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What can a romance novel teach you about love in real life? Quite a few things, actually. Once you understand what elevates an everyday relationship to the kind of passion that produces bestsellers, you’ll know where to find that coveted connection—and where you definitely won’t.

What’s a Love Story?

In the literary world, a story belongs to the romantic genre if it’s all about love at its core—take out the matchmaking plot, and most of the meat is gone. There’s a pretty diverse crowd that fits under that heading, from sweet and tender Nicholas Sparks novels to raunchy Fifty Shades of Gray to witty and historical Jane Austen. Although there’s no confusing Mr. Darcy for Christian Gray, there are a few cardinal rules followed across the genre that make for a satisfying story. Not surprisingly, these same rules play out in real-life romance, too.

Let’s consider an exemplary couple straight out of a drugstore paperback: Carla, a hot-shot rodeo cowgirl bent on making it big in the arena, and Chase, a hunky physician who’s just relocated from New York City to Carla’s Texas town. They meet when Carla dislocates her shoulder after falling off a bull and Chase is called in to treat it.

First impressions: When Carla and Chase meet, they feel primal attraction—but judgment and prejudice might keep them from dating at first. Carla doesn’t want to get in a relationship because training is her top priority, and Chase seems way too straight laced to understand rodeo. Chase, for his part, doesn’t want to date someone with such reckless (in his opinion) hobbies. But they make just enough of a connection that Chase decides to come out and watch Carla’s next rodeo.

Interpretation: In storybook love, there has to be time for the characters to get to know one another slowly before diving in deep. That doesn’t necessarily mean postponing dates or between-the-sheets activities (this happens pretty fast in some modern romances), but the emotional intimacy can’t be rushed. Romance is about walls tumbling down; moving too quickly can be more catastrophic than liberating.

The bond: After Carla spots Chase on the sidelines of her rodeo, she invites him to join the team for drinks after. They start to discover things they share in common, like Chase’s unexpected love of country music. On a deeper level, Carla and Chase slowly begin to realize that they complement—and maybe even need—each other. Carla, who secretly craves tenderness, finds it in Chase. He, on the other hand, finds in her the warmth and spirit he lacked in his strict New England upbringing.

Interpretation: In a page-turning romance, both characters need something only the other can provide. If only Carla benefitted from a relationship with Chase, and he felt largely indifferent, she’d be more a parasite than a girlfriend rooted for by readers. So if you’re pursuing someone who consistently rebuffs your attempts for emotional intimacy, or if you’re the one being pursued by someone who frankly drains you, it’s not a recipe for real love.

Mutual sacrifice: Carla and Chase eventually realize their feelings are overwhelming their resolve to stay single and avoid potential heartache. For them to work as a couple, Chase must come around to embracing Carla’s rodeo lifestyle—he must decide that not only is he okay with it, but that he wants to be a part of it. Carla, on the other hand, has to take into account that love means being a little more cautious—when she puts herself in danger with risky moves in the ring, she’s also putting Chase on the line now. The two of them decide these sacrifices are worth it for a real shot at romance, and by the last page of their story, it looks like they’ve got it lassoed up.

Interpretation: What if Chase had given up being a doctor to support Carla’s rodeo career full time? Or if Carla had backed out of rodeo altogether at Chase’s request? The problem with these endings is, they’re not equal sacrifices. In real life, too, asking one person to give up their career, move across the country, or ditch their friends should be balanced by a gesture of equal magnitude. It’s about transitioning from two people, each driven by his or her motivations and desires, to a team with a unified purpose: love.

That’s not all there is to storybook love, of course. Chase will never make Carla wonder if she’s really his heart’s desire by forgetting to call her for weeks, and Carla won’t trash talk him to her rodeo buddies. They might have rocky times, and they might even forget to cherish their hard-won relationship sometimes, but they’ll always come back together eventually.

In real life, your hero might not be a cowboy or girl. They could be a software developer or a chef or a preschool teacher.They might not have washboard abs worthy of gracing the cover of a drugstore paperback, either. That’s okay. Eight-packs and leather chaps are beside the point. Romance is, at its core, about the sheer will, bravery, and compassion of two individuals who decide to nurture their bond against even the most treacherous odds.

Before you can begin a romance, you have to meet the right person. Advisors at KEEN.com can help you find the other half of your storybook love.