Reader Question – Rules for genres… what do you consider a “romance” novel?

by Maryse on January 3, 2019 · 17 comments

in Editorial, Reader Questions

Okay so this one doesn’t necessarily have us searching for a particular book, but brings up an interesting topic as many of us long-time readers are learning there are actual rules for various “genres”.

Melanie asked me about this, and I thought it would be perfect to open up for discussion!

Melanie asks:

I have a question about genre rules. I’ve thought one way my whole life about what romance novels are, but I learned last night in an author group that there’s an entirely different set of rules, and I’m hoping I can get your opinion on it.

I learned last night that if a novel has a romantic theme but doesn’t have an HEA or HFN, that it’s NOT a romance; it’s actually women’s fiction.

I had always thought romance was romance, regardless of the ending, and that women’s fiction had to do with themes that weren’t romantic (things about independence, the importance of friendships, etc.).

Please help!

Maryse: Hi Melanie! I too, always just assumed if it had a love story as the main storyline, that it was “romance”… but I stand corrected too. No HEA or death of one of the main characters in love? I learned that’s NOT a “romance book”. SO now… I just pretty much call them all “love stories”.

BUT!! I think I’ll post this as a question and see what others think. ;)

What about you guys? Is this the first time you’ve heard of this? When did you realize there was a difference and how did you feel about that? What other rules are there in the book-genre world?

For example… what constitutes Fantasy romance vs. paranormal? And for those that want to know the difference between paranormal romance and urban fantasy, I wrote this a few years ago: Urban Fantasy Series Recommendations and the Difference Between Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy Genres.

Meka: When someone recommends a romance to me, it is with the expectation that the one rule of the genre is satisfied. Nothing loses my reader trust more than being told that something is genre romance only for the character to die in the end. There is nothing wrong with books that are not romance. Love stories are perfectly viable and wonderful, but when someone recommends a romance, I do expect the one rule of the genre to be followed.

bev: I completely agree with Meka. A “Romance” should have a HEA or HFN. To me it is an expectation of that genre. If someone wanted a police procedural you wouldn’t hand them a Tessa Bailey because it has cops in it.

Maryse: LOL bev! I’d be so happy if you handed me a Tessa Bailey with cops. *snort* :P P.S. I’m not huge on police procedurals… I just like the cute/cocky cops! ;) Oh sheesh. I’m a total cliche aren’t I?

Tasha J: Huh. This is completely new to me. I don’t think I like that romance is supposed to fit in a box. Real life romance certainly doesn’t and to me, those are the best stories. Now, chic lit- to me- defines what you described above.

R. Renee: Per the RWA, a romance has to have a “central love story” and an “emotionally satisfying, optimistic ending.” From what I’ve been able to tell, this is a universally accepted definition. If it doesn’t have these two things, it cannot be defined as a romance, and would usually fall into women’s fiction, contemporary fiction, or chick lit. This is to protect the romance reader who, in many cases, reads romance for the happy ending.

Just don’t go by Goodreads “genres” when searching for your next romance because what GR calls genres are actually just shelves created by readers who may or may not know (or care) how to categorize books properly. Your best bet is to look at the Amazon product details under “Amazon Best Sellers Rank,” but take even that with a grain of salt. I chose contemporary romance and general romance for my book and it isn’t listing under either category.

Laura B: The HEA/HFN is a pre-requisite for a romance has been deeply ingrained in the genre since the 19th century (think Jane Austen). I remember as a young reader reading the last few pages of a book to make sure that it had a happy ending (sorry, Maryse, I’m a spoiler fan).

For me, the fun of the reading journey is seeing how the characters resolve their problems and conflicts to reach a happy conclusion. I reckon that the pleasure is similar to the one I experience reading a mystery novel — matters might be dire, but the reader is assured that the central problem will be solved.

Leslie M: I found out this “rule” when I started reading romance and I love it! I want my HEA’s. :)

MichelleS: Never really thought about it in these terms, but I have to agree… romance should have a HEA. But what about cliffhangers? Can the series be romance, but one book not be? Too complicated for me.

Joy: What does HFN stand for?

R. Renee: Happy for now. Where things look good for the couple and an HEA is expected to come.

Also, some readers think all endings are HFN unless the couple is officially married and (at least) pregnant in the end, which suggests it takes marriage and babies to make people happy in relationships. Don’t even get me started on that. If a couple is together and happy, it’s an HEA. Legal docs and babies, not required! :D

bev: I kind of think of HFN as a HEA, lol. A YA romance in a lot of ways is HFN.

