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A Guide to Writing Contemporary Romance Novels

Contemporary romance is what most people think of when someone says "romance novels." Famous authors of it include Colleen Hoover, Talia Hibbert, Alexis Hall, Casey McQuiston, and Meg Cabot.


It's also one of the biggest romance sub-genres in terms of readership and wealth of books, and it's a popular choice for new authors and publishers looking to enter the romance publishing space.


But if you're just starting to write or publish it, you might have some questions. Maybe you don't know what I mean when I say contemporary romance, sub-genre, niche, or trope. Maybe you're not sure how long to make your contemporary romance novel. Perhaps you're wondering what readers expect from your romance. I cover the answers to all those questions below.


What is a romance sub-genre?

It's a category of romance novels defined by a specific story element/s. 


What does the phrase "contemporary romance" mean?

Contemporary romance is a sub-genre of romance that describes romance stories set in the contemporary/modern, post-70s world. Yes, we are now far enough into the 21st century that a romance set in the 1970s is considered a historical romance. 


Contemporary romance is one of the big sub-genres in romance publishing, and within it are a bunch of niches—which have their own specific tropes attached to them.


What is a niche?

Niches are a more specific type of romance story. They're basically sub-genres within a sub-genre, and are made up of specific tropes and settings. Examples include mafia romance, new adult college sports romance, and Western small-town romance. Niches are an incredibly important part of publishing, because every niche has its own audience, and once you understand what that audience wants, you can tailor your releases and marketing to meet their needs.


What is a trope?

A trope is a story element that affects the romance between a book's main characters. Tropes are often used to create conflict and tension. Best friend's brother, age gap, and second-chance romance are just a few examples, but there are dozens to choose from. Some contemporary romances combine multiple tropes, while others just focus on one. 


What are some examples of contemporary romance niches and their tropes?

  • Mafia romance. Mafia romances often include morally grey characters who've often experienced trauma or abuse in their past. The romance itself might also contain abuse, kidnapping, dubious consent, or non-consent. The revenge trope and enemies-to-lovers tropes are common in mafia romance.

  • New adult college sports romance. New adult college sports romance novels explore tropes like bully, forbidden love (often between a player and someone related to a team member or coach), enemies to lovers, friends to lovers, and fake relationship. The most common sport explored in these romances is ice hockey, but there are also new adult college sports romances about swimming, rugby, American football, soccer, and even ice skating.


I'll also cover more niches in future blog posts to help publishers and authors learn what they are, who reads them, and what those readers expect. And if there's a specific niche you'd like me to cover, feel free to reach out at emily@theromancegenrespecialist.com, or comment on this post.


Now, even though each niche has specific tropes attached to it, some tropes are popular across all of contemporary romance, regardless of niche.


What are the most popular contemporary romance tropes right now?

As of February 2024, when I'm writing this article, the relationship tropes I'm seeing most often in books that sell well and rate highly with readers are second chance romance, enemies to lovers romance, age gap, grumpy/sunshine, and fake relationship.


What I mean by relationship tropes is a trope that affects the dynamic between the main characters. The trope might be how they get together—that's the case in fake relationship—or it might dictate the conflicts they'll have to overcome to be together—like second chance romance, where the main characters usually have to deal with what broke them up in the past before they can start their future together, or enemies to lovers, where the main characters have to see the other changing in a way that transforms their impression from negative, never-gonna-date-you to please-be-with-me-forever.


There are also character tropes, sometimes called character archetypes, and like relationship tropes, they vary in popularity year to year. Right now, military heroes, athletes (especially hockey players), billionaire heroes, and single parents are all high up on readers' love-ya lists (lists of books they love to read and recommend).


How long should a contemporary romance novel be?

To decide on your book's word count, you need to consider what you're writing (your niche) and who is going to read it (your audience).


I'll give an example to help you understand what I'm saying.


Let's pick a niche . . . say, new adult contemporary romance. Now let's pick a trope: slow burn. To figure out how long my slow burn new adult contemporary romance should be, I need to compare the page counts of slow burn romance novels selling well on Amazon, Barnes& Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, and iBooks. Having done that, and used this handy calculator that converts page count to word count, I know that most slow burn new adult contemporary romances that sell well are 70,000 words or more.


Now I need to find out why my audience wants my book to be that long. To find out the reason behind that word count, I need to read 5, 4, and 1-star reviews of slow-burn new adult contemporary romance novels on Goodreads, research the term on reader forums (Reddit is great for this), and keep an eye out for patterns that emerge. And lo and behold, I start to see a pattern in reviews: readers often say that slow burn romances of less than 60,000 words don't explore the romance in enough depth. Readers want to feel the oh-my-god-when-will-they-finally-kiss-and-talk-feelings anticipation from a slow burn, and they don't get that from works shorter than 60,000-70,000 words.


