Want to Write Romance? Layer Your Scenes for Success

cs-lakinWhen I began considering writing a romance novel, I asked some of my romance author friends about structure. I had no idea that romance novels, across the board, followed a basic structure that differed in many ways from traditional novel structure.

I was glad, then, to be introduced to Michael Hauge’s story structure for romance writers—because it took the guesswork out of my task. Hauge, a top Hollywood’s story consultant, proposes what he calls “The Lover’s Journey,” which mirrors the classic “Hero’s Journey,” but with some obvious differences.

Since I’m a big proponent of plotting a novel by starting with identifying the ten key scenes, I wondered how Hauge’s “12-Step” method might work alongside my method. What I soon discovered was that, by layering, I could craft a strong story structure with my romance novels without ignoring the important foundational scenes found in every good novel.

We’re going to go into some depth here, but don’t panic. I think it will all make sense.

The 12 Key Romance Scenes

Hauge proposes twelve key scenes in the romance structure. Not every romance story has to have all of these, but they’re the milestones you’ll see in most romance novels. I often leave out two or three and replace with ones that work better for my story.

Here are the twelve romance scenes (in my wording):

  1. Ordinary World: We see the heroine’s normal world before she meets the hero.
  2. The Meet: The lovers meet.
  3. Rebuffed: Heroine has a negative response to the hero that shows they’re incompatible (or you can reverse all this and make this the hero’s reaction to the heroine).
  4. Wise Friend Counsels: Heroine’s friend/mentor points out why the hero is right for her.
  5. Acknowledge Interest: Heroine is forced to acknowledge her attraction to the hero.
  6. First Quarrel: Lovers have an argument or disagreement that pushes them apart.
  7. The Dance: Opposites attract and repel. Development of the relationship but with tension!
  8. The Black Moment: Romance is dead, impossible due to something that’s happened.
  9. The Lovers Reunite: They finally openly admit/accept they are fated/ meant for each other but things stand in the way.
  10. Complications Push Them Apart: Tension precluding the big climax, usually due the complications of the subplot.
  11. Together At Last: Working together, thrown together, at the climax to overcome the last big obstacle (emotionally and actually), they are finally together or joined in love and purpose.
  12. HEA: or happily ever after. The reward for the hard journey.

So let’s take a look how you might layer these romance scenes over the ten foundational novel scenes.

Take a deep breath and don’t get overwhelmed. Pretend this is all fun (because it is!).

NOTE: The 12 key romance scenes are R1, R2, R3, etc. The 10 key scenes are numbered 1-10 (see the downloadable chart).

Also, keep in mind that in many romance novels POVs alternate, so you may have a scene or two in the hero’s POV, then shift to the heroine’s. In other words, each of these key scenes could be two halves—a whole scene but one that has a POV shift midway. This is very common with romance novels.

# 1 (also R1) – Setup. Introduce protagonist (HEROINE) in her world.

# R1 introduction of HERO. This is the match to the first essential scene. It may not be the second scene in your novel. You may have two or three scenes with your heroine first.

# 2 Turning Point #1 (10%): inciting incident. This incident moves the heroine into position for the meet (a move to another location, an event, etc.).

# R2 The Meet. This may come later. Some say the lovers have to meet in the first scene. I’m not big on that. I want some time to get to know them both before they’re thrown together.

# 3 Pinch Point #1 (33% roughly): Give a glimpse of the opposition’s power, need, and goal as well as the stakes. This is the full setup of your subplot.

# R4 – Wise Friend Counsels:  Again, this can be, and often is, scenes with both the hero and heroine. They can each have a mentor/ally/wise friend character that gives them advice.

# 4 – Twist #1: Something new happens: a new ally, a friend becomes a foe. New info reveals a serious complication to reaching the goal. Protagonist must adjust to change with this setback.

# R5Acknowledge Interest:  A key scene that throws the lovers together so they start getting to really know each other

# 5The Midpoint (50%): No turning back. Important event that propels the story forward and solidifies the protagonist’s determination to reach her goal. Usually one of the lovers realizes and decides the other is for them, and they will now pursue without letup, despite current obstacles. And at the same time, the other lover may see something that makes him/her decide the relationship is not gonna happen.

# R6The First Quarrel: Things start coming to a head and creating high tension with the lovers.

# 6 – Pinch Point #2 (62% roughly): The opposition comes full force. Time to buckle down and fight through it. Again, this is further development of the subplot.

# R7The Dance of Attraction:  The two are again thrown together, and now they are perilously close to falling madly in love. But . . . there are still obstacles (subplot unresolved).

# 7 – Twist 2: An Unexpected Surprise Giving (False?) Hope. The goal now looks within reach. A mentor gives encouragement, a secret weapon, an important clue.

# R8 The Black Moment: Then something happens to kill the possibility of a true romance. A misdirection, lie, reversal, misunderstanding. This is a great place to throw that monkey wrench in.

# 8 Turning Point #4 (75%): Major setback. All is lost and hopeless. Time for final push.

# R9 ­– The Lovers Reunite: Somehow they find a way to get together despite the huge obstacles. This is the scene where they admit/realize they both are fated to love each other.

