Romance novel types, tropes, lengths and formats

I remember sitting at my first meeting of what was then called the New England Chapter of the Romance Writers of America. At the start of each meeting, everyone introduces themselves and says what type of romance they write.

I remember instantly freezing up.

What type of romance do I write? I just write … romance!

Oh, sweet summer Jessica. She had so much to learn. And learn I have, all about the types of romance novels, common tropes, as well as lengths and formats.

Anytime you set out to write a novel, it’s important to understand the conventions of your genre. I found a ton of resources in local writing groups (and the friends I made there who were further along on their publishing journey than I was.)

Now, with confidence, I can say: I write small town, lights on, high-heat, full-length contemporary romance novels. Now let me decode…

(Note: what follows below is a very generalized overview, so not every nuance will be captured here. For instance, most of these categories of romance often have their own sub-genres. But this can get you started doing some research on your own!)

Read on to learn more about genres of romance novels, considerations about perspective (who is telling the story?), heat levels of romance novels, standard lengths of different types of romance novels, and common tropes of romance novels.

Genres of Romance novels

Cover of Joanna Shupe's "The Rogue of Fifth Avenue" book.
Joanna Shupe’s ‘Uptown Girls’ series is a recent favorite. If you like Hamilton’s Schuyler sisters, you’ll love this series.

Historical romances
Historical romances are typically set in the distant past (Romance Writers of America has typically defined the “historical” category as books that take place prior to about 1950.) They can take place in many different “periods,” though Regency-era romances set in England are especially popular (typically set between about 1810 and 1820 — think Bridgerton and Pride & Prejudice!)

Contemporary romances
These romances pick up where historicals leave off. Most contemporaries are set in a more modern era, from about 50 years ago all the way up to the current year. Contemporary romances are likely to include all those modern factors such as texting, dating apps, and more!

Young adult romances
YA romances, as they’re often called, focus on teenage love stories. Though often written for a younger audience, many adult readers enjoy the genre as well. “First love” and coming-of-age stories are quite common in this genre, and the “heat” level tends to be quite low, as the books typically feature minors. (More on ‘heat levels’ below.)

New adult romances
NA romance, as it’s often called, is a developing area of romance, focused on protagonists who are roughly between the ages of 18-25. These books often feature themes of entering adulthood, flying the nest, navigating college and early careers, early relationships and developing sexuality.

Inspirational romances
Inspirational romance often has religious or spiritual elements and tends to be more wholesome, i.e. it is much less graphic in terms of the sexual content. (Many are unlikely to feature more than handholding, or a kiss.) Christian and Amish romances are two popular subsets of inspirational romances.

Romantic suspense/dark romances
These romances are often contemporaries, and typically include some kind of element of suspense, mystery, or other sorts of drama. There’s some kind of threat that needs to be taken care of, and typically the hero and heroine have to work together to resolve it. Dark romance is closely related, but more likely to get into difficult, gritty and sometimes controversial themes, such as murder, abduction, physical or emotional abuse, and other various morally grey content.

Paranormal romance
Paranormal romance includes supernatural elements such as magic, shape-shifting, time travel, psychic abilities, mythical creatures like vampires and witches and angels and demons, and more. These books often include special rules in special worlds for special types of characters, which leads to lots of fun tensions and possibilities.

NOTE: Not every book falls into just one of these categories. For instance, you could write a paranormal historical romance. Or a romantic suspense young adult romance.

It’s also worth noting that within these types of romance novels, you can have lots of types of relationships. Heterosexual romance novels typically feature what are referred to as a male “hero” and a female “heroine.” Queer romance takes many forms, and you might see language in book descriptions like m/m (male + male romance), f/f (female +female) romance, or in books that feature polyamorous relationships or ménage à trois elements, you might see descriptions along the lines of m/f/m (male + female + male). For this reason, sometimes authors will refer not to their book’s “hero” and “heroine,” but to H1 and H2, which stands in as a more gender-neutral shorthand for their characters. Also, while we’re talking terminology: reverse harem romances, which are very popular, specifically feature a female heroine and at least three male partners. Which feels like a great segue to discuss “protagonist perspective” and “heat levels”…

Who’s telling the story?

