I think I’m about to hit the middle of my WIP, well, the beginning of the middle of the new version of the WIP…. I love your approach to the romance plot. Your lessons are always like a light bubble over my head. So, what should really be there in the middle of a romance novel? In your lesson about the romance plot, you wrote the stages of the relationship with emphasis on physical and emotional intimacy. But it’s really varies depending on the couple, and I’m not really sure what would be best for my characters. And while the purpose is to get them closer, how do I make sure that there’s still tension, that the conflict do a double job of bringing them together and also tearing them apart? All this thinking in advance, plotting all the journey, is confusing for my pantsing muse.
Thanks! I’m glad you like my lessons about romance plots.
Yes, you want to get your characters closer…but you want to do this while maintaining the conflict. The attraction factors are generally things that are not the conflict.
If my heroine doesn’t trust people with blonde hair and blue eyes and the hero has blonde hair and blue eyes that is a problem all the way through the book. That said…there may be times that she would notice traits other than his blonde hair and blue eyes. She might notice that he is protective…that he risked his own life to rescue her from the swirling waters of the river. She might like that…be attracted to that. She might notice that he treats her with respect…that he doesn’t talk down to her or treat her like she is silly or like her concerns aren’t worthy of attention…and she might be attracted to that…she might begin to feel that he’s the only one who really treats her with care, concern, respect. All in spite of the fact that he has blue eyes and blonde hair. She might begin to be attracted to the blue eyed blonde haired man…in spite of having a basic distrust of people who have those physical characteristics. So…there is tension between her attraction and her distrust. She is attracted to him…beginning to fall for him…but if he does anything that puts his trustworthiness in question, you can bet she will immediately remember that he has blonde hair and blue eyes and that people with those characteristics can’t be trusted.
At some point…if they are going to ever reach their happy ever after she is going to have to learn that people with blonde hair and blue eyes can indeed be trusted…or at least this particular one can be.
So…in the middle there are going to need to be some places within the story where she can see his trustworthiness demonstrated and where she can begin to trust him more and more.
Of course…there is still that thread of mistrust…and when something happens she is probably always going to have a thread of suspicion wondering if he has cheated, stolen the diamonds, or whatever issues there are in this specific story.
Throughout the middle the heroine gets lots of chances to see the hero in a trustworthy light. She’s given lots of life-lessons to lead her to realize once and for all that he is trustworthy. But she doesn’t quite totally get there. Then the diamonds go missing and someone saw him in the room where they were kept…so now she believes she’s just been duped and he’s as untrustworthy as all of the other blonde haired, blue eyed people on the planet.
It’s not until she finds the jewels in the belongings of someone she trusted that she realizes she should have trusted him…that he’d given her no reason to distrust him. But by this time he’s tired of being maligned for things he didn’t do. He has given up on her ever being able to overlook the fact he’s got blonde hair and blue eyes. So he’s told her he’s finished and has left the kingdom.
In order to achieve her happy ever after the heroine will have to find him, to apologize, and to abandon once and for all her distrust of people with blonde hair and blue eyes…not just in terms of saying the words…but in actually really, fully believing them. Once this happens then the characters can have their happy ever after ending.
This is kind of a silly example of what happens in a story with a silly and made up conflict. What I’d like you to notice is that the conflict runs all the way through the story…sometimes stronger…sometimes simmering just below the surface. It’s the same general conflict or issues that spring from the original conflict that keep coming up again and again throughout the story.
Though I know your story I have specifically not given away any plot points or plot elements related to your story. Instead, I’ve tried to give examples that you can exchange for the issues in your story.
To answer your question about the middle and what is there, the middle of the romance novel is essentially the area where the characters must grow and change in order to be able to achieve their happy ever after ending.
The romance novel has several components which are important in terms of plotting.
What I’m going to provide here are kind of big pieces of the puzzle as far as what is going on at each point in the romance novel. If you (or others) have questions we can drill down deeper and get to a smaller scale. Before the smaller scale will make much sense I think you need to understand the bigger scale.
So…in the big picture sense romance novels have three parts…a beginning, a middle, and an end just like other types of stories do. Romances though are very specific. They are not about one man or woman’s journey or one man or woman’s struggle to overcome an obstacle as is the case with other types of stories. Romance novels are in essence about the convergence of two characters and their journey to form a working, lasting, happy ever after kind of romantic relationship.
At the beginning of the story we introduce our hero and heroine. The hero and heroine have both things about them that draw them together and things about them that push them apart. At the opening of the story the focus is usually on the things that push them apart as readers want a story with a high conflict. After all, if it was easy to see how the characters would work out their differences and form a happy ever after romantic relationship the story would not hold many questions or be very interesting to the reader.
Conflicts then, generally serve to create questions for the reader. There are specific ones relative to the crisis into which you dump your characters but the overriding question is how will these characters who are so different from each other, who have so much baggage that would pre-dispose them to not falling in love, ever fall in love?
