The Write for Harlequin Romance Glossary contains over 100 definitions for commonly used romance writing, publishing, and editing terms. This easy-to-understand glossary provides the essentials for understanding the language of romance writing, especially as it applies to Harlequin and Carina Press. Find definitions for romance subgenres, character types and tropes, the different stages of fiction editing, and more.
The glossary is organized alphabetically rather than by subject or category so you can find terms easily. Browse through the complete list or use the alphabet at the top to jump to a specific term. And don’t forget to bookmark this page in your browser for easy reference.
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A surprise pregnancy that upends the main characters’ original goals or expectations, creating a romantic obstacle.
An up-front royalty payment based on a book’s estimated sales.
The main characters have a significant age difference.
A literary agent works on behalf of an author to sell their work to a publisher. A good agent will know which publishers would be a good match for an author’s book and can represent/advise the author in contract negotiations. Authors don’t need an agent to submit to Harlequin’s romance series lines or Carina Press. For Harlequin’s trade imprints, an author must have an agent submit on their behalf.
The alpha character is confident and commanding without being controlling. Others are drawn into their circle by their leadership, strong moral compass and competence. The alpha is used to being in charge and ordering the world around them according to how they see fit. Everything is as it should be—until they meet their match in an equally strong romantic partner!
Describes a story that sweeps us away with settings, situations and characters that readers will aspire to, such as exotic locations, wealthy characters or a glamorous lifestyle.
The publisher backlist refers to books that continue to be sold or are rereleased more than a year from their initial release.
Abbreviation for Big Beautiful Woman. A curvy, plus-size heroine.
A romance between a beautiful main character and someone who is conventionally unattractive. In fantasy romance, one of the main characters is a literal monster.
A category romance has a strong romance at the center of the plot, with an equal focus on the romantic journey of both main characters. The romance always has a happy ending. Category romances feature easily identifiable story hooks and tropes, such as opposites attract, marriage of convenience, fake relationship, etc. Harlequin publishes category romance books in eleven different series, each with its own required story elements and a regular publishing schedule. (See Series Romance.)
One character is in danger, and the other must protect them at all costs. Woman/heroine in peril and child in jeopardy are popular tropes in romantic suspense.
The ultimate sweet, caring and supportive main character. A cinnamon roll MC can be straight-up warm and sweet, or crusty on the outside, with yet-to-be-discovered sweet layers. But while a cinnamon roll is soft and gooey, they’re not a pushover, and will do anything to protect the object of their affection.
A subgenre of romance that features a romantic pairing without any swearing or descriptions of sexual acts. The main characters focus on their emotional connection and there is no mention of premarital sex. Harlequin’s Heartwarming series books are clean and are also known as wholesome romances. These stories do not allow anything more than hugs and chaste kisses, and don’t dwell on physical attraction.
A cliché is an expression or idea that has been used so often that it loses its impact. An English language example would be, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” Although clichés can be an effective shortcut to signal meaning, they can distance the reader from the story because they lack authenticity.
Contemporary romance stories take place in the present day. A category romance can be contemporary, but not all contemporary romances would be considered category romances. For example, Harlequin’s trade imprints such as Canary Street Press publish contemporary romance stories with a scope and range of themes and settings that would not fit within the strict requirements of our category romance series.
The third step in the editorial process. Once the editor completes the developmental (also called revision) edit and line edit, the copy editor reads the manuscript, looking for errors in grammar, spelling and style. The copy editor queries any part of the writing that is inconsistent or seems to be incorrect, and they are responsible for fact-checking.
A letter accompanying a manuscript submission to a publisher. The cover (or query) letter should showcase the book (plot and marketing hooks) and the author’s professional biography.
A mystery story, often featuring an amateur sleuth as the main character. The tone is light and sometimes humorous, with quirky characters and appealing elements such as animals, small towns, bakeries, bookshops, and hobbies (quilting, knitting, etc.)
This is the moment near the end of the story where the main characters’ issues come to a head, and the reader is left wondering how on earth they will ever find their happy-ever-after.
The developmental edit or revision is the first step of the editorial process. Once the author delivers their manuscript, the editor will read through and look for any major problems with the structure and plot of the story. At the developmental stage, editors are focused on making sure the story flows in a logical way and are paying attention to “big picture” aspects of the story rather than correcting individual sentences or spelling. If necessary, the editor will send the author a revision letter detailing any significant changes recommended to make the manuscript stronger.
Animosity or rivalry between the main characters at the beginning of the story creates sky-high tension as they realize they’re attracted to each other despite their better judgment and in complete opposition to their goals!
A subgenre of romance that features explicit descriptions of sexual interactions, often pushing characters’ personal boundaries. Carina Press publishes erotic fiction with M/F, M/M and F/F pairings as well as nonbinary and polyamorous romances.
