While every romance novel is about the relationship between two main characters (or, in some instances, about a triangular love situation) that is not the same thing as the plot. A strong plot is the difference between keeping your reader turning the pages and abandoning the book. The following tips on how to plot a romance novel should help you to write a well-plotted romance:
Don’t let love come too easily
Think about real relationships: Two people will often face various impediments before getting to a serious stage of a relationship. They could have slightly different core values that require some mutual compromise, or there could be interfering feelings brought into a new relationship from a past one, for example. Knowing how to use tension in writing to engross the reader is key to writing a satisfying romance novel that doesn’t present the central romantic relationship as two-dimensional.
In fact, whether or not your characters end up together can be the driving suspense of the whole plot, a device used in countless TV shows, including New Girl and The Mindy Project. A timeless example of this approach to romantic tension in literature is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In this classic novel, Austen’s protagonist Elizabeth Bennet only realizes late in the story that Mr. Darcy is far more loving and passionate than he initially seems.
Use goals and complications to build narrative momentum
In an engaging romance novel. the protagonists usually have goals and complications that work against their togetherness. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, perhaps one of the most famous plays about love of all time (even if it ends tragically, unlike most romance novels), the two lovers’ feuding families are the fundamental complication that makes the path to their being together full of dramatic potential.
There are two main ways to figure out the romantic goals and complications of your novel and approach plotting a romance book. One way is to outline before you begin writing and the other is to simply begin writing the first draft and see where it takes you.
Some writers who do the former do not even refer to this as the ‘first draft’ but instead call this the ‘discovery draft’. A first draft gives you the freedom to write loosely, focusing more on the pace, scenes and general structure and development of the story before you pay closer attention to dialogue and descriptive detail. The discovery draft method may allow more flexibility and it may be the only way some writers can work, but it can also be easy to get bogged down in a meandering manuscript that goes nowhere. The next draft also tends to need a lot of work. Be heartened by the fact that the majority of celebrated writers produce two or even three or more drafts before they finish writing a novel.
Whatever method you use, plotting principles remain the same. Part of deciding how to plot a romance novel is obtaining a general sense of what its length should be. This will likely be based on the sub-genre. Historical romances, for example, are generally much longer than a romance fiction set in contemporary times. Whereas historical romances provide the reader with immersion in a previous era, and are rich with authenticating detail, brief romances are often more designed for a short time commitment such as time spent waiting at an airport for a connecting flight.
Know your subgenre when you plot a romance novel
Familiarity with your sub-genre is important too. Read several books in your genre, be it historical, contemporary or paranormal romance. Take notes on where major plot points occur and what they are. What are the decisive scenes where there are developments or turning points, and how does the story rise and fall in intensity? You may detect a pattern that will be helpful in structuring your own plot.
Decide on the purpose of each section
Once you’ve determined a rough word or manuscript page count for your novel, you can begin to divide your novel into sections. Part of learning how to plot a romance novel is discovering what structure works best for delivering a satisfying read. The opening of a romance novel might consist of approximately the first quarter. Therefore, for an 80,000 word novel, the opening can be about 20,000 words long. For a by-the-book romance novel, here are the plot points a reader is going to expect in the opening:
- The characters meet.
- The characters’ goals that are separate from their romance (and will impact it) need to be made clear.
- The main conflicts that keep the characters from their goals and their relationship should be established. Of course, you can also gradually increase conflict and present main conflicts later, if you want readers to feel a sense of slowly mounting tension.
The middle section of the book will comprise a total of half the novel, so in an 80,000 word manuscript it will be roughly 40,000 words long. In the middle section, these plot points should occur:
- The physical and/or emotional relationship between the characters intensifies.
- The characters either reaffirm their dedication to individual goals that are a source of conflict in their relationship or begin finding some way of reconciling differing wants and needs. This occurs at approximately the midpoint of the whole novel.
- A dramatic turning point occurs that incites a crisis.
The final section, containing the final conflict and resolution, will occupy the final quarter of the novel:
- The climax includes what romance writers often call the ‘black moment’. This is when everything appears hopeless and the protagonists’ future together is completely in question.
- The resolution and reward should be concise – short enough to be satisfying without being drawn out in such a way that it feels as though the romantic and sexual tension fizzles out.
Does the above structure sound a little too rigid? The truth is that you should depart from it in any ways that seem logical for your own story. The structure I’ve outlined here is simply one that works and that is widely used among published writers who know how to plot a romance novel.
The different types of conflicts that arise will be grounded in the setting and type of romance novel you write. The characters may be kept apart by war, being in different social classes, misunderstandings and jealousy, machinations by other characters and more. Creating protagonists with opposing goals and desires can be useful because it gives each of them something they passionately want while setting up an automatic conflict between the two.
If you have an idea of how to write a romance book that will ignite readers’ romantic imaginations, or you want to learn more as you go, try the simple Now Novel process. You can connect with other romance writers via our online writing groups.