Choosing Your Plotting Guideline
So, how do you create a strong romance plotline? Well, for starters, you'll need to make certain your romance is introduced, developed, and resolved in a believable and emotionally compelling way. Some authors prefer to follow the three-act paradigm, or structured theme, while others use the five-act method. And then there are the authors who focus on the hero's journey as the building blocks for their plot.
This archetype is most commonly associated with screenwriting and is probably the most easily recognizable of all story formats. Essentially, it says that a romance novel, like all stories, will have three components: a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Many new writers find inspiration for plotting a can't-put-it-down romance novel by taking a screenwriting workshop that follows the three-act paradigm laid out by long-time Hollywood script doctor and screenwriting guru, Syd Field. To see what types of screenwriting workshops are available in your area, check your local library and/or community college.
The three acts are not divided evenly through the romance novel. In fact, the second act contains roughly one-half of the book's content, while the first and third acts contain the remainder. Included within the three-act method are two main plot points (or turning points), along with a mid-point that dramatically changes the direction of the story and a Dark Moment where all seems lost.
This is the layout of a three-act paradigm. Notice that the Mid-Point and 2nd Plot Point are identified as love scenes; however, depending upon the type of a romance novel you're writing, the plot points could just as easily be an escalating development of the emotional commitment to the relationship.
The specifics of the three-act paradigm are as follows:
1. Act One — The Introduction or Setup
a. The hero's and heroine's conflicts — external, internal, and romantic, if all are present — are introduced (or at least foreshadowed).
b. Includes the first turning point (toward the end of the first act,) which will be the Cute Meet.
2. Act Two — The Development of the Romance
a. The hero and heroine begin to fall in love.
b. Secondary conflicts (such as external and internal) are confronted and resolved, while the primary conflict (such as the romantic) is not, although an inevitable confrontation is foreshadowed.
c. Includes the mid-point, or major turning point, which is usually the first love scene, or the first scene of physical and/or emotional intimacy.
d. Includes the second turning point (toward the end of the second act,) which raises the stakes of the romance while still foreshadowing the coming Dark Moment.
3. Act Three — The Resolution
a. Includes the Dark Moment where the primary conflict explodes and the romance seems doomed.
b. Includes the final resolution, also known as the Happily Ever After.
Because the three-act paradigm is the simplest of all plotting structures, it is a perfect choice for writing a shorter-format romance novel when the romance is the only plotline.
The five-act structured theme is based upon the layout of a play, as interpreted by Gustav Freytag. Much like the three-act paradigm, this method has four main plot points that describe the introduction, development, and resolution of the romance. The primary difference is that in the five-act paradigm, the development phase is broken into three acts containing the rising action, the mid-way turning point, and the falling action.
This is the layout of a five-act paradigm. Notice that the first act is labeled as “exposition” or setup of the story, while the 1st Plot Point (The Cute Meet) seems to occur somewhere between Act One and Act Two. This is because a longer format romance may have additional subplots that might affect the timing of the Cute Meet.
The specifics of the five-act paradigm are as follows:
1. Act One — The Exposition or Setup
a. The hero's and heroine's conflicts — external, internal, and romantic — are introduced (or at least foreshadowed).
b. The primary subplot, such as a suspense element, is introduced.
c. May include the first plot point, which will be the Cute Meet. (This could be alternatively placed at the beginning of Act Two.)
2. Act Two — The Rising Action
a. The hero and heroine begin to fall in love.
b. Subplots and secondary characters are introduced (if not already done so) and the stakes rise.
3. Act Three — The Mid-Point
a. Some secondary and supporting conflicts are confronted and resolved.
b. Includes the mid-point, or major turning point, which is usually the first love scene, or the first scene of physical and/or emotional intimacy.
c. Includes the major turning point for the primary subplot (such as the suspense element).
4. Act Four — The Falling Action
a. Includes the confrontation and resolution of secondary conflicts, while foreshadowing the inevitable confrontation of the primary romantic and primary subplot conflicts.
b. Includes the second turning point (toward the end of the fourth act), which raises the stakes of the romance while still foreshadowing the coming Dark Moment.
5. Act Five — The Resolution
a. Includes the resolution of all remaining secondary conflicts involving secondary characters, as well as the resolution of the primary subplot.
b. Includes the Dark Moment where the primary conflict explodes and the romance seems doomed (can be combined with the resolution of the primary subplot, especially if a romantic suspense).
c. Includes the final resolution of the romantic conflict, also known as the HEA.
Since the five-act paradigm can support the inclusion of one or more subplots, it's a favorite among writers of larger-format romance novels.
The Hero's Journey
Another method employed by romance writers when plotting their novels is the use of the hero's journey paradigm. This structured theme is based on the work of another screenwriter, Christopher Vogler, whose book The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers was in turn based upon his interpretation of the archetypes described by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work on mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
There have been many great how-to books on writing that utilize Vogler's observations. One of the best is probably romance writer Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. Dixon's workshops on plotting have been must-attend events for many novice writers of all genres, romance especially.
Basically, Vogler suggested that all fictional heroes — whether in a novel or a screenplay — would follow a similar path during the course of the story. When Vogler's insights regarding the hero's journey are applied to the three-act paradigm for writing a romance novel, the result can flesh out the plot and give insight into character.
It can also ensure that you'll avoid the saggy middle and other plot pitfalls.
Specifically, the hero's journey paradigm includes:
1. Act One
a. Ordinary World: The H/H (hero and heroine) are in their normal world before story begins.
b. Call to Adventure: The H/H learn of the problem, receive a challenge or the call to adventure that can lead to their romance.
c. Refusal of the Call: The hero or heroine (or both) refuses the call (due to their respective internal conflicts).
d. Meeting with the Mentor: The H/H meet with a mentor who offers advice or training.
e. Crossing the First Threshold: The H/H take the first step toward the romance (the first kiss, perhaps).
2. Act Two
a. Tests, Allies, Enemies: The H/H face and resolve their numerous non-primary conflicts and meet the secondary characters who will hinder or help them on their path to true love.
b. Approach to the Inmost Cave: The H/H encounter numerous obstacles while pursuing their primary goal (a HEA).
c. Supreme Ordeal: A major plot point where an important secondary conflict seems to doom the romance (could also include the primary conflict peripherally, though not always).
d. Reward: The H/H overcome their secondary conflict.
3. Act Three
a. The Road Back: The H/H begin the return to their ordinary world, although the primary conflict is still unresolved.
b. Resurrection: The Dark Moment where the H/H face the loss of their romance and must use every lesson they have learned along their journey to resurrect their love.
c. Return with Elixir: The H/H return from their journey with the “elixir” — their HEA.
Many successful novelists — in all genres — believe that Vogler's paradigm provides the best setup for creating a rejection-proof plotline. The method can be especially useful when plotting a romance novel with a large cast of characters and plotlines.