The situation that keeps the main characters apart or prevents them from achieving their goals. The external conflict comes from circumstances outside the main characters’ control, such as unforeseen events or the actions of other characters.
The main characters pretend to be in a relationship in order to achieve their goals.
A subgenre of romance featuring themes, world-building and characters typical of fantasy fiction, such as imagined worlds, magical elements, elves, fairies, etc.
The main characters are destined to be together. The trope is commonly used in paranormal, fantasy or science fiction romance.
The fish-out-of-water character is in a situation or setting alien to their natural state. An excellent plot device for creating tension, examples could include a county sheriff on a big-city case, a high-priced attorney running a ranch, or a contemporary character who travels back in time.
The main characters each belong to a group or family that forbids relationships with someone from the other’s group or family. The most famous example is Romeo and Juliet.
The main characters are forced by circumstance to spend time together, and as a result, they get to know one another and fall in love. Examples of forced proximity situations could include snowstorms/snowed in, stranded, road trips, trapped in time, etc.
The main characters have been friends for years, but through changed circumstances begin to develop or uncover romantic feelings for each other.
The publisher’s frontlist refers to their newly published books. Books are considered frontlist if they were released in the current year.
Genre fiction follows specific conventions for plot, theme and character according to the genre. Examples of fiction genres would be romance, science fiction, mystery, fantasy, etc.
A popular “opposites attract” variation involving a crusty, pessimistic character paired with a sweet, sunny character.
HEA is an abbreviation for Happy-Ever-After or Happily-Ever-After. HFN is an abbreviation for Happy-for-Now. In an HFN, the main characters overcome their obstacles in order to be together, but they don’t necessarily get married or work out every kink in their relationship. Category romance stories always end with HEA or HFN.
When the point of view bounces from one character’s thoughts to another’s without an obvious break in the story/scene. Quick POV switches can be difficult for readers to keep up with and create inconsistency.
How sexy is the story? Is the description of the physical relationship between romantic partners sizzlingly explicit (high heat level) or tender and emotional, just hinting at physical attraction (low heat level)?
A subgenre of romance featuring stories set in the past, usually pre–World War II. Popular themes and periods include Regency romance, Victorian, Vikings, Scottish Highlanders, etc.
A scenario, plot device or other element that draws a reader into a story. A hook can be anything from character type (K-9 search and rescue officer) to setting (elephant research center in Kenya) to inciting event (main character’s inn burns down) or any other new, interesting or compelling aspect of the story.
When an author publishes some books independently and some with a traditional publishing house. A hybrid career gives the author access to a range of markets and the freedom to publish a wider variety of stories.
The scene or situation that throws the main characters together and gets those sparks flying!
Refers to a publication process independent of the major publishing houses. Although this term can refer to the process of publishing a book with a small press, it also covers self-publishing.
When the author stops the action of the story to provide backstory or other information, bringing the pacing to a halt and making it more difficult for the reader to feel connected to the characters and action.
A subgenre of romance that features characters who overcome challenges through Christian faith, forgiveness and hope. These challenges can be related to love, a second chance in life, or any other major life trial.
The main characters form an intense emotional or physical bond immediately upon meeting. More than merely attraction, instalove or instalust can sometimes be a tip-off that the relationship between the main characters isn’t developed enough on the page for a reader to find it convincing.
One character is suddenly caring for a family or discovers a family they never knew about. Examples: a sibling dies, and the main character must care for their children, or a character discovers they were adopted and has brothers and sisters.
The emotional and psychological issues which stem from your characters’ backstories and create barriers to their relationship.
The second step of the editorial process. Once a developmental edit is done and the author has completed any necessary revisions, the editor starts the line editing process. The editor will read the story line by line and focus on making sure each sentence is as clear as possible. They may suggest changes to paragraph or sentence structure and flag any areas that need attention from the author.
Where genre fiction is usually plot-centered, literary fiction is often character-centered. So instead of focusing on external plot points, literary fiction focuses on the main character’s internal journey. Literary fiction may also employ language or plot in unconventional ways.
In a romance, the central romantic couple. Often abbreviated as MCs.
The main characters are not in love (at first!) but agree to marry in order to achieve their goals. Often abbreviated as MoC.
The main characters meet in a fun, quirky or humorous way. A staple of romantic comedies, the meet-cute relies on serendipity, coincidence and accidents.
In Harlequin, a miniseries refers to two or more books within the same Harlequin series that are connected by setting, characters or other common elements.
The main characters seem to have nothing in common, but of course they fall in love!
Pacing refers to how quickly or slowly the story is told. A plot that unfolds at a good pace will keep the reader engaged to the last page, neither told so slowly the reader becomes bored or so quickly that they are confused. Many things can affect the pacing including a good balance of dialogue, description and action, strong writing and active language, and well-motivated characters the reader cares about.