R. Renee: Excellent point bev! I think when it first stood out at me was when someone wrote in a review that The Butterfly Project ended with a HFN. Whaaattttt?? That’s a HEA if ever there was one! After that, I started noticing it a lot.

What about same sex couples who maybe can’t get married and definitely can’t have kids? Is adoption their only shot at a HEA? And couples who simply don’t want (or can’t have) kids? What about Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell? They look pretty dang happy to me!

Rochelle: I love this discussion. It makes me think of Megan Hart’s books. Is she a romance writer? Her books always push lines and often I am afraid to read her books. They invoke such feelings of reality. Because I have loved some of her books I often feel I have to endure all her writing and feel I am rewarded after ploughing through some difficult topics but not getting that HEA feeling. I love a romance comedy. Leaves me happy in my heart.

Meka: Just wanted to pop back in and say that for me, the HEA or the HFN is about the couple being happy. Or the triad being happy. Or any number of people being happy with one another. I don’t need marriage and babies for the HEA, but I do need for the characters to have mutual love and respect for one another that does not come off as coercion, which is why a lot of dark romance does not work for me.

The HEA does not constrain romance to a box. There are a million different ways to get to that happily-ever-after. There are a million different emotions that can be evoked. But I can promise you that the emotion which will be evoked if an author markets the book as romance but there is no HEA is going to be anger and a 1 star.

Someone asked about cliff hangers. I’m going to tell you that I like to be warned about a cliff hanger in advance. I don’t want to spend the emotional labor of cheering for characters only for a switch, or a cliff hanger if I haven’t been warned. If I like the book enough, then I’ll buy it and the one after it, but I don’t like to be surprised.

This has been a really wonderful conversation. It is interesting to me that a lot of these conversations (not this one) tends to devolve in the fact that romance doesn’t need an HEa, but people never say ‘gosh those mysteries would be so great if there wasn’t a mystery!’, or ‘gosh I hate suspense in thrillers. Not all of them need it.’

Leslie M: Well said, Meka and I agree. :) But like Robin pointed out, we need to be aware of the genres listed on GR as those are not always accurate. (tagged by readers, not the author) And those looking for pure romance…A LOT of books discussed here are not. We’ve got those crazy Marmies you know?! ;) I’ve learned to do a bit of research first so I know what I am getting into.

Steph N: Bevs comment made me lol. I always considered a true romance book to have some sort of conclusion at the end that ends up with the couple together. A romance book also mainly focuses on all the stuff a couple goes through to get there and how it plays out and is written that makes it a good book.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Meka January 3, 2019 at 1:00 PM

When someone recommends a romance to me, it is with the expectation that the one rule of the genre is satisfied. Nothing loses my reader trust more than being told that something is genre romance only for the character to die in the end. There is nothing wrong with books that are not romance. Love stories are perfectly viable and wonderful, but when someone recommends a romance, I do expect the one rule of the genre to be followed.

bev January 3, 2019 at 1:13 PM

I completely agree with Meka. A “Romance” should have a HEA or HFN.
To me it is an expectation of that genre.
If someone wanted a police procedural you wouldn’t hand them a Tessa Bailey because it has cops in it.

Tasha J January 3, 2019 at 2:19 PM

Huh. This is completely new to me. I don’t think I like that romance is supposed to fit in a box. Real life romance certainly doesn’t and to me, those are the best stories. Now, chic lit- to me- defines what you described above.

R. Renee January 3, 2019 at 2:52 PM

Per the RWA, a romance has to have a “central love story” and an “emotionally satisfying, optimistic ending.” From what I’ve been able to tell, this is a universally accepted definition. If it doesn’t have these two things, it cannot be defined as a romance, and would usually fall into women’s fiction, contemporary fiction, or chick lit. This is to protect the romance reader who, in many cases, reads romance for the happy ending.

Just don’t go by Goodreads “genres” when searching for your next romance because what GR calls genres are actually just shelves created by readers who may or may not know (or care) how to categorize books properly. Your best bet is to look at the Amazon product details under “Amazon Best Sellers Rank,” but take even that with a grain of salt. I chose contemporary romance and general romance for my book and it isn’t listing under either category.

Laura B January 3, 2019 at 5:36 PM

The HEA/HFN is a pre-requisite for a romance has been deeply ingrained in the genre since the 19th century (think Jane Austen). I remember as a young reader reading the last few pages of a book to make sure that it had a happy ending (sorry, Maryse, I’m a spoiler fan).

