Whether you’ve written a romance novel or a novel that contains a romantic subplot, it’s important to make sure that the relationship arc is strong. A relationship arc is a specific type of growth arc that the couple will move through together as their romance unfolds.
In order to evaluate your story’s relationship arc, you first need to map it out with a list of the moments in the story where the relationship changes, starting with when the couple meets and ending with the scene where they affirm their commitment to each other.
Step One: Map the Relationship Arc
Divide a piece of paper into two columns (or create a table in Word or Excel, if you’d rather), and in the first column, note the important relationship moments.
Keep it simple — it’s not important to capture every nuance. You just want to be able to see the major moments that form the twists and turns of the relationship.
– Mike meets Sarah, the investor that’s bailing his nearly-broke company out, and discovers she’s the girl he worshipped from afar in high school.
– Sarah takes Mike to dinner to talk about the changes she wants to make. He’s insulted and decides to look for another investor.
– Sarah talks with her best friend about withdrawing her investment, but learns that Mike has invested everything he owns in the company and will go broke if it fails.
– Mike meets with another investor, who advises him to work with Sarah, because she’s saved half a dozen companies in the same position.
– Sarah and Mike agree to work together until the company has raised enough money to pay off its debt and to ignore their mutual attraction.
Step Two: Identify the State of the Relationship at Each Moment
Once you’ve got the list of relationship moments in the first column, the next step is to note what’s happening in the relationship at that moment. You’ll write A, B, C or D next to each moment.
A) hero gives in to attraction while the heroine resists
B) heroine gives in to attraction while the hero resists
C) both hero and heroine resist the attraction
D) both hero and heroine give in to the attraction
What do I mean by giving in to the attraction? It could be as big as stealing a kiss or even trying to seduce the other character, who is trying to avoid the kiss or the seduction. Or it could be as small as deciding that the other character is not as bad as s/he first seemed, and being willing to cooperate with the other character in some way. It might even be completely internal—a moment where one character pretends to be resisting the attraction, but secretly relishes the interaction with the other character.
If both characters give in to the attraction (a D moment), it should be brief and something should happen immediately afterward that puts them back in A, B, or C.
Moments that fall into A, B or C are moments where there’s romantic conflict. Your characters might be fighting about other things besides their relationship, but the fight affects the relationship. They might be working hard to pretend that their mutual attraction doesn’t exist. Or they might be disagreeing about the issues surrounding their relationship.
D moments are moments where the conflict is overcome, perhaps temporarily or perhaps permanently. These are the love scenes in your story, where your characters let down their defenses to show affection, emotional vulnerability, and commitment to the relationship in some form or another. Depending on what kind of romance you’re writing, these moments can range from innocent hand holding to a graphic bedroom scene.
The majority of your story’s relationship moments should be A, B, or C moments. And you should be alternating between these three types of moments.
If your characters’ relationship consists of mostly A moments or mostly B moments, it may lack the back-and-forth feeling that good romances usually possess.
If your characters’ relationship consists mostly of C moments, your romance may lack believability–if neither character ever changes their mind about the other, when they finally give in to their attraction at the end of the story, the reader may wonder why these two are falling into each others’ arms all of a sudden. Those A and B moments, where the characters change their opinions of each other in small ways, are the points in the story where the romance progresses.
If your characters’ relationship consists most of D moments, your story is lacking in romantic conflict, and is likely to bore the reader. You want to sprinkle those D moments sparingly throughout your story, to give the reader just enough satisfaction to feel like the relationship is progressing without undercutting the romantic conflict in all the other scenes in the story.
Step Three: Maximize the Emotional Impact of Each Moment
Once you’ve identified the dynamic of each moment, you can use these questions to identify how you might increase the emotional impact of each moment.
If it’s an A or a B moment, how can you increase the frustration of both characters? How might the character who’s resisting use the other character’s giving in to their advantage? Or vice versa?
If it’s a C moment, how can you make the attraction stronger or the romantic conflict bigger? How can resisting the mutual attraction help or hinder the characters in progressing toward their story goal?
If it’s a D moment, how can you show the relationship changing through the characters’ moments of trust? What are the characters risking by showing their vulnerabilities? How does extending this trust or showing this vulnerability create new problems for the characters later?