by Christine Parker
One of the biggest mistakes I see new writers make is writing a story with an incomplete story structure. Story structure is vital to romance novels because without it, your readers will fail to believe the progression of your characters’ relationship. Ever had a reader comment that they didn’t believe your characters’ motivations? Or read a romance novel where the relationship seemed fake or forced? That’s probably because a crucial part of the romantic story structure was missing!
So let’s talk about romantic story structure. What is it? Why is it important? And If you’re writing a romance, how do you get it?
What is story structure anyway?
Remember Freytag’s Pyramid from high school writing classes? Freytag’s Pyramid is just one way of describing and diagraming story structure. We’ve all heard a bazillion times that stories should have five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Well that’s nice, but it’s not very helpful. Can someone explain it to me like I’m five, please? Thanks.
If the plot of your story is made up of scenes and events, story structure is the sequence of those scenes and events. For example, we know that the hero and heroine need to meet before they can fall in love, and they have to fall in love before they can have a happily-ever-after ending, but how exactly do you write those scenes and events so that they create an emotionally satisfying and believable romantic story?
Enter Gwen Hayes: writer, reader, editor of kissing books. Gwen is an expert on romance, and she wrote a very important book called Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels, and if you write romance, this book is going to be your new best friend.
There are plenty of awesome books and resources out there that are full of helpful information about plot and story structure and how to implement them in your writing, but Romancing the Beat is the only book I’ve found that addresses the story structure of romance novels specifically. According to Gwen, she needed to write RTB because “Romance has two heroes, not one. Romance has genre expectations. Romance has story beats that need to be hit before it can be called a kissing book. But not the same ones, or exactly the same ones, as that hero saving a cat on his journey to selling a screenplay.”
According to Romancing the Beat, romantic story structure is kind of like a recipe for writing a book. Your story needs to include each of these important romantic elements or ingredients (Gwen calls them “beats”) in order to be successful. The method of mixing together these ingredients will differ from writer to writer and from story to story, but the ingredients are all the same. Even if a bunch of people bake a cake using the same ingredients and following the same recipe, all the cakes will taste a little bit different. Same with writers and romances. Once you understand the basics of story structure, you can tweak your recipe and ingredients any way you want to create all kinds of delicious stories.
Some (unenlightened) folks will sneer and say that this recipe is Just a fancy way of saying “plot formula” and that romance novels are formulaic, and they will look down their noses at you while saying so, because for some reason, people think formulas are a bad thing? And you will sneer right back at them because of course it’s plot formula. Literally every story is based on some sort of formula. Because that’s what PLOT IS! But ooohhhkaaay snooty people.
So, once we accept that of course romance is forumlaic, and ALL genre fiction is formulaic, because ALL FICTION is forumalic—yes even sci-fi and horror and mystery and all those other genres that are dominated by men but don’t even get me started on literary sexism—and that plot formulas are actually a GOOD THING, we can move on with our lives and get back to writing awesome stories and baking delicious cakes.
I’m not going to go into the details of how story structure works and how to write it because Gwen already did that, so if you’re interested in learning more, you’ll have to read Romancing the Beat! And for an opportunity to win a free copy, check out my Instagram giveaway. See the bottom of this post for details!
Why is romantic story arc so important?
Without structure, your story’s just flailing around like one of those inflatable tube men, without any direction. Yeah, those dudes are funny and distracting for about fifteen seconds but you quickly lose interest because his goofy, erratic arms serve no purpose other than to catch your eye.
Imagine baking a cake with no recipe. Like, just winging it with the ingredients and the stirring and the oven temperature. My cake would be a disaster and I’d probably set my kitchen on fire in the process. Sure, there are writers bakers who might get lucky and end up with something that resembles a cake at the end, but wouldn’t it be easier to just follow the recipe from the beginning and guarantee your story’s cake’s success?
Another way to think of story structure is like a road map. You may want to travel from New York to Los Angeles and you know that you’re going to be traveling in a vaguely western direction, but consulting a road map (or Google Maps or Waze or whatever newfangled app the kids are using these days) will allow you to form a plan for getting from one place to the next. Imagine how long it would take and how aimless your path would be if you were just guessing at which roads to use to cross the country. It’s the same for stories. If you ignore plot structure, you risk writing an unnecessarily long, directionless story because there’s no road map to guide you from beginning to end.
So, we’ve established that without story structure, your story is likely to be longwinded, disjointed, and boring, but why else is romantic story arc in particular so important?
To put it bluntly, neglecting story structure in your novel will prevent you from being published. Yes, it’s true you can always self-publish, but you’ll struggle to gain a readership, because readers (especially romance readers) have expectations, one of which is that your romance story will be structured a certain way and that certain things will happen within that story.
Things Romance Readers Expect to Happen in a Romance Story:
- Meet cute
- Increasingly intense romantic feelings from both parties
- Increasingly intense doubt about the rationality of the relationship
- A Black Moment or break-up
- A grand gesture
- A squee-worthy Happily Ever After ending
- Optional: Inappropriate touching
Gwen gives us twenty different beats that readers will expect to find in any romance novel they pick up. The author must meet those expectations, or the readers will be very cranky, and then they will leave mean reviews, and the author will be sad. Don’t be that author. Get yourself a copy of Romancing the Beat (seriously it’s only $6, or enter my giveaway) and spend two hours of your time learning how to write a believable romance arc so that you’ll be better equipped to deliver a story that will meet publishers’ and readers’ expectations.
How can romance writers use story structure to write better stories?
The great thing about mastering story structure is that it makes your writing process so much easier. The structure gives you a checklist of items (elements, ingredients, beats, or whatever you want to call them) you know you’ll need to include, so as you’re writing your story, you can just go down the list and make sure each beat is accounted for. And the best part is that you can use the list before or after you write the story.
I personally find it easier to outline my plot to make sure I hit all the beats before I write, rather than going back after the story is written to fill in the blanks, but your process may not be the same as mine, and that’s ok. If you prefer to write by the seat of your pants, go for it. Write your whole sexy novel, and then go back when you’re done and figure out which beats you missed and tweak your current scenes or add new ones.
But no matter how you write, or what romance subgenre you write, make sure you learn how to properly utilize story structure. Romantic story structure will change your writing for the better, I promise. You’ll have a clearer understanding of your story from the very beginning, and once you nail down the “big picture,” all the other tiny details will fall into place so much more easily, and that means spending more time working on the kissing scenes.
You can enter to win a copy of Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes by checking out the giveaway on my Instagram feed @chickadee_revisions! But hurry, the giveaway ends 11:59 PM EST on 7/31/18!
Christine Parker is a freelance book editor from Cleveland, Ohio, specializing in developmental editing of romance novels. In her free time she enjoys knitting shawls, getting tattoos, and writing and reading smutty stories.