The Importance of Meeting Reader Expectations

Happy New Year, everyone! This is a long post, and probably controversial. You have been warned.

I write science fiction romance. It's a genre with something for everyone and is one of the most diverse romance sub-genres you'll ever encounter. It's fun to explore. But there are a couple of problems I've noticed in my reading the last few months and they're really bugging me.

The first is reader expectation. I'm not just a romance author, I'm a romance reader. As a romance reader I have certain expectations when I pick up a book labeled as romance. The most important one is that the book centers on the hero and heroine's developing romance. They are the main characters and everything else is secondary. Including the other characters. If you remove the romance the entire story falls apart. The romance is the foundation of the novel.

I'm starting to think there's a lack of understanding within SFR about what a romance really is. The one I most recently finished was billed to me as a romance. It wasn't. It was romantic at best. When I pick up something billed as a romance I expect the focus to be on the hero and heroine, watching them fall in love, deal with their issues, and conquer the conflict keeping them apart.

When you tell me something is a romance, and yet I read it and there's no romance, the author has lied to her readers. That's a great way to turn people off on a genre. Especially when it happens several times in a row. As it did with me last month. I've maintained for two years now that in order for SFR to take off we have to get the true romance reader hooked. That's not going to happen if the romance reader's expectations aren't met.

Which brings me to my other point. When the book's description tells me a certain character is the main character, and yet that character is the one with the least POV space, you're once again lying to your potential readers. The one I most recently finished, and that set this post off, was billed to me by the book description as the thing I love best: a hero-centric romance.

That's not what I got. I didn't get a romance. I didn't get significant time in the hero's head. I didn't even get any plot resolution. It ended on a massive, massive, massive cliffhanger. One with no hope these two people who are supposedly in love ever getting back together. I don't buy their romance, because it didn't go through any of the things a romance reader expects. And there's no book two.

We read romances for the intimate moments of watching two people fall in love. It can be fast, it can be slow, it can be love at first sight, it can be soul mates, it can be star-crossed lovers. Doesn't matter. No matter how it happens, there are still things we expect to see.

I only give so many chances. When my expectations as a romance reader aren't met, I'm gone. And I'm not coming back. I'll also tell other romance readers to steer clear of a certain title.

There's nothing wrong with being an SF writer first. But there is something wrong with not taking the time to understand what truly makes a romance work. In order to have a successful SFR that gains mass appeal and hooks romance readers, you can't shortchange the romance reader's expectations.

We romance readers are the bulk of the fiction readership in the United States. For SFR to survive and thrive, you have to take us seriously and meet our expectations.

*Image courtesy of photostockFreeDigitalPhotos.net


  1. I agree with your two main complaints, and I'll add a third: when the "science fiction" in the SFR isn't there. Setting what is essentially a contemporary romance on Mars isn't science fiction. I'm especially annoyed when something billed as an SFR is actually a historical romance, e.g., a western complete with rigid gender roles, quaint phrasing ("guess'n I'll mosey on up to the country store"), and horses as transportation. Setting it on a frontier planet does NOT make it an SFR.

    The worst of this type I read was a story (blessedly short!) that had shapeshifters and witches in a town remarkably like Dodge City, complete with saloon girls and gunfights and "let the menfolk do the thinking," all set in north America, 400 years in the future after some sort of apocalypse. It was billed, blurbed, and categorized on Amazon as an SFR. I'm glad that Amazon has the Romance/Science Fiction category, but there sure is a lot of crap to wade through to get to the good stuff.

    1. The book I wanted to wall-bang, that set this post off, read like a fantasy. The skills the humans had weren't based in science that I could see. And the world they lived on was like a throw-back to the Old West, with a feudal system. It was weird, and not in a good way.

      I too want my SF elements to be SF. My favorite genre right now is paranormal. When I'm reading an SFR I want SF elements. Not paranormal! And if you do have paranormal-style, abilities you better give them a scientific explanation.

      But above all, understand what a romance is and learn how to write them.

  2. Previous comment by Carol Van Natta, by the way (Author.CarolVanNatta.com).

  3. I like PR, too, although I'm kind of over insta-love (fated mates, etc.) as the lazy author's solution to plot problems.

    I'm glad I haven't stumbled across the book you read, because e-readers are too expensive to destroy, and Angrily! Stabbing! the! Delete! Button! doesn't bring quite the same satisfaction.

  4. Rachel,

    I agree with your main points, and I'll also say I love the unexpectedness of love flourishing in a sci fi world. Jessa Slade is one author who exquisitely balances SF and R in her SheerSpace series.

    And fortunately there are many more great authors doing the same ... in unique ways.

    1. I'm all for doing the unexpected too! Within the bounds of what makes a romance a romance. The catch is don't ignore romance conventions for the sake of being unexpected and try to tell me it's a romance. It pisses me off every single time.

      You can be unexpected and unique while still writing a true romance. That's where the real skill lies, IMO.