You want to write a romance novel. Or you’ve written your book and you know that self-editing or revision is a thing you’re supposed to do. Or you’ve finished your manuscript and feedback from your first readers – critique partners, beta readers, your bestie – makes it clear that the story is great but there might be something missing.
Welcome to the six foundational elements of a romance novel!
As a professional romance editor, I’ve basically dedicated my life to this genre (#noragrets), and this article covers the story components that I look for on the first pass of an edit. Before you go wild perfecting your comma placement and hiring a proofreader, let’s make sure your story structure is strong enough to support this beautiful world you’re building for your characters.
The romance industry gets a lot of not great publicity and haters like to call our genre tropey as though it’s a bad thing. Our stories are accused of being simplistic and poorly written and those statements often come from people who have never read a good romance novel.
I contend that in fact romance is more difficult to write than a mystery or thriller novel because we have at least two main characters who require a full story arc. We aren’t writing just one character who has a goal, encounters obstacles, and has to complete an emotional transformation along the way to “the end” – we have to do all that work for no fewer than two people!
And that makes romance doubly hard to write. Feel free to quote me the next time someone says something mean about romance in your presence.
Our genre is also rife with subconscious expectations from readers, so the better you understand how romance novels work and what your audience wants even if they don’t realize it, the stronger your stories will be.
There are six foundational elements every novel should have in order to hit that reader expectation button. Both characters should have a clear profile in the story of:
- Goal is what the character wants. Even though it’s a romance, the characters aren’t generally seeking to fall in love. That happens while they are pursuing the story goal. Each main character should have both external and internal goals. External goals are the ones we could see them achieve if we were watching a movie – earning a promotion or winning a race or saving a life. Internal goals are usually based in emotions – becoming more confident or feeling safe or healing from trauma.
- Motivation is why the character wants the goal. This is often rooted in an emotional need or the character’s backstory.
- Conflict is preventing them from attaining their goal. These are the obstacles they have to overcome in their pursuit of the goal. Conflict should also be keeping the protagonists apart – it’s the reason they can’t be together in a romantic relationship. Story conflict doesn’t have to be the same as relationship conflict, so you could have two enemies (relationship conflict keeping them apart) stranded in a remote cabin (story conflict forcing them together).
- Arc is the emotional transformation the character has through overcoming the conflict of the story. This usually stems from the flaw (below) and they end up a better/stronger/healthier person at the end.
- Flaw is the internal bias/wound/trait that negatively affects how your character deals with conflict. The flaw is often the starting point of the character arc, and when the character resolves or mitigates the flaw, they’ve achieved the full arc of emotional growth.
- Stakes are the consequences of not attaining the goal. The more dire the stakes, the more interesting the story.
In any story, goal and conflict are the absolute minimum requirements. A character wants something and has to overcome difficulty to get it. Without those two elements, there’s no story at all. This is like the flour and water in a bread recipe. Anything you add after the core flour+water makes the bread even more delicious, but if you don’t have flour and water, you don’t have bread at all.
I want to read a book, so I go to my bookshelf and grab the one I want and sit down to read. That’s boring. There’s no conflict. Nothing interesting is happening to keep a reader engaged.
I want to read a book, so I go to my office, but when I enter the room, I find that my entire bookcase is missing. Ooooh, a mystery! Where the heck did a six-foot-tall bookcase disappear to?
Those other four elements incorporate with the goal and conflict to create an infrastructure that supports your entire story. They are the yeast and egg and butter in your basic recipe for hardtack that turn it into a rich, glorious brioche.
Here’s a template to help you imagine how the six elements work together: Character wants GOAL because of MOTIVATION but CONFLICT is preventing her from getting it. If she doesn’t get the goal, STAKES will ruin everything she’s worked for. Her FLAW causes her to make bad decisions at key points until she finally learns ARC and earns her happily ever after.
Can you plug your own story elements into that template? Does it help you understand a high-level outline of your story?
Are you as fascinated by this structure stuff as I am? Enroll in my online course that dives even deeper into these foundational elements. The self-paced class includes a more detailed explanation of each element and how it functions in story, plus lots of examples to help clarify and reinforce the information. There are also recordings of live discussions with two authors – one using the six elements to plot a book and one with Stefanie London as we review how she used the six elements in one of her published books.
You can implement these core story components at any point in your writing process – plot in advance, keep the elements in mind as you write, or use a checklist on your revision to ensure you’re hitting all six points in the story after you’ve finished your first draft. Just be sure that they end up in your manuscript before you get to the copy editing or proofreading process so you don’t end up rewriting significant chunks that you’ve already paid someone to spell check.