As a pantser, I bristle at formulas and checklists, so what follows is a collection of lessons I learned about plotting a romance novel while writing (and rewriting) my first one.
But first, some background. I came to romance late. The genre just didn’t cross my path until 2014 when I met a group of amazing, funny, and brilliant romance writers through PitchWars. I soon fell in love with their books and their genre, and I decided to try my hand at writing a romance novel, figuring that it wouldn’t be harder to write than any other kind of book.
Obviously, I was wrong. Here’s what I’d tell myself of four years ago.
7 Lessons for Plotting a Romance Novel
When it comes to plotting a romance novel, here are seven lessons I’d wished I’d known at the beginning.
Read a lot of romance.
Read even more romance.
Develop your characters.
Torture the heroine/hero.
Everything that happens moves the relationship forward.
Scene and sequel.
Talk with other writers.
While there’s no surefire method for guaranteeing a book’s success, I hope these lessons can help.
1. Read a Lot of Romance
Get the structure into your brain and heart and fingers. Craft books, blog posts, and beat sheets will tell you that significant forward progress happens at the 50-percent mark, and that the black moment should land around 80 percent, but if you’ve internalized how romance novels work, these key plot moments will arise naturally as you write. You’ll be building toward them without realizing it.
For those who want the terminology and structure spelled out explicitly, I recommend Gwen Hayes’s Romancing the Beat (for romance-specific structure) and Save the Cat (which sets up the structure for any three-act commercial novel). Also, the beat sheets on Jami Gold’s site. Please note: if you’re not a plotter, these beat sheets are an excellent way to diagnose a problem in a pantsed draft.
2. Read Even More Romance
Learn the nuances of the genre. RWA defines romance as, “a tale with a central love story and an emotionally satisfying ending (aka HEA or HFN),” but as I learned from my romance-writer CPs, there are conventions that need to be, if not followed, at least acknowledged.
For example, in my first draft, both protagonists struggled with attractions to their exes—a definite no-no in the genre. These more nuanced conventions can be smaller, scene based-things—like characters having a conversation about condoms before having sex—but they can be larger things about how characters behave, and that can lead to plot problems (hence two of my rewrites).
Hot tip: For this lesson, it’s essential to read in your own subgenre. I’d also recommend seeing if there’s a local RWA chapter where you can speak to other romance writers in person.
3. Develop Your Characters
Because romance novels rely on tropes and formulas, the thing that makes one truly great is the characters.
Know what makes your characters tick at their deepest levels.
What are they afraid of? What drives their decision-making process? What scars do they have? What contradictions define who they are and who they think they are? How far apart are their perceptions of themselves from their actual selves?
Knowing better than your characters what drives them will make it easier to come up with believable internal obstacles—which will help you avoid relying on external problems to keep them apart, like the dreaded “misunderstanding that could be resolved with a quick conversation.”
Deep knowledge of the character also sets you up for the black moment perfectly. Even if you have no idea where they will physically be or what external thing will set them off, you will know where they will be emotionally and how they can be triggered to retreat to their default settings. This knowledge means you can start setting up for the big meltdown as early as scene one.
Here are some resources you can use:
- Story Genius exercises are great for digging deep into characters.
- Debra Dixon’s classic craft book Goals, Motivation, and Conflict is another great tool.
Hot tip: I also recommend googling “Character Interview” to find lists of questions to ask your characters.
4. Torture the Heroine/Hero
Not literally, of course—unless the book calls for some fun, consensual torture. Then by all means! What I mean by this is build your setting and situation as another layer of character development. What setting and situation will make them want to be the best version of themselves, but have them falling into their defensive, default worst selves?
5. Everything that Happens Moves the Relationship Forward
As someone new to the genre, this was one of the more difficult things for me to learn about plotting a romance novel. As much work as you put into the protagonists, remember that in some ways, the central character of a romance novel is the relationship.
Even when one of the characters is not in the scene, they should be present.
Whether you create an outline before you start writing, or if you only do it when the draft has totally gone off the rails, at some point in your drafting process make yourself write a sentence about how each scene develops the relationship. No cheating by saying, “It moves the relationship forward.” Be specific.
6. Scene and Sequel
This was perhaps the most helpful plotting tool my romance friends taught me. The idea, based on a book by Dwight Swain, is that in “scenes” things happen, and in “sequels” characters rest and reflect.
Obviously, the plot must keep moving forward even during a rest, but the challenge the character faces comes from external pressure in a scene, internal in a sequel.
In a thriller, you might have a lot of scenes in a row to make the pace relentless, but we read romance novels to watch characters grow. They need time to sort out what just happened and their feelings about it. As a result, I structured my third (and final) rewrite with an almost one-to-one, scene-to-sequel ratio.
7. Talk with Other Writers
Romance is a community. I would never have written a romance novel if not for the romance writers in my life answering my questions, giving me feedback, and sharing their work and reading recommendations with me. If you’re not sure where to start, come on over to the All The Kissing Facebook group and say hello!