Ah, summer. The season of beach reads, whether you’re actually at a beach or just wishing you were. It’s all about the paperbacks full of escapism and fun.
These types of popular novels, especially when they’re categorized as romance novels, catch a lot of flack for being unserious, fluffy, and mindless.
That’s definitely not the case.
I’m going to go even further and let you in on a secret: these books can teach you a lot about how to write better copy.
Yes, romance novels — you know, the ones with the seriously hot man and the stunningly beautiful woman, both frequently in various stages of undress — can teach you how to write better copy. There’s a reason people keep reading these stories, and you can learn from it.
Don’t believe that people actually read romance novels? It’s a billion-dollar-a-year industry. At least 70 million readers pick up one romance novel a year, and that translates into a 34 percent market share for the entire U.S. fiction market.
And yes, men also read romance novels (about 16 percent of the market). People at all income and education levels read romance novels. And while the “typical” romance reader is a younger white woman, people of color make up about a fifth of the entire audience, and people over age 45 make up just over 40 percent of the total readers.
Romance novels are doing something right, and you can use their techniques to write better copy — which will get and keep more readers. Here are six ways romance novels will help.
According to the Romance Writers of America, the most important factor for readers when choosing a book is the story.
Which makes sense, because, in a romance novel, we know that there will be a happy ending with the two main characters getting together.
From the beginning of the book, you almost always know who is going to end up together, because they have a “meet-cute.” It’s the actor looking for some down time in a tiny California town and the waitress at the restaurant he stops in. Or the writer/cook in small town South Carolina that needs the help of her mentor’s hitman nephew. Or the American woman who goes to Scotland to escape a dastardly ex-fiancé and accidentally steps into a fairy ring, travels back in time, and gets thrown into a dungeon by a sword-wielding Scots laird.
It’s the hook that gets you into the story, the moment we first see the spark between the two main characters.
It’s the chemistry when our bad boy actor stumbles into the restaurant and matches wits with the waitress who has no idea who he is. It’s when the writer hits the hitman over the head with a frying pan because she mistakes him for a bad guy and then finds out her mentor sent the hitman to protect her. Or the moment when the Scots laird is convinced to let the strangely dressed woman out of his dungeon and carries her to a lake to wash off vermin and muck.
The moment establishes both the main characters — what their motivations are, how they react to stressful situations, how they react to each other — and kicks off the story in a way that makes us want to know why.
Even though you know they are going to end up together, you don’t know how they will get there. You don’t yet know the twists and turns the story will take, and that’s the fun part.
When you’re writing copy, your main characters, their motivation, and the end result should be clear to the reader, even from the beginning. And then you need to tell a great story to connect the meet-cute to the happy ending, which is the action you want them to take.
Genre mashups are awesome. One of my favorite series is a traditional Regency love story — with magic. We’re not talking about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (although that, too, was an excellent idea). Mary Robinette Kowal’s whole Glamourist Histories series is like Jane Austen decided to make both Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy magicians.
It works because it’s authentic and the genres are combined thoughtfully. In other words, the rules of magic, and the world the magicians must live in, play by the rules of Regency novels.
You don’t have to stick to one genre when you’re writing your copy, but if you’re going to cross genres, you have to do it thoughtfully.
The first Glamourist book establishes that glamour, the form of magic, is an illusion of light. It’s used mainly for decorative and artistic purposes, so it’s considered an acceptable talent for young women to practice, much like painting or music was considered an expected skill for upper-class women. Any practical applications (for example, in the military) were reserved for men.
One of my favorite examples of genre mashups in ad copy is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2011 zombie campaign to raise awareness about emergency preparedness.
It was startling, amusing, and useful. It got people to pay attention with something they didn’t expect, and then immediately gave them real, actionable information.
The campaign took a serious subject and then capitalized on the popularity of zombies to explain it in a memorable way. Comics like The Walking Dead, books like World War Z, and movies like Zombieland put zombies at the forefront of popular culture again. The television version of The Walking Dead had just finished its first, extremely popular season.