A writer who does not plan out their story beats in advance, instead “flies by the seat of their pants.” Pantsers like to let their characters dictate the direction of their story, which can sometimes lead to surprising revelations.
A subgenre of romance featuring paranormal themes or characters such as vampires, shifters, witches, etc.
A pitch is a conversation between an author and an editor or agent. The author’s objective is to describe their story while emphasizing all of the selling factors to persuade the editor/agent to acquire the project. To catch the eye of a romance editor or agent, a pitch or teaser should contain a few essential components, like hooks and tropes, a description of the main characters, a clear plot and a romantic conflict.
A writer who plans out the entire story arc of their novel, with each story beat laid out in order to ensure there are no plot holes and the characters behave in a way that suits the underlying plot.
An abbreviation of Point of View. Who is telling the story?
One character is telling the story. While we are in first-person POV, we only know what the narrator knows. We know we are in first-person POV with the use of the pronoun “I.” Romance novels can alternate between the two main characters in first-person POV.
An all-knowing narrator is telling the story. The narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. We know we are in third-person POV with the use of the pronouns “he”/“she”/“they.”
The narrator is outside events, telling the story, but the thoughts and feelings expressed in third-person-limited POV are those of one character. The pronouns used are “he”/“she”/“they.” Romance novels often alternate between the two main characters in third-person-limited POV.
The final editorial step for a manuscript. Once the manuscript has been revised, line edited and copy edited, a properly styled and formatted file is created in preparation for printing. After the file is created, the proofreader will read through the manuscript, looking for any errors that may remain, such as missing punctuation, incorrect chapter headings or inconsistent spacing.
The rake is the “bad boy” of Regency romance. Often wealthy and always charming, the rake has no reservations about breaking society’s rules and as many hearts as possible, and no intention of settling down with one partner—until they meet their perfect match!
A subgenre of historical romance set during the British Regency period (1811–1820).
An editor may reject a story submission with an R&R (Revise and Resubmit) if they feel that a few changes to the manuscript could make it strong enough for acceptance. They will suggest specific changes and invite the author to submit the revised manuscript. The author is under no obligation to make the requested changes, and there is no guarantee of a contract offer if the changes are made.
Short for “romantic comedy,” a rom-com is a humorous story with a strong romance at the center of the plot. A rom-com may contain drama, but it’s always a lighthearted story with an upbeat ending.
Harlequin is actively seeking more romance stories by authors in underrepresented communities so that readers see themselves reflected in the stories we publish. We welcome underrepresented authors to use the #RomanceIncludesYou hashtag when submitting. Underrepresented voices include, but are not limited to, authors who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC), members of LGBTQ+ communities, marginalized ethnic and religious cultures, and people with disabilities and neurodiversity. The #RomanceIncludesYou hashtag differs from #ownvoices because the author does not need to share the identity of the characters in the story.
A subgenre of romance that features the merger of romance and fantasy, also referred to as “romantic fantasy.” This subgenre consists of novels with fantasy settings in which the central conflict is the romance between two characters.
What keeps the main characters apart even as they’re falling in love. Obstacles can be internal or external, and a successful romance novel will rely on both.
There are many commonly used abbreviations to indicate the gender of the romance story’s main characters. Examples: M/M, M/F, F/F for male/male, male/female, female/female; MLM, WLW for man loves man, woman loves woman; NBLNB for nonbinary loving nonbinary; NBLW for nonbinary loving women; WLNB for women loving nonbinary; MLNB for men loving nonbinary; NBLM for nonbinary loving men.
A subgenre of romance that also features strong suspense elements commonly found in a mystery or thriller. Harlequin publishes three romantic suspense series: Harlequin Intrigue, which is focused more on the thriller and crime-solving elements of the plot; Love Inspired Suspense, which features inspirational stories with suspense elements; and Harlequin Romantic Suspense, which showcases romance-heavy stories with elements of danger.
A sum of money paid by the publisher to the author based on a percentage for each copy sold. Royalties are paid to the author once the advance has been recouped.
A dull or episodic section in the middle of the book where the reader starts to lose interest because the action is not moving forward and the characters are not facing meaningful obstacles to achieving their goals.
A subgenre of romance featuring themes, world-building and characters typical of science fiction, such as stories set in the future or on other planets, with alien characters, etc.
The main characters were in a relationship in the past that ended in separation. Circumstances bring them together, and they have a second chance at love.
Characters around the main characters who are important to the story but not necessarily essential to the plot: friends, relatives, colleagues, neighbors, etc. Secondary characters can add richness to the setting and characterization, and act as a sounding board for the thoughts and feelings of the main characters.