When figuring out how you want to write your romance novel, you want to consider whose perspective the story will be told through. Here are some common approaches:

First-person, single perspective – In this format, one character in the book is telling the entire story, using first-person “I” statements. We’re in their brain, we know their thoughts, but they’re the only character that’s true for. Examples of this style would include The Hating Game and Twilight. (And this is the approach that I’m experimenting with in my work-in-progress, The Fund Feud.) In those books, we never read a chapter witten from the perspective of the heroes, Joshua and Edward. This is surely also possible to do with third-person perspective, if that’s your preference. It’s the same general idea, in that we’re only really “in the brain” of one of the lead characters, but you wouldn’t use “I” language. Instead of writing, “I felt so embarrassed,” you’d write, “She felt so embarrassed.”

Dual perspective – In this format, the chapter perspectives alternate. Some chapters are told through one lead character’s perspective. Others are told through their partner’s perspective. The name of the character whose perspective is featured is sometimes displayed at the top of the chapter, so we know who’s going to be “speaking” to us as we begin each chapter. This is not always perfectly balanced (with each character getting the exact same number of chapters.) That’s part of your creative work, to decide when to bring in each character’s interpretation of what’s going on. Examples of this style would be Sarah MacLean’s Brazen and the Beast and Lucy Score’s By a Thread. My “Love by the Seasons” series is written in third-person, dual perspective.

Heat Levels of romance novels

Every romance author has to decide: how “spicy” will my books be? That is, will there be sexual content, and if so, how graphic will it be? Here are some terms that help when thinking through these decisions.

Alisha Rai’s “Forbidden Hearts” series is high heat, super spicy, just … fire. If that’s your jam, check it out.

Doors open/lights on/high heat
These are books that include graphic, descriptive sex scenes. I call them “Tab A” in “Slot B” romances, because every act is described, and dirty talk is almost a given. There are likely multiple sex scenes scattered throughout the book (be it more initial foreplay or ‘the big act.’) A slow burn romance might take awhile to heat up, but once it’s on? It’s on. Conversely, with “insta lust” romances … well, the attraction is immediate and palpable, and the lead characters typically act on it before they can consider the consequences. This is kind of the TV sex scene equivalent of what you might see on HBO (though maybe … even a bit hotter.)

Doors closed/lights off/low-to-medium heat: In these books, sexy time is alluded to, but you won’t likely read about it on the page. The characters walk into the bedroom, the door closes, and the scene ends/fades to black. Readers jump back into the story the next morning (after a section break) to see how they couple is fairing after their night of intimacy. OR, perhaps, there may be one sex scene, but it’s not described in great detail, and the language and sensations remain pretty vague. (Which is all to say, there is no substantial dirty talk, and no “Tab A” in “Slot B” type language.) This is kind of the TV sex scene equivalent of what you might see on network television — ABC, NBC, etc.)

Sweet romance
These sweet romances typically do not feature or even allude to sex. While growing desire is likely evident, these books are likely to restrict interactions to loving glances, chaste touches, and perhaps a kiss at the end of the book. Most inspirational romances (as described above) are “sweet” romances. These are sometimes also referred to as “clean” romances, though that has a moral connotation that I don’t personally care for.

Lengths of romance novels

For the purposes of their contests, which set the standards for many years, Romance Writers of America describes contemporary romance novels by the following lengths (different sub-genres, and specific publishers, and various contests, may have slightly different ways of categorizing by length, but this gives you some general sense):

Long: 80,000 words or more

Mid-length: 56,000-80,000 words

Short: 40,000 – 56,000 words

Novella: 20,000- 40,000 words

Note: “Category romances” are a bit of a different beast (think of them as slim little books with pretty heavy-handed themes, typically no more than 200 pages or 55,000 words. I admit that I associate them almost exclusively with Harlequin, though I’m not entirely sure if that’s accurate! See Love in Panels’ considerations of this category of books (pun intended) here. They can be easy to dismiss (let’s just say that sheiks abound), but a lot of big names in romance writing got their start writing category romances! If you’re writing and working in romance, you should know about this piece of the industry.

