Why you need to know what your readers really want.

The reader-writer contract.

“Valentine's Day decorations of glittering hanging heart mobiles” by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

There’s a thread today in the Ninja Writer Facebook group that’s pretty interesting. It started with someone asking if a romance book must have a happy ending, or if it can end in tragedy.

It got a little contentious. With some people insisting that a romance can’t end in tragedy and other people saying but what about Romeo and Juliet? What about Titanic?

The easy answer to the question is that a romance book has to have a happy ending. Romeo and Juliet is a tragic love story. It’s not a modern romance novel. Titanic is a movie with strong romantic elements — but in the end, it’s about Rose’s independence. I’d call it women’s fiction, probably, if it was a novel. It has a sad ending, but not tragic. Rose is saved (by the returning lifeboat and by Jack), after all, and we’re happy for it.

Imagine what a different movie it would be if the rich bad guy shot and killed Jack and got into a lifeboat with Rose, and she married him and was miserable the rest of her life.

The hallmark of a romance novel is ending. Either happily every after (the main characters end the book in a committed relationship, marriage not required, but probably imminent) or happy for now (the couple are dating, marriage not imminent, but maybe a glimmer on the horizon.)

Romance readers expect that. If you don’t give it to them, they’ll be unhappy and they’ll remember. They won’t read your books again. They’ll tell their friends. They’ll burn you at the stake in your reviews. Also, if you call your tragic book a romance and send it to romance publishers, you’re going to face a steep uphill battle.

That’s not to say that you can’t write a book with romance in it that ends tragically. It’s just not a romance book. Maybe it’s women’s fiction. Or a thriller. Or a mystery. Or a horror. Or maybe it’s a character-driven literary novel. But, it’s not a romance book.

The longer answer is . . . longer.

When you write a book and then put it into readers’ hands, you’re entering into a contract of sorts with them. They look at the cover, at the back copy, at the first page or two — and they glean information from that.

If the cover has a man and woman in some romantic pose on it. If the back cover implies romance — in the text, with the little tag up at the top, by the name of the publisher or the imprnt. If the first pages read like a romance. If all those things come together, you’ve indicate to your reader that you’ve written a romance book.

Their expectations are set. They’ll settle into reading, knowing the two main characters will struggle, but eventually wind up together. Maybe they fight crime. Maybe they fight aliens. Maybe they just fight each other. But by the end, they’re happy together.

Imagine you agree to buy a Corvette, only after you leave the lot you realize it’s really a Volvo in disguise.

It’s still a car. It still has all the parts. Both are well made. Both have good reputations. Both will get you where you need to go.

But it’s not what you signed up for. You wanted a sleek and sexy mid-life crisis machine. You wound up with a sturdy, dependable mom-mobile. You’ll remember that dealer and you won’t buy your next car from them.

The best way to make sure you’re entering into a fair contract with your reader is to read a lot of books in the genre you’re writing in. Read romance books or science fiction or fantasy or literary novels — whatever it is you’re interested in writing. Figure out what readers expect from your genre, so that you can deliver.

Once you know the framework, you can work with in it.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nationand the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.