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Staurt Horwitz in his book Book Architecture makes the case for using Reiterations to create structure for a novel without tying yourself to a linear outline. Especially if you’re writing a literary book, a book with multiple viewpoint characters or multiple timelines, this method is gold.
Horwitz is weak on one point where Coyne is strong, however: Genre specific advice.
But how about if one combined Coyne’s and Horwitz’s methods?
I’m going to take my list of Obligatory Scenes for Romance, inspired by Coyne, and mash it up with Horwitz’s Reiteration method. Let’s see what happens!
First, here’s a re-cap of Obligatory Scenes for Romance.
First of all, notice Points 9 and 10. The larger Theme, and the outcome that proves that Theme, for all Genre Romance (as opposed to Women’s Fiction or literary novels with a love story) must be “Love Conquers All” and a Happily Ever After (HEA). This is part of the Genre. If you don’t like it, don’t write Genre Romance. That’s pretty simple.
That doesn’t let you off the hook from developing your own Theme, however. This will be a variation of Love Conquers All, a specific example of what kind of problem Love Conquers. For instance, in 50 Shades of Grey it would be: Love is stronger than sexual sadism. The theme of Pride and Prejudice would be: Love is stronger than social prejudice. Another book might have the theme: Love is stronger than greed. One of my favorites is the HEA version of Romeo and Juliet: Love is stronger than enmity.
So far, that’s just Romance 101.
Here’s where it gets interesting. In my list of Obligatory Scenes, there were three that bugged me, the scenes I labeled 2-4 on the list: the External Problem, the Internal Problem, and the Draw. They weren’t quite right—because they weren’t Obligatory Scenes, as such, but rather ongoing elements necessary to drive the Romance. These elements might go into every scene, in fact!
I was trying to use a linear sequence, but what I needed was a set of parallel sequences—a grid. First let’s leave only the real scenes in our list:
What happened to 2-4 and 9? They are still there, but along a different axis. Let’s look again at that list once we’ve turned it into a Reiteration Grid:
The Grid allows us to see that Reiterations can (potentially) iterate in every scene. (They don’t have to but they could.) This is critical, because touching on these narrative events is key to making a romance romantic. Each Obligatory Scene, as well as the other scenes in the book, will combine more than one Reiteration Arc.
Let’s take the Cute Meet. Looking at the Grid, we can see a there are several elements that might go into that scene. First there’s an iteration of Draw—the reason they are meeting and will continue to meet. Instantly, they are attracted to one another, though at this point it might be purely physical attraction. There may be an iteration of the External problem already evident. And even at this point, we should see the first iteration of the Heroine’s secret and the Hero’s secret, though the hint might be so well disguised we don’t recognize it as the first iteration of that Reiteration Arc until we’ve seen further iterations.
Least it seem the Grid is too, dare I say it, formulaic, let me emphasize that each individual story will have a different palette of Reiterations flowing into scenes. The Heroine and Hero might meet for the first time before they know that something is going to continue to work together, so there may be no Draw iteration in Cute Meet. Or they may meet, be attracted and go right to the First Kiss scene before an External antagonist pulls them away and stirs up the doubts that become an Internal Problem for one or both of them.
It’s not always necessary for the Heroine and Hero to both have a secret/internal issue. Sometimes it’s just one or the other. In Twilight, Bella is a normal girl; Edward has a secret. But in the subplot romance of Bella and Jacob, both Bella and Jacob have an internal issue. Jacob has a secret identity. Bella’s issue is that she’s still in love with Edward. In the Bella/Edward romance, they are able to overcome their external and internal problems, whereas Bella/Jacob are not. (Obviously the Bella/Jacob love story could not stand alone and still have the required HEA, but as a subplot, it works. Romances can have bittersweet, unhappy for now, or even unhappily ever after subplots for the third wheel. Usually, though a HEA is implied even for the loser of a love triangle, unless the rival was a Baddie.)
This Grid is solely for Obligatory Scenes. It could easily be expanded along the y-axis to include all the beats of a standard Narrative Arc. Several of the Obligatory Scenes are also usually broken up into successive scenes in a standard length novel.
The First Kiss can be extended into a sequence in either direction: The First Look, the First Touch, the First Time to First Base, the First Time Making Love, the Second Time Making Love…and so on. In Romantic Erotica, the first sex scene might occur about two seconds after the Cute Meet. A Sweet Romance might replace the First Kiss scene with a gentle holding-hands gesture, and the couple might not kiss until the final scene when the preacher says: “You may kiss the bride!”
