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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Rewording the Conventional Wisdom About Structuring a Romance Novel by: Larry Brooks

Every genre under the writing sun has a rap against it. Something that folks who don’t write or even read within that genre use to make it, well, less than their own genre of choice.

In romance, it’s that a perception of story structure as formulaic. In essence, that all romances are the same skeleton stretched over a different skin.

In a word, that’s hooey. At least in the sense that this is a bad thing. Because if it’s true in romance, it’s just as true – if not more so – in detective thrillers, science fiction and horror, and nobody’s knocking the structure of those genres.

Predictability, to some extent, is what makes any genre work.

Perhaps it’s time to view structure through a whole new lens.

To better understand story structure in romance novels, we need to get the romance out of the conversation. We need a new language to get past the character-driven rhetoric and clarify what happens first, what happens next and what happens after that, and – here’s the value-adding part – why.

The problem is that, in almost all cases, structure in romance novels is discussed using soft-edged character-driven language. Such as…

… girl meets boy… boy doesn’t even notice girl… or girl finds boy repulsive… one does something that makes the other notice… he’s unhappy, she’s unhappy… he’s suddenly happy, she’s just as happy… third parties interfere… somebody pursues somebody else… somebody steps in to save the day…somebody learns a life lesson…

… and romance ensues.

This isn’t structure, its session notes from a relationship counselor. Rather than defining dramatic tension, it more closely defines character arc.

Your romance novel requires both character arc and plot exposition. But until the two structures untangle themselves, it can be tough to tell the difference.

There’s a better way to understand structure.

One that uses clear language that can be applied to any form of romance story, whether the love interest looks like Giles Marini or Seth Rogan.

Because here’s a little secret about any genre of fiction. This may blow away your belief that romance is somehow separate from other literary forms in terms of criteria for excellence, but it’s not, and here’s why: all commercial fiction is built on basically the same structure.

And that includes romance novels.

Once you understand the various parts and milestones of a story – any story – you are empowered to apply these elements within your storytelling.

The sequence is as generic as it is empowering. It’s all about pacing and exposition, which is precisely what makes a romance novel compelling.

Is generic a good thing? It absolutely is.

All stories – including romances – can be broken down into four sequential parts. They have nothing at all to do with girl-meets-boy, but rather, they are described as generic segments of the story in terms of storytelling context.

If you insist on thinking about your story in character-driven terms, these same four parts look like this: orphan… wanderer… warrior… hero/martyr.

But if you’re looking for a way to distribute your characterizations across a landscape of powerful dramatic tension, and if you can wrap your head around understanding the milestones that separate the four parts, try this instead:

- Part 1 set-up… wherein we meet our heroine and create the context for her forthcoming quest…

- First plot point (or inciting incident)… where something happens that changes everything and defines what she needs or wants in the story, as well as the obstacles preventing her from attaining it easily…

- Part two responsewhere we see what the heroine does as a natural response to the dramatic incident that changed everything…

- Mid-point… the parting of the curtain with new information that twists the story in a new direction…

- Part three proactive attack… where the character uses this information to get positively intense about conquering all obstacles, but the obstacles only seem to get stronger…

- Second plot point… the final introduction of new information, or a twist, that ignites the race to the finish…

- Part four resolution… wherein the hero conquers her inner demons to become the primary catalyst in the story’s ending.

Of course, all this is in context to the fundamental premise of fiction itself, which is as simple as it is obvious: stories are about a hero/heroine who is thrust into a situation in which she needs or wants something, facing obstacles in her quest to achieve that need, forcing her to confront both inner and exterior antagonistic forces in order to become the primary catalyst in the story’s resolution.

In romances, the quest is love. The obstacles are rejection, lack of confidence, treachery, competition, jealousy, or a host of other real-life factors that can get in the way of happy ever after.

It’s the same structure, told differently.

Structure is like a skeleton. Without a proper and healthy skeleton, what you have is something, well, very sad. But it’s not the skeleton that makes a body beautiful, mysterious and compelling. No, that’s the consequences of shape and texture and coloring, delivered with pace and nuance, and imbued with intelligence and humor and romantic mystique.

Without the skeleton, it’s all just a pile of wet mush.

For the most part, the oeuvre of instructional literature as it pertains to writing romances is all tissue and no bones.

Feel free to test this. Not only with the romance novels you read, but with any book or movie that you consume. You’ll see this structure in place, and when you do, there’s no going back.

Because then you’ll know what successful authors know. Even if they describe it all very differently.

Larry Brooks is a bestselling novelist and the creator of Storyfix.com, an instructional writing resource for authors of all genres. He is also the author of Story Structure – Demystified, an ebook available through his site.


Patricia Altner said...

As a reviewer and wannabe writer I found this article incredibly helpful!

Thank you

LLRosser said...

Great information. Just what I needed to learn today.

Gillian Layne said...

Great post! I love the parallels you point out.

marye.ulrich said...

Thanks for the focus on romance. Larry Brooks and his "Story Structure" should be required reading for all writers. It works for pantsers, plotters, and even editors/reviewers. I recommend his book and storyfix.com to everyone.

Ana Aragón said...

Thank you for giving me the words to use when I'm asked, "What do you write?"

Pamela Hearon said...

As a romance writer, I've run into this "It's formulaic" comment often--mostly from non-writers. Your blog has added a powerful weapon to my arsenal of explanations-)Thanks for putting it so eloquently yet succinctly.

Pamela Hearon

Anonymous said...

You think this is convincing, check out the dozens of articles on his site Storyfix AND the phenomenal reviews his novels have garnered - the man knows of what he speaks. I'm convinced and heading over to this site to by myself a copy of his e-book!

Brave Blue Words

Belia said...

What a great post, As a sci/fi writer at heart I have had a hard time formatting the ideas for romance into a passable story until now.

I put your link to story structure on my blog and am happy to report that the link is often times a diferent color showing that people are clicking on it.

Anonymous said...

I just posted the first 26 pages of a womens fiction romance mystery novel that I wrote in the NaNoWriMo 2009 contest (nov).

Good post Larry! ;)


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