I am teaching a workshop on developing emotional and sexual tension in the romance novel this month at OIRWA. I posted a slightly longer and more in depth version of this post in the workshop on Thursday. One of the comments on the lesson was that it provided a good description of the turning points in a romance novel–and that it provided just enough of a sense of structure that the pantser could use it as a guide while retaining the fluidity of pantsing. That made me think that some of those who read this blog might find it useful also. So…here it is in a slightly altered form for the blog.
A romance novel is about the developing relationship between protagonists. Given this, there are specific things that are of importance in romance novels.
Given that a romance novel of any sort is about a developing romantic relationship, it stands to reason that your plot will be determined by important points in the relationship between your characters. Conflict, emotional tension, sexual tension, suspense, and eventually resolution will come from the ways in which your characters react to the events that happen at certain points in the relationship.
There are several important points in any romance novel. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a list that hits the high points, which is enough to get you started.
First of all, there is the point at which the characters meet or reunite after being apart for a period of time. This is the beginning point of most romance novels. The meeting or reunion is rife with seeds for conflict. It is the conflict that propels the plot…dragging the reader into the story.
Whatever the conflict is at the outset, it gets worse as a result of what the characters do at the initial meeting or reunion or because of an outside pressure. The outside pressure is a tool of romance writers which often works to keep protagonists together. I mean, if we went to our class reunion, saw the boy who broke our heart in high school, and he still set us on edge, we would go home and forget him right?
But we can’t do that in romance, because it would be a very short book and because it would not have a happy ever after ending. Given that, we need to develop a reason why the characters must stay in close proximity where they are forced to endure each other. This can be thought of as putting them in the pressure cooker and applying the heat.
Now that we have our characters trapped together and forced to stay together with the heat on high things can really begin to escalate and it usually gets worse before it gets better. Whatever conflicts existed before grow in magnitude. Whatever irritations there were before, they grow when the characters are put under pressure. The hero and heroine at this point in their relationship are not happy. Given their freedom they would go their own ways…but they can’t do that. You’ve got them trapped in the pressure cooker with the heat on high.
So, since they are forced to be together, they decide to put their differences aside and call a truce. It is at this point that they begin to allow their attraction to each other to surface. While the points before might have been rife with frustration, anger, banter and battle between your hero and heroine, at this point they begin to recognize that they are not getting anywhere by beating their heads against the walls. While there may have been a lot of sexual tension between them before, the sexual tension and emotional tension between them tends to grow at this point in the relationship as the physical attraction remains steady or grows and the emotional attraction begins to grow. The characters are no longer just attracted physically, and wishing they weren’t, now they are beginning to feel emotionally attracted as well. Often (maybe even usually, or most of the time) they are still wishing they weren’t attracted at all because they just can’t see a way for things to work out in a way that isn’t painful for them.
Though they may no longer be fighting each other, though they may have called a truce, and may be working on the same side at this point, the relationship has changed. Their emotional attraction (and the emotional tension) has deepened as has the sexual tension.
The characters are no longer arch enemies but have managed to build a grudging respect for each other. There will probably still be big issues between them. These can be either external issues (they both want the same land) but it is usually tinged with an internal element as well. By this time the reader should understand why the piece of land is important to both characters. The land should have emotional significance to both characters. The issue has taken on a deeper emotional meaning because by this time the characters care about each other. They do still both want the piece of land, but not at any cost as they did at the outset. At this point they wish that there was a way that both could win…though they usually don’t yet see how this is possible.
The grudging respect grows, the attraction, and sexual tension between them grows. At this point, they will stay together if you let them out of the pressure cooker. At this point they usually really wish that they could see a way for things to end happily between them. They’ve by this time battled physical (sexual) attraction and emotional attraction. All of their battles and struggles have only resulted in them becoming more physically and sexually attracted. Eventually willpower and the knowledge that things can’t end happily is no longer enough and they give in and share their first sexual intimacy, sometimes a kiss…sometimes more.
The romantic relationship continues to grow; the conflicts that they once had begin to recede, though new ones may rise. The general flavor though is that the characters are falling in love. They have decided to put their previous conflicts aside (as much as they can) and they begin to build a relationship which becomes steadily more important to both of them. Both characters by this time have changed and grown either because the relationship has shown them the need for personal growth or because the relationship has in some way inspired growth. Characters who were once commitment phobic are less phobic. Characters who didn’t trust are now more trusting. Characters who didn’t believe in love have come to believe not only in love but that it at least might be possible for them. At this point they no longer have to be forced to stay together. They WANT to be together.
They continue to grow, to change, and the relationship becomes primary such that each is willing to give up something in order to maintain the relationship. The reader is generally at this point given a glimpse of what their happy relationship looks like.
But then, just when the relationship seems perfect, something happens to ruin the relationship. Frequently the heroine sees the hero with another woman and jumps to the conclusion that he is cheating (this one is cliché and it is one that I personally really don’t like), or he discovers a secret that she has kept and thinks she can’t be trusted. Or she discovers he’s purchased the land and feels as if the relationship has all been a ploy so that he could steal the land.
At this point all bets are off and it looks like the relationship is doomed. The characters may fight or may go their own directions at this point. Whether they are forced to be together (back in the pressure cooker) or whether they are able to go their own separate directions neither is happy. Both realize that they are incomplete without the other. This point is called the dark moment and it is a point of high emotional tension in your story. You want your reader to be completely vested, to WANT your hero and heroine to get back together. You also want the reader to not know exactly how this is possible…because the characters have really made quite a mess of things.
At this point one of the characters, often the one who is most at fault, approaches the other. They do this because they realize that the relationship is more important than the land or whatever else has kept them apart. The characters clear up any misunderstandings between them and admit that they are incomplete without each other. The story ends with them looking toward some kind of a committed relationship. The resolution is often an emotional point as opposed to a point of high sexual tension. Typically the story ends with the characters promising devotion. There is the suggestion that they will be intimate, but this intimacy is not usually seen on the story stage, even in erotic romance, though there are of course exceptions.
This is the basic romance plot line. It is a way of looking at how the story unfolds generally in romances where the hero and heroine meet or reunite and fall in love. It is NOT the plotline for relationship stories which begin with the hero and heroine already in a committed relationship and facing problems within the relationship. Those stories follow a slightly different plotline. We can cover relationship story plotlines in a different post at another time.
This basic romance plot line is part of sweet romance novels, it is part of western historical novels, it is part of sci-fi romances, it is part of paranormal romances, it is part of romantic suspense novels, it is part of erotic romance novels, it is part of ménage romance novels and is part of gay and lesbian romance novels as well.
Though I’ve spent a lot of time explaining the basic twists and turns in a basic romance novel plot, romance novels aren’t plot driven, they are character driven. Remember that readers who choose romance choose it expecting it to end a certain way. They aren’t buying the book to find out how it ends, they are buying to book because they want to experience the journey along with the characters. Romance readers want to experience the waves of emotional and sexual tension that unfold along the twists and turns in the romance plot…but these experiences are things that are driven by the characters, their experiences, and their responses to these experiences.
Given all of this it is the task of the savvy romance writer to create characters who would:
1) Have a conflict upon meeting
2) Who would continue to have conflicts till the late middle where the relationship begins to flourish.
3) Have traits and histories which would make them susceptible to the event that spurs the black moment, when it looks like all bets are off and the relationship is doomed.
By starting with these building blocks the job of creating the turning points in the story becomes much easier.