A Romance trilogy that follows the same couple may extend the later beats, such as Kiss, Fight, Commitment and Betrayal, several times, with a new arc in each book. The true HEA is withheld until the last book in the series.
There are few stories that aren’t improved by a strong romance; but this does not make every story a Romance in the sense of belonging to the Romance Genre, i.e. a book that would be shelf-mates with Bodice Rippers and Regencies.
The same distinction coheres to the difference between a Fantasy novel with a strong romance (what we might call a romantic Fantasy) and a Fantasy Romance. The former may be High Fantasy or Urban Fantasy or Epic Fantasy, albeit with a satisfying romantic subplot. The latter is a Bodice Ripper with dragons.
By the way, I intend no condescension by the term Bodice Ripper. My purpose is not pour forth contempt upon the Romance Genre, as a cheap way of making some other kind of book look more sophisticated by implication. I enjoy Fantasy and I enjoy Romance, and I like most ways of combining the two. The distinction is not terribly important to me as a reader. As a writer, however, it is very important, since the genres target overlapping but different readerships.
Genre Romance will have the Romance front and center to the plot. It will usually be the first element introduced and the last element resolved, but even if a subplot appears on stage first, or a battle with the Baddie adds the finishing touch to the climax, the Heroine and Hero realizing their love for one another will be the most important and highly developed storyline in the novel.
This means—by necessity—all other storylines will be less developed. In a Fantasy or Science Fiction or Historical novel, that means that if the book is Genre Romance, the worldbuilding, scientific exploration, or historical events will be less complex than in a straight Fantasy, Science Fiction or Historical novel. This is isn’t because Romance writers are idiots who can’t research history, science or mythology, it’s part of the Genre requirements. It meets the needs and expectations of Romance Genre readers.
However, a Fantasy novel, like Enchantment by Orson Scott Card, can still contain a storyline that qualifies as “Romance” with a capital “R.” Enchantment, in my opinion, has too complex and rich a presentation of mythology, history, and characterization to quality as Genre Romance; many readers who prefer more Romance to Fantasy won’t have the patience for details about when the Cyrillic alphabet evolved. And Card eschews traditional roles for his Hero, such as “Alpha Male,” and his characters don’t spend nearly enough stage time pinning over one another (or lusting for one another) to make Enchantment even close to a Dragon Bodice Ripper.
Yet a Romance is still at the heart of the story in a way that will reward the more fantasy-tolerant Romance fan. Even more importantly, Card obeys all the Rules of Big R Romance.
So what are they?
Romance with a capital “R” must go above and beyond a story with a male and a female character who fall in love, a couple in love adventuring together, or a couple in love separated by an external force.
The first set of rules have to do with Conflict During Courtship:
This may seem counterintuitive. Hero and Heroine fall in love at first sight—wicked Wizard captures Heroine—Hero defeats minions of Wizard and finally the Wizard to save her—they live happily ever after. Isn’t that a love story? Sure. Isn’t that a Romance? Not in the sense of Genre Romance, no.
Romance in the capital “R” sense must be driven by conflict between the Heroine and the Hero. Most Romances will also have an external force trying to pry the couple apart—whether it be a rival suitor, a jealous jade, an evil wizard or a nasty mother-in-law. But a good Romance must have an internal conflict that keeps the couple apart as well. At least one or both lovers must have some secret need or fear that keeps each from trusting the other. Falling in love isn’t easy—it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done.
The second set of rules have to do with the Resolution of the Relationship:
In a Sweet Romance, the physical consummation of the relationship may be kept behind a closed door. In a Hot Romance, the legal niceties of marriage may less relevant or explicit. And in a Young Adult Romance, both sex and marriage may be more implied as a future possibility rather than explicitly explored. But exclusivity, monogamy, and happiness are all absolutely necessary. This is called the HEA.
By the way, this is often a distinguishing feature that divides Women’s Fiction from Genre Romance. In Women’s Fiction, the Heroine might fall in love with a married man. The Heroine and Hero might not end up together. One or the other or both might die tragically. Or the story might extend far beyond their realization of physical and emotional closeness to a period of time when they are again riven apart, by changing emotions, by time, by death or by fate.
Some examples of extremely romantic stories are therefore not Romance in the sense I mean: Titanic, The Notebook, The Time Traveler’s Wife…. These are fabulous love stories but they violate the Resolution of the Relationship by either denying their lovers a Happy Ending, or going past the Happy Ending into a bittersweet addendum.
It’s fine to have a romantic relationship in a story that doesn’t hit all the “rules.” But if you do intend to put in a Romance that will increase the cross-genre appeal of your novel, it’s important to understand what notes to hit to make that romance sing.