The Great Smut Debate (with debate inked in cursive by a fountain pen)
The Great Smut Debate

The Great Smut Debate: Point of View

When we were coming up with examples of definite romance novels, it was relatively easy to find examples written in both first and third person, as well as single and multiple perspectives. However, when it came time for us to talk about gray area books—books that had many hallmarks for the romance genre but sometimes had readers sardonically raising their brows—we struggled to name any that weren’t single-perspective, first-person POV.

This raises the question: How does POV contribute to whether or not something feels like a romance?

What does point of view do?

Let’s start with some terminology. Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. First person is narrated from inside a person’s head; a book where the narrator says things like “I walked into the bar” is a first-person narrative. Third person refers to the main characters as he/she/they, as appropriate: “she walked into the bar.” Third person narration can be close, where the reader is privy to all of the character’s thoughts and feelings, or distant, where the reader sees only the character’s actions. Omniscient third refers to an all-knowing narrator who is privy to the thoughts and emotions of all the characters, not just the protagonists. Distant and omniscient third are rarely used in genre romance.

When we talk about single or dual or multiple points of view, we refer to how many characters share their thoughts directly with the reader.

There is no one right perspective from which to write a romance novel. Point of view is a tool, and good writers use the right tool to tell the story they want to tell. We’ll get more into the details of how these different styles work to make a romance better (or worse), but here’s a quick example: When we buddy-read two Beauty and the Beast retellings last fall, we noted that they were both single-perspective narratives. This storytelling choice allowed the authors to make the beast character more mysterious, thereby heightening the tension of the story as the beast was slowly revealed. (Ingrid talked about slow reveals and how that creates tension on Tuesday.) 

So let’s explore how this tool impacts the reader’s perception of a romantic narrative.

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The Great Smut Debate

The Great Smut Debate: HEA vs HFN

Note: Since we’re talking about endings, this post may contain spoilers.

There are so many feelings you have when you close a book for the last time. And a big part of that feeling for romance novels is about the ending. We in romance know that the end is going to be happy (or vengeance will be in our very angry reviews), so oftentimes the community expresses to outsiders or newbies who ask how we can read something so predictable: “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” That’s very true. BUT, dear readers, BUT it’s about the ending, too. It’s about the author’s choice to use a HEA (Happily Ever After) rather than a HFN (Happily For Now) resolution to the story. Or vice versa. Did it match the rest of the story? Is it a satisfying ending for the struggles our protagonists overcame? What about a realistic ending? Do we like certain endings because they’re OUR preference or because they match the narrative we’ve just concluded?

Well. We’re going to talk about all of that. 

Continue reading “The Great Smut Debate: HEA vs HFN”
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The Great Smut Debate

What Makes a Romance? Gray Area Books

Last month, as part of our “What Makes a Romance” series, we talked about three books that were indisputably romances and what made them work so well, despite using a range of narrative techniques to tell the stories.

This month, we want to dig in to a few “gray area” romances. In other words, these books are ones that some readers say, “oh yes, definitely a romance” and others say, “nah, that was not really a romance.” These books may more accurately be termed “women’s fiction” or “chick lit” or…some other genre. As with the books we discussed last month, we narrowed down the selection for this month’s discussion by including books that at least two of us have read. (And remembered enough to discuss.)

Before we dive in, a reminder. Our goal in this series is not to police the boundaries of the genre, but rather to explore those boundaries.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)

The Details:

Outlander is perhaps the most famous of all time travel romances. Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser, our plucky, eternally competent narrator, is a nurse who, after World War II, goes on a belated honeymoon with her husband…only to mysteriously end up in 18th century Scotland. She ends up married to Jamie for reasons that are not really important right now, and the two have many adventures together. After spending approximately 800 pages trying to figure out how to get the standing stones to send her back to the 20th century, Claire decides that her love for Jamie actually transcends time and modern medicine, and decides to remain in the 18th century with him. 

Why is this book a gray area romance? 

From the description, this seems like a pretty straightforward romance, does it not? It even won a RITA for Best Romance in 1992. And to go back to Ingrid’s definition of what makes a good romance, yes, Claire and Jamie do struggle separately and together to reach their moment of happiness.

Well, the first thing to know is that Outlander is the first book in a 9 book (SO FAR) series, and, as a corollary, that Gabaldon loves to torture poor Claire and Jamie. While they might have true love together, the larger story is not very interested in the couple’s HEA, but rather in all the things that happen as their lives continue. The love might be real, but the moments of happiness are fleeting. This means that, on a structural level, the book (and especially its sequels) is constructed differently than you generally see in a genre romance. If the first book stood alone as its own book, it could be considered a romance (because the plot revolves around Claire and Jamie’s struggles as they fall in love with each other) but the subsequent books evolve into all kinds of struggles and conflicts that are only tangentially related to Claire and Jamie’s inner relationship. And those books can’t really be considered “romance novels”.

