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What Makes a Great Romance Novel?

This is probably a question that is both difficult to answer and the most completely subjective one that will ever cross your path. Because a book I consider a great read and an awesome romance novel, my best friend might yawn and say “ho-hum.” That makes this time of year, when romance writers all over the world are judging their peers to determine which books will make the RITAs, Romance Writers of America’s highest honor, rather edgy. The RITA is the Academy Award, the Edgar, the Emmy for the best of the bunch, or rather bunches, since there are several categories for nominations and being nominated is an honor, winning a real notch in the belt.

So every year, around the end of January, early February, a package of books arrives on your doorstep and you are asked to read and judge the works of your peers. Never an easy task and a responsibility that can put a different sort of edge on the reading experience. Because these books are selected at random and you really do get pot luck.

Most often, these are authors you’ve never read, might not have even heard of, so there is that element of, What if this is my new favorite author? That can be the thrill of the RITAs, finding new authors. There is also the chance that you will get books in categories or settings or whatever, that aren’t your cup of tea. But like being a good guest, you read them and then you really have to set aside those personal likes and get down to the only question that matters:

What makes a romance novel great?

I find that I have some of the same answers each year, and since I finished up reading this weekend and submitted my scores, I thought I would share my random thoughts on the process. What do I think makes a great romance novel? Well,

1) I want to be pulled into the world the author has created. I want to be able to walk beside the characters and share their experience. I want to sense and feel the grand scope of their story–and I want that story to be big. I want to see their world, not just from their eyes, but from other characters. Because sometimes we learn more about our world, ourselves, from those who know us best, not just from our own biased inner self-definition.

2) When I am reading I want the story, the narrative, the dialogue to run smoothly. I am so not a POV hopper. But it is more than just POV, it is the very sentences, the dialogue, the emotions, all of these elements which need to run like silk through your fingers, and this, IMHO, speaks to the writer’s attention to her craft more than anything. It goes directly into how she chooses her words, sees the story opening up and revealing itself. How her characters grow and change. It really is simple: seduce me with your story-telling skills.

3) I want a romance. I want to believe that these two people belong together and it is the most obvious thing in the world to everyone but them. And I want the front row seat when they discover that truth. This isn’t just sexual tension or finding common ground, but the sense of the stars aligning and two lost souls finding each other. I want, to say it simply, magic.

Now despite all my theories, personal convictions, and likes and/or dislikes, there are also four other readers out there, reading the same book and making their own judgments. Writing down a number that relates to their answer: Is this romance novel great?

My top choices may not make it to the finals, while others will. It makes the end of March, when the finalists are announced, an exciting time. Some books you celebrate, other finalists make you question your judgment because it wasn’t your cup of tea yet enough people differed with you to move it forward. Of course, there is also the next step in all this:ย  ordering all the finalists and reading them. I always do this, because again, it helps me to continually re-examine one very essential question.

What makes a good romance novel? Any thoughts?

8 comments to “What Makes a Great Romance Novel?”

  1. Sarah Tormey
    March 9th, 2009 at 5:34 am · Link

    This may sound a bit crazy, but I believe the best romance novels are the ones where the characters stay with you longer after you turn the last page. I love a book that I simply can’t bear to part with, one that I need a copy on my shelf at all times just in case I want to reread the story, to unleash the magic one more time. And I believe all this comes not only from great characters, but also from crafting memorable scenes that feel almost like a movie to the reader (a movie the reader creates and directs in their own imagination). All of this may not make my favorite novels “good” or the most well-written books, but for me it is why I keep picking up new novels. Happy Reading!

  2. Lois
    March 9th, 2009 at 6:21 am · Link

    I think I basically agree with Sarah — but my addition is this one book where I did peek at the end to make sure there was a HEA, but I rushed to read it because even knowing the answer, I couldn’t wait to see how they got there. That was A Rose in Winter. Now that was a great one. But in the end, I think just the idea of the ones that we pick up again to reread, they are the good ones, and the ones we can’t part with for anything in the world are the great ones. ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. Laura
    March 9th, 2009 at 11:21 am · Link

    Is your Rita falling apart? Looks like the name plate is pealing off.

  4. Elizabeth
    March 10th, 2009 at 7:26 am · Link

    Laura, my Rita is falling apart. The pen which she holds snapped off about seven years ago–from the children handling her, which resulted in the rule: No Touching Mom’s Rita. So one day, Nicole Burnham was over visiting and she went to pick it up, and my oldest did this diving, flying Matrix sort of move across the room shouting, “Don’t Touch Mom’s Rita!” I need to take her into a trophy shop and have her rehabbed as she is getting really shabby, poor thing.

  5. therese
    March 10th, 2009 at 1:39 pm · Link

    So I guess Rita isn’t to be handled? Makes me sorry she doesn’t have a romantic hero in her life. But then, what alpha male would tolerate the “don’t touch” requirement? (Love the image of your son diving to her rescue though.)

  6. Keira Soleore
    March 10th, 2009 at 3:22 pm · Link

    Ohhhhh, so that’s what the RITA really looks like. I have seen and taken pictures of many authors holding theirs, but I’ve never had a close-up view of her before. She sure is pretty.

    My Jane Austen action doll is much abused, too. She has a cast on one arm, her pen was lost within the first week, and her portable writing desk’s dented. But oh, she’s been to show-n-tell and the subject of many, many convos.

  7. Amy E. Nichols
    March 10th, 2009 at 6:40 pm · Link


    I agree with you 100%. I never get rid of those special reads. They are like old friends. When I’m tired, or just need to escape, I can turn to these books, re-read them and remember how I felt when I first felt their magic.

    I also think this is something to aspire too. I am revising my first full length manuscript, a regency romance. It is a continual learning process for me to write well, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the point where my writing touches someone like the books that have touched me.


  8. Laura
    March 11th, 2009 at 12:11 pm · Link

    I’m sorry to hear your Rita has taken such a beating! I guess I assumed they would hold up better. I guess they’re made for display and not kids. ๐Ÿ˜‰


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