It followed the rules of a zombie apocalypse — infectious virus, shambling dead people that eat flesh, the breakdown of infrastructure — but found ways to tie it to real disasters and real preparation tips. For example, in this Teachable Moments post, they offer advice based on scenes from The Walking Dead, like fill up your gas tank, don’t leave home without your first aid kit, and remember that clean water is zombie-free water. It’s funny, but it’s also great advice.
If you’re going to mix genres, pick something that will resonate with your audience, even if it’s outside their normal comfort zone. You can also choose something that will bring in a new audience, but remember to treat the source material respectfully (the CDC took the zombie apocalypse seriously, while acknowledging that their readers were in on the joke).
If you can present your message in a way that a different readership might connect with, you can grow your audience. It might also help you to better understand what your audience needs.
Romance novels roam the universe of genres, and your copy can, too. Just remember to follow the rules of the genre you’re playing in and give your readers the information they’re looking for.
The word “cheesy” is often used to describe romance novels, usually in a negative context.
But cheesy isn’t always a bad thing.
From the numbers, we can see that romance novels are doing just fine. But the idea extends to other media as well. The Hallmark Channel has made an industry out of their holiday movies, which run from basically Halloween through the end of the year.
In 2016, they saw a growth of 24 percent in total number of viewers. They were rated number one in prime time from November 23 through November 26, which was their “Thanksgiving Weekend Event.” And people weren’t just watching — they were also talking about it on Facebook and Twitter.
Cheese is a big deal, business-wise.
Yes, being cheesy can sometimes mean your story is inauthentic or trying too hard. But there’s a difference between Velveeta and cave-aged English cheddar.
Romance novels can (one could argue, should) be sentimental. It’s the authenticity, or lack thereof, which pushes it over the boxed cheese line.
Just as in any good story, plot points and character reactions should be earned. In other words, if you’re going to make your heroine’s knowledge of old cars a plot point in Chapter 14, you should set it up sometime in an earlier chapter.
Or as Anton Chekhov once said, if you put a gun onstage in the first act, you have to use it in the next.
This idea translates to writing copy. You want to be sure that every element you include in your copy is necessary. Don’t clutter up your copy with shiny elements that don’t fit your message, your brand, or your story.
And don’t be inauthentic. Your copy can absolutely be sentimental. Some of the most effective copy tugs at the heart strings (see holiday coffee commercials, car ads, and pet food commercials).
But don’t overdo it. The sentimentality should be earned, and it should be something your audience expects.
Remember the Nationwide ad that aired during the 2015 Super Bowl? The one with the dead kid talking about all the things he won’t ever do because he died? It was supposed to start a conversation about preventing childhood accidents, but the sentimentality was misplaced and it felt inauthentic because it was trying too hard to get us to care about something in a way few people connected with.
One of the best things about romance novels is that they are escapism. They’re fun in a world that, let’s face it, some days looks like a constant garbage fire.
However, just because romance novels are escapist fare doesn’t mean they’re not well-written, smartly executed, and complex. They just happen to be well-written, smartly executed, and complex books that are also fun.
There’s a reason that “comedy” is part of the RomCom movie genre. People want to have fun; they want to laugh, especially if they need to focus on something positive.
It doesn’t work for every subject or for every audience, but injecting some fun into your writing can make for better copy.
For example, the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. sends out great, informative emails for their upcoming shows. But they also have a rewards program which they promote in each email with a graphic like this:
It’s cute and fun, but it also has a clear message.
Author Seanan McGuire says in an article about how “girls” cartoons influenced her writing: “You could get away with anything, if you made it fluffy and pink enough. You could destroy the whole world, as long as you were willing to cover it in glitter first.”
If you’re thinking of a romance novel as being only about some damsel in distress waiting for a guy to come save her, you’re looking in the wrong field of books. Romance novels can be subversive. And meaningful. And message-y.
Yes, the message gets wrapped in a happy ending, a bit like the spoonful of sugar. But many romance novels (especially ones written in the last decade or so) deliberately tackle serious issues as the foundation of their stories.
