There’s no one way to plot a romance. Everyone has their own system of structuring. Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes is a popular one many romance writers swear by. I’m not great at following anyone else’s mold. The way I work is making things up for myself, and finding the way I need to do things. Below is the structure I’ve come up with for myself in the twelve or so romance novels I’ve written. But I’m not necessarily telling you to follow it. This is one example. Go forth and search for yours!
When I plot a romance, I plan for not one, not two, but three main character arcs. The main characters–the lovers–are arcs one and two. And then there is the relationship. The relationship gets its own arc, as though it’s a third main character.
The hero’s journey plot structure almost works for the relationship arc — just replace “the quest” with “the relationship.”
1) Call to Adventure / The Meet Cute
Here’s where the lovers meet. Where the seeds of their relationship are sown. There’s both attraction and conflict. The groundwork for the potential to reach an HEA (happily-ever-after), along with enough conflict to last the length of a novel, is set.
2) Refusal of the Call / Rejection of the Relationship
One or both of the main characters are in denial about the attraction, or there’s some external reason in their way, so that this cannot possibly work out. Here the relationship is still very much at odds. We learn the reasons why the relationship won’t work, and the external plot reasons why they cannot be together. But also… there are hints that they can’t quite stop thinking about each other, and something big is going to happen between them. It’s usually a situation of “they doth protest too much.”
3) Acceptance of the Quest / Giving the relationship a chance
This is the “First Threshold” or the beginning of Act Two. For some reason, despite their attempts to stay apart, they’re forced to work together, often toward a common goal, sometimes as a reluctant agreement to date. There’s often some challenge that cannot be overcome without the other. They must accept some sort of relationship is developing, though they are still adamant HEA is not in the cards for them at all. There’s still conflict and resistance to permanence and no mentions of love, but they must face the truth: in order to continue on their journey, they will need to work together.
4) Trials and Temptations / Three Dates
This is the first relationship development section. Usually there’s a first date that happens here, and other challenges. I’ve heard Liz Pelletier of Entangled say there’s usually three dates in this section, if there are dates, which not every romance has per say. But the lovers are together for a period of time, interacting in a get-to-know-you scenario demonstrating relationship chemistry in at least three major scenes. Each scene both deepens their affinity but also reaffirms the reason they cannot be together. It’s a “three steps forward two steps back” pattern.
5) Midpoint Crisis / I-need-you-but-can’t-have-you
In many romances, this is where some major form of physical intimacy takes place. A first kiss, a first love making, a first uninhibited admittance of, “I really like having you in my life.” There’s an intense moment of believing or seeing a glimpse of how meaningful this relationship could become. But it’s quickly dashed to pieces, often by one or the other getting scared by the growing intimacy and some external plot force tearing them apart.
6) The Road Back / Pulling Back Together
Something most likely in the external plot forces them back together for some reason. They’re forced to work together, and the attraction is stronger than ever. The relationship development that had begun in the first half now deepens. Often their deepest fears are confessed, they’re left vulnerable and open to each other, and real intimacy builds.
7) The Fall
They fall for each other, hard. There’s usually another big moment of physical intimacy here, often lovemaking in a way that is meaningful. In romances where the couple has been engaging in casual sex, usually the love scene here is truly making love for the first time. They will separately admit they’ve fallen for the other, though not necessarily acknowledging it to each other. Sometimes one will declare themselves, but the other doesn’t reciprocate for some reason related to their internal flaw or wound.
8) Dark moment / The Break Up
They’re done. They’re over. The relationship is never going to happen. Their lives are in crisis. They try to go back to their ordinary world, and it’s a dismal fail. They’re irrevocably changed by the other person. They’re lost and miserable in their loneliness.
9) The Sacrifice
There’s a decision made by one or both of the lovers. Their clinging to the fear of the wound/flaw is overcome. There’s a letting go or sacrificing of the misbelief they’ve been carrying around this whole time, and giving up on the external plot reason for them not being together. The realization that whatever fear was stopping them is insignificant to their love for the other person.
There’s a declaration of love, a communion of the relationship. This is where the magic of the HEA comes to completion. It’s usually at first met with some trepidation. This is their first big leap of faith and giving of their hearts to each other. The trust circle between them is complete.
11) Denouement / The HEA.
The romance reader has to have their denouement. They want a glimpse of the lovers in their new HEA world, to make sure that everything is going okay. There’s usually a scene including friends and family, gaining an acknowledgement of the new relationship from important people in their lives. There’s a renewed promise of forever.
That’s not everything. There’s so much more to it. But that’s the broad stroke of what I’m thinking about when I plot the romance relationship of my romance novels. There’s separate work that goes into each character’s internal arc, and then there’s the planning of the external plot as well.
I’m sure you do it differently. Feel free to share what works for you!
Robin Lovett is a romance writer for Entangled Publishing and St. Martin’s Press Swerve. She writes some sci-fi erotic and some dark romance thrillers–but always intense sexy books. She loves to chat on Twitter @LovettRomance and every Sunday evening you can find her with other romance writers at #RWChat. She is represented by Rachel Brooks of BookEnds Literary Agency.