Posted in Writing advice that may or may not be completely wrong

Planning a Romance Novel

I recently had this exchange on Twitter:


I’ve reached that stage of editing, with novel #2, where I’m past the fuzzy warmth of false confidence and social lubrication and into I’m-going-to-vomit territory. (I’m not entire sure the tequila analogy works there…)

I’m now tinkering with individual sentences and words and probably making them worse, or just as good, instead of better.

This means it’s time to start novel #3. I thought I’d explain my process here–with the caveat that it’s MY process and will NOT work for everyone–for planning a romance novel.

I don’t want to give away the actual plot of novel #3, because I’m hoping you guys will read it one day, so I’ve made up a plot for this post.

These are the questions I begin with:

1. What keeps the couple apart? Without conflict, there is no novel. Nobody wants to read 80,000 words of two people having happy, fun, sexy times and waxing lyrical about how great their lives are. Readers are sadists baying for blood and I love you all for it.

Answer: The heroine, Martha, is Martian and the hero, Vincent, is a Venutian. It’s extremely taboo for the two to mix.

(I know about the men are from Mars and woman are from Venus bollocks, but I like to play with galactic gender stereotypes. Sue me.)

2. Why does this matter to the characters? Okay, so Martian and Venutian society says it’s wrong. But why do the characters care what society thinks?

On Earth, Some people staunchly believe interracial marriage is wrong. This didn’t matter a jot to me and my husband, so even though it was a potential source of conflict for us, it never was an actual source of conflict. Our romance novel would be 80k words of smooth sailing – YAWN, boring, characters must be tortured!

Make them suffffffer…

Answer number 1 needs to be important to the characters for it to work.

Answer: Martha is the product of an interplanetary relationship and has suffered prejudice her entire life for it. She doesn’t want any children of hers to go through the same thing.

Vincent is determined to impress his traditional father, who has always favoured his oldest son–Vincent’s brother. An interplanetary relationship would probably lead to him being disowned and losing his place in the family’s business (cavity wall insulation installations–say that 10 times quickly).

(Note: It’s enough for one character to have a reason to care. The other can pursue them from the beginning, and there will still be sufficient conflict. Even if both have a reason to care, the stakes don’t have to be equal. I personally like the added tension when one of the couple is pushing the other to give in, and s/he is trying to resist.)

3. Why are they attracted to each other? They must eventually overcome the obstacles of 1 and 2. If the novel’s going to be any good, 1 and 2 need to be really big obstacles with really serious stakes. So there has to be a really good reason for them to risk so much in order to be together.

Of course, the answer always boils down to, “Because they love each other.” and in the real world, love is not logical. Few of us can pin down exactly what makes us love somebody, and sometimes we love people that are totally wrong for us. But truth is stranger than fiction and, at least for me, characters need a reason to be in love.

love is.PNG
Hisham Alqawsi on Flickr

For a feeling of harmony and neatness in the novel, this answer should ideally be related to answer 2; the same facet of their personality that keeps them apart is the facet that eventually brings them together.

Answer: Martha is strong in the face of her bullies, even though the taboo of being an interplanetary child has always plagued her. Vincent, who wishes he could stand up to his brother and their father, is attracted to her resilience and outward confidence.

Martha’s life has always been a struggle. She was raised by a single father, who was ostracised from society after having an interplanetary child and always found it difficult to find and keep employment. Now her father’s health is failing and it’s up to Martha to keep the family afloat. When she starts a hard-won job at Vincent’s father’s new Martian branch, she’s immediately targeted by prejudiced colleagues. Vincent intervenes, promoting her to an office job away from the bullies with a salary raise included. Martha is grateful, and attracted to the stability and wealth he can offer.

4. What are their character arcs? The two main characters should not be the same at the beginning and end of the novel. They should have undergone a change–an arc–to their outlook, or their personality, making them happier. This is how they earn their happily ever after.

Naturally, the arc should relate to questions 2 and 3.

Martha – She learns to embrace her interplanetary heritage and fight against the prejudice she’s suffered from rather than be complicit in it by rejecting love with a Venutian.

In a nutshell, she learns that self-acceptance is more important than society’s acceptance.

Vincent – He learns to stop chasing his father’s approval, because his worth is not determined by other people’s ideas of what he should be. He realises he doesn’t want to install cavity wall insulation, and his real dream is making Earth invasion movies with Martha as his lead actress.

In short, he learns that happiness comes from following his own dreams, not other people’s.

5. Who is the antagonist/enemy? Question 2 will provide an internal antagonist: that thing within the characters that acts against their happily ever after. Martha’s shame and Vincent’s yearning for approval are the internal enemies.

Question 1 may have provided an external antagonist, something outside the characters that interferes with their HEA–in this case, society itself is an external antagonist. This would fit the character arcs, which are both really about rejecting society’s pressures to find their own happiness.

But you can also add another. Perhaps Vincent’s father can be promoted from a facet of an internal antagonist to a villain in his own right. Perhaps he gets wind of what’s going on with Vincent and Martha and actively tries to split them up. In that way he can become the personification of society–two antagonists rolled into one.

Personally I like to have an individual as a villain. I find readers love to hate a devious villain, and feel more strongly about them than faceless/conceptual antagonists like society itself.

But I do think the primary antagonist in a romance should be internal. It creates much more complex conflict, and characters with much more depth, than some cat-stroking-Bond-villain-type. My external antagonists are really spanners in the works. The characters are their own worst enemies.


Once these questions are answered, I have the foundations of a novel. The next steps are to create backstories for each character, explaining exactly why they have the internal struggles they have, and then to outline the novel chapter-by-chapter.

As I explain in a previous post, I am a mixture between a ‘planner’ and a ‘pantster’, like I believe most of us are. My outlines start out as drafts just like the novel itself does, and will change throughout the writing process as I get new ideas and get to know the characters better.

I hope this has been interesting and perhaps even useful.

I’m now debating whether to actually write Martha and Vincent’s story…


Romance author

2 thoughts on “Planning a Romance Novel

  1. I think you’re absolutely right, to consider a situation like this and build a story around it. That works really well. The characters may change things a little as you write them, but starting with an idea like this gives your story a direction to take.

    A romance without complications is what we usually want for ourselves. We definitely don’t want to read about somebody else’s uncomplicated pathway to bliss, do we?


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