Another key piece of this is marketing: Diana Gabaldon herself does not describe her books as romances. 

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall (2021)

The Details:

Rosaline Palmer enters a televised baking contest that is definitely not The Great British Bake Off. And starts shagging one of her competitors. Except then it turns out he’s kind of a jerk? And that other competitor, who she thought was a dumb meathead, is actually pretty awesome. 

Why is this book a gray area romance?

Since we discussed a different book by Alexis Hall last month, we know that he can write a killer romance—but this one got some pushback from romance readers, who declared that it wasn’t “really” a romance. (Holly raged about that a bit in her review.) So what made this one hit differently?

Perhaps it’s the bait-and-switch love triangle. Rosaline and Alain have a total meet-cute, such that a reader might be legitimately worried that Rosaline might end up with him. Perhaps it’s the fact that Rosaline and Harry spend most of the book slowly becoming friends, but there’s not actually a lot of relationship between them. If we go back to Ingrid’s rubric, there’s not a lot of struggling together, or even a common obstacle that they are facing. Which brings us to the final perhaps: perhaps it’s the fact that this story is really about Rosaline Palmer’s journey as she deals with a lot of internalized baggage about the worth of people (including herself).

Kulti by Mariana Zapata (2015)

The Details: Sal Casillas is a professional soccer player who comes into a new season with her former childhood crush, retired soccer superstar Reiner Kulti, signed on as her new assistant coach. Kulti starts out as a pretty self-absorbed a-hole, eventually leading the usually glass-half-full Sal to all but cuss him out on the field, but after they get things sorted out, they become extremely close (if complicated) friends. 

Why is this book a gray area romance?

Look, Ingrid and Erin both consider this to be a romance, and they agree gray areas can see themselves out. But there are a few things going on here that might lead readers to consider this women’s fiction rather than a genre romance. First, it’s a single 1st POV told entirely from Sal’s viewpoint, and the limitations of the single first narration apply. Plus, Sal is heavily focused on her career, not just on her burgeoning friendship with her coach. In fact, it takes a very long time for any substantive interaction between them to even occur. Second, Kulti is slowly revealed, so he is a round and dynamic character, but not in a significant way—we don’t get much in the way of Kulti’s feelings about Sal or their relationship. And third, the book is approaching 600 pages long, and the burn is extremely slow with only the barest of hints ratcheting up the simmer until it suddenly boils over after the 85% mark. 

Taken on its own, it would be easy to look at Sal’s struggle to value herself enough to pursue the career she deserves as the overarching narrative of this story, with the romantic subplot being the impetus for her to evaluate her situation more closely. If we consider this with Ingrid’s metric in mind, however, both Sal and Kulti undergo significant change and growth both separately and together as they slowly develop into grudging colleagues, then friends, then best friends, then…a panty melting power couple. 

Girls Weekend by C.M. Nascosta (2021)

The Details:

Three women with varying degrees of friendship ties go on a weekend getaway to an Orc nudist resort, and two of them manage to find romance along the way. It’s important to note in this case that all three women are granted relatively similar page-space, so there’s not one overarching romance with additional romantic narrative threads. And for the most part, even though the book is titled Girls Weekend, the story doesn’t focus on the women’s friendships as we are often likely to find in women’s fiction.

Why is this book a gray area romance?

In the first place, it’s not aggressively marketed as romance. The blurb definitely includes romance lingo, and an added note on the blurb in the Amazon ebook page states that the book is monster romance that will end with HEAs all around by the end of the series, but the blurb also clearly states that the story is about three friends heading out for a weekend of hedonism, with no mention of romantic partners other than a brief quip about no-strings sex ending in love. 

Secondly, there are three separate storylines that run almost entirely parallel, and in a 200 page book that doesn’t provide a lot of time for three sets of MCs to have three complete narrative arcs. In a romance duology or trilogy, there’s often a cliffhanger that leaves the relationship unresolved, and that’s not exactly what we get here. In the one case, the relationship definitely ends with a solid HFN. In another, there’s no relationship at all. And in the third, the relationship does end without much resolution one way or the other. Ambiguous (maybe happy?) endings aren’t really something commonly done in romance novels.


