what’s the difference between a romance novel and a love story? The two terms are often used interchangeably, but is that really the correct usage? Let’s find out.
On the surface, the terms, “romance novel,” and “love story” seem to mean roughly the same thing, so it’s no surprise that those unfamiliar with the romance genre use the terms interchangeably. It’s below the surface, though, where all the interesting things happen, and it’s beneath the surface where the distinction becomes plain. According to Romance Writers of America, the governing body, as it is, for the romance genre, a romance genre novel must meet two criteria.
First, the developing love relationship must be at the center of the story, and, secondly, the ending must be both optimistic and emotionally satisfying. This is not a pick as you will kind of thing. The story has to be all about the love, and the lovers have to be together on the last page, and happy about that fact. If one of these boxes isn’t ticked, we do not have a romance novel on our hands.
Okay, then, what makes a love story? Since there is, to this writer’s knowledge, no Love Story Writers of America (or any other country) things can have more wiggle room on this one, but there’s another RWA term that covers the ground nicely: fiction with romantic elements. For this, there only needs to be a romantic relationship somewhere in the book. Does it have to be the main plot? No. Does it have to end satisfactorily? Again, no. Can it rip your heart out, stomp that sucker flat, run the flattened remains through a paper shredder, and then try to put whatever is left over, back into the black hole you are not sure is ever going to fully heal? Sure can, but is it a romance? Nopers.
So, Gone With the Wind, romance novel? Nope. Historical fiction with romantic elements, sure. Scarlett and Rhett’s love story is an essential part of the story, but emotionally satisfying ending? Depends upon whom one asks, one would suppose. Maybe Rhett found walking away from Scarlett and Tara pretty darned satisfying, and maybe Scarlett is showing some form of optimism (or denial) when she vows she’ll think about her options another day, but romance novel? Not even close.
Romeo and Juliet? Also not a romance novel. First of all, it’s a play, but what we have here is (not going to put a spoiler alert for a centuries-old play that has become a part of the common vernacular) two teenagers who both die at the end. Not a romance. Classic tragedy, as a matter of fact, but what most people think of most is the romantic elements, the falling in love so hard and fast that it sends all common sense out the window. Sure, the feelings are real, and have hit the mark with audiences for nearly half a millennium, but it’s not a romance.
Here’s where romance differs from every other genre; that happily ever after. Some critics call this “predictable” but let’s shift gears for a moment, and say we’re going to have a science fiction novel that contains no technology, a fantasy novel taking place in contemporary times, with absolutely no speculative elements whatsoever, a mystery novel with no puzzle to solve. You get the picture. Those things are kind of the entire point, which is the point we’re going for here. Every genre has its tenets and conventions, and that’s not a bad thing. Is it predictable or cliché to have chocolate in a chocolate cake? Uh, no, because if a baker tried to make a chocolate cake without the chocolate, they darned well would hear about it from the customers who specifically asked for the chocolate cake they wanted. If they want a lemon cake or a coffee cake, they’ll ask for one. They want the chocolate, hand over the chocolate. That’s how it works.
There are countless tragic love stories out there, and many of them have permanent spots on our keeper shelves. This isn’t a dig against those stories, because they can be wonderfully effective, and beautifully written, but they also come with an ache over what could have been. In romance novels, the lovers go with their hearts, put everything on the line for love, and, instead of being punished with death or separation, they get rewarded. They get the girl (or guy) and the gold watch (it’s a metaphor) and everything. (Put all three of those together, and it’s an Easter egg) For those who have to have the dash of doom, never fear. Even the happiest of ever afters have a big black moment ahead of them.
Those black moments can be utterly delicious, that fear that, somehow, this time, our lovers won’t be able to overcome the big bad, time and distance, death itself, their own personal demons (literal or figurative, or a combination of the two) and, if things stay that way, we will lose faith in humanity (or at least that particular author) forever. Pause for dramatic music, and then -in romance, there is always an and then- somebody gives that one extra push, reaches down deeper into their reserves, and takes that ridiculous million to one chance, makes that leap that will either succeed or result in certain death.
In a tragic story, sure, that can end with a resounding splat, not a dry eye in the house, but in a romance…in a romance, the crowd goes wild, because the characters made it. They did it. They stood in the face of insurmountable odds, and didn’t give up. Not a chance. They ran at it, full tilt, gave up what they thought they would never yield to anyone, because (and here’s the kicker) they’ve found something that is worth even more than what they held most dear before they developed feelings for their partner. The best part, though? Their partner is doing exactly the same thing, for them.
What makes a romance different from a love story may seem a small designation at first, but look beneath the surface, and there is a world of difference, and what a difference it is.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. What do you think about the distinction between romance novels and love stories? What is the strangest book you’ve seen, wrongly referred to as a romance novel? Where do you say the line lies? Do you like love stories as well as romances? Pull up a chair in the comment section and tell us all about it. If you wish the people who can’t tell love stories and romance novels apart would just shut up already, we want to hear about that, too. There’s room for everybody at this table.