As some of you know, in addition to writing, reviewing, and publishing many novels, I am also a certified editor with over five years’ industry experience editing for small publishing houses and indie authors alike. Oftentimes, I’m asked about the most common, frustrating or egregious mistakes I come across while editing novels, particularly romances, since that seems to be the genre I’m most frequently hired to edit. While I could certainly do with never reading The Evil Sentence again (“She released the breath she didn’t even know she was holding…”), or the misuse of the word ‘bombastic’ (look it up—it probably doesn’t mean what you think), the biggest mistakes I actually encounter are the ones that I can’t fix.
Contrary to what some may think, a romance isn’t merely a story about two people falling in love. At the heart of all romance novels is how love transforms the main couple. We’re not off the hook in terms of plotting and character arcs just because we’re romance writers. And yet, I see far too many romances spending way more time on cute, snarky dialogue and steamy, wish-fulfilling sex scenes than on actually making the reader care. While fun dialogue and hot sex can definitely enhance a romance, it’ll mean nothing to readers if those individual characters don’t have an arc, or any flaws and conflicts to overcome.
For the purposes of this post, I’m not going to delve into why these aspects of storytelling are so crucial for creating stories that readers care about. If you’re curious about how and why the human brain is wired for a particular kind of storytelling no matter the genre, I recommend Lisa Cron’s books, Wired for Story and Story Genius. With that in mind—that there is, in some respect, a formula that triggers readers to care, to get what they’re looking for out of your story—here are the top 4 biggest mistakes I see most frequently in romance novels, and that a simple copy edit cannot fix.
#1: The MC Has No Goal.
When we meet your MC (in romance, it’s usually the heroine), her goal should be defined clearly from the get-go. Readers should know by the end of the first chapter, if not the first page, if not the first paragraph: who the heroine is, what she wants, and why she wants it. What does she gain by reaching her goal? Why is it so important? What are the consequences if she doesn’t reach it? Why must she avoid that outcome at all costs?
From that point, everything that happens to the heroine throughout the story will be perceived through the lens of this goal. Even her romantic relationship—which will no doubt complicate things, at least at first—will be perceived through this lens.
Too often, I read about heroines who don’t know what they want, or don’t want anything at all. Their goals are never clearly stated or defined. Or they’re super vague and wishy-washy. The resulting story is a sequence of events that simply happen to the heroine, and the heroine simply reacting to them. The reader isn’t given a reason to care about, identify with, or root for her.
All of the above applies to the hero, as well.
#2: The MC Has No Flaw.
In addition to a goal, your main character must also have a flaw. It can be a character flaw, a personal shortcoming, a false belief, or some other obstacle standing in the way between her and her goal. The point of nearly every story is to show how a character overcomes her flaw in order to achieve her goal (or something better). Yes, this is the point of a romance, too.
Too often, what comes across my desk are perfect, beautiful, sexy, brilliant, well-adored heroines and their equally perfect, handsome, sexy, brilliant, well-adored male counterparts. The characters already have everything, so what more do they need? “True love” for the sake of itself is NOT a valid answer. True love should only be a means to a deeper, greater end—such as to awaken compassion, humanity, empathy, healing, integrity, or some other universal value or life lesson.
Think about it: What would you care if two perfect, beautiful strangers fell in love…unless you learned that their love for each other was actually what rescued them both from a debilitating addiction, or helped them survive and overcome a devastating trauma? This is why we tell love stories: to share the power of love. Love ought to change the characters for the better. If they don’t desperately need to change to begin with, then what’s the point?
#3: Tension is Resolved Too Quickly.
You’ve heard the adage “raise the stakes”. Most authors do respond with life-or-death consequences and plenty of near-misses. Except, often I find the tension is still not drawn-out enough to give the reader any real sense of danger. This might be because some romantic subgenres don’t necessarily lend themselves to having many action scenes or a central villain. That’s OK. You don’t always need a character villain or a car chase; circumstances and character flaws can be conflict enough. Just remember to milk it for everything it’s worth.
Going back to Lisa Cron’s books, part of why readers read—even for entertainment—is to learn from the characters. Just how will the hero overcome that insurmountable obstacle, or make it out of that tight situation? In romance, the conflict can be relationship-oriented and still just as serious and significant as the showdown in a superhero story. But if all tension in your story dissipates rapidly, or disputes are easily resolved, the reader will quickly catch on that they aren’t going to learn anything new from you. They’ll lose interest and curiosity. So, keep them curious. Make them wonder: ‘How can she possibly make it out of this?’ Then unravel your master plan, piece by piece, and enlighten while you entertain.
#4: The Main Characters Don’t Change in the End.
This ties back into #2, but is important enough to bear repeating: The point of any story is to show how someone overcomes a flaw or an obstacle to transform for the better. In a romance, love is the means by which your characters overcome their central flaws—but we need to see proof of their transformation in the end. Ask yourself: Did my characters achieve their goals (or something better)? How has it changed them? Compare whom you introduced us to in the first chapter with our final image of them in the last chapter. Did they overcome their central flaw, dispel their false belief? Have they come full circle? Did they learn what they needed to in order to grow and change? How do they look, think, behave differently, now that love has changed them?
Mechanical errors can always be fixed. The difference between further and farther can be explained. You can alter a sentence to make it show and not tell. But the story itself, which is formed in the author’s heart and mind, can’t be rewritten by the editor. I can’t take a manuscript and make the story work simply by cleaning up spelling and syntax. But I can certainly point you in the direction of tried-and-true templates and storytelling components that comprise a compelling romance. So, keep creating. And don’t forget: You have the power to inspire the world. Use it well. 😉