Plotting the Romance Novel


Vision 12


Plotting the Romance Novel


Andi Ward & June Drexler

Copyright © 2002, Andi Ward & June Drexler, All Rights Reserved

"Romances are so easy to write," the saying goes. "Boy meets girl, girl hates boy, boy seduces girl, end of story. How hard can that be to come up with?"

Well, if that were all there was to the standard romance story, not hard at all. But, like any genre, or writing in general, nothing's as easy as it looks. Published authors have the subtleties down so well, it looks as easy as learning to dance from watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers movies, or performing gymnastics from watching the Olympics. However, when an author sits down and dissects a modern romance genre, and discovers how it's built, the complexity often surprises them. I know it did me when I first studied the genre a decade ago.

The focus on the emotional story defines a romance novel from other genres. The major conflict in the book isn't just whether the main characters will save the world, but whether they'll find fulfillment in their relationship together while they save the world. This requires not one, but two major plots, which must be intertwined for maximum effect. Writing romance requires a balancing act which is very difficult to maintain scene-to-scene, chapter-to-chapter, and still make it believable.

From my analysis, the average romance plot is primary in approximately 75% of the book, though it can be intertwined with the external plot in up to 40% of the book. The external plot only gets, at best, 25% of the scenes dedicated to it. Either the hero or the heroine is present in every scene, with perhaps a handful of scenes in the villain's point of view.  The villain is also, by the way, normally associated closer with the external plot than the romantic, though if that character can be tied into both, the story is much stronger.

All these points can be a lot harder than it looks from the outside, but it still isn't the most daunting part of writing a romance novel.

The hardest thing, for many writers, is creating an emotional conflict that can cover an entire book. For many genres, the emotional reactions of the characters are the gravy on the roast, not the juicy part itself. But for a romance novel, the emotional story is not only the entrée, but the entire meal. This is what the reader craves when they pick up a romance book, and it is something that is found only in this genre.

When I came to writing romances after many years reading the genre (but writing fantasy), I still did not understand this point. It took some time to discover that a romance plot does not merely detail the changing of the hero and heroine's feelings, or simply chronicle their interactions.  The plot is the formation of emotional goals, the hitting and being hit by emotional obstacles, and reaching the emotional conclusion of the Happily-Ever-After ending demanded by the genre. It has taken several years of conscious work to be able to consistently create these plots. This is true for many writers. They cannot quite grasp the idea that an emotional situation can be plot. Not only can the emotion make plot, however, in a romance novel, it must make the main plot.

As in any novel plot, the standard elements are present in romance as well: conflict, stakes, crisis points and the climax.

The romantic conflict is emotional, not merely situational. A decade or so ago, you would find romance novels where the hero and heroine were kept apart by a father or an arranged marriage to another person. These books are no longer marketable. Today, the romance reader expects the conflict to stem from the characters themselves  -- to well up from their beings and who they are inside.

Creating an emotional-based conflict can be done by answering one question: "Why is loving this person the worst thing this character can do at this moment?" If the answer is something that can be solved simply, then it is not strong enough to be the main conflict of a novel. Like any main conflict in any genre, it must worsen throughout the entire length of the manuscript. So if the answer can actually be solved if the hero and heroine just sit down for a heart-to-heart talk, it's not strong enough, and you need to dig deeper for something more heart-rending.

Stakes in the emotional plot are, understandably, all personal to the character. The hero and heroine should, however, still relate to the reader in a way that allows the reader  to sympathize with what the character is going through. To quote Donald A. Maass in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, "Dramatize the inner struggle. Bring its changes home in key moments of high drama." Nowhere is this inner struggle more apparent than in the emotional plot. Involving the emotions of both the reader and the characters is a vital element in escalating the stakes; all the author should need to do is to let that raw emotion onto the page to draw the reader in to the plot. The escalation of the emotional and external stakes can be tied together for the greatest effect as well.

"Crisis points" is a term I use to define points in the plot where the courses of actions change irrevocably and the hero and heroine have no choice but to try the next plan. Just as in external plots, the emotional plot needs to have such points along its route. A conflict that does not move through events and change is stagnant and boring. Scenes carry the emotional plot forward, just as they do the external one. The basic structure of a scene in an emotional plot is the same as for any other sort of plot. Characters set goals, obstacles challenge those goals to create scene conflicts and, at the end, the plot is moved forward. Any sort of book is likely to have scenes that alter the emotional relationship of the characters, but in romance, these scenes take center stage. On a larger scale, the bigger emotional problem is solved stage-by-stage, not all at once. The hero and heroine's relationship problems should not begin and end in a single scene.

The end of a romance novel has two climax scenes, one for each plot. Properly placed, the emotional plot's climax should be the last one in the book. In the external climax, the hero and heroine join forces and save their world, catch the murderer or whatever needs to be done. In the emotional climax, they resolve the last, and most personal, blocks against their making a lasting commitment to each other. Romance books no longer have to end with a wedding, though many of them do. The reader must close the book, knowing in her heart that these people will be together until the end, regardless of ceremony, and will live Happily-Ever-After. That's what they are reading for and that is what romance, as a genre, promises.

If you look at the basics, the structure of the romance plot is not all that different from that of any other genre. All of the elements are there, but doubled and very character-based. By focusing on the emotional aspects of the characters, rather than the situations those characters find themselves in, romance becomes a very complicated dance that is made to look easy by the skills and talents of the people writing it. As the saying goes, "Ginger did everything that Fred did, but backwards and in heels." Plotting a romance seems much the same.

Two reference books I have found useful in the writing of romance novels are Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Donna Dixon (reviewed in Vision # 8 and Writing Romances: A Handbook by the Romance Writers of America, edited by Rita Gallagher and Rita Clay Estrada.  


Andi Ward is a moderator of the RF Crit & Discussion boards and has had one small-press romance novel published. June Drexler has been an avid romance reader for decades and has won an RWA contest for her writing. Both ladies have been RWA members since 1995. They are presently writing as a team, targeting Silhouette's Intimate Moments line.