For me, the fun of the reading journey is seeing how the characters resolve their problems and conflicts to reach a happy conclusion. I reckon that the pleasure is similar to the one I experience reading a mystery novel — matters might be dire, but the reader is assured that the central problem will be solved.

Leslie M January 3, 2019 at 6:20 PM

I found out this “rule” when I started reading romance and I love it! I want my HEA’s. :)

MichelleS January 3, 2019 at 6:21 PM

Never really thought about it in these terms, but I have to agree… romance should have a HEA. But what about cliffhangers? Can the series be romance, but one book not be? Too complicated for me.

Maryse January 3, 2019 at 9:13 PM

LOL bev!

I’d be so happy if you handed me a Tessa Bailey with cops. *snort* :P

Maryse January 3, 2019 at 9:16 PM

P.S. I’m not huge on police procedurals… I just like the cute/cocky cops! ;)

Oh sheesh. I’m a total cliche aren’t I?

Joy Pryor January 4, 2019 at 9:50 AM

What does HFN stand for?

R. Renee January 4, 2019 at 10:09 AM

Happy for now. Where things look good for the couple and an HEA is expected to come.

Also, some readers think all endings are HFN unless the couple is officially married and (at least) pregnant in the end, which suggests it takes marriage and babies to make people happy in relationships. Don’t even get me started on that. If a couple is together and happy, it’s an HEA. Legal docs and babies, not required! :D

bev January 4, 2019 at 10:12 AM

I kind of think of HFN as a HEA, lol.
A YA romance in a lot of ways is HFN.

R. Renee January 4, 2019 at 10:31 AM

Excellent point bev! I think when it first stood out at me was when someone wrote in a review that The Butterfly Project ended with a HFN. Whaaattttt?? That’s a HEA if ever there was one! After that, I started noticing it a lot.

What about same sex couples who maybe can’t get married and definitely can’t have kids? Is adoption their only shot at a HEA? And couples who simply don’t want (or can’t have) kids? What about Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell? They look pretty dang happy to me!

Rochelle Koch January 4, 2019 at 10:44 AM

I love this discussion. It makes me think of Megan Hart’s books. Is she a romance writer? Her books always push lines and often I am afraid to read her books. They invoke such feelings of reality. Because I have loved some of her books I often feel I have to endure all her writing and feel I am rewarded after ploughing through some difficult topics but not getting that HEA feeling. I love a romance comedy. Leaves me happy in my heart.

Meka January 4, 2019 at 1:40 PM

Just wanted to pop back in and say that for me, the HEA or the HFN is about the couple being happy. Or the triad being happy. Or any number of people being happy with one another. I don’t need marriage and babies for the HEA, but I do need for the characters to have mutual love and respect for one another that does not come off as coercion, which is why a lot of dark romance does not work for me.

The HEA does not constrain romance to a box. There are a million different ways to get to that happily-ever-after. There are a million different emotions that can be evoked. But I can promise you that the emotion which will be evoked if an author markets the book as romance but there is no HEA is going to be anger and a 1 star.

Someone asked about cliff hangers. I’m going to tell you that I like to be warned about a cliff hanger in advance. I don’t want to spend the emotional labor of cheering for characters only for a switch, or a cliff hanger if I haven’t been warned. If I like the book enough, then I’ll buy it and the one after it, but I don’t like to be surprised.

This has been a really wonderful conversation. It is interesting to me that a lot of these conversations (not this one) tends to devolve in the fact that romance doesn’t need an HEa, but people never say ‘gosh those mysteries would be so great if there wasn’t a mystery!’, or ‘gosh I hate suspense in thrillers. Not all of them need it.’

Leslie M January 5, 2019 at 6:31 AM

Well said, Meka and I agree. :)

But like Robin pointed out, we need to be aware of the genres listed on GR as those are not always accurate. (tagged by readers, not the author)

And those looking for pure romance…A LOT of books discussed here are not. We’ve got those crazy Marmies you know?! ;)

I’ve learned to do a bit of research first so I know what I am getting into.

Steph N January 6, 2019 at 9:12 AM

Bevs comment made me lol.

I always considered a true romance book to have some sort of conclusion at the end that ends up with the couple together.

A romance book also mainly focuses on all the stuff a couple goes through to get there and how it plays out and is written that makes it a good book.

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