# R10 Complications Push Them Apart: There is one last big obstacle in their way. Which sends them reeling into the high action and tension of . .  .

# 9 – (also #20 – R11Together at Last) Turning Point #5 (76-99%): The climax in which the goal is either reached or not.

# 10 The Aftermath (90-99%): The wrap-up at the end. Denouement, resolution, tie it all in a pretty knot.

# R12The HEA. A final, parting shot of the happy result of the wrap-up.  This could be included in the last scene (above) as the two plot elements merge together, or they might be separate scenes within the final chapter(s).

Notice, R1 is essentially scene #1 and R11 is scene #9. So you have basically the twenty key scenes here, give or take one or two depending on how you want to lay this out.

To help writers see how those romance scenes might be layered in as a subplot, I’ve created a helpful chart that you can download here. I hope this gives you a blueprint to write a terrifically structured romance novel!

How do you plot out your scenes? Have you ever tried layering them in this way? Do you think this method will be helpful to organize your creativity?

cs-lakin_framedC. S. Lakin is an award-winning novelist, writing instructor, and professional copyeditor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning blog for writers, Live Write Thrive, provides deep writing instruction and posts on industry trends. In addition to sixteen novels, Lakin also publishes writing craft books in the series The Writer’s Toolbox, and you can get a copy of Writing the
Heart of Your Story and other free ebooks when you join her Novel
Writing Fast Track email group. Find out more about Lakin here and connect with her on social media.

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C.S. Lakin also wrote a terrific piece on creating successful Romance subplots, in case you missed it and want to take a peek.

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12 Responses to Want to Write Romance? Layer Your Scenes for Success

  1. Sara Beth says:

    About the idea of the 2 MCs not meeting in the first scene or chapter. I’ve written my romance books both ways, but I’m curious, because from the viewpoint of a publisher/editor/judge, when they are reading the beginning of your story, how are they to know who the 2 MCs will be unless they meet up very quickly? Just curious.

    • C. S. Lakin says:

      Hi Sara, and thanks for your comments. It’s pretty obvious who the two lovers will be when the opening scenes alternate between the two, before the meet. In Colorado Promise, I have a lot of scenes first, showing Emma learning she must leave NY and give up her dreams, then running into her childhood friend at the train (who is the third leg of the love triangle) and travels to Greeley. All the while, the reader meets Lucas in Greeley, sees his world, learns of his past pain. So it’s clear the two will get together. They just aren’t meeting till a few chapters into the book. I like to write long, rich, deep books with deep characters, that takes time to build.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Sara Beth says:

    This is a godsend, thank you.
    As I’ve researched various articles about Romance writing, and just writing in general, I’ve discovered to my surprise, and dare I say, with some pride, I have nailed quite a few of the structural components of storytelling before I even began research. Now honing them is my goal 🙂

  3. Terri says:

    I’ve printed these out and am going to compare it to my just finished (not edited) manuscript and see how I did. This is a really helpful, concise way of looking at the story, and it allows enough flexibility that all of us won’t think we have to rewrite the whole thing to make it fit a regimented format, but still know what parts we might be missing.

  4. Brandon says:

    This outline was godsend!!! I always had a vision of story, I finally started writing. I am essentially at “pinch-point.” I was able to take your outline and map all my story to the end. Thank you for the insider tricks.

    • That’s terrific–very glad it’s helping you 🙂

    • C. S. Lakin says:

      Glad it helps! I really worked on developing these as I wrote various novels, to try to keep from getting too locked into structure, but at the same time, these key scenes in the key places form a great frame you can fill in around and flesh out your novel.

      I have a lot of other blog posts at Live Write Thrive if you want to read related material, including showing how I used this 20-scene chart with my last novel, Colorado Dream, while I was writing it before I published in last December. Hope this all helps!

  5. Great structure model, Susanne. You know I am a big Michael Hauge fan, so nice to see how his ideas and yours fit together. I took a romance workshop with him years ago but don’t recall a structure model for romance, so this might have been something taught in a different class or came about after he was here presenting.

  6. Sheri S Levy says:

    Wow! Super information. I write a teeny-tiny bit of romance for young teens and am saving all of these wonderful suggestions. Thanks for sharing-

  7. You’ve made this process so easy, Susanne! Thanks for laying everything out and for sharing your downloadable form! And I didn’t know that Michael had done a structure for romance stories. Where can I find that? I’d like to look more into it.

    • C. S. Lakin says:

      Hi Becca, I got the material from an author friend who had attended Michael’s RWA workshop. I’ve not found the material online anywhere, but I imagine Michael might share it all if asked (or provide it in a blog post). It was quite extensive, comparing the traditional hero’s journey with the lover’s journey.
      It was tremendously helpful to me when structuring my first romance novel.

      • Ahhh. That’s why I couldn’t find it online :). I’m speaking at an RWA event in a few weeks so I may ask Michael if it’s something I could share. Thank you!

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