Friday, March 1, 2013


Are you speaking the right language?
As readers and writers steeped in the science fiction tradition, we are as familiar with the arcana of warp drive and light speed, wormholes and twin suns, artificial gravity and life support systems, alien lifeforms and alternate universes as we are with any setting here on Earth.  We speak the language of science and technology fluently, having grown up with Asimov and Bradbury and LeGuin, Roddenbury and Cameron and Abrams.

But if we hope to write science fiction romance, we have to learn to speak another language with equal fluency:  the language of love.  This is the language of alpha males and wounded heroes, of kick-ass women and plucky heroines.  It is a vocabulary of sexual tension that may or may not lead to explosive sex, but in which sex always has emotional meaning and moves the story forward.  The words carry us on a tempestuous journey of meet, conflict, declaration, black moment and resolution.  But they ultimately bring us back to the comforting home of happily ever after, or at least, happily for now.

In his Crossroads column in the online version of SF’s seminal magazine Amazing Stories (, Chris Gerwel argued recently that the conventions familiar to readers of science fiction and readers of romance are quite different.  Many of the assumptions that can be made of SF readers simply can’t be made of romance readers and vice versa.  We just don’t speak the same “languages”.  Romance readers rapidly get bored by all the tech in a straight SF novel not because they don’t understand it, but because they don’t have the cultural “background” of those of us who absorbed Spock’s lectures with their pablum.

One common answer to the problem is to “dumb down” the tech side of the SFR in an attempt to reach out to the romance readers in the audience.  Depending on the story, that can prove to be more or less useful.  In a military space adventure, it flat-out won’t work.  In an Earth-based SF suspense romance like mine, the tech is part of the background, like a telephone.  No one expects a character to explain how a phone works, so no one expects to hear a long explanation of how the tech in my story works, either.  Plenty of time to spend on the romance.

But here’s where I think many SFR writers go wrong.  They don’t speak “romance”, or they refuse to learn the language.  They are like Americans who take a vacation in Paris and shout at the waiters in English, expecting them to get it simply because they’re speaking louder.  They don’t follow the conventions that are familiar to romance writers—they won’t introduce the hero and heroine until Chapter 15, or they’ll keep them apart for two-thirds of the book, or they’ll kill the hero in the end.  They won’t pay attention to the need to build sexual tension from the moment the hero and the heroine appear together.  Sex is random, too much or too little and seldom at the right times or for the right reasons (which should be to move the story emotionally).  They just seem unaware that there is a clear, separate arc that must be fulfilled for the romance to be complete and satisfying for a romance reader familiar with the conventions of the genre.

In an earlier post in Amazing Stories, Gerwel outlined the success that paranormal romance writers have had, largely because they have been able to draw on much older storytelling traditions in human culture (vampires, werewolves, witches, etc.) and a pop culture that supports them.  That is certainly true, but it is also true that the writers at the forefront of the paranormal romance phenomenon—Christine Feehan, Sherrilyn Kenyon, J.R. Ward and others—knowingly used the conventions and language of traditional romance to sell what were once unconventional stories.  Wounded alpha males, women with a core of strength who could see the vulnerable heroes inside them, a struggle against overwhelming odds to defeat both an external villain and the internal barriers to their acceptance of each other, hot, emotional sex, and an HEA—these were the conventions romance readers were used to.  It just took Feehan and Kenyon to suggest maybe vamps and demons needed love, too—and to write the stories irresistibly—to make it work.

Gerwel suggests that perhaps the relative youth of science fiction culture and storytelling convention works to our disadvantage.  After all, vampires and demons have been around for centuries in our storytelling culture.  But then, we have had rockets and aliens since the days of Jules Verne, mad scientists since Mary Shelley created Frankenstein over 150 years ago.  The popularity of science fiction on television and in movies suggests the pop culture support Gerwel says is behind the paranormal surge could work for us, too.   Ask anyone on the street what “warp drive” is and they could approximate an answer.

