Writing Romance


One seldom-discussed perk of being a writer is the joy of seeing your back catalog finding new readers. Lately I've heard tell that folks are discovering my 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.

Common Misconceptions
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. 

*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.

Souldancer - Brian Niemeier


  1. On chapter 33. I'm hooked on Xander and Astlin but will avoid spoilers. The secondary characters I enjoy but must admit that the number and similar names of same syllable count (eg. Tefler, Thurif, Thera) of them makes me sometimes want a dramatis personae (or whatever that's called) like XSeed because I sometimes find myself misremembering if so-and-so was someone I was rooting for or being against earlier.

    1. Feedback along those lines from author and editor Jeff Duntemann convinced me to add dramatis personae lists to my subsequent books. Adding one to Souldancer is on the list of items planned for the second edition I'll get around to one of these days.

      I'm glad you're enjoying the book.

  2. Great post! I really like the 7 point structure as well, for both plotting and diagnostics.
    Jami Gold has an excellent romance beat sheet that amalgamates a few other structures for the external plot. The most helpful part is the set of questions you use for the romance beats. Why do they have to spend time together? How do they show a willingness to do so? How does fear threaten the commitment? Etc.
    Good stuff.

    1. Whenever you hear writing described as "flat", chances are the writer didn't ask himself those questions.

  3. Fiction is all about contrast. Romance is no different.

    1. The more I look at it, the less it seems like its own genre, and the more it looks like a prescribed set of goals for characters in any genre.

  4. I've practiced writing a lot of romances between a lot of personalities. One helpful tip I read somewhere is to let your romance really dwell on anticipation and longing. If you read the Song of Solomon, what makes it so hot is the longing. All the longing. (Especially in the Amplified, which seems to include stage directions.) My more successful romance stories really wallow in the longing part. I am amused to get comments from people who ship characters who have chemistry but aren't yet together. :-D

  5. Wonderful article. Thank you for this.

  6. If anyone here is interested, we're going to start reading through and discussing Tucker Carlson's Ship of Fools soon over on Dissident Reads. If that sounds interesting, please join us.