In life nothing stands still, not even in a genre as well established as romance writing. The changes may happen slowly but they do happen.
Many years ago at an Aussie sci-fi convention I met Kouichi from Japan, the fan guest of honour. I gave him a small gift in welcome and he gave me one in return. I soon learned that gifts are taken seriously in Japan and we’d be giving them for the next three decades.
He became my pen frendo and we exchanged many sci-fi and Star Trek books in our own languages, until I had a collection of books I could admire without understanding a word. Authors are highly respected in Japan as I found when I sent Kouichi some signed copies of my Japanese translations and Manga, the graphic novels which have a huge following there. My status as a mangaka was a pleasant surprise.
After a time I felt free to ask Kouichi what Japanese women enjoyed in contemporary romance novels. The appeal turned out to be the same as for readers around the world. They were uplifting stories that ended happily, in contrast to much Japanese fiction which ends tragically, the reason Japanese readers call we romance writers “happy ending ladies.”
These elements haven’t changed, but other aspects have. Love scenes that once ended at the bedroom door have morphed into the sex scenes of Fifty Shades. Many readers still like sweet romances but options vary widely now.
Length is another big change. My first category romance novels ran to 60,000 words. Even my romantic suspense novels which once were 80,000 words or more now stop around 60,000. Novellas were mostly only found in anthologies. The advent of ebooks and limited reading time has brought shorter novels and novellas into their own.
Graphic novels have taken off in English, too. Recently US book chain Barnes & Noble announced plans to create a dedicated division of graphic novels for children and pre teens.
Content has changed, for the better IMO. Category romance once paired innocent younger women with worldly wise men, the latter often arrogant and forceful. The two worked love’s magic on each other but took time, with much of the power on the man’s side. From the start I’ve preferred more equal pairings with all lovemaking clearly consensual on both sides. I also routinely make secondary characters female, especially doctors, lawyers and the like, so the authority world wasn’t seen as exclusively male. The so-called doctor-nurse romances have become medical romances where either or both characters can be doctors and again, the match is more even-handed.
There’s less of the travelogue in modern romances. Pre Google, readers enjoyed vicarious visits to exotic locales and different cultures. Today most of us have either visited or can visualise a stately home in Britain, a castle in Spain or a Sheikh’s kingdom. The focus is more on the relationship with a few background details adding spice.
Structure has changed in other ways beyond length. With many books being read on phones or other devices, paragraphs and chapters are generally shorter to avoid confronting readers with a solid screen of text. Writers do well to dive into the story at a point of change for the characters, avoiding rambling descriptions or people chatting to their dog or cat.
I remember being told I shouldn’t start a book with a line of dialogue. Lucky for me, I’ve never believed in “rules” for writing – only what works for the writer. I still start with dialogue provided it works for the story.
Dual or multiple viewpoint has also become a thing. Once the whole book would be told from the heroine’s viewpoint, with the hero’s thoughts only shared through guesswork which was often wrong. This kept story tension high but frustrated me – and many readers. When I ventured into dual viewpoint storytelling, sales spoke for themselves.
Likewise, publishers avoided cross-genre stories such as fantasy and romance, sci-fi and suspense with a romantic edge. Today with so many indie writers publishing their own work, almost any mix is possible provided you do it well enough.
What hasn’t changed is the need for emotion-charged, unpredictable stories where both characters have to work for their happy-ever-after, or as it’s become, happy-for-now, with Mr or Mrs Right becoming Right-for-the-moment. We still want them to find their perfect match, as we hope to find our own, the popularity of shows like The Bachelor and Bachelorette proving the point.
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