For example, it’s hard to avoid talking about the issue of discrimination when your main characters are two men falling in love in Victorian England. Even though the novel is set in a historical context, it helps us to realize maybe we haven’t come that far. It’s also subversive (intentionally so) in that it presents what in many places is still considered a non-standard couple in the time-honored romance novel “happily ever after” trope.
If you’re worried about your audience accepting a message you need to give them, think about how you can present it in a way that meets their expectations in one way, but still gets your point across.
For example, if you want to tell a story about a brooding duke and an impoverished young lady, why not have her be the legal owner of his castle? Of course they fall in love, but there’s also a wonderful opportunity to talk about how women in the era were only allowed to own property under a few, unusual circumstances.
Twisting time-honored tropes to fit your message needs may also help you see things in a different way. If you’re basing your book on a Pygmalion trope (My Fair Lady, Can’t Buy Me Love, She’s All That), why not give the leading man a secret identity as an advice columnist named Maria?
A great example of a commercial that twisted a trope was the 2013 Guinness ad about a bunch of friends playing basketball and then going for beers. It layered twists (the guys are all in wheelchairs, then you find out only one of the guys is actually wheelchair-bound) on the trope of guys and sports and beer.
One thing every writer knows, no matter their genre or format, is that sex sells.
I’m not going to get into a critique of a particular recent-ish series, but I do want to note that one of the main reasons people talked so much about it was because of the explicit nature and type of sex. Maybe it was shocking, maybe it was titillating, maybe it was an instruction manual: however you looked at it, it was the physical interaction that got people hot and bothered, one way or another.
The lesson here isn’t that sex sells. We all know that. What we can learn from this kind of writing is the importance of knowing your audience so you can make them feel the right way.
A romance writer needs to know what kind of, and just how much, sizzle their readers are looking for. The reader base for erotica isn’t going to be the same as the reader base for Christian romance novels.
The type and amount of sizzle you put into your copy depends entirely on who your audience is and what action you want them to take. You have to know your audience to know what’s right for them.
To go back to the Hallmark Channel Christmas movies (several of which are the adaptations of novels), I know that every single one of them is going to end the same way — with a kiss. If it’s not our couple’s first kiss, it’s their first “real” romantic kiss as a couple (or their next “first kiss”, when old flames meet again). It’s sweet and cute and sigh-inducing.
But if I pick up a novel by Jennifer Crusie, I know there’s going to be at least a couple of really great steamy scenes, and they’re going to be fun (and many of them are going to be funny).
You have to know your audience to know what will resonate with them. Does it need to be funny or snarky? Dramatic or practical? Do they want plain and simple or flowery language?
Some of the best advice I’ve seen on how to write sex scenes is from a master of the art, Diana Gabaldon, author of the wildly popular Outlander series. Several years back, she gave this advice: “A good sex scene is about the exchange of emotions, not bodily fluids.”
How do you apply that to writing copy? Think about what emotion you need to convey.
Let’s compare two bits of copy from Ford:
The tough truck:
And the pretty, pretty sports car:
With the first bit, you get a feeling of security and strength — this truck can take anything you throw at it and won’t let you down.
The sports car, though, is all about the excitement — raise your heart rate and feel the adrenaline.
Know your audience and focus on the emotions they’re looking for. The sizzle doesn’t have to be XXX — but it does have to get people feeling the right emotions so they will want to act on them.
Your goal in writing copy is to give your reader, customer, or client a happy ending. Everyone gets what they want (or what they deserve), and everyone lives happily ever after.
It’s not just the happily ever after that sells books, though. Romance novels have been telling stories in a way that makes people want to read them, and the share of the U.S. fiction market devoted to the sale of romance novels supports that idea.
Learn from what romance novels do:
Even when your readers know what you want them to do from the beginning (for example, buy something), using your copy to tell a good story with interesting characters will make them want to take that action. Use these tricks from romance novels, and your readers will love you and your product — and you’ll all live happily ever after.
Sarah Ramsey holds a M.A. in Science, Technology and Public Policy. She has spent most of the last two decades doing strategic communications work for space-focused organizations like NASA. She wishes she could write space-based, because if she could live anywhere else, Mars would be it. In her free time, you can find her working through a long to-be-read list and an even longer to-be-written list.