Science fiction romance will never reach the level of success our sisters in paranormal romance have had, though, if we continue to resist embracing the conventions of romance. We can’t just expect the “others” to learn our language without learning theirs.  After all, we’re in the business of communication.  The more languages we speak, the better.

Post Script:   Gerwel also mentions that perhaps the conventions of the suspense novel or the noir film would be a good meeting ground for science fiction and romance readers.  Romantic suspense readers are used to certain “rules” that would be familiar to readers of any Phillip K. Dick or William Gibson story.  I’m hoping Gerwel is right, because that’s my style—though maybe not so dark.  Let’s call it gris, if not noir.  I just seem to imagine every dirtside settlement with dark streets and lots of neon.

For Heather Massey’s excellent take on Chris Gerwel’s post, see “Thoughts on Chris Gerwel’s ‘Science Fiction Romance—A Niche Before It’s Time?’” (

Cheers, Donna


  1. I don't know about others but I always had a strongly superior streak to me for reading SF and not "romance," which was stupid and girly. I spent much of my adolescence laboring under the Burden of My Genius. (now in my 40s I shake my head at that younger self) It took me a while to learn romance writing conventions and I still chafe under some.

    You have to speak romance. There is a flow to the romance novel. And there are genre cliches. Just as we avoid the "All Aliens are British with funny makeup" cliche, so too should we be avoiding the "Big Misunderstanding" cliche, where every conversation ends exactly 2 sentences before the words that would fix everything.

    You CAN keep your characters apart, but there has to be a reason (he's been hauled to the capitol in Birmingham to be executed for the capital offenses of being gay and Cherokee!) and one must be actively searching for the other.

    You can even kill your characters. I have two books where one of my heroes dies. It just isn't permanent. Divine intervention saves one who was already possessed by dead Egyptians. Medical technology saves the other, twice.

    I like my tech in the background and logical. My characters don't think about how their ship works, unless they're fixing it. They push a button and it goes, just as I do with my car.

    But don't give me laser showers either. Too many romance writers dabbling in sf don't bother to think about the tech and prefer to just slap "laser" in front of everything. So we have laser swords, laser showers and probably laser dildoes. (ouch)

    Six pages of how something works is dull. Unless the character is an engineer, this is an infodump the reader is going to skim.

    You have to be bilingual, sometimes more, to write cross-genre. I had to speak Western and Horror and Romance and Steampunk to write one story.

  2. Excellent post, Donna.

    I've been giving this ongoing discussion a lot of thought. I know there's a huge audience of would-be SFR fans out there somewhere, it's all about how to make our subgenre more accessible to them.

    The romance is important, but not at the sacrifice of sound, or at least believable, engaging science. No, we don't have to write technical manuals, but using creative, inspiring technology and ideas helps create a more compelling story on all fronts.

    Living and working in other worldly environments (whether space, other planets, strange futures or alternate realities) will affect human interaction and these form the imaginative parameters for the language of romance in SFR.

  3. A really thoughtful and, IMHO, wise blog post. Romance readers know when they are being condescended to, they know when stuff is tossed in to appease them. They are way more savvy than a lot of authors give them credit for. I think you may have hit on the main problem. Not that the science isn't accessible, but that romance (or the respect for it) isn't there.

    Did you see the guy who popped into Heather's post about this? (I wondered if he was joking?) But then you read about the harassment women experience in online gaming...

    We'll never change the minds that don't want to be changed. All we can do is write the stories we want to write, that we love. If you try to fake it, well, romance readers know. LOL

  4. Wow. The pushback is a little surprising. SF is for boys only? Here's a direct link to Heather's post:

  5. I know. I was like, is this guy serious or just pulling our chains? My brother liked to put the cat among the pigeons, just to see us shriek.

  6. @Angelia--I can say I shared that superior attitude for quite a while--even after I started writing what were clearly SF romances in my fanfic days. Lots of our colleagues still carry it, as you point out, Pauline.

    That's why I agree, Laurie, that the solution is not to lose our connection with our SF roots but to do a better job of cultivating our romance "branches".

    It IS a matter of mutual respect. SF is not for boys and romance is not for girls,either. Though I agree that for some Neanderthals the argument will be forever lost.

