the Romance Novel
Andi Ward & June Drexler
©2002, Andi Ward & June Drexler
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
reference books I have found useful in the writing of romance novels are Goal,
Motivation & Conflict by Donna Dixon (reviewed in Vision # 8 http://www.sscdc.net/hlvision/issue8/bookreview.htm)
and Writing Romances: A Handbook by the
Romance Writers of America, edited by Rita Gallagher and Rita Clay Estrada.
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.