How to Write Dark Romance Books: Defining This Alluring Genre

Bella Rose Emmorey
March 02, 2024 | 11 mins

If you want to learn how to write dark romance books (aka dark “spicy” romance), it’s probably because you already enjoy reading the genre. And it definitely means you’re embarking on an interesting career.

This genre is specifically unique because of its overall tone and, well, dark themes. But dark romance is quite a large subgenre that covers many topics. So we’ll cover everything you need to know about what dark romance is – and how to write it.

What is dark romance?

Dark romance is a book genre that combines the intensity of romance with the allure of darkness. It can include sci-fi, fantasy, angels, demons, mythical creatures, and more. It delves into the depths of human emotions, exploring the complexities of love and desire in unconventional ways. 

Dark romance books fall into a subgenre of fiction literature characterized by themes of love, passion, and (often) obsession, set against a backdrop of darkness, danger, or taboo. It delves into complex relationships marked by elements of psychological turmoil, moral ambiguity, and sometimes, even the macabre. Dark romance books often explore the depths of human desire and push the boundaries of acceptable behavior, blurring the lines between love, destruction, and even abuse.

That may spark the question: is dark romance abuse?

You may encounter dark romance books that contain content typically considered taboo by society, like abuse, stalking, kidnapping, BDSM, punishment, and more. But that doesn’t mean that the books themselves are abusive or are reflective of true stories. They are written and read by people who understand the content – and there is always the option to stop reading.

Basically, nothing is off the table in this genre.

What is the difference between spicy romance vs dark romance?

Being able to answer the question, “What is dark romance?” might also require the ability to define spicy romance. Dark romance books likely have an abundance of spice, but spicy romance books aren’t always dark.

Spicy romance narratives contain sexually explicit scenes and primarily revolve around passionate and intimate relationships between characters. While conflicts and obstacles within the relationship are present, the overall tone remains lighter, with a central emphasis on the development of love and desire between protagonists.

In contrast, the entire plot, storyline, and character relationships are darker. The story may explore complex relationships characterized by danger, obsession, manipulation, or violence. A novel in this genre almost always contains at least one morally ambiguous character and examines themes such as power dynamics, psychological trauma, and the darker facets of human nature.

Why do readers find dark romance novels so intoxicating?

Though not for everyone, a casual scroll through Booktok or different book blogs will reveal that spicy romance or dark romance books have a large and very passionate following.

Readers are drawn to dark romance for its emotional intensity, taboo themes, dangerous romance tropes, complex characters, escapism, sensuality, exploration of power dynamics, unique stories, and cathartic experience.

WARNING/NOTE: It’s important to note that just because someone reads dark romance novels that they have certain trauma or want to be treated a particular way. Instead, these novels provide an eyebrow-raising and emotionally charged reading experience for those who enjoy exploring the darker aspects of human nature and relationships in a safe and fictional context. It gives its readers permission to explore really dark romance without the guilt or shame often present in other places within our society.

Knowing why readers love a genre will always help you write a better fiction novel. Don’t ignore the elements they love most (more on that now).

Tips to learn how to write dark romance books that lure in more readers

Dark romance is a popular and rapidly growing book genre, especially on platforms like TikTok where readers like to share their collections and reaction videos to some of the more shocking moments in the books their reading.

Readers of dark romance rarely take a “break” from this genre and are avid readers via kindle unlimited specifically (to obscure the book cover).

Learning how to write dark romance fiction is different from learning how to write a romance novel in general. Here are some tips that will take you to the darker side of this genre.

1. Embrace the taboo (with trigger warnings)

Controversial elements and themes, like forbidden love, obsession, betrayal, and manipulation, are common in dark romance books. Readers expect them and often seek certain character dynamics, so if you want to write a romance novel that goes right past sweet and loving into the downright taboo, do! Embrace the darkness.

But handling these themes with sensitivity and respect is essential – and a fine line to walk in this specific genre. You can hire a sensitivity reader who specifically reads this type of romance or make sure your professional book editor knows about and considers these in their edits. 

Including trigger warnings in your dark romance book

Dark romance books can be highly triggering and even traumatic. Not everyone may know what your book is about by the cover. So authors of dark romance should consider including warnings for sensitive topics and themes that may disturb or trigger readers.

We suggest trigger warnings for the following:

  • Graphic violence or gore
  • Sexual assault or abuse
  • Self-harm or suicide
  • Substance abuse or addiction
  • Mental illness or psychological trauma
  • Dubious consent or non-consensual situations
  • Depictions of unhealthy relationships or emotional manipulation
  • Explicit sexual content
  • Death or mortality themes
  • Themes related to abuse of power or control

We always advise our dark romance authors to include warnings in the description of their books (in addition to in the book itself) when self-publishing on Amazon for two very important reasons:

  • It’s more visible to potentially triggered readers, so you’re not making them take another step to open the book (via the “look inside” feature) that could contain triggers for them.
  • It helps people who are specifically looking for that type of content. There are always people actively searching for something they find desirable in their dark romance reads. In this example, your trigger warning may actually serve as helpful keywords.

In both scenarios, including trigger warnings allows readers to make informed decisions about whether the content is suitable for them and helps prioritize their emotional well-being.

Example of a dark romance book with plenty of taboos: 

Captive In The Dark By Cj Roberts - Dark Romance Book Examples

Captive in the Dark by C.J. Roberts includes kidnapping, human trafficking, and other disturbing themes that leave readers with very mixed reviews. Despite that, it still became a best-seller, proving plenty of readers are looking for this.

