Romance Versus Romantic Fiction: What’s the Confusion All About?

romance vs. romantic fiction

Romance or Romantic Fiction?

In fiction, what genre is romance and what is romantic fiction? It’s not a simple question, as the answer draws confusion. Every month or so, controversy arises on Twitter, with some posters unable to comprehend the difference between the two terms. Besides, why must there be rules for romance?

Romance and romantic fiction are distinct categories. They each have their own set of rules the writer follows. Otherwise, readers may be fooled into thinking a book will tell a particular kind of story and then walk away disappointed–or angry–when their expectations are unmet.

So let’s identify what differentiates the two so you can choose between them accordingly!

When You Think of Romance, What Comes to Mind?

The word romance means a variety of things.

  • Romance can denote a literary form rooted in adventure or specific ideals, like chivalry.
  • It could indicate a quality of glamour, excitement, or mystery.
  • Many people would say romance is an emotional connection, a feeling of love and affection.
  • A romance is a tale about love.

When readers of fiction use this term, they refer to the specific romance genre. These books are based on romantic-erotic love. In addition, these stories abide by a couple of hard-and-fast rules.

If you’re a promising author of a love story that ends with the main characters separated, be sure to market your book as romantic fiction, or at least the first entry in a romance serial, as romance readers will not stand for unhappy endings!

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Many People Don’t Know the Difference Between Romance and Romantic Fiction



Romance novels depict people falling in love. They can also be about old flames reunited after a separation. Erotic love is essential over merely platonic love.

These books require happy endings. Or, at least, the reader understands the lovers will be united together for the foreseeable future. There must be a sense of optimism at the conclusion of the story.

Romantic Fiction

Romantic Fiction

On the other hand, romantic fiction focuses on relationships–especially between two people–rather than solely the love aspect. There are different elements to the plot besides the romance.

While it can consist of aspects like kissing and sex scenes (graphic or not), romantic fiction doesn’t necessitate a joyful epilogue with babies on page 350–as some traditional romances do! In fact, no kind of ending is mandatory.

Examples of romantic fiction include Gone With the Wind; Romeo and Juliet; The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller; Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick; The Notebook–actually, almost all Nicholas Sparks books are mislabeled as romance. Even Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series veers from genre romance after the first entry.

But the Confusion Remains

Author John Green argues that: “Romantic fictions must be able to describe themselves under one word: ‘love.’ A story becomes romantic when its goal is to show how two characters fall in love with each other.” But that doesn’t make it a romance novel.

All romance novels are love stories. However, not all love stories are romances.

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Rules For Romance

The Rules For a Great Romance Novel:

  • The romance must be front and center. An author can write a science fiction novel where a woman gets abducted by aliens and then falls in love with one of them. But this cannot be a subplot. It should be the main focus. (Just so you know, these books are scorching hot as of November 2022).
  • Characters must be well developed. Because this genre is so character-driven, it helps if they are fleshed out and relatable—even when they’re vampires or werewolves! Readers who identify with characters will likely stay engaged in the storyline longer.
  • The plot needs some shape and direction, even if it has little in the way of twists and turns. So keep things interesting. How do the lovers unite again after being separated for some time? Will one save another from danger? Conflict is essential. Without any obstacles–internal or external– between them, getting together would be kind of ordinary.
  • The absolute must-rule is a happily-ever-after ending. Or at least happy for now, as a teen romance might have.
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Rules for Romantic Fiction

The Rules

In romance, the story must have a happy ending. It’s the genre’s most fundamental rule. Romantic fiction has more leeway.

  • In romantic fiction, one is more likely to find a bittersweet or unhappy ending—or even no ending at all!
  • Romantic fiction focuses more on interpersonal relationships and plot than on romance itself. These books can involve more action and thematic elements than a romance does.
  • Love-making scenes are not mandatory. For that matter, no physical intimacy needs to be depicted at all.
  • There is a wider variety among works with similar themes but different tones (e.g., comedy romances vs. serious ones).
Romance Vs. Romantic Fiction

The Result

Romantic fiction has received considerable critical acclaim. On the other hand, romance–that is, female-centric novels with happy endings–has always been viewed by critics as several rungs below literary fiction.

