-confidence tied to a stammer that she’d been bullied for when young. The external conflict is her ex-fiancé who rejected her when he lost a lot of weight. For the most part in this book, the external conflict is what keeps these two apart. At the black moment, when all is lost, it’s the internal conflict that raises it’s head and roars to keep the love interest away. The stakes seem high in the Susan Elizabeth Phillips book–as they often are in Gothic novels. At times the stakes seem to be death of the heroine, loss of the cottage, her poverty, her health. We believe from the beginning that that hero once tried to kill the heroine. Talk about big conflict. And for him the stakes are him recovering his humanity–being transformed from a monster to a hero. In O’Keefe’s Indecent Proposal, the secret baby is part of the external conflict as well as the hero’s secret identity, the precarious political campaign, and the hero’s remoteness. The internal conflict for them both is abandonment, which makes them both reluctant to open up and be vulnerable and allow themselves to fall in love even though they have a sizzling sexual attraction.
All in all, I learned a lot from the best-selling ladies of contemporary how to tell a captivating contemporary romance story. Thank goodness they continue to write great books so I can keep turning the pages and learning my craft.