Didn't expect a guy who likes space battles, gun porn, and horror films to write about romance, did you? Well, like others in my theological tradition, surprise is among my chief weapons.
I recently finished the final draft of the second Soul Cycle book, Souldancer. While Nethereal had some romantic elements, romance is much more central to the second book's plot. In preparation for writing it I did some research on the subject, and sharing what I learned might do aspiring authors some good.
Romance is one of the most popular genres. It's also one of the most misunderstood. The glut of poorly scripted romcoms that Hollywood churns out has led many to equate romance with Roger Ebert's "idiot plot". This association is the fault of greedy/lazy film making; not any defect in the romance genre itself.
The second pernicious fallacy surrounding romance is that it's all about feelings. My editor, L. Jagi Lamplighter, rescued me from this error with the following correction:
Romance is not about feelings. Romance is questions applied to emotional goals. Who is the person who will make me feel complete? What do I need to do gain his approval? Why is he the way that he is?In short, romance is a character goal.
I've written about the importance and technique of character goals before. To recap, every plot is driven by characters who want things and encounter obstacles to achieving those goals. The greater the opposition and the bigger the stakes, the higher the tension rises. That's the essence of conflict, which is the engine of every effective plot.
When presented correctly*, goal and stake placement leads the characters (and readers) to ask questions--at least implicitly--about the story. This is the key to pacing and reader engagement. Properly alternating questions, throwing out misdirections, and providing answers is what makes for a classic page-turner.
NB: since as an author, you're really selling yourself (folks don't just want to buy stories; they want to buy them from you), it helps the author-reader relationship to share your own goals with your audience. For example, my chief goal right now is to get Souldancer ready for release by Christmas.
*By the way, proper presentation is: Question 1, Misdirection 1, Q2, Answer 1, M2, Q3, A2, etc.
How do these guidelines apply to romance? The same way they apply to any other type of plot.
In this video, author Dan Wells plugs classic romance novel Pride and Prejudice into his patented seven point story structure model (skip to 1:35). This is also my preferred plot structure. I'll have one; at most two, seven point plots for a short story and interweave five to seven of them for a novel.
Notice how Dan's chart covers everything discussed above. He's got a character goal with high emotional stakes (viz. marriage), the main characters starting out in a position of weakness relative to that goal, and serious obstacles between the characters and their goal. The turns and pinches of seven point structure are handy ways of charting questions and misdirections.
Now that we've got our romance plot structure, how do we fill in the blanks? The goal--or hook--is pretty easy. It's almost always going to be getting the characters together. The questions will largely be variations of how to get them together, which follow from the obstacles placed in their way.
Romantic obstacles can take many forms, but they're usually circumstances that keep the main characters apart. In Jane Austen's novels, the strict code of Regency era social and moral norms is the main source of romantic obstacles. In Twilight, the dude being undead and the chick being human creates a lot of tension. In Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers come from opposite sides of an inter-family feud.
I won't say too much about the nature of the romantic conflict in Souldancer; just that cultural differences are involved--along with a major twist on the versatile Beauty and the Beast plot.
So that's what I've learned about writing romance. If you have further insights, don't hesitate to share them in the comments.