I’ve been e-mailing with a friend who’s struggling with her romance novel. She’s very smart and she’s studied hard and she loves the genre, but she’s having a hard time understanding how to write romance, which I can understand because it’s a damn hard thing to do. So at first I gave her a pep talk on following her instincts:
First, no matter how good a teacher is, you take what makes sense to you and leave the rest. There is no one right way to write a romance or any other kind of story. All the teaching about structure and spine and the rest is to help you find the way to your story; if it clears out some of the stuff in your way so you can get the reader to what matters in your story in a cleaner, faster way, great. If it’s confusing, it’s not something you’re responding to as a story-teller, so ignore it. Writing classes are like a buffet: you take what looks good and you ignore the rest.
So the real answer to “how do you plot a romance” is “the way that fits the story.” Which takes you back to protagonist/goal, antagonist/goal, inescapable conflict. The official definition of a romance is a story of how two people form a committed relationship with the expectation that the story will end optimistically in regards to the relationship. Readers need to believe the two people will be together forever. But these can be people who’ve never met before, people who were married before, people who grew up together, people from different planets, whatever, and all of those stories are going to have different spines, different arcs, and demand different craft choices. So when you talk about plotting the protagonist’s goal in general, it’s no help to you because that general goal/plot may not be what your story is about.
Look at His Girl Friday. Hildy’s goal is to tell her ex-husband that she’s getting married again and then leave NYC forever to go to Albany as a wife. Walter’s goal is to get his wife/star reporter back. That’s a crucible, only one can win, and it’s both the emotional and the external plots. There are a million ways that particular plot could be played out, but once you know Hildy–broken-hearted by neglect from the man she really loves and desperate for a show of real love from him but tough as nails and a reporter to the core–and once you know Walter–crazy about Hildy and the newspaper game, possibly not in that order, and completely without scruples when it comes to getting what he wants, a conman to the core–then the way to plot this is pretty clear. Use Hildy’s love for journalism as a metaphor for her love for Walter (she’s trying to walk away from both), and have Walter use that against her (because he knows her so well) to get her to come back to both. There’s a lot more stuff going on there, but the important thing is, this isn’t Walter vs. Bruce, fighting over Hildy, which it could have been, Hildy vs. Walter, making him declare his love for her and promise to always put her first, which it could have been, it’s Hildy vs. Walter, fighting over her future, the one she thinks she wants and the one he knows she needs. It’s the same dynamic as Moonstruck and to a certain extent Pretty Woman: One of the lovers destroys the chosen life of the other to set him or her free. Those three movies are really different, but it’s the same plot dynamic played out very differently in each because of the characters, the kind of people they are and the kind of relationship the reader knows they need (nobody roots for Bruce and Albany in His Girl Friday; the fun is seeing how Hildy and Walter battle it out). . . .
I’d go back to your emotionally-charged ideas because that’s where the juice is. My first drafts are all over the place; half the time I don’t have an antagonist. But the emotionally-charged part tells me what my protagonist needs, desperately, and if I’m lucky, why he or she needs it. Then I go back and figure out why she can’t get it. And yes, part of it is internal but there has to be something external standing in her way, and in romance that’s tough because there’s not much keeping people apart that’s external these days. I wimp out and use an external antagonist to make life hell for the protagonist and the love interest; the struggle brings them closer together and whatever the heroine is fighting the antagonist for can be a metaphor for her internal struggle: an art forger fights to get back paintings that will reveal her identity only to claim that identity and sign the paintings at the end. A woman who doesn’t trust relationships meets the man she’s fated to love and walks away and Fate fights back and wins by making her confront her worst fears about attaching to people; the plot is about the romance, but the romance is the battleground for Min and Fate (and in the subplot between the hero and Fate). If you want a protagonist heroine/antagonist hero, look at His Girl Friday and Moonstruck, both beautifully written and tightly plotted. . . .
But that wasn’t it because this woman really knows her craft, knows her structure. It was something intangible, something she thought just wasn’t there in her work, and that made me think about how damn hard this is, getting that intangible on the page so that readers really believe this is IT, the big one, that the protagonist and her lover will lose something crucial if the relationship doesn’t last. It’s magic on the page when it happens but I don’t think you can explain how it happens. I think you just write until it’s there. Or it isn’t and you put the book away until you find a way to find it.
So the best I could do for her is this:
When I was rewriting Bet Me, I kept overthinking it. And then one night, I thought, “Maybe I should just go for it.” And I wrote “Hopelessly Romantic” on a piece of paper and taped it over the computer screen. And after that, I just went where the juice was, scenes with the two of them that made me happy even if the characters were miserable because even when they were miserable together, it was better for them than when they were apart. There’s that thing about falling in love where you know it’s a mistake and you’re too damn smart to do that again, but it’s just THERE, your heart beats faster when you see him, he smiles the minute he sees you, and even when it’s awful, even when you swear never again, you have to go back. It’s like those kissing salt shakers with magnets in their mouths, you just have to click together. If you can capture that, if you can give the reader that internal struggle to hold on to identity and individuality when everything in the physical world is telling you to blend into that other person, you’ve got a romance novel. Paul Newman told a story that always epitomized the great romance novel for me. He said he and JoAnne Woodward had a hellacious fight, said things that couldn’t be taken back, and he stormed out, never to return. Then he got to the car and thought, “Where the hell am I going?” and went back in. That whole “I can’t quit you” thing may be a cliche now, but it’s also the truth. You just have to make the reader feel that, too. The big thing that I’m always forgetting and have to relearn with every novel is that the story has to be fun. Not necessarily happy or funny but fun to read, the highs and the lows, the reader has to have a really good time suffering with the characters, even if the “really good time” means weeping helplessly.
But I don’t know how to tell you to do that because it’s in your characters.
That’s not much help. So over to you guys: What makes a romance novel special, memorable? What scenes stick in your mind, when you go back to read a book, what do you go to? What would you tell her? Hell, I’m having problems of my own, what would you tell me?
What makes a romance novel great?