Posted On June 30, 2017 by Print This Post

The Recipe for Romance Novel Ragù by Staci Troilo

The first time I invited Staci Troilo to guest blog with RU, I visited her website and learned that she was an award-winning recipe developer. We’ve exchanged a few emails since then, almost all of them food-related. Today, Staci talks about the basic recipe for romance… and how to kick it up a notch.

I admit it. I got carried away with R-word alliteration and the title is a bit absurd. But only at first glance. If you realize that I love to cook and that food factors into many of my novels, you’ll start to understand my analogy. And if you know that ragù isn’t that nasty stuff you buy in a jar but rather is a rich, complex sauce to top pasta (which is rather bland on its own), you’ll know what I mean.

Romance novels follow a recipe. Certain writers get offended when they’re told romances are formulaic, but I don’t mind—I believe all novels are formulaic. (And the critics who say this to insult romance writers clearly don’t know anything about the genre, so why listen to them, anyway?)

I have a recipe for ragù that I’ve perfected over the years, and my family loves it. I’ve already given it to my daughter (who loves to cook and will be starting college in the fall, so she’s collecting recipes to take with her), and she’s started tinkering with it to make it her own.

Why is this relevant to writing a romance novel? Because all experienced cooks know to start with a recipe they like and then change the little things until it’s perfect for them. Just as all writers know that readers expect certain things from a romance novel—things that should not be changed—but there are all kinds of details they can change to make a story original and specifically theirs.

The Romance Novel Recipe

Early romance novels could be created by following a very basic recipe:

  • Boy and girl meet.
  • Boy and girl share an attraction.
  • Boy and girl begin romance.
  • Boy and girl are separated.
  • Boy and girl are reunited.
  • Boy and girl live happily ever after with a lifetime commitment to each other.

That’s it. Six short steps from beginning to end. Not many intricacies, little spice or variation. But those stories whetted readers’ appetites for more.

If you look on Amazon today and browse the romance category, you will find twenty-two romance sub-categories, many of which can be broken down further. Barnes & Noble starts with a generic few, divides them into twenty-three categories, and breaks them down further into eighteen sub-categories. You would think with all those options, the lists would be the same. But… no. There are categories Amazon has that B&N doesn’t, and vice versa. And I’ve both read and written romance novels that don’t fit easily into any of the listed categories on either site.

Why? Because writers tinkered with the recipe and readers devoured the new offerings.

Today, the recipe is a little more robust:

  • Begin with a compelling hook.
  • Continue with an intense plot.
  • Create characters who are both relatable and unique.
    • The hero should be strong but vulnerable to hurt.
    • The heroine should not be a damsel in distress, but rather self-sufficient.
    • The antagonist and the secondary characters should enrich the story world.
  • Increase the number of conflicts and their importance.
  • Build to a high-stakes climax.
  • Complete the story giving the couple their HEA (which no longer requires a lifetime commitment, but rather a for-now-but-things-look-good-long-term commitment).

Still just six steps. Still pretty easy to do, although not quite as easy as before. This recipe has added different techniques and seasonings, resulting in a multi-layered flavor profile with subtle nuances and incredible depth.

Kind of like the difference between a five-minute marinara sauce and a five-hour ragù. Either one will jazz up a dish of fettuccini, but one of them is much more complex and enjoyable.

So let’s take a look at the recipe before and after tinkering.


Before After
· Boy and girl meet.

· John and Mary meet at a party.

· Begin with a compelling hook.

·  John meets Mary when he arrives in her town and she saves him from an out-of-control car.

· Boy and girl share an attraction.

· John and Mary flirt.

· Continue with an intense plot.

·  John wants to thank Mary—who he’s attracted to—so he buys her dinner. A gunshot breaks through the window, nearly missing him.

· Boy and girl begin romance.

· John and Mary have a series of dates, but the relationship only goes so far because she’s secretive.

· Create characters who are both relatable and unique.

· He’s a target and doesn’t know why. She’s a genealogist who loves to research and her brother happens to be in private security, so she offers to look into his predicament while her family protects him.

· Boy and girl are separated.

· John gets frustrated, but Mary refuses to trust him, so they split up.

· Increase the number of conflicts and their importance.

