Editing for Romance Writers: How to Map Out the Relationship Arc

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.

For example:

– 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?

Do You Have a System for Getting Unstuck?

Last week, we talked about how systems make it more likely that you’ll achieve your goal.  Today I’d like to talk about creating systems for overcoming the obstacles that we all hit at one point or another.

In other words, systems for getting unstuck.

Because we all work a little bit differently, one size doesn’t fit all here.  What helps me might not help you.  The first step in creating your “unblocking” system is to take a few minutes to think about how you’ve written in the past.Read more

Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work (and What Does)

The idea that next year could be different–that we could be different–it’s almost irresistible, isn’t it? Next year could be the year we lose that weight, get organized, and write the novel that’ll make us famous.

So many of us set ambitious goals for ourselves in December, only to drop them before the end of January. The goals we dub “New Year’s resolutions” aren’t enough.

Sure, you start with the goal. Write a novel. Or a non-fiction book. Or a collection of short stories. Or a memoir.

That’s the “what.”

But you also need to create a system to help you achieve that goal.Read more

Editing for Story, Part 3: Scenes

Welcome to the third video in the Editing for Story series!

Today we’re talking about questions to help you evaluate the content of your scenes and look for overall patterns as you create your revision list.

The Editing for Story videos are a companion to the Editing for Story ebook–don’t forget to download your free PDF after you watch the video.

Editing for Story, Episode 2: Non-Traditional Plot Structure

Welcome to episode two of Editing for Story!

Today we’re talking about how to analyze the structure of a story or novel that doesn’t fit into one of the traditional plot structures, or where the structure is so complex that traditional structure is difficult to identify.

This method is a little bit outside the bounds of the advice you’ve probably already heard about editing a rough draft, but it gives you a clear picture of how conflict and stakes are generating organic “plot points” in your story.

Next episode:  how to make sure your story’s scenes stand up to scrutiny!

Editing for Story, Episode 1: Plot Structure

In honor of those who’ve finished NaNoWriMo and will be editing their new baby later this month or next year, we’ll be talking about the editing process for fiction.

Today’s video: tips for editing, why plot structure is important, and how to analyze the plot structure of your story.

Also, don’t forget to download your free copy of Editing for Story: http://tinyurl.com/kws5c5w

The 30 Day Novel: NaNoWriMo Series, Day 30

Welcome to Day 30, the final day of NaNoWriMo!

Today we’re talking about your story’s resolution and how to tie up all those loose story ends, as well as the emotion that you’ll end your story on.

Thanks for stopping by! Come by tomorrow–we’ll talk about what to do next and how to get started on editing your novel.

The 30 Day Novel: NaNoWriMo Series, Day 30

Welcome to Day 30 of NaNoWriMo!

Today we’re talking about what makes for a great resolution, how to end your story on the right emotional note, and–you knew it was coming, didn’t you?–EDITS.

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Congratulations on making it to the end of NaNoWriMo!

Next week, we’ll be talking about some things to consider when editing a first draft–I hope to see you then.

Editing for Emotion: How to Show What Your Characters Are Feeling

Have you ever written a scene that made your heart race and your eyes tear up—only to be told by your critique partner that it needs more emotion?

It’s a common problem. When you’re imagining the scene in your head, it’s natural for you to feel the characters’ emotions. But because you’re already feeling them, it can be hard to tell whether you’re capturing those emotions with the words you choose.

That’s okay! Just keep writing. Some emotions will make it onto the page. As for the rest—it’s easy to layer them in when you’re editing.

What are the ways that character emotions are expressed in words on the page?

  1. Dialogue
  • What characters say
  • How they say it
  • What they don’t say (change subject or leave things out)
  • When they’re silent
  • What they want to talk about and what they won’t talk about

Read through just the dialogue in the scene (out loud, if it helps) and identify the emotion the character should be feeling when speaking each line. How does this line of dialogue suggest or hint at that emotion? Identify how the emotion is expressed on the page:

  • Content
  • Word choice
  • Curse words, exclamations
  • Unusual grammatical constructions
  • Terse or abbreviated sentences
  • The way the character’s voice is described
  • Punctuation or formatting used for emphasis
  • Etc.

Does every line of dialogue in the scene express an emotion? If not, why not? Is the character deliberately masking their feelings? Are they delivering factual information that they don’t care about?

For each line of dialogue that is emotionally neutral, decide whether you will rewrite it to have an emotional charge. A character might say something shocking or hurtful but phrase it matter-of-factly, and that’s not a problem—in fact, the contrast between what a person says and how they say it can strengthen the emotional impact.

  1. Action
  • Voluntary physical action
  • Involuntary physical action (fidgeting, self-touching, and other unconscious movements)

The physical action in a scene is going to be directed primarily toward the characters achieving their goals, but since the drive to achieve those goals is emotional, action is a great way to externalize character emotions.

How a character chooses to perform the simplest physical action, how they interact with objects (voluntarily or not), and even which actions they choose to avoid can telegraph what he or she is feeling.

  1. Body Language/Non-Verbal communication
  • Gestures
  • Facial expression
  • Posture
  • Proximity (distance from another character or an object

Body language is an often-underutilized tool for expressing character emotion. Giving a character body language that contradicts or otherwise doesn’t match what they say is an effective way of adding subtext to dialogue.

One of my favorite resources for body language is the Center for Non-Verbal Studies’ website, The Non-Verbal Dictionary: http://center-for-nonverbal-studies.org/6101.html

I also recommend reading books on body language and making lists of non-verbal behaviors that cluster together: for example, an angry person doesn’t just narrow their eyes, they may also tense their shoulders, make fists, grit their teeth, draw their eyebrows together, or snarl, depending on how angry they are, who they are angry with, if they are trying to hide their anger, etc. Once you have a list of non-verbal behaviors that cluster around the emotion of anger, you can then decide what combination of these each character might display when he’s angry in a particular situation.

  1. Thoughts and Feelings
  • Interior monologue
  • Narration
  • Visceral sensations (involuntary reactions, like a shiver or nausea)
  • Intuition (often expressed as a visceral sensation followed by a thought that interprets the sensation)

This is the most obvious way character feelings show up on the page—narration, interior monologue, and descriptions of visceral sensations. It’s important to have a good balance of these on the page, without relying on them too heavily.

What’s “too heavily”? That depends on the tone of your story, your characters’ personalities, and whether you’re writing in first person or third person (first person will usually have more of the POV character’s thoughts and feelings than third person, as in third person you want to create the illusion that the reader is witnessing events rather than being narrated to by a character).

Putting It All Together

Once you understand the four modes of emotional expression through which characters’ feelings are revealed to the reader, you can have fun with it.

You can show (or hint at) a character’s inner conflict by using conflicting modes—for example, your hero’s body language and thoughts might reveal anxiety, even though his words and actions suggest confidence.

You can subtly show conflict between two characters who seem to be working together by making sure that their respective body language expresses the conflict that both of them are working to hide on the surface.

If you’ve got a character who’s deliberately masking their emotions to other characters, you can be sure that her thoughts and feelings give hints of emotion to keep the reader connected with the character.

And you can intensify the emotional impact of a big scene by making sure all four modes slam the reader with variations of the same emotion.

Happy editing!