When 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):
- Ordinary World: We see the heroine’s normal world before she meets the hero.
- The Meet: The lovers meet.
- 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).
- Wise Friend Counsels: Heroine’s friend/mentor points out why the hero is right for her.
- Acknowledge Interest: Heroine is forced to acknowledge her attraction to the hero.
- First Quarrel: Lovers have an argument or disagreement that pushes them apart.
- The Dance: Opposites attract and repel. Development of the relationship but with tension!
- The Black Moment: Romance is dead, impossible due to something that’s happened.
- The Lovers Reunite: They finally openly admit/accept they are fated/ meant for each other but things stand in the way.
- Complications Push Them Apart: Tension precluding the big climax, usually due the complications of the subplot.
- 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.
- 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.
# R5 – Acknowledge Interest: A key scene that throws the lovers together so they start getting to really know each other
# 5 – The 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.
# R6 – The 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.
# R7 – The 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 – R11 – Together 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.
# R12 – The 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?
C. 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.
C.S. Lakin also wrote a terrific piece on creating successful Romance subplots, in case you missed it and want to take a peek.