  7. I like your inclusion of Frankenstein - it made me think. Why did that book become so popular despite the potentially off-putting focus on science? When we remember that book do we really think about the science? It's a fascinating component, but much more "sticky," to my thinking, is the high concept of what is human, and the allure of the paranormal (specifically, the undead).

    I think this is a great example of one of Chris's points -- SFR authors who include components of more popular fiction may have the best chance of breaking through. And "high concept" always increases appeal, in my view.

    As for the suspense mashup idea, I'm with you, Donna! Your books are a great example. My novel ECHO 8 also blends sci-fi/romance/suspense (even a little noir).

  8. From a literary standpoint I've joined the SFR ranks from a romance background. I've spent the last six years learning how to write romance, and then honing those romance skills and distilling down to the elements that work for me. Two years ago I semi-finaled in the Genesis contest run by ACFW, in the historical romance category. I missed being a finalist by *thismuch*. I've got some serious romance creds here.

    When I attend conferences all the classes I take are about romance. The best craft book I've ever read is On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels. I highly recommend it to anyone who reads this who's still struggling with the forms and conventions of romance.

    My science fiction TV/movie background is extensive. My reading SF background isn't even good enough to be pathetic. I've always been drawn to romance first, specifically historical romance. I'm a girl, and even though my personal romance blew up in my face, I still crave it.

    Romance readers are VERY picky. We know what we like and we devour it. One unsatisfactory ending is all it takes to lose a reader forever.

    I agree with Donna more so than Chris Gerwel, though I found all of his articles endlessly fascinating. In order for SFR to break out it's not so much of a getting the SF fans to read them. It's getting the romance fans to give it a chance. The ones like me who grew up on Star Trek, Quantum Leap, Seaquest, Farscape, Stargate. We're out there and we love SF. But we don't want hard/military SF. We want SFR.

    Over 50% of the fiction sold in this country is romance. It is the bestselling genre of all time. And yet romance writers still get very little respect from our fellow writers in other genres, and even less when we try to combine our romance with something else we love. Writing a good romance is the hardest thing you will ever write. It's a constant balance between POV, conflict, motivation, clashing goals, and getting two people to fall in love and choose each other over what they thought they wanted. It's HARD to do it well.

    Writers coming at this from a science fiction background MUST learn, get comfortable with, and embrace the tropes and expectations of the romance genre. Once you start getting into and learning about the various structures of romance, what you can do has no limits. One thing romance does better than any other genre, IMO, is character building. Romance readers want character driven stories. Not plot driven stories. It has to be the character drives the plot, not the character is a participant in the plot or reacts to the plot.

    Characters have to take front and center. Firefly and Farscape are excellent examples of how to build and inhabit an SF world without making the SF inaccessible to outsiders. I got my crit partner hooked on Firefly because she grew up on Westerns. Nothing about it was inaccessible to her virgin SF brain, because the two genres in Firefly are seamlessly melded. I use Farscape as an example because Crichton is catapulted into a world he doesn't understand and we learn with him as we go through the show.

  9. "It's a constant balance between POV, conflict, motivation, clashing goals, and getting two people to fall in love and choose each other over what they thought they wanted. It's HARD to do it well."

    That is one of the most succinct descriptions of what drives a romance that I've ever seen.

    Loved reading your thoughts, Rachel. Here, here!

  10. Really great blog and replies.

    Lots of women love shows like Dr Who, StarTrek...all the television shows that have been mentioned. How many watch Big Bang Theory because they relate to the world of comic book stores, game nights and popular scifi shows?

    Fanfic is often separated by 'pairing'--Spock/Uhura for instance. I think there are readers who do want romance and scifi.

    I don't think more science and thorough science explanations are what romance readers want. When the science comes into play they want it to move the plot forward in an interesting way. A clue they can grab onto, opening up the possibility the H/H will survive another day! Or they want it in the back ground, like replicators making your fav cup of tea.

    I think srf readers want a glimpse of a future where couples still find each other, fall in love and have that happy life together.

