There are many things that need to happen in a book in order for it to qualify as good romance. The hero and heroine must go through a series of internal and external conflicts and come out on the other side, there is often a strong female friendship, themes of sex positivity or a slow burn intended to drive the reader mad.
But the one thing that a book must have to count as a romance novel at all is either a HEA or a HFN. An HEA, Happily Ever After, or HFN, Happily For Now, is what sets romance apart from every other genre. The reader goes into the story knowing that everything is going to turn out all right in the end, better than all right, no matter how dire the circumstances may seem.
And that, right there, is one of the most challenging parts of writing a romance novel. Every single person who picks up my book knows how it is going to end. In fact, that’s the very reason they picked it up at all. As a romance novelist, however, it is my job to convince them that the fundamental element of romance, the very thing that makes this genre this genre, is somehow missing from my specific book– they actually do break up in this one, the hero dies, the heroine never loved him and walked away. These are the twists and turns that force the reader–who always, always knows better, to entertain the idea that maybe in this book, not everything turns out okay in the end.
This overwhelming, insurmountable obstacle comes in the form of the black moment, the scene in the book where it seems like everything is doomed. Good black moments often combine a series of internal and external conflicts– the heroine thinks the hero doesn’t love her and she’s going to die in a kidnapping attempt by her father believing so. The hero thinks he’s been betrayed and now he’s hanging by his toes over a cage of sharks.
Combining the immediacy of the external conflict– a bomb’s about to go off, with the emotional power of the internal conflict– and what does it matter, she never loved me, is the surest way to convince your readers that this is it, these characters don’t get their happily ever after.
Because despite the fact that our genre deals and trades in HFNs and HEAs, without a terrible, darkest, most horrible moment, without conflict, without fear and growth, there is no happily ever after. The book is boring. Without a black moment, the story starts at the end.
And so we punish our characters, push them to their breaking points, test their strength of will and the depths of their love and we do our damnedest to convince our readers that nope, not this time, no wedding at the end of this Shakespearean tragedy. It’s a necessary evil. We need that wrenching heartbreak in order to feel any of the love, the light on our face at the end of the tunnel, sort of thing. Bonus points if we can make you cry.
In some ways, romance is predictable. Yes, it’s an undeniable fact that the reader knows how the book is going to end. But so what? All the predictability does is challenge the author to create a better book, to push their characters further, to demand a deeper, more desperate final moment before all is saved.
After all, the harder the black moment is to escape, the more satisfying the Happily Ever After. ♥