As with most genres, romance is defined by a complex network of interactions among narrative structures and story conventions, writers’ variations of those conventions, and readers’ expectations.
No single definition will ever adequately capture this interplay.
That said, definition is necessary. First, because it is very upsetting to be told something is a romance and then for it to not do what most readers of romance expect from that genre, i.e. to end in some variation of a “happily ever after” (itself a contested term). Second, because definitions reveal unspoken assumptions about love, romance, eroticism, sex, relationships, etc., and the stories we tell about those things. And third, because definitions enable variation and adaptation. This is true for scholarly research and for creative writing equally.
In essence, a definition of what romance is establishes the terms of the conversation we are all involved in. As writers, we use genre conventions to create the structures of our narratives. Writers often write with and against other stories we have read. While as scholars, we are interested in the way romance manifests in different media and cultural situations; how the structures and expectations of romance play out in novels, hypertexts, games, movies, dating apps, reality tv, etc. The multitude of ways romance shows up in media, social and cultural contexts, across different cultures and regions of the world, and throughout time is not so easily captured in a single definition. Yet, like a research question, a definition of romance can help scholars to focus and narrow the scope of their studies.
The following short list of definitions represents some ways scholars and writers have attempted to define romance. It is in no way the end of the conversation, nor even a complete picture of how romance has been defined over the years.
All of these definitions represent different stages of understanding the romance as a genre and a mode. These definitions include the ones most often cited in popular and academic conversations around romance. However, it is important to note that writers and scholars continue to alter, modify, and play with these definitions. These alterations are vital to the continued health of the genre, the inclusion of new and diverse perspectives, and the pleasure of romance.
In a broad sense, all romance books are about one theme: Love conquers all.
Romance readers have genre expectations just like any other genre. The biggest of those expectations is the HEA (happily ever after) or the HFN (happy for now). If love doesn't conquer all at the end of your story, you didn't write a romance. [...] So... love conquers all. That's pretty broad. Your job, in your story, is to show two examples of "all," assuming you are writing about two protagonists falling in love. If you have three or more, you have more work than the rest of us. But have fun!
* Gwen Hayes, Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels, 2016, pages 6-8.
*there are differences among the subgenres and storylines in romance publishing. Nonetheless, the basic plot of the romance narrative - find somebody to love, work through problems, be happy - holds true as a common storyline across all these categories and across all of the books, despite the variation.
* Catherine M. Roach, Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016, page 4.
*The romance has always revolved around the development of a relationship (a central love story) and a positive resolution (happy ending).
* Maryan Wherry, "More than a Love Story: The Complexities of the Popular Romance," in The Bloomsbury Introduction to Popular Fiction, London, Bloomsbury, 2015, page 53.
*"Romance novel" is an incongruous phrase, yoking together as it does two concepts that have traditionally been considered quite different [...] the first half of the term "romance novel" is that which codes for the traits of the erotic, the desirable, the pleasurable - for what is "romantic" to the reader/apprehender under modernity and postmodernity.
* Jayashree Kamblé, Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pages 2 and 15.
*Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.
A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.
An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.
Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction.
* Romance Writers of America, definition adopted circa April 2009 (Steve Ammidown provided the dating, and the text of an earlier, 2000, version)
*The romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines. All romance novels contain eight narrative elements: a definition of society, always corrupt, that the romance novel will reform; the meeting between the heroine and hero; an account of their attraction for each other; the barrier between them; the point of ritual death; the recognition that fells the barrier; the declaration of heroine and hero that they love each other; and their betrothal.
* Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003, page 14. Note that in an essay published in 2011 Regis updated this definition: 'I offer a definition of “the romance novel,” namely, that it is “a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more protagonists” [...] “Protagonists” replaces “heroines” in my original definition, to include m/m, f/f, and ménage romance novels.'
*Romances are about a developing monogamous relationship between a man and a woman. Romances are about what it takes to make a relationship work. Romances are about women making choices in their lives. Romances are about overcoming serious obstacles and coming out on the other side stronger for the struggle. Romances are about women winning.