    I stopped by Smart Bitches recently and was pleased to see a couple mentions of SFR. Enough to encourage me to stop by on a more regular basis. Didn't see that 3 or 4 years ago.

    I think the genre is still working its way into the romance reading community.

    Paranormal romance was pretty scarce for awhile...I remember after Harlequin quit the Shadows line...there were a couple vampire authors, not many. Then Ellora's Cave and other online bookstores showed up with tons of paranormal romances.

  11. Great post. When I started writing my WIP I thought it was SF, then the characters told me their love story was equally important. I spent quite a bit of time this past year at Romance University trying to figure out what elements I need to incorporate to get the story to work.

  12. @Rachel--I agree that Leigh Michaels's book ON WRITING ROMANCE is a terrific source. I also recommend it to EVERYONE!

    @Melissa--I agree that there is a huge untapped audience out there for SFR, many of whom love fanfic and pop culture SF. We'll truly capture them when we use the conventions of romance within the SF framework for our stories.

    @Patchi--My ms. UNCHAINED MEMORY started out as straight SF, too, until I realized it worked MUCH better as a romance.

  13. Thanks, Laurie! It took me many years to fully accept my identity as a romance writer. Now that I have I embrace it.

    The romance conventions are so so so important. My totally non-geek crit partner I got hooked on Firefly devoured my first SFR because of the romance. Now she's a geek in the making about to discover the wonders of Doctor Who and the awesome that is Captain Jack Harkness.

    I'm a huge Big Bang Theory fan too. Must get caught up!

  14. I'm still getting used to the idea of being a romance writer as well as scifi, but I agree the romance elements have to be as integral to the story as the scifi, otherwise it just won't work. I keep the scifi light only because I don't want to read a ton of technical detail myself, unless I've deliberately bought hard SF. It depends entirely on the story.

  15. The funny thing is, I never consider the "romance aspect" when I'm writing. I consider characterization. What are this character's issues, his goal, her needs, his fears, her questions? The relationship/love is simply one of those issues. It has to flow naturally from the characters and how I've built them, or it won't work. Period.

    The same is true of SF world building. If you have a planet inhabited by some kind of beings/humans/aliens, then it has to have a breathable atmosphere (or equivalent). It's part of the "planet-building" as much as a relationship issue is in character-building.

    Where SF fails and where romance fails and where the combo of these two fail is when these elements are forced, when they don't flow naturally and logically from the characters or the worlds.

    Readers sub/consciously pick up on such things. For SFR to work both aspects--SF and Romance--must flow naturally. I have a fairly large male readership of my SFR books, including a lot of military dudes (judging from my fan mail), and I think the reason my books work for guys is that I don't hang the romance issue out there like an out-of-place banner.

    Ian Douglas--military SF author--has a terrific series (fun reads!)in his STAR CARRIER books that have fairly strong romantic subplots that are logical and well-done. And it's military SF.

    RM Meluch (okay, she's a she) also writes military SF with very strong and logical romances.

    I recommend both authors to romance writers striving to reach the SF audience, and to SF authors looking to see how romance can be done without the "ickies." ;-)

    Now neither gets as "lovey dovey" as many romance readers would like, but they hit a lot of the other reader expectations in--IMHO--a very satisfactory way.

    Julie Czerneda's TRADE PACT series also fits here, though it has a longer romance arc (over the series).

    The difference here that I find is that these SF based books with strong romance focus more on the love-and-devotion angle than activity between the sheets.

    As someone who believes that without the first (love/devotion) the second is only so much heavy breathing... I'm fine with that. :-) ~Linnea

  16. Linnea, thank you for adding to my TBR pile. I too prefer the romance focus on the love-and-devotion angle.

  17. Linnea, I agree totally that both the SF elements and the romantic elements MUST grow organically from the needs of the story. Otherwise whatever language you're speaking amounts to little more than pig Latin. Both world-building and sex (at whatever heat level) should serve to move the story forward, either at a plot level or at an emotional level. I think good writers and discerning readers of both genres would agree.

    Thanks so much for stopping by!


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