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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Romance Arcs

Please welcome guest blogger Treva Harte

For those who have read and studied romance, this article should not be startling. But for those writers coming from other genres, it may be news: there is a structure to a romance novel and there are certain conventions you ignore at your peril. There is no point complaining about the rules or declaring you won't do them -- that's like someone arguing space opera should not be set in space.

Yes, I can imagine stretching the rules or possibly, possibly breaking them at some point just like I can imagine a space opera not set in space. But you have to know what you're doing before you attempt anything that advanced. Romance readers may not have studied romance conventions or novel structure but they know what the rules are from reading so many and they expect them to be followed. In other words, if you do break the rules, and do it with no finesse, readers are going to feel betrayed, in which case they're not likely not buy your next book.

An erotic romance novel should not only follow the romance story arc, but should also include additional elements to make the erotic relationship central to the development of the story and characterization. If you've read this before, it's because I've said most of this more than once on my blog, Loose Change. While it's a far from new topic, not everyone's gotten the message. Yet.

Pamela Regis, in her A Natural History of the Romance Novel, defines a romance novel as “a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines.” She continues by saying there are eight narrative elements of a romance novel: a definition of society, meeting, attraction, barrier, point of ritual death, recognition, declaration and betrothal.

An erotic romance may not require a hero or heroine (for example, two heroes will do just fine), or may require more than one of each. Courtship of some sort will occur but betrothal may not lead to marriage. Other, less format arrangements are also acceptable. Most definitions of modern romance do still require a HEA (Happily Ever After) or HFN (Happy For Now) ending -- some sort of commitment to the other protagonist(s).

Your background (world building/setting) may not be clearly defined at the start of the story. It may (and I would argue this works best) unfold throughout the story. But the story needs to have a background/world where the story can be told. This world will have a structure and rules that the protagonists do/do not obey and which define what is at stake in the story. Often breaking the rules in this world will have tremendous consequences.

Meeting: If the characters of your primary relationship are having a romance, they must meet. The sooner, the better. Some conventional romances prescribe meeting by the third chapter at a minimum. Erotic romance usually wants that meeting much sooner -- preferably at the opening of the book. The meeting must be meaningful, whether the reader or the protagonists know it at the time. Preferably, though, the meaningfulness will be revealed quickly. If your readers don't know who is important in the story, they won't care about the characters.

Attraction: If you can't do this, don't call it an erotic romance. Make the attraction between the characters physical, emotional, spiritual, physical -- lots of physical for erotic romance -- but make sure it's there.

Barrier: What keeps them apart long enough to tell a story? External or internal barriers can keep lovers apart. Romantic suspense where someone is out to kill the hero or heroine may have more external conflict while other stories may have more internal barriers. The best stories have both. Ideally a character may think he or she is unable to be with the other(s) because of an external barrier, but eventually discovers there was more of an internal problem to be overcome than something outside forces have imposed. External and internal barriers can and should work together to create conflict. The internal and external conflict continues to rise until --

Ritual Death or “Dark Moment”: The barriers between the hero and heroine seem impossible to crash. The protagonists are going to be kept apart forever.

Recognition, Declaration, Betrothal: Often come together quickly to form the HEA conclusion. The recognition that the other one(s) are the love object/vitally important to the protagonist(s) will help crush the barrier, create the declaration “I love you” (whether declared, implied, or whatever) and lead to the conclusion where the bond has been created and a new kind of world is formed.

Sounds simple? Go ahead. Try it on your own story. And to be fair, although I am not a master plotter, I just applied it to my last release, Maxxed Out.

Setting: Contemporary U.S.A., an unnamed Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.

Meeting: The opening lines of the story have Max going to meet Daniel, his best friend's big brother. Better yet, they've known each other ever since Max was born, although they've lost contact in recent years.

Attraction: It's always been there for Max, but hits Daniel at that meeting because Max is finally all grown up.

Barrier: Daniel has many past secrets he keeps from a much younger Max and Max delays telling his parents he is gay

Ritual Death or Dark Moment: Max is attacked in a gay-unfriendly bar

Recognition, Declaration, Betrothal: Daniel realizes losing Max would be worse than keeping away from him. After Daniel saves him, Max realizes it's comparatively easy to tell his parents that he and Daniel are lovers. They commit in front of Max's family.

Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, by the time you've finished your romance you should be able to identify these high points for your own story. If you can't or they aren't clear, you have work to do. Also this can make a great outline for writing a synopsis since an editor also wants to know what's going on and if the structure of your story will work for its intended audience.

Treva Harte lives near a city with many, many attorneys. Thanks to Loose Id and her writing, she can be a recovering attorney and now spends her time writing, editing, raising adolescents, taking care of an elderly mother and dealing with a hyperactive husband (who says he's just very energetic). She is also co-owner and Editor-in-Chief of the e-publishing company Loose Id.

She and her husband both like writing in whatever time they have left, so they often fight over—sorry, since he is still a practicing attorney they NEGOTIATE—keyboard time. No wonder Treva’s particular brand of sensual romance is a bit offbeat and usually mixed with fantasy.

Treva is multi-published with several e-publishers in print and e-book, a member of RWA and PAN, and winner of the CAPA 2003 award in the “Erotic Fantasy Romance” category.

What Editors Look for in Erotic Romance, presented by Treva Harte, runs from May 16, 2011 through May 22, 2011


Treva Harte said...

If possible, send me an outline of one of your stories using the romance ARC before the first session. I'd love to use it as a starting point for how to work on a query or synopsis.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post.

Is this offer for anyone who is registered or just RWA members?

I am looking forward to the workshop.


Treva Harte said...

I'm hoping for your participation if you're registered for the workshop. Otherwise you just listen to me and don't get your concerns addressed.