2. Create complex, wounded characters

Dark romance thrives on complex, deeply flawed, multi-dimensional, and polarizing characters. You need complicated character motivations, inner demons, and personal struggles (that they often lose). They should be hard to like and easy to hate. It’s what makes for the dark content in the first place. 

If you want to know how to write dark romance books, you need to focus extra time on the character arc. We recommend using a character bio template to get this right. But keep in mind that you don’t want your character to necessarily “outgrow” the taboo or dark elements, as if they’re wrong. They can outrun their demons, but those demons don’t have to be the fact that they’re into BDSM (this audience in particular will not take kindly to the idea that BDSM is something to outgrow).

The point of dark romance books is that these elements are the norm for these people.

Example of a dark romance book with complex characters: 

Fifty Shades Of Grey Series By E.l. James - Dark Romance Books Examples

In the famous Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James, Christian Grey is a wealthy and successful businessman with a dark past and a penchant for BDSM. He is deeply flawed and haunted by his traumatic childhood, which makes him complex and intriguing as a romantic lead in this dark romance.

3. Master the art of creating (sexual) tension

You’ll also want to get really good at creating tension and conflict in your writing. Proper pacing helps with this a lot, but the tension also has to come from plot devices. 

This genre especially uses the story’s conflict to create a sense of urgency and passion. You can do this for your book by including external obstacles like societal norms, family opposition, or internal struggles like emotional trauma, self-doubt, and conflicting desires. 

The push-and-pull dynamic between the protagonists heightens the emotional stakes and adds depth to the romance.

Example of a dark romance novel filled with tension:

Haunting Adeline By H.d. Carlton - Dark Romance Novel Examples

Haunting Adeline by H.D. Carlton took BookTok by storm and is a great example of a book with plenty of tension and a cat-and-mouse that covers very, very dark topics. Not all dark romance books are horror books, but this one certainly is.

Note: This book was previously banned on Amazon due to the dark nature of its content. Please read the trigger warnings and some reviews before reading or purchasing.

4. Invest time and thought in the setting

The setting of a story always plays a significant role in creating the mood and tone – often doubly so when learning how to write dark romance books. The scenario or setting can often be what’s taboo. Or you choose a setting that enhances the dark and brooding atmosphere of the story, like a fantasy underworld, decaying mansion, a haunted castle, or a forbidden island, evoking a sense of foreboding and mystery.

On the flip side, if you really want a challenge or to swing the other way, choose a setting like a beach or a ski retreat to set the story. You’ll have to work extra hard to set the tone, but the jarring nature of the story with a bright, happy setting can make your book more interesting.

Example of a dark romance novel with a surprising setting:

Twist Me, By Anna Zaires - Examples Of Dark Romance Stories

Twist Me, by Anna Zaires, is a recent New York Times Bestseller that employs the latter strategy we discuss here. The protagonist is kidnapped and taken to a private tropical island. But the story is fair from a light vacation read.

5. Go into the deepest depths of human emotions

Emotions are confusing, can be contradictory, and sometimes completely unwelcome. This emotional intensity—delving into the deep emotions of love, lust, desire, and pain—is a primary part of dark romance novels. Take time to describe and highlight your characters’ raw and visceral emotions as they navigate their complicated relationship.

The deeper you can go, and the darker, the more invested a reader will be in your character. Again, ensure you include any advance content warnings for the depths you’ll be exploring.

Example of a dark romance novel that takes you on an emotional rollercoaster:

The Siren By Tiffany Reisz - Examples Of Dark Romance

The Siren by Tiffany Reisz is described by readers and book bloggers as being “complicated.” It balances dark themes, erotic scenes, morally ambiguous actions, and even humor. And, yes, it will bring up a lot of confusing emotions for most of its readers.

6. Make the Plot Purposeful

The real answer to, “what is dark romance?” means understanding and acknowledging the morally questionable subject matter while still recognizing that there is a plot. Sure, there are many books that are more smut than plot. And while some readers certainly enjoy this, others truly want a good story to go along with their dark romance read.

It’s not just about the romance. And that’s what you should remember if you want to learn how to write a dark romance novel. To maintain the tone and genre style, focus on plots that explore themes that either go with or completely contradict the romantic content you write about.

Example of a dark romance book with a strong plot:

Killing Sarai By J.a. Redmerski - Examples Of Dark Romance Books

You can tell that Killing Sarai by J.A. Redmerski isn’t lighthearted just by the book title. The main character’s motivation – and the theme that moves this book along – is revenge. It’s also a great example of how to write a dark romance book that serves more than smut.

Final notes on how to write dark romance fiction

Learning how to write a dark romance novel is not for the faint of heart. You should be willing to push the boundaries of societal norms – and be prepared for potential backlash.

For this reason, many dark romance authors decide to write and publish their books under a pen name or with ambiguous titles (you can use a romance book title generator to help you do that!).

Due to the sensitive nature of the content you should also be very diligent with your editing and review process. Beta readers are a great way to get initial feedback on your book and story. These are readers who consume your book when it’s “done” to the best of your ability but before hiring a professional editor. They’ll read chunks of your book at a time and respond to questions you give them. This ultimately helps you understand how new readers will understand your books, and you’ll often find opportunities for big edits to adjust clarity.

You can also hire a book writing coach to help you make sure you are doing this controversial genre justice.

Finally, many dark romance authors also opt to self-publish due to the fact that many publishers simply won’t publish the work. This lets you explore all the darkness you choose to – while keeping 100% of the royalties in your hands. And, if you plan to write a series or multiple fiction books, this is a great way to start your path toward becoming a full-time fiction author.

If you want to learn more about your options as a dark romance writer, watch our free webinar. Becoming a published, bestselling author doesn’t just have to be a dream – we help people make it a reality every day!

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