It must have these elements:
- Basic plot structure of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. (Or in same sex boy-boy, you get it.) If they meet and they are romantic but are never torn apart it may be sensual but it’s not a romance novel.
- In the middle of the book conflict and tension have to keep the hero and heroine apart. It can’t just be they lose each other because of any old reason. If your reason is lack of interest, or slightly lame lack of communication, your reader is going to say, “Really?” It must be a HUGE OBSTACLE which one or both lead characters work to overcome. The more realistic the obstacle, the more tense the conflict, the better your romance novel will be.
- Intense sexual tension that builds slowly. Enough said. Often there is a sexual or sensual sense that is started, around page sixty to eighty, that is interrupted. There must be at least one sexual scene in order for your book to be a romance novel. It doesn’t have to show us everything, or use “his torrid member”, or penis, or go all the way to insert tab A into slot B. You can leave something to the imagination behind closed doors. But a romance novel has at least one sex scene and no more than three. If it has more than three sex scenes, it’s erotica, not romance.
- Emotional growth. It is not a ROMANCE novel if the characters do not undergo emotional growth. Think about it. You want your readers to gain something from reading your book. Yes, you want them to have a great escape when they read your writing, but you also want them to come away from reading your romance novel better people than they were before. If your heroine is afraid of commitment because her parents abandoned her, than you have a set-up. If the hero can help her get over her issues through his love, so much the better. If both characters grow emotionally, even better, double points. If they also can make a physical improvement, like overcoming fear of leaving a job to start out on their own, well, now you’re talking. No growth, no learning, not a romance. Sorry.
- Our lead characters must RESOLVE their conflict. They have to find a way to get over the problem that keeps them apart. How they find a way to do this, how realistic it is, is part of what makes your novel good or sucky. If they have a serious communication problem for eighty pages and you resolve it in two lines when one character says, “Oh, that was dumb. Now I’ll talk to you.” Your readers will probably never read anything you write again.
- HEA or HEFN. It has to have a Happily Ever After or Happily Ever For Now. If your characters are tragically in love, but don’t stay together, it’s not a romance novel. Romantic yes. Romance novel genre? No. Romeo and Juliet? Not a romance novel. Bridges of Madison County? Not a romance novel. Fifty Shades of Grey? Waaaaay not a romance novel.
It should go without saying that the hero and the heroine need to fall in love, and that the love should be special, a once-in-a-lifetime type of love (even if it is a second go around for them, like after a mate dies).
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. If you want your novel to be successful your characters must be likable and lovable.
That’s it. They meet. They overcome the odds. They build tension, have sex, are torn apart, grow, and manage to figure out how to get over what kept them from being in a true relationship. Then as soon they get together for good, END THE BOOK. Period. Wrap it up.
Within this construction you need to be original. You do this by putting some of your personal soul in the book. Your sensuality. Your desires.
You can do it.