Sadly, this may be due in part to sexism. Men write more romantic fiction than straightforward romance. As for romance, female authors far outnumber men. That is likely because ~85% of the genre’s readership comprises women.

There were numerous best-selling male writers in the heyday of bodice rippers. They used pseudonyms like Jennifer Wilde and Janette Seymour to appeal to the majority feminine audience. While men are writing romances today, they still stick to female pennames.

Romance has been derided as mommy porn” or, at best, sentimental fluff. Like detective mysteries, science fiction, and action thrillers, romance can be classified as pulp fiction. But of all pulp, romance gets the least respect.

Until recently–the successes of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, to be precise–Hollywood mostly shied away from adapting romance novels to film. Certainly the big screen.

Meanwhile, romantic fiction like Atonement or Silver Linings Playbook was made into popular Academy Award-nominated films.

The Books Are Romantic Fiction, Not Romance!

These books are romantic fiction, but due to certain factors, aren’t necessarily romances.

Who Doesn’t Like Happy Endings?

Against HEA

Some readers have disdain for romance for its adherence to happy endings. Many stress that love can fail to stand the test of time and still be meaningful. Or they assert that one doesn’t need marriage–or monogamy–to be fulfilled.

A story about an affair that lasts for a short while can be more dramatic and intriguing than a relationship with a fixed, predictable ending.

Moreover, literature must encompass angst to portray the totality of the human experience. Every life ends in death; some deaths are more painful than others. Fiction demanding the erasure of final suffering reduces the stories into fairy tales.

The requirement for positive, optimistic endings is viewed as childish, for the world does not guarantee such perfection. A HEA is unrealistic, immature, feminine, or American. Only in Hollywood movies do we see such idealized conclusions to stories.

But if happy endings exist on screen, surely there is room in genre fiction for them as well? After all, both art forms are make-believe.

romantic fiction
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There are many reasons why we seek out Hollywood-style happy endings.

It would be wonderful to find a beautiful and perfect partner to live with happily ever after. That’s not how things always work in real life—but why can’t we experience that in fiction?

An emotionally satisfying conclusion is an essential component of the romance genre because it allows readers to escape from our mundane world into one where everything works out.

For this type of “escapism” to work, there is usually some mental barrier between reality and fantasy. One way is through narrative framing devices (e.g., time period or setting). These provide a distance between the reader’s personal experience and actual story material. Hence, the popularity of historical and paranormal sub-genres or the abundant number of Dukes and billionaires.

There is a fantastic element to romance, but that should not be a negative mark against the genre.

happy ending
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Why Read Fiction?

Fiction is a way of life. We turn to fiction for many reasons: escapism, entertainment, healing broken hearts, and even clarity.

All types of fiction have expectations to meet.

Science Fiction must involve some form of technological transformation from the present day.

Every mystery novel has a crime that must be solved. In rare cases, the perpetrator may get away scot-free, but the truth should be revealed to the reader for the conclusion to be satisfactory.

Romance Vs. Romantic Fiction
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Conclusion: Romance Vs. Romantic Fiction

So to sum it up: romance novels and romantic fiction are not the same concepts. They are both genres that readers can learn from.

Romantic fiction portrays an emotional story about a relationship that might happen in real life. It need not involve any sex scenes or other explicit content. Romance may play an ancillary part in a larger plot line. Romantic fiction can end unhappily or not, as the primary focus is the character’s growth or downfall.

The Romantic fiction genre deals with romantic relationships–with an emphasis on relationships.

The modern romance genre deals with romantic relationships–with an emphasis on an ideal resolution for the relationship (HEA being the highest of ideals).

Romances must end happily ever after or be happy for now with the possibility of more significant commitment in the future.

Both categories can elicit a variety of emotional responses in the reader. However, romantic fiction uses thematic elements to evoke a specific sentiment, while the idealism of romance inspires optimism.

Your Opinion

How do you stand on the division between romance novels and romantic fiction? Do you think it’s all arbitrary and wonder why these rules matter? Or are you a stickler for certain expectations when you read romance?

As always, please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance (in this case, romantic fiction, too)!

1 thought on “Romance Versus Romantic Fiction: What’s the Confusion All About?

  1. annabowling

    Excellent look at both genres. Both sorts of stories have their places, their pros and cons, and there really is something for everybody. Now if we could only make sure the difference was common knowledge.


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