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Writing the Romance Novel: Beats 1 & 2

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Yesterday, I gave you the seven basic beats of the romance storyline, as defined by Billy Mernit in Writing the Romantic Comedy. Let’s look at the first two beats and see if we can start clearing up exactly what they mean as far as writing and structuring a romance novel.

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)

Because Mernit wrote his book for screenwriters, the first couple of steps may come across as slightly different than what we, as novelists, are used to seeing, but really, they’re the same. This is your introductory scene—the opening hook and introduction of your hero or heroine (whichever has the first POV scene). As with all opening scenes, this is the establishment of that character’s story goal, as well as hinting at the main conflict for the entire novel.

With your heroine—whether in third person or first person—there is something to keep in mind: a romance heroine wants to fall in love, even if she thinks she doesn’t. There has to be some part of her that is going to be open, receptive, to falling in love. It’s much easier to accept a hero who’s not at all interested in romantic entanglements or the emotional side of falling in love. But because we want to be able to put ourselves in the heroine’s place, there has to be some indication that she’s emotionally available and ready to fall in love. A romance heroine who has so much internal conflict and turmoil going on, combined with so much external conflict that she can hardly breathe or think would probably be a better main character of a chick lit or women’s fiction novel—the story would be more about her getting her life together than about her falling in love. There can still be a romantic interest in a story like that, even a happy ending, but it’s not necessarily a true romance novel if it’s more about her internal life and less about the relationship.

Beat 1: You’ve Got Mail
Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) is the owner of a charming, independent children’s bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner. Using the screen name “Shopgirl,” Kathleen communicates with “NY152.” This is the screen name of Joe Fox (Tom Hanks). Joe belongs to the Fox family which runs Fox Books — a chain of “mega” bookstores similar to Borders or Barnes & Noble. The movie begins with Kathleen logging on to her AOL account to read an email from “NY152” (Joe). In her reading of the e-mail, she reveals the boundaries of the online relationship; no specifics, including no names, career or class information, or family connections. The two then pass each other on their respective ways to work, where it is revealed that they frequent the same neighborhoods in upper west Manhattan. Joe arrives at work, overseeing the opening of a new Fox Books in New York with the help of his friend, branch manager Kevin (Dave Chappelle). Meanwhile, Kathleen and her three store assistants, George (Steve Zahn), Birdie (Jean Stapleton), and Christina (Heather Burns) open up shop for the day.
(from Wikipedia)

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)

The inciting incident for a romance novel is when the hero and heroine meet. It doesn’t matter what other conflicts are going on in the story or with the characters. Since a romance novel is about the developing relationship between hero and heroine, it is the meet which sets the rest of the action of the story in motion. In a category-length romance (HeartSong, Love Inspired, Harlequin, Silhouettes, etc.), this is expected to happen in the first chapter. In trade/mass-market romances, this might not happen until the second chapter—so long as the hero and heroine are both introduced and it is shown as being inevitable they’ll meet by the end of the second chapter. In Ransome’s Honor, even though William and Julia have known each other for almost twenty years and thought about and spoke about each other throughout the beginning of the novel, in my initial draft which got sent to publishers, they didn’t actually come face to face until the end of the third chapter. The feedback I got was that was too late—even in a novel of over 100k words. So I had to rework the opening of the novel, not only adding a prologue that shows them together, but also revising/rewriting the first chapters so that they come face to face in Chapter 2.

Beat 2: You’ve Got Mail
On a day out with his young aunt and brother (children of his recently divorced grandfather and father), Joe takes them into The Shop Around the Corner for storytime. There’s obviously an instant attraction between Joe and Kathleen, and Kathleen even expresses her concern to Joe about the Fox Books store opening nearby. Startled, Joe doesn’t tell her his full name and makes a hasty exit with the children.

These two beats go hand-in-hand . . . the meet/inciting incident can be your opening hook. And in a romance, it is really the meet that is the hook—beyond your initial hook-sentence/paragraph at the beginning of the story. Romance readers want the hero and heroine to cross paths as soon as possible so that we can start to see the chemistry between them from the get-go. That’s the hook that keeps us reading.

When the hero and heroine meet, even if they initially seem to hate each other, you must show that there is some kind of attraction, something that will allow them to start seeing the good in each other—even if that side is only shown to the reader. Once again, I’ll reference the film You’ve Got Mail. If we didn’t see the softer sides of the two characters, we’d never believe there was any way they could ever fall in love with each other. They’re so hateful toward each other through the first half to two-thirds of the film, when they’re face to face, that we’d never buy it as a romance if we didn’t see their pain, their internal conflicts. That’s what makes us root for them to work it out in the end—because we know they’re meant to be together, even when they don’t.

For Discussion:
From a favorite movie or romance novel, what’s the opening hook that introduces the character(s) to the reader/viewer? Is the meet between h/hn the opening hook? If not, when does the inciting incident occur? In the movie The Wedding Planner, would you consider the inciting incident when Steve saves Mary from the run-away garbage bin or when Mary learns Steve is the groom of the wedding she’s been working so hard to land? Is it possible for the meet and the inciting incident to be separate?

Up next: Writing the Romance Novel — Beats 3, 4 & 5

Work Cited:

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

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  1. Wednesday, April 30, 2008 1:45 pm

    I’m trying to remember the Wedding Planner, it’s been so long since I saw it.

    But by the way you describe it, I’d still call the meet the initial inciting incident for me, because there was some kind of connection there between hr &hrn.

    The second incident you speak of, discovering he’s the groom-to-be, to me, would be an upping the stakes kind of incident. It brings the major conflict to the forefront.

    In todays market, I’m not sure you can really separate the two in a romance. The reader/publisher wants that initial meet/inciting moment to occur a.s.a.p. or they would have picked up another genre, I believe. Certainly the initial meet doesn’t have to include the ‘big conflict’, but it should reveal some kind of attraction, good or bad, between the hr & hrn to kick the (future) romantic encounter off.

    At least that’s my take from all the newly published romances I’ve been reading as of late.


  2. Wednesday, April 30, 2008 4:36 pm

    Allie Pleiter’s The Perfect Blend is, to me, a perfect romance novel. The conflict and attraction between the heroine and hero is believable. In other words, they don’t hate each other, argue all the time, and then decide to marry.

    The book starts with the hero turning down the heroine’s application for a small business loan.


  3. Thursday, May 1, 2008 11:40 am

    From the movie Love and Basketball, one of my favorites:

    The heroine, age 10, and her family move into a new neighborhood. She’s a tomboy and her mother embarasses her by dragging her next door to offer the neighbors a homemade cake.

    The hero, also age 10, and the neighbor’s son, is less than impressed by her, especially because she’s carrying a basketball-girls don’t play basketball!–and his mother suggests they go outside and play together. He winds up pushing her down to the ground, causing her to cut her face, a scar that she never lets him forget.

    But they live happily ever after!


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