For all budding Romance Writers out there, and for those of us who might like to dive into the complexities of personal relationships…editor Sarah Calfee shares a step by step guide to getting the romance plot sizzling.
The Romance Plot by Sarah Calfee
Guess what most romance authors do on Valentine’s Day—they duck and run for cover. This is the time of year the media pounces on them as “love experts” and asks tongue-in-cheek questions which are usually thinly veiled insults to the romance genre as a whole.
I have a whole lot of opinions about why romance is awesome, and how it is (and has always been) progressive and ahead of the learning curve socially. But for today, and as a romance editor, I’d like to discuss the romance plot and how, contrary to popular belief, it is actually extremely difficult to write.
The main reason the romance plot is so challenging is because it’s all about emotion. The core conflict results from the two romantic leads’ individual emotional issue—some pain or flaw, an attitude or personal belief—which prevents them from being capable of sustaining a happily ever after (HEA) even if they are in love.
Here’s an example of this concept from the source of all modern romance, Pride and Prejudice, where Lizzy is judgmental and Mr Darcy is arrogant. Mr Darcy falls in love with Lizzy, long before his emotional growth, and the first time he asks her to marry him he totally insults her, her family, and her connections, and pronounces himself a fool to even ask for her hand. You can surmise Lizzy’s answer.
Yet another difficulty is that, since the central plot is all about emotion, the conflict and its resolution must occur internally. The author has to continuously show the subtle adjustments of thoughts and belief systems as the two leads grow emotionally. And it must be done in an interesting and compelling manner. This is very tricky! Repetitive and overabundant internalization is definitely a pitfall in romance writing.
To further discuss the romance plot, I’ve outlined a map which you can view below. However, while it does keep track of all the major plot points necessary to make a romance successful, I must warn that it’s difficult to follow in practice for several reasons.
First the romantic leads—who I’ll refer to as H1 and H2 from now on—are not only each a protagonist, they also play antagonist to the other, at least emotionally. Second, layered invisibly over the romance plot are H1 and H2’s character arcs—which is the actual romance story. H1 and H2 are also moving through the romance plot on separate trajectories, and this means they don’t always hit their plot points at the same time, particularly after the midpoint. Finally, the plot points within the sequences can, and often do, occur in a different order.
The setup sequence introduces H1 and H2 and their emotional issue. This shows the reader the protagonist/antagonist dynamic between the two central characters. The meet-cute is a scene where H1 and H2 first meet and feel attraction to the other.
The next plot point is no way. H1 and H2 must define why they cannot have any kind of romantic association with the other person. The inciting incident is the thing that forces H1/H2 together. It can be a shared secret, a goal, or forced proximity—like H1 is a reporter, H2 is a rock star, and their boss/manager is making them go on tour together.
The falling-in-love sequence begins next. H1 and H2 each redefine (no way 2) the reason why they can’t be in a romantic relationship. However, they are each attracted and forced to hang out—giving them the motivation to emotionally negotiate with themselves and create new parameters. I am allowed to hang out—maybe have sex?—with H1/H2 because X, and it doesn’t count because Y and Z.
The love bubble scenes are all about H1/H2 bonding, learning to trust, perhaps becoming lovers. This is a place for banter and fun. Pre-midpoint—this is the run up to the midpoint, where H1 and H2’s relationship peaks. If there are internal doubts about the relationship, they should occur here, then be shoved down deep to make room for happiness and the stirrings of love.
The midpoint occurs at about 50% of the manuscript. In a romance, this is H1/H2 realizing they are falling in love or in love already. The external version of this can be a first kiss or first sexual encounter that actually means something. There no room for doubts in this scene.
We have now reached the retreating from love sequence. The post-midpoint scene(s) shows H1 and H2 reflecting on how falling in love has changed everything and dismantles H1/H2’s original negotiation.
For the romantic journey to continue, H1 and H2 must each individually have negotiation 2, a new bargain that allows each to pursue their relationship and retain their emotional issue. The following scenes show H1/H2 walking the tightrope, they may continue falling in love, but the problems fueled by their emotional issues grow and make their relationship shaky.
The pre-breakup scene(s) forces H1/H2 to face their emotional issue head on and be totally destroyed by it. The external reaction is the breakup scene.
The final sequence is fighting for love. After the break up, H1 and H2 should each have their black moment, showing H1/H2 thoroughly wallowing in their emotional issue, feeling certain they made the right decision.
The next major plot point is the catharsis where a) H1/H2 realize how and why they messed up, b) that they can’t live without the other person in their life, and c) they must fight to get them back.
Sometimes that means a grand gesture—like the mad dash to the airport.
Negotiation 3 is the makeup scene that showcases H1 and H2’s healed emotional issue. Errors are admitted. Misunderstandings are made clear. Secrets are confessed. H1 and H2 create a new emotional bargain—together.
The HEA scene is usually an epilogue that shows the reader what happily ever after looks like for the couple.
Like the romance-plot map, these explanations are bare bones. While romance novels follow this structure, the ways in which they do so is infinitely varied. As a romance reader I can state emphatically that this plot with a guaranteed HEA is unbelievably satisfying when done well. I mean—I get choked up every single time I watch or read P&P, and I have the story entirely memorized.
In conclusion, romance is awesome but challenging to write. If I’ve managed to convert you to Team Romance and you’d like to learn more about writing it, I recommend reading Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes
If you’ve already written a romance and are in the market for a romance editor, I highly recommend myself, Sarah Calfee 😊
About Sarah Calfee
I was born in Quebec, Canada, lived in the USA for twenty years (Baton Rouge, Orlando, Chicago), and spent two years in Dublin, Ireland. For the past nine years, I’ve lived in London and loved it. Living on both sides of the pond has given me an excellent ear for both American and British English. This means I can help characters swear authentically in either idiom. You’re welcome!
Why am I an editor?
Because I’m a total story addict, and it’s a fun way to support both my habit and my family. The reason I became a romance specialist is because there are many different genre-specific story structures with different plot points (or beats) to follow, and I wanted to become an expert in one. This allows me to help romance authors with the intricacies of the romance story structure—which never ever gets boring because…romance subgenres. (I love them all!)
If you’re an author with a manuscript that features love with oh-so-many reasons the couple just can’t be together, only to have them find their happily ever after at the end—you’ve come to the right place. Whatever your preferred subgenre (historical mysteries, friends to lovers, romantic suspense), I can help you and your book reach your very own HEA.
To find out whether I’m the right editor for you, please contact me for a free sample edit.
• 500 to 800 word line/copy edit
• Email correspondence
• Fee assessment
You can find out more about Sarah Calfee and the services that she offers: Three Little Words Editing
Connect to Sarah on: Twitter
My thanks to Sarah for this fascinating post into the romantic twists and turns needed to write a compelling romance story.