· Two more near-death experiences; meanwhile, she uncovers a deep family secret of his that puts them both in danger.

· Boy and girl are reunited.

· Mary is miserable without him, so she tells him her secret. She expected to lose John forever, but he didn’t care. They reunite.

· Build to a high-stakes climax.

· John and Mary get separated from the family protection, and they are in mortal danger. Only working together do they solve the mystery, defeat the villain, and return to safety.

·  Boy and girl live happily ever after with a lifetime commitment to each other.

· John proposes and Mary accepts. We may or may not see the wedding.

· Complete the story giving the couple their HEA.

· Now free to live his life without looking over his shoulder, John chooses to stay in the area to be with Mary—if she’ll have him. She’s delighted he’s staying, and they begin a romance of legend.

Marinara or Ragù?

You can see the before, or early, formula makes a nice enough story to read. If the setting is rich and the characters are well-developed, this would make a perfectly serviceable 50,000+ word novel.

The after recipe, though, offers many more intricacies. There’s mystery, intrigue, danger. Potentially subplots with her family. A real breakneck pace to the action. This novel, to properly develop all the people and plot lines, could be upwards of 90,000 words.

Assuming both novels are $3.99 eBooks, which would you want to read? I feel like I’d get more for my money buying the “after” novel.

The Finished Recipe

Okay, clearly I love the romance genre. In all its forms. And I admit, I go for marinara sometimes, even though I know the ragù is so much better. At the end of the day, any sauce on the pasta (or any romance in fiction) appeals to me.

Do you have to follow either of the recipes above? Well, of course not. Rules are there because they work, but they were also meant to be broken. Just make sure you know which rule you’re breaking and why you’re breaking it.

Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with plain white pasta. And who wants that?

So, what about your romances? Do you follow a recipe or do you just experiment until you’ve got something appetizing? I’d love to hear your method for writing love stories.



Three decades. Two continents. One secret that could cost him everything.

Too. Many. Secrets… and Vinnie Falco is buried in them. He works undercover day and night to keep watch over Jo Notaro, whose fiery temperament matches her boundless energy and unparalleled beauty. Jo is unable to withstand the endless scrutiny and constant surveillance, so when Vinnie’s ever-watchful gaze lingers too long, she can feel his touch—and she doesn’t know if she loathes it or loves it.

Vinnie’s job to watch Jo goes much deeper. He’s a vice president of an international corporation, a front for a secret organization—the Medici Protectorate—which continues a tradition going back nearly 500 years to guard the Medici line. Jo and her sisters are the descendants of the Medici and someone wants them dead.

But Vinnie has another secret he’s desperately trying to hide. A secret that could push Jo too far away for even him to save her.


Bio: Staci Troilo has always loved fiction, ever since her parents read her fairy tales when she was a young girl. Today, her interests are much more eclectic. She loves getting lost in sci-fi battles, fantasy realms, horror worlds, suspenseful intrigues, and romantic entanglements.

As goes her reading, so goes her writing. She can’t pick a single genre to focus on, so she doesn’t even try. She’s proud to say she’s a multi-genre author.

When she’s not reading or writing, she’s spending time with family and friends, possibly cooking for them, or maybe enjoying an afternoon in the pool. To learn more about her, visit her website or connect with her via the following links:

Web | Blog | Newsletter Signup | Facebook Group |
Twitter | Facebook | Pinterest | Google + | LinkedIn | Instagram |
Goodreads | Amazon Author Page | BookBub Page |

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14 Responses to “The Recipe for Romance Novel Ragù by Staci Troilo”

  1. Jen, thanks for inviting me back, for the kind introduction, and for the emails. (You’ve passed along some really tasty recipes and recommendations.) I’m really happy to be here today.

    Posted by Staci Troilo | June 30, 2017, 12:20 am
  2. I love the idea of romance as a recipe. Except as with my cooking, my manuscripts have all the correct ingredients but don’t make anything anyone would want to eat.

    I start off with the idea for one thing and by the time I’m finished, it’s become a totally different recipe. :/ I keep adding things in to try and get the original idea back but I end up chucking the whole thing into the sink.

    Posted by Nicole | June 30, 2017, 8:09 am
    • Your comment made me chuckle, Nicole. I bet we can sort you out.

