I was recently introduced to the idea that as writers we can learn a lot from romance novels. While we may pooh-pooh romance as being trashy, self-indulgent escapism, it is true that good romance authors think a lot about structure and plot. As a writer, I find these parts of writing very difficult at the best of times, so I started thinking about the structure of romance novels and two main points came to light for me. Both of them spring from the realization that romance writers typically write to a fairly formulaic structure. This means that: (1) they have to have a solid grasp of structure; and, (2) they have to be able to manipulate plot details within the structure to make their work unique and interesting.
The typical romance structure goes something along the lines of: boy meets girl; there is some attraction between them, but also many obstacles; boy and girl seem to overcome those obstacles and get together, but something even bigger (often a ghost from one of the character’s pasts) threatens the relationship; ultimately, they overcome the major hurdle in the climax (no pun intended) and come to the resolution/new equilibrium.
That nice neat structure can actually work for non-romance novels as well with a little tweaking and ends up looking like the typical structural diagrams we’ve all seen in craft books: protagonist wants something (may or may not be romance); there are many obstacles in the way; character looks like (s)he’s going to succeed and then something big (often caused by a problem in the character’s past) gets in the way; ultimately, protagonist either succeeds or fails at the climax and then comes to a resolution involving some kind of character growth.
So here’s my realization number one: If I get lost in the plot, I can go back to that simple notion of making an analogy with a romance structure to organize the structure of even a non-romance story.
My second realization is that, while most stories have this kind of structure, it’s what the author does within the structure that can make the story unique. Playing with small details to make them more unexpected can draw the reader’s attention as can raising the stakes in terms of what the character wants and increasing the number or strength of the obstacles the character faces.
Of course it’s not necessary to read romance to understand plot and structure, but that comment by one of my writing instructors was actually very useful to focus me on issues I find difficult in writing generally.
What are the biggest challenges you face in structuring your stories? Can romance help you???