Jeanne: The Complexity of Romance

muffins-2225091_640Romance may be the single most complex genre of fiction there is.

A romance author has to juggle five different arcs:

  • Story (plot) arc
  • Character arc for the heroine
  • Character arc for the hero
  • Relationship arc
    • And within that relationship arc, both the emotional arc and the physical arc of the romance

That’s at least double most other genres, which have a plot arc and character arcs for only one or two characters (and sometimes no character arc at all).

To make things even tougher on the romance writer (though easier for the reader), some of those arcs should line up, sharing common turning points.  Let’s do a hypothetical example:

Our Heroine wants to open a bakery in the perfect location in her little town. She has a character flaw, though. She hates confrontations and backs away at the first sign of conflict.

Our Hero wants the same spot to open a mobile phone franchise. He’s a good guy, but he’s very competitive.

Turning point #1: Their meet-cute at the retail space they’re vying for.

The woman renting the space asks them to submit applications with credit histories and business plans and says she’ll get back with them.

Assuming there’s an instant attraction (and, let’s face it, there’s always an instant attraction in romance), this is the inciting incident for the plot arc, the relationship arc,  and both character arcs.

The next turning point is at the end of Act 1–what Jenny Crusie terms the point of no return.

By now, our heroine has told all her girlfriends about the hot guy who wants to rent her bakery space. Even though she thought he was cute, his aggressiveness was kind of a turnoff.

And our hero has spent a fair amount of time thinking about how pretty the baker was.

The landlady tells them that their business plans and credit histories checked out. The tie-breaker will be their explanation of what Littletown, USA has to gain from their businesses.

Heroine brings her would-be landlady adorable cupcakes iced to look like Shih-Tzus, the landlady’s adored pooch. Hero brings her statistics showing that more people own mobile phones than own a toothbrush and 60% of bakeries fail within two years.

Landlady agrees to rent to him.

He then turns his charm on our heroine and offers to buy her a consolation dinner. Because she doesn’t like confrontations, she tells him she’s busy. Because he’s so competitive, he doesn’t hear “no,” just “now now.”

A million different things can happen from here on out, but the balls that need to stay in the air are:

  1. Story arc–Her desperate efforts to make a success of her bakery (now against greater odds, with less money to fall back on).
  2. Relationship arc–As a result of their mutual attraction, they become a couple. They may quickly hop into bed (bad idea) or drag it out for some valid, believable reason (because sexual tension is great fuel for a romance novel), but this will not necessarily proceed at the same pace as their emotional arc.
  3. Character arcs–The book will be filled with ever-escalating opportunities for each of our lovers to address his/her character flaw, which they will ignore/evade/refuse because they have that flaw for a reason, darn it. Their relationship will eventually founder because they haven’t addressed these issues. Because it’s a romance, they’ll finally have that see-the-light moment where she finally tells him off and he finally realizes that sometimes to win, you have to be willing to lose.

9 thoughts on “Jeanne: The Complexity of Romance

  1. I think romance can be more complex when it’s not JUST a romance.
    Add in a paranormal element and/or a suspense plot, and you have MORE to worry about. But then I feed on that kind of worry. 🙂

  2. Meeting the conventions of your genre while finding something fresh to do with it is challenging, too. Sometimes I think if I have to read one more “inherits the farm” story, I’ll scream. And let’s not even talk about secret babies!

  3. This makes me feel better about all the threads I’m trying to tie together in my Regency historical suspense romance. Makes me want to bang my head on the desk. Sometimes I think if I switched to middle-grade fiction I’d be way more productive.

    • It’s hard. People like to pretend writing romance is easy, but it’s hugely complicated. I think that’s why it’s so hard to do it well.

      In The Demon’s in the Details I have a main plot around this dyslexic artist who is trying to keep Satan from taking this inspirational statue of Matthew that was sculpted by her mother. Then I threw in a geeky (and totally adorable) demon who wanted to help Satan acquire the statue as a means to returning to a management job in Hell’s technology hub. The artist has a character arc around her dyslexia (she hides it). The demon had a character arc around learning to accept accountability for all the evil his technology had contributed over time. And then there were a couple of subplots around the artist’s sister, a lesbian trying to get pregnant, and her brothers, who needed money for their video game startup.

      I got to the end and realized I had to tie all this together in some kind of cohesive, coherent way. It took me a week or two to figure it out, but I did! I was so proud of myself, and kind of amazed.

      My editor even said something about it what a great job I’d done of pulling all those pieces together in a unified way.

      And now I’m working on Book 3 and wondering if I can pull that off again. It never ends.

  4. I completely agree with the complexity of romance. I write romances that have a distinct romance arc and a totally different plot arc. In most of mine, the external conflict is between the two mains until about 25 percent in, then they team up and work against the evil. But the character arc and the romance arc continue.

    • That’s my usual setup, too. I love enemies-to-lovers because it has such rich conflict, but Jenny used to say that’s writing romance the hard way because you have to take them through a believable relationship arc to happy ever after in 400 pages. Easier if they don’t start quite so far apart, but not nearly as interesting.

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