Writing Contemporary Romance at Different Lengths

Laura Kaye cropped~ By Laura Kaye

I’m excited to be on the Contemporary Romance Chapter blog today to talk about the craft of writing contemporary romance. Over the past three years, I’ve written two novellas, two category romances, and two full-length/single-titles in contemporary romance.  In general, the length of each of these is as follows:

Novellas: 20,000 – 40,000 words

Category Romance: 40,000 – 70,000 words (varies a lot by publisher and line)

Single-Titles: 80,000 – 100,000 words

Writing at these different lengths involves different approaches to the stories, premise, and plots. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned in writing across the lengths:

Plot

No matter the length, you want an engaging story with great conflict. In single-title length, you want a BIG story with a high concept, difficult conflicts, huge life-changing stakes, setbacks that keep the characters from getting together, and multiple secondary plots. In the shorter lengths, all this needs scaled back, most importantly the secondary plots. Given their shorter lengths, novellas and category romance almost always need to focus on just one main plot and one main conflict. In the shorter lengths, a happy-for-now ending may be more likely than a full happily ever after. In novellas, happily ever afters are more possible and believable if the characters already know one another when the story begins.

Characters

No matter the length, you want compelling, real, relatable, sympathetic, and somehow larger-than-life characters . But in single-title length, you want complex and complicated backstories that impact characterization and plot. You also want secondary characters and friendship relationships on both the hero and heroine’s parts. These secondary characters often set up future books in a series and act as a Greek chorus in the main characters’ lives. Character arcs in single titles tend to be longer, slower, and richer, making the emotional payoff at the end more intense. In category length, you have to trim those secondary characters way back, to maybe just one best friend each for the hero and heroine. In novellas, you often have to cut secondary characters altogether. While complex backstories are useful in the shorter lengths, too, you have to keep them manageable enough to be believably resolved or overcome.

Premise

In single-title stories, the premise tends to be bigger and broader. In the shorter lengths, the premise needs to be significantly narrowed. A forced-proximity premise is well suited to a shorter length because it narrows down the number of characters and settings you’ll need. And a friends-to-lovers premise is good for shorter lengths because the hero and heroine already know each other. A multi-step quest, on the other hand, would work better in a longer length because it will obviously involve multiple settings, character, and conflicts.

Setting

You always want to ground your reader in place and time, and setting details are the best way to achieve that. But in single title stories, the setting is unique and important enough that it almost becomes a character in itself, so you’ll spend more time building and describing it. In the shorter lengths, keeping your setting narrow allows you to keep the story more focused on the characters and allows you to save time in not having to describe new settings over and again. Some examples: In one of my novellas, the setting for most of the story was the inside of a pitch-black, broken-down elevator. In one of my category romances, the primary setting was a music roadhouse where the hero and heroine worked. In my new Hard Ink series, much of the story takes place in an old industrial warehouse that house’s the first hero’s tattoo shop, but the entire city of Baltimore provides the gritty backdrop to the series. These settings set a tone for the story and for the interactions of the hero and heroine.

In general, single-title contemporary romance tends to have more of everything – more dialogue, more settings, more characters, more plots, more conflict, more stakes, more description, deeper point of view. And, of course, you have to balance all that with page-turning pacing that makes the reader race to the end. Because of the complex layers of a single-title story, they are harder to write by the seat of your pants and more challenging to track details, particularly if it’s part of a bigger series. Plotting and “series bibles” become more important for managing these bigger stories (and I say this as a pantser!).

I personally find it fun and liberating to write across the lengths because you can tell different kinds of stories and mix-up your writing between stories that involve less investment of time and those that require more. Including the shorter lengths into your schedule allows for more frequent releases, which both keeps your name in front of readers and helps create a backlist of books to build your readership. The different lengths can also work well together from a business perspective. For example, a novella can help pull readers into your single-title series at a lower price point.

What other lessons have you learned from writing contemporary romance at different lengths?

Thanks for reading!

Laura Kaye

Laura is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over a dozen books in contemporary and paranormal romance. Growing up, Laura’s large extended family believed in the supernatural, and family lore involving angels, ghosts, and evil-eye curses cemented in Laura a life-long fascination with storytelling and all things paranormal. She lives in Maryland with her husband, two daughters, and cute-but-bad dog, and appreciates her view of the Chesapeake Bay every day.

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4 thoughts on “Writing Contemporary Romance at Different Lengths”

  1. Wow! Thanks, Laura. This is one of those posts I need to print out and keep for reference. I haven’t taken the leap into novellas or category yet (single title seems to fit my knack for wordiness lol), but if/when I do, I know what I’m going to consult first.

  2. Thanks for this terrific post, Laura. Thanks for breaking down PLOT for the various lengths. (and thanks for reminding me that all these secondary plot lines are okay in CST! Cuz I sure got them in my WIP.)

    Write ON!!!

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