Common romance tropes

Regardless of romance sub-genre, heat level, or length, most romances are likely to dabble in these most common romance novel tropes (many of which are self-explanatory, but I’ll add a few lines of descriptions as they might appear in heterosexual romances):

Heart Smart by Emma Lee Jayne has definite “enemies-to-lovers” vibes, though to be honest, it also definitely relates to the grumpy/sunshine dynamic mentioned below. Which is all to say, it’s just *chef’s kiss.*

Enemies to lovers – They can’t stand each other, often because they have opposing goals, but that anger accidentally morphs into crazy, sexy attraction. Imagine: She’s the CEO of a company trying to develop a new mega mall. He’s the leader of an environmental group trying to thwart her plans to protect the native plant species that grow on the land she wants. They clash ideologically, and then they clash … carnally.

Friends to lovers – A platonic relationship begins to morph into something more sexual/emotional. Imagine: As long as he can remember, she’s just been one of the guys. But when she starts dating some rich asshole she meets off at college, he realizes that he may have feelings for her, and he’s ready for her to think of him as something other than her best friend.

Second-chance romance – Ex-lovers, or ex-spouses, give each other another chance after challenges separated them. Imagine: His PTSD after he came back from serving in the military contributed to their divorce. But he goes to therapy in an attempt to work through his challenges, and win back the ex-wife that he never stopped loving.

Workplace romance – Some kind of work dynamic is at play in the romance, and the dynamic is often built off of the power differential. Imagine: A broody boss who’s falling for a plucky new associate. Or they’re both mid-level employees competing for the same promotion to management. Billionaires abound in this genre, as does the grumpy/sunshine dynamic (see more on that below.)

Fake romance (or fake engagement, or marriage of convenience) – For whatever reason (to please a parent, to make an ex jealous, to have a plus-one at a wedding, to qualify for an inheritance, etc.), someone needs to have a fake boyfriend/girlfriend, a fake fiance, or a fake husband/wife. What starts out as an arrangement of convenience, however, inevitably leads to pants feelings and heart feelings that are very real.

“Act Your Age, Eve Brown” is classic grumpy + sunshine. This whole series is amazing.

Grumpy + sunshine – Most stereotypically in heterosexual romance, this trope matches a grumpy hero with a sunshine of a heroine (though the opposite is certainly possible.) Imagine: He’s growly, hard to please, not amused, likely wounded from some sort of childhood trauma. She’s perky, cute, quirky, positive, and has the stamina to grind down the walls he’s put up around his heart. The contrast in their temperaments leads to lots of delicious fun.

Accidental pregnancy – This one is fairly obvious. Someone gets pregnant, binding two people together longer than they had anticipated. Imagine: a hate f*ck on a one-night stand leads to an unexpected pregnancy. When she decides to keep the baby, he demands she let him take her on a date so they can get to know one another (he won’t be an absent father like his dad was.) Though she swears she and the baby don’t need him in their life, she (shock!) falls in love with her baby daddy.

Forced proximity – This can take many forms, but in one way or another, two people are quite literally stuck together in some sort of unique context. Imagine: getting snowed in at a cabin, the hotel at the wedding losing a reservation so they suddenly have to share a room (and a bed!), the rental agency only having one car available so they decide to split the cost and the vehicle since they’re headed the same way at Christmas, or, in a historical, when a couple has to share a carriage for a days-long journey. Their proximity leads to horniness which leads to love, and (of course), a happily ever after.

Best friend’s older brother (or best friend’s younger sister) – Anyone with siblings knows that growing up, there can be all sorts of crushes involved between their friends and their siblings (some known, some secretive.) Imagine: the younger sister has crushed on her older brother’s best friend since she was 13, and when he comes back to town after a long stint in grad school in Europe, she’s finally going to make him see her as the grown woman she’s become, to hell what her brother might think about it.

So there you have it! Some of the terms, categories and definitions that might help you feel better equipped to answer the question: what type of romance novel do you write? (Note, as part of my Build a Book project, I’m writing a first person, single-perspective, small-town romance with enemies-to-lovers elements, tentatively called “The Fund Feud.” Read more about the project here!)

When Jess Vonn isn’t writing romance novels, she’s reading them (way past her bedtime.) She writes spicy but romantic books with sexy, playful men and quirky, funny women and wonderful groups of “found friends.” She’s the author of the smalltown  “Love by The Seasons” series. Her books are available on Amazon, and via Kindle Unlimited.

Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter! She’s on TikTok, too, though in all fairness, she has no idea what she’s doing on there…

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