Romance Structure and genre expectations
So, I’m going to try to do a “this is romance structure” thing.
The idea is to do each of the genres in turn, so you guys understand what makes a romance a romance, what the expected romance structure and tropes are.
Two things to remember: first, structure doesn’t make the genre. It’s expected in the genre, but it doesn’t define it. So even if your science fiction has this structure, if the emphasis is on the science fiction/futuristic stuff/how society has changed, it’s not a romance, or even a science-fiction romance. It’s science fiction with a romantic subplot. Second, every genre has accepted “shortcuts” that make its story easier to tell and which will seem like total lunacy to someone not willing to be immersed/learn them. I’ll list this for each genre, but I’m not judging. These are simply short cuts so common to the genre they’ve become embedded in the genre and might be invisible to the habitual reader. There’s no point at all if you’re not a regular reader sitting there and judging the genre. It is what it is, and the fact you see these breaks in logic doesn’t make you smarter, it just makes you not an habitual reader of the genre.
We all know romance structure, right? Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl. Sure. But there’s more to it than that. It’s more soemthing like this:
Girl (most romance is told from the female perspective) meets boy (actually these days they’re usually both in their late twenties, early thirties) and something special happens. It must be obvious from the first moment that there’s attraction there.
For some reason (possibly having to do with circumstances) girl is afraid of boy/put off by him/thinks he hates her. Boy might think badly of her or, because of his scars and background, might be afraid to let himself go, to trust her fully.
If this is a contemporary/now normal romance there will nonetheless be sessions of intense making out, complete with sensations that are beyond what the human body is (possibly) capable of feeling. Depending on the kind of romance… Well, let’s say that it’s a traditionally published one, where they’ve been pushing more sex-per-emotion lately: the make out sessions can go all the way and beyond. I mean, my giving a book flying lessons the fastest happened when a writer took a regency virgin from zero to anal sex within the first ten pages of the book. BUT the decision on how far between romance and erotica you’re willing to go is yours and, if traditional, your editor’s. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It sort of broke the neck of my disbelief, but I promise you it has a lot of fans.
Anyway, you have the meetings and make out sessions — it’s harder to do if you’re writing a clean/no sex/sweet romance, because you have to convey all that attraction without what my best friend growing up called “rolling the melons”. You’ll have a lot of significant looks, sparks when their hands meet, etc. — a lot of the meetings will devolve into arguments/sparring/etc, in which the characters think they’re in opposition, but we can see the underlying compatibility.
This is when the secondary plot starts and picks up steam. Secondary plot? what secondary plot?
Any romance of more than about 10k words has a secondary plot. I honestly think this is to slow down the internal timing, so that the main character, despite their frightening attraction, has enough time of knowing each other, etc, so that the reader “buys” that they have had enough time to fall in love.
But also the secondary plot supports, builds on, and pushes along the main plot.
It is almost a cliche these days for the secondary plot in a romance to be that the woman is chased/abused/involved in plots by her ex husband. In regency this might be a guardian or a step brother or something. The plot can also relate to the man’s past and make him seem more frightening/scarier which keeps them apart.
The plot can be any other genre or sub genre, including mystery or fantasy, or it can be romance, even.
If it’s mystery it should either start pretty close to the beginning or we should have hints where the guy reminds himself he’s here to hunt a murderer and could Ms. so and so, or her husband, father or fiance be the murderer, or the woman has dreams of waking from sleep walking with a corpse at her feet.
For romance, if you’re wondering how romance can be the secondary plot of romance, consider Pride and Prejudice. The secondary plot that keeps them apart, underlies Mr. Darcy’s supposed perfidy, and makes the reader think all is lost, is Jane’s romance with Mr. Bingley which Mr. Darcy intrudes upon to keep them apart. In the same way, Whickam’s not quite romance with Lydia is what brings that bit of misdirection to an end as Mr. Darcy’s wholly benevolent behavior in that case makes us realize he really meant everything for the best. More importantly, it makes Lizzy think so, thereby bringing about the HEA, ie Happily Ever After. Romance must have a happily ever after. What if you just had this idea for being really clever and sneaky and they don’t get together in the end? It’s not clever or sneaky and you’ll straight-up p*ss off fans of romance.
These days if writing a contemporary romance, a wedding might not be sufficient for your readers to think that the characters will stay together, particularly if the characters are already multiple-divorced. Usually it takes the birth of a child for the HEA to stick. This or an intimation that they settled down happily, like a real couple, are also needed if you find that your characters are married at the beginning of the romance (usually a marriage by connivance, contrivance or arrangement. Forced marriage is a recognized sub-genre.)
Things that will seem peculiar if you come from other genres: In romance, narration is often two-voices, but unlike the neat divisions of other genres, it doesn’t happen in sections separated with ***** but sometimes sentence to sentence. This is a narrative necessity, because if you’re not in both their heads you won’t know that they’re just saying these things because they’re scared or something.
Those of us who come from other genres might NOT be able to do this. However the fans expect it, and might ding you if you don’t. OTOH in the hands of a master — Heyer — you won’t even notice she’s “jumping heads.” And if you read her a lot, to get the feel or whatever, you might find that you’re doing it in your science fiction which will make your editors wonder if you lost your mind.
Things that seem stupid but are short cuts to speed up the story in the genre: the locking of eyes and the “knowing” there’s something special there. Physical touch that brings out reactions not known to humans not suffering of seizures. The way they keep thinking of each other.
All of these are essential, because if told realistically it would a) be boring and b) take forever to write out. These short cuts get the plot moving. No, romance readers don’t think that’s how life works, it’s just that these “contrivances” have become invisible to them.
Something to remember: if you’re running a subplot — and you probably are, if your story has any length at all — the subplot should end before the romance. Ie. Jane and Mr. Bingley get engaged before Lizzy and Darcy; Lydia and Whickam get married before Lizzy and Darcy; or when it’s a mystery, the mystery gets solved before the characters decide to get married; the thriller plot gets solved, etc. Your happy ever after is the last thing, that sends the readers off happy.
Homework: read Pride and Prejudice; Georgette Heyer’s Venetia; Madeline Hunter The Seducer. For bonus points read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca which is usually called a thriller, but which if you analyze closely, both in structure and theme is a romance.