Let's start by talking about what a romance novel isn't. It isn't about two people happily falling in love. I'm going to say it again, a different way, because it's so important. Romance novels are not about happy couples falling in love. Romance novels are all about the tension, and leaving the reader wondering if they will end up together at the end. Every romance novel has something pulling the characters away from each other. If your book doesn't have this up until the end, your book is not a romance novel.
So, what is a romance novel then? Here are the things a romance novel must have in order to be in the romance genre.
1. Emotional Conflict -- This is paramount in a romance novel. There needs to be some kind of emotional conflict in the story that keeps the reader turning the page. This emotional conflict must not be resolved until the end of the book. This is what drives your plot forward and creates the need for your reader to finish the book.
2. Emotional Intimacy -- Your characters must spend time together during the course of the story, and this must lead to emotional intimacy. They must open up to each other. Share personal things with each other. As they spend time with each other they become more emotionally intimate. The ultimate payoff for a romance of course is when the highest emotional intimacy is acknowledged and the couple confess their love. Since this is the payoff, it must happen at the end of the book.
3. Physical Intimacy -- This does not necessarily mean sex, although many romance novels have sex. Since I write clean romance, my books do not. I must find a different way to show the physical intimacy. It could be as simple as running a finger down the side of a face, or a touch of a hand. A well written kiss is a wonderful way to show physical intimacy. But always keep in mind the emotional conflict that is pulling the two apart. As they become physically intimate, the emotional conflict will increase as well. If this is not happening, and all you have are happy characters, the genre changes and you're writing yourself out of the romance genre.
4. Attraction and Repelling -- Your main characters must feel the draw toward each other, while simultaneously feeling that a relationship can't possibly work between them. This is the emotional conflict at work, while the emotional and physical intimacy pulls them together.
5. Happily Ever After -- Yes, all romance novels have a happily ever after. Your characters must end up together at the end. This doesn't necessarily mean married, but the relationship must feel final. If you are writing a romance series, you must focus on a different couple in the second book. If you are still working on the relationship of the couple in book 1, you are probably writing women's fiction or chick lit. And if one of the main characters die, you are writing in the love story genre and not the romance genre. (Think Nicholas Sparks.)
Some people think that romance novels follow a formula. This is not the case. There simply needs to be these elements in the story in order for the book to be called a romance. It has more to do with reader expectations than it does with a formula for writing romance.
Romance novels use romance to create suspense. "Working with suspense is a bit like mimicking the rise and fall of the sea. First you rev your reader's interest to a high pitch, then you drop back without completely satisfying her and then you do it again. You work incrementally, getting a little closer to fulfillment--for your characters and your reader--with every scene, but you always stop short of giving them everything they want.
"In a romance novel, the reader's main interest is in the relationship's progress, so your most effective strategy for building suspense is through that relationship." -- Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies
Romances can vary in setting, and cover a wide variety of sub-genres including romantic suspense, historical romance, paranormal romance, and romantic comedy to name a few.
If, after reading this, you're still not sure if you've written a romance novel, write a comment below describing your book and I'll be happy to give you my opinion. :)