In a romance novel, the romance, or the developing of a committed relationship, is the primary plot. In other words, it’s about the emotional journey of the characters from strangers or friends/enemies to lovers and to a committed partnership.
All other elements of the story -- suspense, mystery, opening a restaurant, for instance -- are secondary. Their primary function is to provide situations for the romance to develop. In other words, the activity of the story is the catalyst/conduit for the developing relationship.
In terms of plotting basics:
In a romance, the “inciting incident” is not necessarily the first thing that happens. The inciting incident of a romance novel is “the meet” -- the first time the hero and heroine confront each other in your story.
Several other things should also happen in Act I:
1. Set the stage. Where and when is the story taking place?
2. Introduce the hero and heroine.
3. The meet -- how, when, and why do the hero and heroine meet? What are their first impressions of each other?
4. Introduction of the conflicts (internal and external) that are going to work against the relationship.
In the first act, the internal conflicts don’t have to be, and indeed shouldn’t be, described in great detail. They should be indicated/hinted at/implied. The details, and especially the motivations of the characters, should be revealed more in the middle, to keep it from “sagging.” Tell too much in the beginning, you’ve got nothing left for the middle.
In a romance, this is where the relationship develops and intensifies. This is, usually, where the characters fall in love (unless you’re doing a love-at-first-sight story).
The characters learn more about each other -- what makes each other “tick,” their issues and their history. They discover the explanations for the other’s “problem” and gain sympathy, empathy and understanding. This is where trust develops.
This is also, but not always, where the relationship becomes more physically intimate -- first touch, first kiss, first time they make love. If the relationship is already physical, this is still where the emotional development of the relationship takes place.
In a romance, the crisis that precipitates the ending of the novel should also threaten the survival of the romantic relationship between the hero and heroine. It can be physical or it can be internal (hearing something that shakes the heroine’s faith in the hero, for instance).
This is also known as “the black moment” in a romance -- when the romance seems hopelessly doomed and there can’t be a happy ending for this couple.
At the climax, both the internal and external plots -- the romance and the rest of the story -- come together. The danger is overcome and survived; the problems are solved; the necessary confessions are made; love is shown/proven/revealed.
The successful resolution of both the external and internal conflicts create the satisfying ending. However, the denouement of a romance must also tie up any loose ends (i.e. ensure that the subplots have also concluded satisfactorily), and, most importantly, must also leave the reader convinced that this couple is in a long-term, committed relationship.
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USA Today bestselling author and past president of Toronto Romance Writers, Margaret Moore has written over forty historical romance novels and novellas for Harlequin, Avon and HarperCollins Childrens Books. Her latest novel, THE VISCOUNT’S KISS Harlequin Historical, August 2009, features a naturalist who loves spiders and a woman who loathes them. Visit Margaret at www.margaretmoore.com
This article appeared in the September 2009 issue of romANTICS, the newsletter of the Toronto Romance Writers, Susan Haire, editor. It may be reused by RWA chapters with appropriate credit to the author and chapter.