I used to think the three-act structure was bullshit. I know how, however, that I only felt that way because I struggle with abstract concepts. It took me several years, numerous craft books, and a lot of practice to wrap my mind around the classic three-act structure. The fact that I was attempting to apply it to romance stories, which are a little different than other types of fiction, did not make the process any quicker.
As of right now, I’m still not an expert on story structure. But I am at the point where I love thinking about it. Aside from the craft of writing sex scenes, story structure is my favorite topic, and I regularly consume craft books about it. The problem is, I still haven’t found a book about plotting that takes the three-act structure and applies it to romance. In fact, the only good craft book about romance story structure I’m aware of is Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes, which I did find somewhat helpful. Nevertheless, it centers around the concept of story beats, which is one of those abstract ideas that I still can’t get a good mental grip on. Plus, Hayes’ book focuses on internal plot only, and I needed a little more guidance when it came to stitching the external and internal romance plots together.
Maybe one day, I’ll be the one to write the romance craft book of my dreams. For now, I’m going to give the topic a shot with this blog post, in which I’ll be discussing key elements of story structure as they pertain specifically to romance stories.
There are two parts to a romance plot—the external plot and the internal plot—and they are deeply intertwined. In arenas that aren’t romance-related, you’ll see external plot defined as the events of the story happening around and because of your main character, and you’ll see internal plot defined as the main character’s mental and emotional arc.
(Note: I use the word arc to mean an overall change made up of smaller changes. For example, you can have a character go from mean-spirited and angry to content and compassionate towards others, but this is a large change that will need to happen gradually over the course of several scenes in which your character reacts to events in the story and makes choices based on those reactions.)
These definitions for external and internal plot work for romance, but I like to think of the internal plot as the romance arc and the external plot as the events the characters are involved in aside from the romance. Though the amount of words devoted to each facet of the plot will differ across stories, the romance part is the most important. The external plot is there to force the characters together and create conflict for the relationship.
As for the characters, in traditional story structure, you learn about the protagonist and the antagonist. The protagonist, of course, is your main character, and the antagonist is the character or force your main character comes into conflict with in the external plot. In the internal plot, your character fights against themself, with this conflict materializing as an internal wound or flaw. In the example I gave about the mean-spirited character, this is probably the flaw they are fighting against. They will usually have a wound or other reason for being this way, and over the course of the story, they will heal from that wound and move past it.
In a romance story, your main character’s primary antagonist is their love interest. In a dual point of view romance, each main character will be the other’s primary antagonist. This is one of the concepts I struggled with the most when I was learning about story structure. The characters are supposed to love each other; how are they in opposition? But the internal conflict surrounds their love, asking: can these two (or three or more in a polyamorous romance) make their romantic relationship work despite such and such internal and external obstacles?
The main characters can also have secondary antagonists in their external plots. Typically, there will be one main secondary antagonist for both characters, even in a dual POV story. For example, I’m currently reading Auctioned by Cara Dee. In this story, the main secondary antagonist is a human trafficking ring, and the two main characters are teaming up to fight against it. (If your main secondary antagonist is an organization, you will have individual antagonist characters who represent them.)
In stories that focus almost entirely on the romance or internal plot, there may not be a central secondary antagonist, but there will be at least minor ones—an ex who comes back into the picture, an overbearing boss, a best friend or family member who doesn’t approve of the main characters’ relationship, etc. Your characters need conflict for their relationship that comes from outside sources.
Let’s make sense of all this with an example. Currently, I’m working on a BDSM novel about exes who reunite. Here is a chart of my internal and external plot and all the main characters:
Aside from the protagonists and antagonists, there is one more type of character we need to talk about. This is the ally. In a romance, ally characters serve as a sounding board for your main characters. They can also add and subtract to the conflict by influencing your main characters’ feelings. They will do this by helping your main characters to reach conclusions and/or think of new problems or solutions.
As an example, in my novella Escorting the Escort, Greer, one of the main characters, has an ally in the form of his best friend Camilo. Camilo intensifies Greer’s internal conflict of struggling with being bisexual and sharing this information with people in his life because Greer is not out to Camilo. When Greer meets the other love interest, Eden, he is excited about it and wants to share it with his best friend, but he must pretend Eden is a woman when talking about it. Greer’s insecurity leads to problems with Eden, but Greer can’t immediately solve these problems because this would involve coming out to Camilo, who has exhibited homophobic behaviors in the past. Greer is terrified of Camilo finding out he is bisexual because he could, at worst, lose his best friend, and at best, Camilo could be angry that Greer hid this from him for so many years.