For a book to qualify as a romance in the purest genre sense, the focus of the book must be the developing relationship between the heroine and hero. I often say that the relationship itself is the main character of a romance. Women's fiction, on the other hand, focuses on a particular woman or women. [...] This is why most of Danielle Steel's books are women's fiction, not romance. [...]
Romance has other requirements that set it apart from women's fiction. In a romance, the relationship is monogamous; neither the hero nor heroine can die; and there must be an HEA, a happily-ever-after, ending. Most importantly of all, both hero and heroine are heroic. They must be basically good people. They must be people readers can care about and cheer on.
* Ann Bouricius, The Romance Reader's Advisory: The Librarian's Guide to Love in the Stacks, Chicago: American Library Association, 2000, pages 3-4.
*To begin with, there is the matter of focus. In a romance the central (and occasionally the only) focus of the plot is the love relationship between the two main characters. Of course, there are usually other complications and problems, such as mysteries to be solved, career goals or social successes to be achieved, and daring escapes to be made. But these are always secondary to the love interest (from the reader's point of view, not necessarily from the character's), although they are often instrumental in seeing that the love interest succeeds. [...]
But it is not only subject matter and focus that determine a romance; a romance must also attempt to engage the reader's feelings. To put it simply, a romance must have a quality - whether through character development, plot structure, point of view, or style - that allows, almost demands, a certain emotional involvement on the part of the reader. In other words, a book cannot simply describe a love relationship; it must allow the reader to participate in it. As Janice Radway states, "To qualify as a romance, the story must chronicle not merely the events of a courtship but what it feels like to the object of one." [...]
Another criterion for romance fiction is the Satisfactory Ending. Usually, but not always, this is the traditional happy one, with the two protagonists forming some kind of committed relationship (usually marriage) by the book's conclusion.
* Kristin Ramsdell, Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre, Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, 1999, page 4.
*romance fiction proper is comedy, and the happy ending so appreciated by its readers offers them a reparative vision of the heroine as well as of a possible society in which she might live. The marriage ending is less cooptation, as some would have it, with success contingent upon submission of self to that patriarchal institution marriage than it is reward for self-realization, for a maturation that derives from relationship rather than separation. As such, it is a fantasy, a fiction based less in verisimilitude than in imaginative reconstruction of unmet needs.
* Suzanne Juhasz, "Texts to Grow On: Reading Women’s Romance Fiction." Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 7.2 (1988): 239-259, page 239.
*The narrative structure of the ideal romance is summarized below:
1. The heroine's social identity is destroyed.
2. The heroine reacts antagonistically to an aristocratic male.
3. The aristocratic male responds ambiguously to the heroine.
4. The heroine interprets the hero's behavior as evidence of a purely sexual interest in her.
5. The heroine responds to the hero's behavior with anger or coldness.
6. The hero retaliates by punishing the heroine.
7. The heroine and hero are physically and/or emotionally separated.
8. The hero treats the heroine tenderly.
9. The heroine responds warmly to the hero's act of tenderness.
10. The heroine reinterprets the hero's ambiguous behavior as the product of previous hurt.
11. The hero proposes/openly declares his love for/demonstrates his unwavering commitment to the heroine with a supreme act of tenderness.
12. The heroine responds sexually and emotionally.
13. The heroine's identity is restored.
* Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1984 (second, updated edition 1991), page 134.
*The crucial defining characteristic of romance is not that it stars a female but that its organizing action is the development of a love relationship, usually between a man and a woman. [...] Romances often contain elements of adventure, but the dangers function as a means of challenging and then cementing the love relationship. [...] The moral fantasy of the romance is that of love triumphant and permanent, overcoming all obstacles and difficulties. Though the usual outcome is a permanently happy marriage, more sophisticated types of love story sometimes end in the death of one or both of the lovers, but always in such a way as to suggest that the love relation has been of lasting and permanent impact. This characteristic differentiates the mimetic form of the romantic tragedy from the formulaic romance.
* John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976, pages 41-42.