The common theme in books that fall into a gray area is that it’s not always readily apparent that all of the protagonists are struggling to overcome obstacles separately and together. Many of the books that occupy this gray area space are single POV, and that’s likely because the quibble over the designation of the romantic thread being a central element of the story can occur more easily when the non-POV protagonist(s) don’t have an opportunity to share their own fears and motivations as the story progresses; however, that’s not the only reason that we tend to shunt books into a “romance adjacent” category. 

As we move into the next few months of this series, we’ll delve deeper into the ways that the structure and components of a narrative or relationship impact a reader’s perception of whether or not it is considered a genre romance.

The Great Smut Debate (with debate inked in cursive by a fountain pen)
The Great Smut Debate

What Makes a Romance? Examples

As part of our ongoing series exploring what makes a great romance, we decided that doing a deep dive into a few books that are *undeniably* romance novels was necessary to set the groundwork for our later conversations. Our goal here is to describe with specific details what indisputably makes a romance. 

For this detailed deep dive, we’ve chosen three novels, covering multiple subgenres, writing styles, and gendered relationship, as well as a range of publication dates. None of these books is perfect (in fact, the two older books have some old-school elements that some readers today may find cringe-worthy). However, none of these books has, to our knowledge, inspired debate about whether they should better be categorized as “women’s fiction.” (As a bonus feature, these are also all books that we reviewed as a group.) 

Last month, Ingrid posited that a key feature of a satisfying romance novel was dynamic characters, who grow separately and together. In other words, each main character must have a growth arc, and there must be some growth in the relationship as well.


Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase (1995)

The Details: Lord of Scoundrels is frequently cited as a “canon” romance. It’s a bonkers historical romance set during the Regency period, featuring a bluestocking and a Lord who get married after being publicly compromised. It’s narrated by an omniscient third POV outside the story; this voice comments on the interior life of Dain and Jessica, and knows more about them (especially Dain) than the characters do themselves. The story ends with a happily ever after that includes not just marriage, but Dain and Jessica formally taking charge of Dain’s illegitimate son.

The Growth Arc: Of the two main characters, Dain undergoes the more significant growth arc, going from emotionally-constipated man-baby woman-hating-rake to some who learns not only to love his partner, but to love himself. Jessica starts out stronger and more self-aware, but she transitions from wanting to avoid marriage and relationships to finding herself stuck in a marriage with Dain because she’s compromised to understanding that her initial goal was more of a reasonable way for her to function in society than because it would really make her happy. Together Dain and Jessica go from horny adversaries to reluctant spouses to true partners. 

Why It’s So Satisfying: I mean, they start off just so incredibly at odds with each other that he attempts to ruin her and she SHOOTS HIM…and they somehow turn it into a deep and tender romance. It’s satisfying because in order for them to achieve that they have to churn through an incredible amount of work both separately and together and come out the other side without losing the reader’s buy in that they should be together.


 A Hunger Like No Other by Kresley Cole (2006)

The Details: What we have here is an epic paranormal romance between a werewolf and a vampire that kicks off an extremely epic series of books. Like Lord of Scoundrels, A Hunger Like No Other has some distinctly old-school beats, not least of which is a very innocent virgin heroine. Told in alternating 3rd POV chapters from the perspectives of Emma (the vampire) and Lachlan (the werewolf), the story plays around with the fated mates trope and the dichotomy of evil and innocence. 

The Growth Arc: Emma undergoes significant changes due to her interactions with Lachlan. She starts as an extremely sheltered young vampire, but through their relationship, she comes into her own power as her family’s disapproval of their mating forces her to set some much-needed boundaries for herself now that she’s an adult. Lachlan is hell-bent on revenge after being imprisoned underground for centuries by the vampire king—who happens to be Emma’s father. In terms of their relationship, Lachlan knows that it’s fate from the beginning (Emma’s the reason he escapes from his interminable torture), but, of course, things are complicated by a bunch of inter-species paranormal warring going on. Lachlan and Emma face some cosmic nonsense standing between them an their happy ending, but once they start working together, they are able to come up with (at least the start of) a solution.

Why It’s So Satisfying: This one is satisfying in two ways. One, we see Emma coming into her own strength and Lachlan learning to relinquish control. We see the fated couple come to terms with their OWN relationship—not what they think their relationship has to be, and we see them choose it. That’s very satisfying. It’s also satisfying to see this happen in the context of the trope itself—as we see the characters grow and change, we’re also seeing their struggles play against the trope and that creates a kind of secondary tension.