So if I write a shorter slow burn new adult contemproary romance novel that's 40,000 words long, there's a good chance I won't have the space necessary to really dive into that romance journey, and I won't be able to give my readers what they want. This will be reflected in the sales and reviews of my hypothetical book.


If word count was a math equation, it would look like this:

Word count= niche market research + research on niche's reader expectations


What do romance readers want in a contemporary romance novel?

Every contemporary niche has specific reader expectations, but just like with tropes, there are some expectations readers have regardless of niche. Here are the 4 most important.


1. Romance readers expect to see the full development of the romance between the main characters.

This is true even for novellas; readers want to feel like the couple has gotten to know each other and been through hurdles that have brought them closer and helped them understand each other better. Getting over those hurdles ultimately leads them to a happily ever after where they're both happy, whole, and have healed each other's emotional wounds.


Readers used to expect one of those hurdles to be a break-up in the book's third act, but in the last few years—since Covid—there's been a steady increase in low-angst/low-conflict romances that don't have a break-up. Because of this, most readers expect that if a book doesn't have a third act break-up and is low-angst/low-conflict, the author/publisher will include that in the blurb. These types of romances are also sometimes called "fluffy," a term borrowed from fan-fiction (the term low-angst is also from fan-fiction).


2. Romance readers expect trigger warnings.

If you are including elements like dubious consent (also sometimes referred to as dub con), non-consent (also referred to as non-con), or anything else that might potentially trigger readers (this includes homophobia, ableism, ageism, fat shaming, abuse—both reference to it in the past and on the page, death of a person or animal—both reference to it in the past and on the page, and mental health struggles), including a list of trigger warnings either in your blurb or on your author website, as well as in the front matter of your book, is essential. Readers want to feel safe when they open your book—they don't want to be surprised by upsetting content.


Eve Pendle has a great guide on how to write trigger warnings.


3. Romance readers expect to see consent on the page.

Consent is a big concern for romance readers, so if you're writing a romance novel that doesn't feature dubious or non-consent, readers expect to see verbal or implied consent on the page.


And when it comes to consent and alcohol, you can show characters being intimate while under the influence—this is often the case for books that use the one-night stand trope as the meet-cute—but most readers expect that both characters will be sober during the sex scene that cements their romantic and emotional connection. It's also easier to write a sex scene if both characters are sober, because you don't have to factor in how alcohol might affect the sensory experience of intimacy (sort of like how beer goggles distort your vision, alcohol does the same thing for sex).


4. Readers want to be warned of divisive elements.

There are a few story elements that readers either hate or love. Two of the biggest are cheating and love triangles. If there's cheating or a love triangle in your story, that needs to be very, very clear in your blurb. You want to attract the right readers to your book—the last thing you want is a bad review from a reader who didn't know that cheating was a central part of your book's conflict.


I'm throwing the word blurb around a lot, so I'm going to include a definition for it as well. Just call me your friendly neighborhood romance dictionary.


What is a romance blurb?

A blurb is the summary you see when you look at an ebook on a selling platform like Amazon or Kobo, or on the back of a paperback or hardcover book. They're a key part of book marketing; along with the title and cover, they're one of the first ways readers form an impression of a book. Romance blurbs are usually 250 words or less, and they offer readers a hint at the book's central conflict and characters.


Romance blurbs also have to signal which tropes are included in the book, because many romance readers select a book based on its tropes. And, to reiterate, the blurb has to either include a list of trigger warnings, or a link to a place where readers can find a list of trigger warnings in your book (many authors include this information on their website, and put a link to it in their blurb). Your blurb also has to make it clear if there's any divisive content in your book like cheating or love triangles.


Don't worry that you'll discourage readers from picking up your book if you include things like trigger warnings in your blurb. The more specific you are, the easier it is for the right readers to find your book.


Can contemporary romance novels include polyamory or LGBTQIA+ characters?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Just because the stories you see on bestseller lists often focus on heterosexual, monogamous relationships between cisgender people doesn't mean that should be the norm, or that there aren't millions of readers interested in seeing polyamorous relationships or LGBTQIA+ characters in the pages of the books they pick up.


The contemporary romance readership reflects the world the readers live in—one that's incredibly diverse and full of people of different ages, genders, races, ethnicities, religions, and abilities. All those people want to see themselves reflected in the books they read.


How do I write a contemporary romance novel?

Now that I've answered all your questions, you're probably thinking, "Okay, so I know what my niche is, what my readers expect, and how long my book should be, but how do I write the thing?!"


And look, there's no one perfect way to write a contemporary romance novel. But I do have a template I've used to plot over 30 of them, and you can find it below, free of charge. It shows you how to develop your characters, handle tropes, and structure your story so each chapter either moves the romance forward or helps the characters develop into healed, whole versions of themselves (which is what makes the happily ever after so satisfying for readers, regardless of niche).


Contemporary Romance Outline Template
.docx
Download DOCX • 69KB





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