The Saskatchewan Romance Writers decided to discuss the Romance Arc during our retreat this month. That got me thinking; what exactly is the Romance arc? Helena gave her take last week, and this week I thought I'd give it a shot.
Every story has a Character Arc. This is the learning curve, the journey, the characters go through. Characters begin the story with a certain viewpoint and, through events in the story, that viewpoint changes. Examples of the character arc:
- In the movie Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman starts out as a chauvinist. When he’s forced to play a woman on a TV soap, he gradually learns a new appreciation for women, and his whole attitude changes.
- At the beginning of The Godfather, Michael Corelone hates the mafia and anything to do with his father’s business. When his father is nearly killed in an attack, he takes over the business and begins a vendetta against the attackers. Eventually, he becomes as brutal as his father.
In addition to the Character Arc, a romance novel must also weave in the Romance Arc thread. The Romance Arc deals with the growing relationship between the hero and the heroine. For the writer, it means dealing with questions like: “How is this person different from every other love interest the hero/heroine has ever known?” “What makes this person the perfect match for the hero/heroine?” “How can I show the relationship moving from one of simple attraction at the beginning of the story, to a committed relationship by the end?”
Let me answer the last question first. In most romance novels, there is a spark of attraction between the hero and heroine from the moment they first meet. But something keeps them apart; there is an obstacle, either an internal conflict, or a more visible external conflict, that stands between them. For example, in my current WIP “The Girl Most Likely”, Cara’s internal conflict is that Finn is eight years younger than she is. She’s become very sensitive about her age since her ex-husband left her on her 40th birthday for a much younger woman, and she’s afraid if she falls in love with a younger man she’s setting herself up for that kind of heartache again.
Examples of external conflict are wars, disapproving family or friends, an ex-spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend, differing values and ideals, or being on opposite sides of a conflict. For instance, in my novella “Flawless”, the Second World War forms the external conflict, the object keeping the two lovers apart. Hunter must help Madeleine and her Resistance friends, steal back a valuable diamond from the Nazis.
I must show my hero and heroine overcome all the obstacles between them. The battles they go through, both literal and figurative, help to cement their relationship. Every hurdle they jump over brings them closer, but there's still doubt. The obstacles are difficult and not easily overcome. But by the end of the book, there should be no question in the reader's mind that these two people will be together forever.
How do these characters move from simply being attracted to being willing to risk their lives for each other?
1. As the characters spend time with each other, I have them discover things about one another that they appreciate. When Sarah first meets Will in my novel “Her Best Man”, she believes he is not much more than a party boy. But she gradually learns that he is loyal to his brother, has a wonderful sense of humour, and is a talented writer. She gradually falls for his good qualities.
2. Compare and contrast. A method that I often use to show how the characters are beginning to appreciate each other and fall in love is to show a comparison between the new love and an ex. In “The Girl Most Likely”, Cara’s ex has limited contact with their two daughters since the divorce. When Finn shows genuine concern for her daughters, Cara begins to fall in love.
What makes this person the perfect match for this hero/heroine?
My favourite line from a movie is from “Jerry Maguire” when Tom Cruise says to Renee Zelweiger, “You complete me.” That is what romance characters need to do; complete each other. Only this woman can provide the missing piece that makes him whole.
The best way to show this process happening between the two lovers is to first let the reader know what that hole is in the hero/heroine’s life. In “Flawless”, Hunter had been told all his life by his parents that he was a disappointment to them. When he is jailed for jewel theft, they wash their hands of him. Madeleine, a beautiful Resistance fighter assigned to be his partner, was once married to his childhood friend Jean Philippe, who was murdered by the Nazis. Hunter knows that Jean Philippe was honest, loyal, and brave, with an unwavering sense of integrity. He falls in love with Madeleine but believes that after loving Jean Philippe, she could never see him as anything but a poor imitation. The hole in Hunter’s life is his belief that he’s not good enough.
Next we must show how the love interest fills that need. As Madeleine gets to know Hunter, she realizes what a wonderful man he is. She knows he is honest and loyal and true. She makes him believe he has all the qualities, and more, that his friend Jean Philippe had. By making him believe in himself and his worth, Madeleine fills the hole in his life. In addition, I hope I have shown that Madeleine is the only woman who could ever complete Hunter.
How is this person different from every other love interest the hero/heroine has ever known?
Again, this is where comparisons may come in. This may be a comparison to an ex-husband or boyfriend, or sometimes even with a parent. Show what makes the new love different from the hero/heroines’s previous relationships. In “A Long Way from Eden”, Meg was a pregnant teenager forced into an abusive marriage. When her son gets Zane Martin’s daughter pregnant, she at first thinks he is just like her domineering father because he wants his daughter and Meg’s son to marry. But as she gets to know Zane, she sees the kindness with which he treats his pregnant daughter, and she knows he’s nothing like her father.
In all of the above examples, I must show how a new love is different from an old love, or and how the couple getting to know each other. I do this in a dramatized scene. The characters are learning about one another right in front of the reader’s eyes. Never summarize important “getting to know you” scenes with telling.
In romance, the romantic arc is as important as the character arc. Without the romantic arc that shows the characters’ growing mutual attraction and love for each other, readers will not believe in the romance. If steps in the arc are skipped, no one will believe that the hero and heroine will actually be together at the end of the story, or stay together long after the reader closes the book.
How do you, as a writer, show the romantic arc in your story?