Here’s an updated chart for Making it Better showing each character’s allies:
As you can see, Making it Better does not have a main secondary antagonist. This is because there is minimal external plot due to the focus of the story being on Lucan and Court’s personal dynamic. Most of the word count is devoted to intimate scenes, both sexual and non-sexual, and my goal word count is 60,000 words. In order to fit in a main secondary antagonist, I would have to greatly increase that word count, and that doesn’t fit into my goals for this story.
Now, let’s talk about the three-act structure for romance novels. If you’ve read any craft books, you know that the three-act structure is a handful of scenes plus where in your story these scenes should take place. Details vary depending on which book or blog post you’re reading, but after studying many explanations of the three-act structure, these essential plot points (stages in the story made up of a scene or scenes) are what I keep in mind as I’m writing a romance. (Note: It doesn’t matter if you’re a plotter or a pantser; this structure still applies.)
Essential Plot Points
Character introduction(s) – In this scene, you introduce your point-of-view characters. If your story is dual POV, you will have two of these scenes. You will show your character in their natural habitat, so to speak, and introduce the story world. You want to show what your character’s life is like before the romance begins. This includes what they are missing in their life that the romance will give them. (For example, a character could be successful in their job, have great friends, have all the money they need, yet something is still missing.)
In traditional three-act structure, this scene is often referred to as the setup.
Meet cute/meet ugly – In this scene, one of three things will happen:
- Your main characters meet for the first time.
- Your main characters run into each other after time apart (for example, if they are exes or old friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time).
- If your main characters have an established, current relationship (such as that of friends, business partners, etc.), they experience a change in their relationship dynamic.
In traditional three-act structure, this scene is often referred to as the inciting incident.
Point of no return – This is the scene in which your characters become entangled with each other deeply enough that neither (or none, if there are more than two) of them can walk away from the relationship without significant consequences.
If you’re writing a dubious consent story in which one character buys the other within a sex slave trade, this point might be the purchase. If the slave character tries to leave the relationship after that, they could experience the significant consequence of punishment or even death. If you’re focusing mostly on the internal plot in your story, this could be the point at which your characters decide something together. Let’s say your characters start out as friends with benefits. The point of no return could be when both characters admit to each other that they have developed romantic feelings. At this point, if the characters walk away, they would experience emotional pain. Their friendship would likely be over, and they will have lost a sexually compatible partner. This might sound a lot less significant than the consequences the slave character could experience, but the key to making emotional stakes high is convincing the reader through your character’s inner monologue that it would hurt them to leave the relationship.
In traditional three-act structure, the point of no return is also referred to as the first plot point, first turning point, and/or end of Act I.
Midpoint – This is the halfway point of your story. It’s a little murkier than the plot points that come before it, and I still sometimes have trouble pinning it down. But at the midpoint, a significant shift occurs in your story. In many romances, the characters break up. In this type of scenario, before the midpoint, the story trajectory is that of building up the romance; after the midpoint, the trajectory becomes saving the romance. Sometimes, the shift occurs primarily in the external plot. Before the midpoint, the characters are suffering at the hands of the main secondary antagonist; after the midpoint, the characters have a plan to defeat that antagonist, and the story becomes about implementing the plan.
For me, it is helpful to think of the midpoint as the moment in which the main character goes from passive to active. This does not mean your character should be completely passive up until the midpoint because that makes for a weak narrative, but they will be more passive before this turning point than after it.
I’ll use my novel How to Love a Monster as an example. In the beginning of the story, the main character, Seraphim, wakes up in a nightmare world run by the other main character, Fiend. For the first half of the story, Seraphim is at Fiend’s mercy. He is clueless as to Fiend’s true nature, and while he receives some hints and makes decisions, he is mostly reacting to Fiend’s actions. He is also becoming closer to Fiend romantically and sexually. At the midpoint, Seraphim learns a terrifying truth about Fiend, and the two have a confrontation during which they “break up.” As a result of this confrontation, Seraphim grows stronger in his opposition to Fiend and takes concrete measures to thwart his plans. Thus, he becomes more active.