Glitterland by Alexis Hall (2013)

The Details: Glitterland is a contemporary M/M romance set in London, between a snobby depressed writer and a glitter pirate with a spray tan who he meets at a bar. This is a sex-first, feelings-later romance with high heat, such that it might be best characterized as erotic romance. It’s told from a single perspective—Ash’s (the snobby depressed writer)—in a close first person narrative. Darian (the glitter pirate) remains somewhat opaque, in that we never hear what he’s thinking, though it’s clear from early on that he definitely fancies Ash. The story ends Happily For Now; after Ash treats Darian terribly and properly apologizes, the men agree to give dating a shot. As Darian says at the end of the book:

“So, lemme get this right. We’re gonna make a go of it. You and me? Togevver? Even though I’m orange and you’re mental?”

The Growth Arc: As one might expect given the single POV narration, Ash undergoes a much more obvious growth arc, as he comes to accept that it’s ok to be happy—and more importantly in terms of the romance, that it’s ok to be happy with Darian, who is not the “right kind” of person. His personal change is intrinsically tied to his relationship with Darian. While one could argue that Darian doesn’t grow here, he is still a dynamic character because of the way he is revealed. He goes from being a one-night hookup to the person who accepts Ash as he is without fuss to a three-dimensional person in his own right with his own emotions and needs—something Ash doesn’t fully see until he’s insulted Darian horribly. 

Why It’s So Satisfying: In this one we have a delightful, delicious mismatch—the tension comes from the differences that should divide them, but ultimately result in their freedom to be who they are, together. The key to the success of this book is that the characters have to walk a tightrope to their happy ending: if they change too much for the other person, the very things that draw them “togevver” will be lost and the spark will be smothered. But if they don’t grow enough to accommodate the things that are causing the friction, they won’t make it either. It’s deeply satisfying to reach the end of that successful tension.


Chase, Cole, and Hall all approach romance storytelling in different ways. Things like narrative style, a romance’s ending, and amount of sex all impact our interpretations of romance, but even though these three books all include different stylistic choices in all of those categories, they are all indisputably romances. There are other stories that use some of the exact same narrative choices as the authors chose for these books, and they may straddle the gray area between romance and romantic fiction or women’s fiction. The puzzle of how all of these pieces fit together impacts the narrative and the reader’s interpretation of the narrative as a genre romance, and we’ll explore each of these topics in more detail in future posts. 

Next month, for context on the other side of the line, we’ll discuss some romances we’ve read that definitely fall in the gray area of genre romance. 

The Great Smut Debate (with debate inked in cursive by a fountain pen)
The Great Smut Debate

What Makes a Romance? Defining the Genre

The Romance Writers of America (and many readers of romance) defines a genre romance as a book that 1) focuses on a romantic relationship and 2) has a happy, optimistic ending (also known as the HEA). Within those parameters, there’s a lot of space to tell many different kinds of stories. Our goal in this series is to try and drill down on what makes a great romance really successful…and what makes us say, “Eh, that book was kinda smut adjacent.” In other words, it’s not so much about what we need to have a romance, but it is what we need to get the high we’re looking for in a romance. And it all started when Ingrid proposed her own definition of a good romance novel.

Ingrid’s Definition of Romance 

The main characters struggle against some issue, whether interpersonal or an external force (or both!). In order to overcome that obstacle they have to grow and develop as people individually and together in order to reach their HEA (as determined by the people in the relationship). The most satisfying romances balances these three components. 

*In case you were wondering, Erin’s and Holly’s brains immediately exploded as they tried to poke holes in Ingrid’s theory. Here are some highlights from our conversation.*

Let’s Break It Down

As we see it, there are three components to this definition. We’ll expand on each of them.

1. Characters must overcome an obstacle

The point is, there’s got to be something going on in the book, otherwise there’s no tension. 

This is essentially the role of the trope. The trope is the framework for the obstacle. Enemies to lovers? Our struggle is that we hate each other! Best friends’ sibling? Our struggle is that we’re not sure how we feel about the change in our relationship—and what that change might mean for our other valued relationships. Conspiracy theory? Our struggle is that someone is trying to frame me for a murder I didn’t commit, and you are the only person who sorta maybe believes me, oh and by the way, we’re running for our lives!

Sometimes, the obstacle isn’t in the trope defining the relationship between the characters, but in the individuals’ circumstances. The struggling small-business owner who is trying to keep her twee cupcakery in the black. The musician who can’t commit because they’re always touring. The combat veteran who is learning to manage his PTSD.

2. Characters must both develop as people, individually

This is critical to the genre. The characters have to develop separately because this defines who they are as individuals and highlights why they’re compatible. It’s often a tool used to create intimacy—when you see a character growing, it shows who they are and what they value. Then, as a reader, you see how the characters interact based on that compatibility, and it’s satisfying. Romance novels that are well done don’t skimp on this kind of development.

