Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Romance Arc

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?


Vince said...

Hi Jana:

This same question came up on another blog over the weekend and I posted ‘106 Ways’ to show the arc on my website. This was part of a list- building exercise.

In addition to what you wrote, I like to look at the arc in this way:

Happiness is not so much finding the ‘right person’ as it is becoming the ‘right’ person. When hero and heroine first meet, they do not complete each other. In fact, it could help if they dislike each other. (I like this better than the strong ‘at first sight’ attraction.)

The question is: “Why do two people who are not right for each other and don’t even like each other come to fall in love?”

Ideally, both will change, perhaps against their will, into a new matrix. For example: character A becomes C- and character B becomes C+ and in this new state they attract and in fact complete each other.

I like a story best when both parties have to change to become right for each other.

Great post because I think this Romance ARC is at the very heart of a good romance novel.


Karyn Good said...

Wow. Great post, Jana. Is it bad to say I've never really consciously thought about the Romance Arc? I just figured it would weave itself through the story amongst the internal and external conflict if I matched up the right characters.

Thanks for the great questions to ask of the Romance Arc!

Janet said...

You are amazing, Jana! Another article I need to print off for my writing binder :) Thanks for this!

I have to say, I'm a lot like Karyn - just get the hero and heroine in the same place and let the chips fall where they may. They will get together - come hell or high water! As to the technical 'how to' - haven't given in any thought at all! Until now.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Vince,
Yes, I agree with your statement:

"Happiness is not so much finding the ‘right person’ as it is becoming the ‘right’ person."

So true. Both hero and heroine need to grow and change to become people who deserve love. I too like it when a couple starts out disliking each other and ends up falling in love. The challenge as a writer is crafting those scenes that show how the couple is learning about the good things about each other and falling in love.

I must check your blog for more of your thoughts on this.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
I have to say I don't consciously think of the "romance arc" when I'm writing, but I am always thinking of ways to show the steps the hero and heroine make as they fall in love. As Vince said, it's important to show the learning and growth and change these characters go through in becoming better people. But this change is only possible because of the love received from the other person, and giving love in return.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
Why, thank you ma'am!

I believe it's important to think about your characters a lot before you begin writing. Really get to know them. What kind of person would do they need to make them whole? What do they have to accomplish to become a better person? That way you create characters that are perfect for each other, but not too perfect. A love interest still must present conflicts and obtacles. As they overcome these obstacles, our characters find love and become better people.


Caroline Clemmons said...

This is an exceptionally good explanation of the romance arc. Thanks!

LindaC said...

This is a really good article. Something that I need to be reminded of, because I don't consciously think of it when I write. Copy and paste! I really love the sound of all of your writing. A WWII story is a rarity. Where can I find it?


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Really great article Jana, very great approaches. I can see how things like this are present in my WIP without even intending it. I notice most of us don't really seem to outline it in our heads, we just know what sort of things will work and when we don't want to lose all the tension right away.

I don't focus too coherently on anything in particular with romantic arcs. Just whatever seems right at the time (ie: if they hate each other, maybe snuggling isn't gonna happen) and every change will bring about new problems as well as resolutions, because each stage in a relationship is new and needs to be figured out. How smooth or bumpy that is depends on the characters.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Caroline,
I'm so glad you found this useful. I found that writing it helped me to focus my thoughts and realize what I was doing on kind of semi-conscious level.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Linda,
Thanks for stopping by. If you can take something from this post and use it in your own writing, then I've done my job.

My WW2 novella "Flawless" has just recently been contracted by The Wild Rose Press. I don't yet have a release date, but if you check back at my website at sometime in the near future, I'll be announcing the release date as soon as I get one!


Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
You're right; most of us don't consciously think of the romance arc as we write. It's sort of instinctive. But I think romance writers disregard the steps in the romance arc at their peril. The couple can't go from simple attraction or even dislike at the beginning of the story, to a committed relationship at the end without showing the gradual steps in between. It simply won't be believable to a reader.


Deniz Bevan said...

Thanks so much for this post and the one from today - they're helping me come to terms with whether my story is a genre romance, or not. Can it be, when the male protagonist dies at the end? And if not, what the heck kind of story have I created?! :-)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Deniz,
I'm glad you found my article useful. Hayley's post today was really great. Romance novels end with a happy ending. The reader is left with the knowledge that the hero and heroine will be together forever and will be happy. Perhaps your novel is more women's fiction or more literary. You'll figure it out and then you'll know where your book fits in.

Good luck.

Deniz Bevan said...

Thanks Jana!
It's definitely YA, that's about all I know so far :-) Besides that... can I resurrect a character whose death I've already written? I'll be thinking about this a lot for the next little while!
(word verification: slype. Is that like skype but on a Slip n Slide?)

Adam Heine said...

Okay, I know you wrote this two years ago(!), but I am so, so glad to have found it. Adventure and character arcs come more or less naturally to me. Romance arcs? Not so much.

This was exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Adam,
Hey I'm glad you found this article even if it is two years old! It's still relevant. I hope you find the information useful.