One of the main characters has a child the other MC parent doesn’t know about due to separation and lost contact.
When an author decides to produce, print and distribute their own book in order to have full control over the decisions related to their work. Self-publishing allows the author to retain more of the revenue from sales. However, they also assume all the costs and labor involved in production, distribution and marketing.
Harlequin’s series books are trope-driven category romances. Each series delivers a specific reader promise, which includes a happily-ever-after. Series books have a regular monthly publishing schedule and are usually marketed by series rather than individual title and author. Each series has its own required story elements, sensuality level and page count.
Revealing the characters’ personalities by showing how they react emotionally to different situations and introducing them to the readers gradually, rather than merely stating how they’re feeling in any given moment.
The emotional and/or physical bond between the main characters builds slowly over time. The slow burn can be a great way to create tension, as the reader keeps turning the pages anticipating the moment the main characters realize they are meant to be together.
A publishing term for the body of unsolicited submissions to be reviewed for publication.
What the main characters each stand to lose in loving each other. Stakes can be emotional (a single dad who’s worried about his kids’ well-being if he starts a relationship with the other MC) or more concrete (a CEO who could lose their job if they fall for an employee) though the best romances combine both types.
The story arc is what gives a story’s plot its shape. At its most basic, the arc would be: beginning, middle and end. For a romance, a common arc is: introduction to the main characters, the inciting incident that sets off the initial spark between the MCs, the development of the romance, the dark moment when all seems lost, and the resolution (HEA!)
A type of story within a genre with its own specific themes or tropes. Examples of romance subgenres are historical romance, paranormal romance, inspirational romance, etc.
An open call by editors for story submissions for a specific romance line or subgenre. Typically, editors request a full story synopsis and the first three chapters by a deadline. Harlequin submission blitzes are announced in advance on WriteforHarlequin.com.
A secondary plot that runs parallel to the main story. It may involve the main characters or secondary characters.
One of the main characters learns of a child they didn’t know about. “Baby on the doorstep” is one popular scenario.
A subgenre of romance originally coined for YA romances, and features romances that can discuss sex but don’t show it on the page. Either the characters do not have sex, or they have it behind closed doors. Sweet romances also tend to have more lighthearted plots.
An outline or summary of the story, including plot and character development, from the beginning to the end. Most Harlequin series request a 3-to-5-page synopsis with submission.
Characters are unexpectedly transported to a different time, past or future.
Harlequin’s trade books are published outside of a specific series or category, often in a trade format that is larger than a mass market paperback. They can feature complex stories with secondary characters and subplots. Harlequin publishes trade novels under various imprints, including MIRA, Canary Street Press, Graydon House, Park Row Books, Hanover Square Press, and Inkyard Press, our young adult imprint. Harlequin’s trade imprints require authors to have an agent submit on their behalf. Our digital first imprint, Carina Press, also publishes books outside of series. Authors do not need an agent to submit to Carina Press.
Refers to the traditional publication process, in which an established publishing house handles the design, production, marketing and distribution of a book. Authors may choose to work with a traditional publisher because they rely on the expertise and brand recognition of the publisher and the fact that the publisher will cover all costs associated with bringing the book to market.
A trope is a time-tested scenario or plot device that appears again and again. Fake relationship or marriage of convenience are examples of romance tropes.
The focus (and appeal for the reader) of a trope-driven story is the trope (example: fake relationship, enemies to lovers) rather than other literary elements such as character journey, intricate plot or creative use of metaphor.
Traditionally in publishing, the overwhelming majority of books published have been written by cis, white, straight, able-bodied authors. Underrepresented voices are those writers who identify as belonging to a community different from the majority, such as members of the BIPOC, LGBTQ+, neurodiverse and/or disabled community (or communities). Harlequin has a number of ongoing initiatives to reach out to members of underrepresented communities in order to publish more diverse and inclusive stories.
A subgenre of romance featuring paranormal stories and characters in cities and urban settings.
The distinct way an author communicates with a reader. Writers can control many elements of their voice, from sentence structure to imagery to verb tense to the tone or intent of a particular scene. But just as everyone has a unique speaking voice, every writer’s voice will have some instinctual, intrinsic elements that are theirs alone.
Abbreviation for Work in Progress.
Different from romance, women’s fiction focuses on the emotional journey of one central character (usually female), rather than a couple.
The two main characters are colleagues or rivals in the same workplace and must face their attraction.
The required story elements for each of Harlequin’s romance series. Found on Harlequin.Submittable.com, the writing guidelines help authors find the perfect fit for their manuscript by providing detailed information on series requirements including key elements, featured settings, themes and characters, and examples for inspiration.
Abbreviation for Young Adult. YA fiction is centered on stories about teens and is marketed to teen readers. YA can include a diverse range of themes, characters and stories.