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Writing the Romance Novel: The Seven Story Beats

Monday, April 28, 2008

In Writing the Romantic Comedy, Billy Mernit breaks the romance storyline into “seven basic” pieces, or “beats.” Most of us have heard that we should structure novels like plays or movies: in three acts. In a romance, the three acts can be broken down by the plot points we’ve already looked at: the meet, the lose, and the get. But Mernit breaks it down even further into these seven elements that are important to every romance:

1. The Setup/Hook

    A scene or sequence identifying the exterior and/or interior conflict (i.e., unfulfilled desire), the “what’s wrong with this picture” implied in the protagonist’s (and/or antagonist’s) current status quo (Mernit, 110).

2. The Meet/Inciting Incident

    The inciting incident brings man and woman together and into conflict; an inventive but credible contrivance, often amusing, which in some way sets the tone for the action to come (111).

3. The Turning Point

    Traditionally occurring at the end of Act 1, a new development that raises story stakes and clearly defines the protagonist’s goal; most successful when it sets man and woman at cross-purposes and/or their inner emotions at odds with the goal (112).

4. The Midpoint/Raising the Stakes

    A situation that irrevocably binds the protagonist with the antagonist (often while tweaking sexual tensions) and has further implications for the outcome of the relationship (113).

5. Swivel: Second Turning Point

    Traditionally occurring at the end of Act 2, stakes reach their highest point as the romantic relationship’s importance jeopardizes the protagonist’s chance to succeed at his/her state goal—or vice versa—and his/her goal shifts. (115)

6. The Dark Moment/Crisis

    Wherein the consequences of the swivel decision yield disaster; generally, the humaliating scene where private motivations are revealed, and either the relationship and/or the protagonist’s goal is seemingly lost forever (115).

7. Joyful Defeat/Resolution

    A reconciliation that reaffirms the primal importance of the relationship; usually a happy ending that implies marriage or a serious commitment, often at the cost of some personal sacrifice to the protagonist (116).

Okay, now I know this is a short post, and that beyond giving the definitions straight from the book, I haven’t really explained what any of them are. So for more in-depth information on each of these points, be sure to check out the follow-up posts:

Writing the Romance Novel: Beats 1 & 2
Writing the Romance Novel: Beats 3, 4 & 5
Writing the Romance Novel: Beats 6 & 7
Work Cited:

Mernit, Billy. Writing the Romantic Comedy. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2000.

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  1. Monday, April 28, 2008 11:40 am

    1. Do the heroine and hero both need a goal separate and apart from the romance? How would you define these various stages if major goal of one of them is to pursue the romance (and the goal of the other is not to get caught)?

    2. Is it common for the goal to be illuminated at the turning point? Seems like writers are encouraged to show the goals up front (first chapter or so).

    3. The definition of the second turning point suggests that meeting the characters’ goals must be in conflict with pursuing a romantic relationship. Does this have to be the case?

    4. I’ve never heard of the ending referred to as “joyful defeat”. Is it necessary for the protagonist to lose something in order to gain the relationship? (By lose something, I don’t mean bad habits or foregoing personal growth. More like giving up one’s non-romance goal, or redefining it, in order to have the relationship.)


  2. Monday, April 28, 2008 12:40 pm

    I’m curious about #4–what if they are bound together earlier in the story, is that a bad thing?

    PS. I’m REALLY enjoying Writing the Romantic Comedy! I like that it’s put in screenwriter’s terms because I pay more attention than with some novel writing books where I’ve heard the same thing over and over again. This is really refreshing!


  3. Monday, April 28, 2008 4:27 pm

    Okay, I think I’ve been at the computer too long. This isn’t registering too well for me.

    I’m looking at #1 & #2 and thinking they should be overlapping. Aren’t we supposed to get the hero and heroine together a.s.a.p. in a romance?

    The middle ones seem to jive with my thought that you have to keep upping the stakes, so I’m good with that.

    The last one is one I have concern with as well. How do we make this realistic? Losing something of importance to gain the relationship. For it to be believable, how do we show and at what stage in the novel should we introduce the compromising so that this isn’t just a give-take senario, but rather more an evolving choice/decision?

    I’ve ordered this book from Amazon, can’t wait to get my hands and eyes on it.


  4. Pattie permalink
    Tuesday, August 31, 2010 2:06 pm

    Oh my, I missed that link to chapter one! Ignore all my remarks about the friends. Eek. *redfaced girl walks away*


  5. Friday, February 24, 2012 1:38 pm

    Love this! I adapted it to grant writing on our sexygrantwriters site. Hope you like it. I credited you at the bottom and linked to this post.


  6. Tuesday, February 5, 2013 3:56 pm

    Well done! I enjoyed it!


  7. Sarah P. permalink
    Thursday, September 21, 2017 12:50 pm

    Nine years later, and this post is still helping people become the writers they want to be (namely me). Thank you!


    • Thursday, September 21, 2017 1:04 pm

      So happy you (a) found it and (b) found it helpful! Even if you’re not writing “romantic comedy,” I do highly recommend the book this came from, Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit. It’s one of the best books on structure (and uses examples mainly from movies, so it’s more relatable) I’ve found.


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