Darkest moment – At this plot point, your characters fight for their love. It’s called the darkest moment because your characters are hurting. They have most likely already broken up at this point, or they have had a very large fight, and they are not sure how to save their relationship. Usually, after experiencing the perceived loss of their love, one of the characters will beg the other back. My favorite darkest moment in any book happens in Convincing Arthur by Ava March. I can’t do it justice by describing it out of context, so do yourself a favor and buy a copy!
In traditional three-act structure, the darkest moment is also referred to as the second plot point, climax, black moment, and/or dark night of the soul. Often, this will be split up into two plot points—the second plot point/black moment and the climax, but to me, they are the same thing.
HFN/HEA – The Happy For Now or Happily Ever After moment is the payoff for all the turmoil your characters went through to achieve their love. They’ve bared their souls and gotten past the darkest moment, and now, they get to be happy! Show your characters being together and feeling content and loved. If it’s a Happy For Now ending, they might not be sure they’ll be together forever, but they should still have their moment of happiness.
In traditional three-act structure, the HFN/HEA scene is often referred to as the resolution or denouement.
Optional epilogue – A large number of romance stories contain an epilogue. It is an extension or strengthening of the HEA and will usually show your characters in an additional happy moment sometime in the future. The epilogue’s purpose is to bring your reader increased satisfaction and an even stronger payoff after all the drama your characters endured while fighting for their love.
One can get much more detailed with what scenes are “required” in a romance. Your goal should be to find a balance between what works for you and what your readers expect. The above list is what works for me; I know that if I include all of these elements, my story will be strong. The exception is that if you are writing a romance, you MUST have the HFN/HEA. Otherwise, it isn’t a romance (though it may still be a love story).
As for where these scenes should occur in your story, this really depends on your story’s length. In a short story or novella, some of these scenes may be combined; for example, the character introductions and meet cute/meet ugly may happen in the same scene. On the other hand, in a novel-length work, the character introductions will usually take up much more space. Even so, the scenes I’ve listed have places at which they typically occur.
- The point of no return usually happens between 1/5 and 1/4 of your manuscript, which means the character introduction(s) and meet cute/meet ugly must happen in the first 1/5 to 1/4.
- The midpoint always happens at the halfway point.
- The darkest moment is the mirror to the point of no return, so it will happen at the last 1/5 to 1/4 of your manuscript, which means the HFN/HEA and optional epilogue will occur in the last 1/5 to 1/4.
For a visual representation of this, here’s a diagram:
Here are some further pointers for building your romance story both from a writer-who-has-been-through-it perspective and a reader-who-has-been-frustrated perspective.
Make sure your internal and external plots are closely intertwined. Each should affect the other as your story progresses. In more concrete terms, make sure one facet of the plot doesn’t wrap up significantly before the other. Many romance readers read for the romance plot more than they do for the external plot, so if your characters have figured out their romance and have little to no interpersonal conflict at, say, the midpoint, your reader might struggle to keep reading simply to find out what happens in your external plot. This is mainly an issue when a great deal of the book is devoted to external plot.
When in doubt, follow the characters. It’s easy to get bogged down in the mechanics of structure. If you’re like me, you might start to get stressed about it and become blocked. But at its bare bones, a story is how your character reacts to outside stimuli and makes choices based on those reactions. If you’re struggling to figure out what should happen next in your story, do whatever makes the most sense for your character. For example, if your main characters just broke up, what would this particular character do? Would they go buy a bouquet and show up on their love interest’s doorstep? Would they go home and brood about the breakup then send some risky texts? This blog post does not cover characterization, but ideally, you should know your character well enough to ask them “What are you going to do now?” and see what they say.
You don’t have to outline to be good at plotting. In fact, I only got comfortable with story structure when I accepted that outlining simply doesn’t work for me. I can’t know what my characters will do until I’m up-close and personal with their emotions in the moment. The only scenes I plan before beginning to draft my manuscript are the character introductions and the meet cute/meet ugly. I do some character work so I know my MCs’ motivations and backgrounds as they pertain to the hook—something else this post doesn’t cover. (Basically, your story’s hook is its core concept, called a hook because it should intrigue your reader enough to hook them.) But otherwise, I only stay at most a few scenes ahead in my knowledge of the story. The role of structure in my process is that it keeps me on track. If I’ve got a goal of 50,000 words for my manuscript, and I’m at 20,000 words with no point of no return in sight, I know I need to plan for a different final word count.
Story structure is too complex a topic to address fully in one blog post, but I hope this helps anyone having trouble getting a grasp on all the theoretical mumbo jumbo that is plotting—especially as it pertains to romance writing.