At the opening the tension in the story largely comes from the elements that push the characters apart. That said, if the characters were so different that one couldn’t conceive of them ever being able to overcome their differences we would not engage in the story because we’d see it as a hopeless case in which the characters would be better off going their separate directions.
So…we embed positives into the characters. Often this is physical or sexual attraction that the characters themselves sometimes don’t understand. Other times it can be a sense of admiration that one character has for another…in spite of the things that separate them.
The tension then comes from the combination of the differences between the characters which keeps them apart and the attraction, physical or emotional, which draws them together.
At the opening the focus is more on the things that push the characters apart but there is enough attraction (and perhaps other plot elements which keep them together in the same geographic space—like being snowed in together, being forced to marry, being held captive, etc.) which force them to stay together.
As the characters are together longer they begin to see more of the things that attract them to each other. The differences are still there but they find it harder to focus on them because they are attracted to each other.
One of the primary factors that makes romance work…especially as we move into the late opening and early middle is that there is something about each character that makes the other character feel good when they are together…at least when they are not focusing on their differences. The more they see these positives…the more they spend time together and the more they realize that they make each other feel good (emotionally—not just physically) the harder it is to focus on the things that do separate them.
What provides the tension in the middle is that though they now have admiration and respect for each other the differences that originally stood between them are still there. They may FEEL emotionally drawn to each other. They may FEEL physically attracted. They may even begin to believe that they are falling in love but those differences are still there and they can’t quite get beyond them.
In the middle we play the attraction (physical and emotional) off against the original things that pushed the characters apart. Often the conflicts that create the greatest tension in the middle are those that stem from an emotional cause. If one fundamentally doesn’t trust himself he can’t simply wave his magic wand and cause himself to trust himself. He has to GROW as a person…learn that he IS trustworthy…valuable…good.
So…what are in the middle are essentially the lessons that the hero/heroine need to get in order to be able to finally, at the end, overcome their obstacles so that they can claim their happy ever after without reservation.
If the character in question hates his immortality and he cannot commit to the heroine because he envisions her growing older and eventually dying while he remains forever youthful and alive he will have to–through a progression of experiences that he has throughout the middle and early end of the story come to be willing to accept it. He may have an experience where he spends time with the heroine’s grandfather whose wife is dying. Perhaps grandpa tells him that he’d not have passed up the chance to share his life with the heroine’s grandma, even if he’d known she would die and leave him alone. This might give the hero food for thought…something that subtly changes his thoughts and feelings about being left behind.
There is still tension because the issue isn’t resolved. He knows the heroine wants the ring, the wedding, the promise of forever but he doesn’t want to commit because he knows in the end he’ll be left behind. After all, it has happened to him before…maybe many times…and he doesn’t think he can do it again. So…every time they are together…there are both good feelings that draw them together and bad feelings which push them apart.
This is where the tension is. It stems from this desire to be together…but this inability to take the leap…to fully commit in an emotional sense.
You maintain this tension all the way through the story. At a point toward the end of the middle or the beginning of the end…depending upon how you look at it…will be a point at which it looks like the characters have made their peace with the issues that have separated them. It looks like the characters should be able to achieve their happy ever after…but along comes the dark moment.
This is sort of the last hurrah for the conflict. All the stops are pulled out. The conflict raises its ugly head one more time and this time the characters appear to make the wrong choice. The hero may tell the heroine he can’t give her the life she wants and that it wouldn’t be fair of him to try…that he’s going his own way. Of course the heroine is devastated. But more importantly the hero is devastated. He realizes that he made the wrong choice…that by cutting the heroine loose he has simply moved the pain of someday losing her to now instead of sometime in the far distant future. The dark moment is like a final test in which the characters get a do over. They take the test. They fail. It looks as if the characters have lost their chance at happy ever after. But they’ve learned from this last test. This is like the final lesson that nails their personal growth and makes them finally capable of claiming their happy ever after.
What’s in the middle…which elements you play off against each other to maintain the tension in the beginning, middle, and on through the dark moment is different for each couple…each story. In general you will choose the big elements that separate the characters and plant them in the very early opening of your story. Then you will pull those same elements through the story…keeping them as a source of tension and conflict all the way through the story. The characters will try to solve the issues…try to come to find a way to solve the problem…but will never be quite successful until after the dark moment. The dark moment provides the last experience that catapults the character over the last hurdle finishing his/her personal growth and making him/her capable of claiming the happy ever after.
Do you see that before they achieve this last bit of learning/this last experience which puts everything into perspective they CAN’T claim happy ever after because there are still conflicts that are hanging out threatening to demolish the relationship?
It bears pointing out too that when we talk about the conflicts or the differences we are usually talking about the same conflict or difference or shades/variations of it all the way through the book. You don’t in general want the first part of the book to be about solving the issue of who owns the castle and the middle of the book to be about who stole the diamonds and the third part of the book to be about who fathered the baby. You want the conflict to be consistent and related growing/changing all the way through the book.
I hope this answers some of your questions on plot. Feel free to ask follow up questions.