      I’m guessing if you’re trying to add to your novels to fix them, it’s not the seasoning that’s the problem, it’s the main ingredients. If you don’t have the basic structure right, it’s not going to matter what you add to it.

      Are you following an outline? Outlines (like recipes) will help keep you on track.

      Do you use the three-act structure? Following that traditional form will make sure you hit all the targets you need to as you progress.

      Did you begin learning to write fiction by starting with short stories first, then longer works? Mastering shorter forms will help you learn craft and structure before you expand into bigger story worlds.

      I suggest you get some craft books and find a critique group. The books can help you with plotting issues, and the group will be able to help you focus as your work progresses (so you catch your errors early).

      I hope this has been helpful to you. Best wishes!

      Posted by Staci Troilo | June 30, 2017, 10:10 am
  3. What a clever post, Staci. Not only did I find it informative but I enjoyed it as well, especially the Before/After table.

    When I do write romance, which isn’t often these days, I definitely go the ragu route (unlike my pasta sauce which comes out of a jar. And yes, I can see you cringing and rolling your eyes).

    I like complex, with multiple threads as both a reader and a writer. Make me think, twist things up, toss in danger and a complex villain, and I’m enthralled. Now if I could just figure out how to handle the ragu recipe for pasta 🙂

    Posted by Mae Clair | June 30, 2017, 8:40 am
  4. I like how you explained this. I include romance in my writing, but don’t consider myself a romance writer–even though my first full length novel was a romance.

    I start out as a maranara but with the help of my critique group, beta readers, and my editor I end up with a ragu.

    I was expecting a link to your sauce recipe.

    Posted by Michele Jones | July 1, 2017, 4:49 am
    • I love that analogy, Michele. Starting as marinara and ending with ragu. Nice.

      And I’m pretty sure you have all my recipes. I shared my recipe folder with you on Google Drive. But I can always give it to you when I get home. 🙂

      For those of you who might be confused by this, Michele is my sister. She lives in my hometown, and I live about 1,000 miles away, but I’m heading home for a visit soon. (Can’t wait to see you, Michele!)

      Posted by Staci Troilo | July 1, 2017, 7:13 pm
  5. I love this post! Like Nicole, I add so many things I usually end up with Hungarian goulash. I love goulash, but sometimes all I’m aiming for is minestrone soup. 🙂

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | July 3, 2017, 8:57 am
    • That comment put a smile on my face. I do like a good goulash; in fact, I prefer it to minestrone, and I’m Italian, so go figure. I guess that’s just proof that we all like different things.

      Besides, there is more than enough room in a cookbook for both recipes. It just depends on what you’re craving that day, right?

      Posted by Staci Troilo | July 5, 2017, 6:59 am
  6. I’d prefer the ragu also, Staci – and would love to have your recipe!

    Posted by Teri Polen | July 4, 2017, 5:30 pm
    • I’ll be happy to forward it to you when I’m home. I’m traveling now, so I don’t have access to my official recipe. I do the seasonings by sight, but I figured out the amounts once to write it down for my daughter (who botched my chili recipe because she didn’t know what “a handful” equated to… hence the subsequent measuring of that and other recipes).

      Posted by Staci Troilo | July 5, 2017, 7:02 am
  7. Hi Staci,

    Sorry I’m so late with my comment.

    Great analogy! Your post made me think of the cooking section of the NY Times. I like reading the comments from people who’ve tried the featured recipe. While some follow the recipe, others take shortcuts or deviate from the recipe and then wonder where they went wrong. Whether you’re writing a romance or baking/cooking, there’s a set formula to follow. That’s not to say you can’t deviate, but most novels have a three act structure and all cakes need a leavening agent.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | July 6, 2017, 12:58 am
    • The leavening agent example is spot-on. You definitely need the eggs, flour, sugar. The stability of the cake’s structure. It’s the flavoring—chocolate, fruit, nuts, etc.—that makes a cake unique. So stick with a tried and true structure but spice it up on your own. Thanks for stopping by with that insightful comment, Jen.

      Posted by Staci Troilo | July 6, 2017, 6:15 am


  1. […] to the post, let me take a second for shameless self-promotion. You can find me guest lecturing at Romance University today. I’m discussing the six steps to writing a romance, and (because I love to cook) […]

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