|Room for all, but you have to have an FTL drive and capable pilot.|
Writers of paranormal romance have no trouble saying their stories must have an element of the supernatural along with a happy ending for the hero and heroine. Likewise, historical romance writers will gladly tell you one of their novels had better have an historical setting and an HEA. But if you had five SFR writers in a room, you would undoubtedly get 25 different answers to the question of what makes for a good SFR story.
Let me start a no-doubt rousing discussion by offering the five things I MUST have in any science fiction romance story to keep me happily reading.
--A hero and a heroine who are equals. A story may be written from anyone’s point of view—the hero’s, the heroine’s, even someone else’s—but in a romance, the hero and the heroine should find a balance in the story. If the heroine is constantly getting into trouble only to have the hero rescue her, or, conversely, is undertaking all the action only to have the hero hanging out waiting to, ahem, service her, then things are out of balance. From a writer’s perspective that often (but not always) means you have to write from both POVs, which makes things harder, but provides more balance in the story. No matter who tells the story, both partners should have talents, skills and qualities that come to bear on the external problems they face.
--A Happy Ever After or Happy For Now ending. This is my Number One requirement for a successful science fiction romance. And, in fact, I want the whole romantic arc: Boy meets Girl (or Boy or Alien Being, your choice), Boy Gets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl Back, Happy Ever After. Within that larger structure there are other well-defined moments: the meet, the declaration, the black moment, resolution. Romance readers (and I’m one of them) have been trained through years of reading experience to recognize those signposts on the road to true love. If they don’t see them, they grow, first, anxious, then frustrated. Deny them the HEA and you have a riot on your hands. This was supposed to be a romance, wasn’t it? What the . . .! If, for some reason, you can’t bring yourself to write that happy ending, then please don’t market your story as a romance. It’s a story with romantic elements, or a love story set in the future or a friends-with-benefits-in-space story, but, by definition it is not a romance. Save your book being thrown across the room when a romance reader gets to the end and finds the lovers don’t end up together, as I recently did with an otherwise excellent book marketed as SFR.
--A great central idea or theme. This is the key to the SF part of SFR. To me, memorable science fiction always starts with an idea, something simple, yet so evocative it fires the imagination: terraforming Mars; alternate universes; sentient ships; interstellar slavers vs. an organization of abolitionists. This idea can be tied to a central theme—love as a unifying or healing force, for example—to give it even more narrative power. Without the Big Idea, however, or at least an interesting concept, a “science fiction” story is simply one set in the future, or in space, or with aliens. It’s a “futuristic” novel—not a bad thing, just a different thing, with a different marketing angle.
--Convincing, but judicious, worldbuilding. Nothing is more fun than being immersed in a totally new world of an author’s creation, being swept away by a sense of an “alternate reality.” But a little description goes a long way, especially in SFR. I appreciate knowing that we used an ion drive to get here, but the details of how it works are of no interest to me. Worldbuilding details are like spices in cooking. Not enough and the dish is bland; too much and it’s inedible. The amount of worldbuilding detail has an impact on marketing, too, and relates to the expectations of the reading audience. A futuristic novel would have much less detail (and a less demanding audience); a straight science fiction novel would have a LOT of detail (for a very demanding audience). An SFR novel, for me, would provide a balanced taste of the author’s world.
--And, last but by no means least, a compelling tale. Make it fresh. If it’s complex, find a way to make it easy to follow. Make it surprising and emotional and grip-me-by-the-throat thrilling! I read a lot. I’m not the only one. I will skip the stories whose blurbs promise nothing more than yet another “she was stolen . . . and now she must choose . . . ,” but I hate it when I find myself bored in the middle of a story with a promising premise. Use all your writer’s tricks to keep me reading—pacing, snappy dialogue, varied sentence structure, great characters, an unexpected plot twist and, yes, a sharp turn of phrase. If I keep reading, then others will, too.
Of course, all of these must-haves assumes the author already has the basics of good writing well in hand. Did I say this was easy? No, and it shouldn’t be. Not everyone has what it takes to rise above the sea of competition out there and be truly exceptional. But our genre is no longer in its infancy. It’s time for us to grow beyond baby steps and take bigger strides. We’ve been playing in our own little yard long enough. To do that we need the confidence of knowing who and what we are.