Obviously, some characters undergo more pointed growth arcs than others, but just because it’s not overt doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Sometimes the change is subtle; sometimes just holding firm and not giving up is growth.

When the change is hard for a character, this growth is more profound. If we take a messy character in need of a morality chain, it’s not always that that character becomes a good person—it’s that they were willing to concede a point. 

If the change is too profound, then it’s unrealistic. A vampire doesn’t just decide to become vegan. You don’t want the person to change completely, but rather to be dynamic—preferably thanks to new insights courtesy of the romantic journey (be they ups or downs).

Example of this: Take Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase. The scene where Jessica shoots Dain is pivotal in showing who they are at the beginning of their marriage. Jessica’s growth is in maintaining her boundaries; Dain gets the transformative emotional development, such that he no longer deserves shooting at the end of the book.

3. Characters must develop together as they become a romantic unit

What we’re experiencing when we read a romance is the decision for these specific people to choose each other—intentionally, passionately, tenderly—whatever. But the point is the choice. And to get to the point where the choice must happen because it’s inevitable (again, it’s romance so it’s a mandatory HEA), we have to see the characters become something more together than they were apart. Otherwise, what’s the point? Being single is great, too. So the characters have to progress together as well as separately. 

There has to be some dynamic of working together to overcome the obstacle because otherwise the focus of the plot is going to shift to one or the other character. And if the shift turns to only one character, we get into either Women’s Lit territory, or, we get into self-sacrifice territory, where one character changes themself completely in service to someone else.

Same Idea, Different Words 

Ingrid’s not the only one to argue parts of this definition. She built her definition from an article by the NY Public Library, which argued the origin of the genre stemmed from the heroine struggling against a complication in order to overcome it and find her happiness. Others in romancelandia have also touched upon pieces of Ingrid’s rubric in exploring what makes a romance satisfying.

Here’s Talia Hibbert talking to Vox about her view on chemistry: 

For me, a lot of how I think about my characters’ compatibility stems from a book called Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes, which is about the structure of romance novels. She talks about characters who start off hole-hearted, as in with a hole in their hearts. Then over the course of this story, they become whole-hearted, as in complete. I love that so much, and I always think of it in terms of, I give each character something that they’re missing or something that is affecting them, that they need to overcome. I do make their emotional journey about them overcoming it themselves, but when I’m crafting their partner, I’m also thinking, “Who is going to support them in this journey?”

Each character has something to overcome—which they have to do both themselves, but also with the support of their new partner.

In their episode on Hurts to Love You by Alisha Rai, Morgan and Isabeau over at the Whoamance podcast offered a critique that resonates with Ingrid’s argument: the characters do a lot of struggling separately, but don’t struggle together at all, which led to a less satisfying romance-reading experience (Holly’s take on this book was that it was too angsty: in other words, they struggled too much in their heads, and not enough with each other.)

In short: if these other smart romance readers are noticing it too, maybe Ingrid is on to something. 

*Holly and Erin are still in the land of denial, but are coming to accept that Ingrid might be right.*

Counterpoint: What about single-POV stories with opaque love interests?

An opaque, non-POV love interest may change over the course of the book! Even if the reader doesn’t know that character’s mind, actions can speak volumes. And the change does not need to be significant. For example, in Lick by Kylie Scott, David goes from sharing nothing at all to sharing something but still putting the band first, to opening himself to Evelyn and putting their marriage first. And the lack of David’s POV creates a more interesting story because we’re surprised by his secrets being revealed as the book goes on. 

However, we acknowledge that single-POV books are more likely to fall into the category of grey, not-quite-as-satisfying, maybe-it’s-women’s-fic, romance. These books may be interesting reads, but they may not hit us in the romance feels in the same way. The central part of the story in these instances focuses in on the POV character (usually, but not always, the female main character), and the main part of the book is that character’s journey—then the journey together is not as important and the journey alone.

We’ll explore single-POV romances more later in this series.

Counterpoint: What about “no plot, just vibes” romances?

It’s not just the relationship, it’s building the relationship, it’s how it comes to be. Even if the characters are spending time together (with or without sex) without a lot of external plot, there’s some kind of tension there where the characters move towards each other.

Closing Thoughts

To be clear: our goal is not to gatekeep what “counts” as a romance—the genre is capacious! Rather, we’re trying to think of ways to more thoughtfully identify what works and what doesn’t. It’s about growing as romance critics: if we take our roles not only as smut enthusiasts and evangelists seriously, but also our role as smut scholars, then it’s time to dig into the weeds. 

What do you all think of Ingrid’s definition? Can you think of a great romance novel that doesn’t follow this rubric?