Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Fiona Harper on writing: The Structure of a Romance

Last year I did a twelve-part series on plot structure and character arc. I used some of this material for a workshop I did at the RNA conference this weekend, focusing especially on what tends to happen in a romance at each part of the story. (Not what has to happen, mind. Just talking about patterns of similarity.) So, for anyone who couldn’t make it and is interested, here are my notes!

Each section heading has a link to the original PHS article, if you want to read more about it, too. If I put in all in here, the post will be three miles long!

Romances tend to fall into two camps:
Single protagonist – one character (often the heroine) takes centre stage. It’s her story and the romance with the romantic hero will be an important sub-plot in the story.
Dual protagonist – both romantic hero and heroine have equal weight as characters. The relationship itself may well be the main plot strand.

Section 1: ordinary world
The “before” picture of your protagonist, the section where we are introduces to them, their goals, their flaws and their conflicts before the main adventure begins.

In terms of romantic structure, I call this section, Before I met you…
In a single protagonist romance, we will usually meet the main character and see them in their ordinary world, but we won’t meet the romantic love-interest character just yet.
In a dual protagonist romance, readers will often meet both hero and heroine, but they often don’t meet each other until later in the story.
It’s a chance to see who they are before the other person shakes up their world.

Turning Point 1: The Call to Adventure
This event kick starts the plot! When the unfolding events of the plot intersect your protagonist(s) lives and give them an opportunity to do something ‘out of the ordinary’ for them.

Romantic Structure: First Meeting/Shift
This is often the point at which the hero and heroine meet, or if they already know each other, there is a shift in the relationship and it enters a new dynamic. There’s a sense that meeting this person in particular is going to change the other person’s life – their romantic ‘call to adventure’.

Section 2: denial and debate
Are your protagonist(s) up to the challenge? Should they go on this adventure? Do they even want to? Increasing the conflict by showing what’s at stake before the adventure starts.

Romantic structure: Who are you?
Hero and heroine of met, now they have a chance to suss each other out, decide what they really think about each other and if they like each other.

Turning Point 2: The Threshold
The protagonist(s) nebulous plans become solid. Sense of moving into new territory, even if it’s just a new emotional landscape.

Romantic Structure: Relationship begins/deepens
Hero and heroine often have to join forces to achieve their separate goals.
In a single protagonist romance, this point or shortly afterwards may be the first meeting with their love-interest character.


Section 3: fun and games
The adventure starts and despite conflict, the protagonist(s) make progress.

Romantic Structure: Getting to know you…
Often a push and pull feeling to this section as the hero and heroine get to know each other better. They may fight the attraction, but still have moments of connection. One may be more interested (or invested) in the relationship than the other one. Hero and heroine are still hiding behind their emotional armour, but the other one has glimpses of who is hiding behind it, and they are drawn to that person.

Turning Point 3: point of no return
Turning point for both the plot and the characters, centering round a big challenge of some kind. Once they’ve passed this point they may never be the same. The first big chunk of that emotional armour may come off.

Romantic structure: Deeper commitment
This often a point of deeper commitment to the other character, marked by a ‘first’ of some kind – first kiss, first date, first declaration of feelings, first time to make love…

Section 4: complications and higher stakes
After a brief respite, conflict increases and things start to ‘catch up’ to the protagonist.

Romantic structure: Falling for You
After revealing more of their true self to the other character, committing themselves to the relationship more deeply, hero and heroine will often fall, or start to fall, in love. However, there is pressure from the outside and inside of the characters that complicate the relationship, and baggage from the past demands to be dealt with.

Turning Point 4: Black moment
The protagonist encounters a major setback that makes achieving their goal seem impossible.

Romantic Structure: The Break Up
In a romance, this is nearly always the point at which the couple break up! If they don’t actually end the relationship, it’s an emotionally dark moment that threatens its happiness. A time for betrayals of trust and rejections (or perceived betrayals and rejections).

Section 5: Final push
After having a little time to lick their wounds, the protagonist formulates a do-or-die plan to achieve their goal. A time to wind up the sub-plots and leave room for the final showdown!

Romantic structure: Winning You Back!
The hero and heroine feel the pain of the break up, one or both of them realises how stupid they’ve been and what they’ve lost and decides to win the other back.

Turning Point 5: The Climax
The point at which the protagonist either achieves or fails to achieve their goal. The high-energy, most intense scene of the story!

Romantic structure: The Happy Ending
The bit romance readers live for! The big romantic scene where the lovers are reunited. In a single-protagonist romance, the main plot may be wound up here, and the romance sub-plot may well end before or just after the main plot climax.

Section 6: The Aftermath
The New World of the protagonist after they’ve completed the adventure.

Romantic structure: Happy Ever After
Riding off into the sunset together. Aww…

The great thing is that, although many romances fall into a similar rhythm to this, there are no rules! Do what feels right for your story. Even if you don't write consciously with this structure in mind, you might find that your story hits most of the key points anyway. So don't stress about romantic structure! Use what helps you and do what feels right for you.

Fiona's latest book The Rebound Guy is out soon in Harlequin KISS - a linked story to The Guy To Be Seen With. If you liked Daniel's feisty sister in that book, she's back! And now she's got a guy of her own to give her trouble - hunky ex-swimmer and businessman Jason Knight.

New York, new guy, new Kelly!
After Kelly Bradford's past few years, all she wants is a steady life. She certainly doesn't need the hassle of men or dating after everything she's been through. So she absolutely, categorically should not be fantasizing about Jason Knight, her boss and a man whose very smile screams trouble!

But a business trip to New York pushes her resolutions to the max—the adrenaline of the Big Apple has nothing on the excitement Kelly feels around Jason! Maybe a rebound fling is just what she needs to make her feel alive again…


  1. Thanks Fiona. Have printed this out. Brilliant as always. Nina x

  2. Brilliant post, Fiona. Thank you so much for sharing this. I was scribbling frantically at the conference, then discovered that my notes were almost unreadable!

  3. Thank you Fiona, I really enjoyed your presentation at conference. Was reassured to see I was actually doing a lot of this and it was good to see how to develop it further.

    Sue x

  4. Thanks Fiona, I love your posts and I really needed this one because I need to start a new book and have forgotten how to! :-)
    Thanks bunches

  5. Thanks Fiona, this is so useful to have - really enjoyed your talk version at the conference! One of the highlights for me :)

  6. Hi Fiona. Thanks so much for this. I really wanted to attend your talk on Sunday but had to leave early. x

  7. Thanks, everyone! Glad you found it helpful. There are no rules with it - it's just interesting to see how stories often flow in the same way, and then you can decide whether you want to work with that or against it.

    Joss! LOL. I am sure you haven't forgotten how to write!

  8. This is fab, I was so disappointed that your session fell after we'd left the conference on Sunday.

  9. Fiona - thank you...just the refresher I needed again!

  10. What youre saying is completely true. I know that everybody must say the same thing, but I just think that you put it in a way that everyone can understand. I also love the images you put in here. They fit so well with what youre trying to say. Im sure youll reach so many people with what youve got to say.

  11. It was a great talk, Fiona and this is a great summary. I'm always fascinated by the theory of structure - it's not the way I work but I loved learning about it - and you made it perfectly clear. Thanks!

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