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Writing the Romance Novel: Beats 3, 4 & 5

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Since there haven’t been a lot of responses, I’m hoping that y’all are out there just taking it all in and anxiously awaiting the next post. So let’s look at the next three beats:

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)

In the last post, I asked if the inciting incident in The Wedding Planner was when Mary and Steve meet or when Mary learns Steve is the groom in the big-ticket wedding she’s just signed on as the planner for. As Eileen commented, the inciting incident (step 2) is when they meet. The turning point (this step) is when Mary discovers Steve is the groom. Why? Because it completely changes their relationship—from growing attraction to conflict because they can’t be together because she’s planning his wedding to someone else. In You’ve Got Mail, the inciting incident (the meet) occurs when Joe takes his “aunt” and little brother into Kathleen’s bookstore and they like each other. The turning point is when Kathleen and Joe meet again face to face as adversaries, because Kathleen knows he’s the owner of the super-bookstore that’s putting her shop out of business. Even though they’ve known each other online for awhile before the story starts, it isn’t until they meet face to face that we get our inciting incident and first turning point.

The turning point is the main conflict between your hero and heroine that will contrive to keep them apart for most of the story, even as they’re falling in love with each other. It’s usually the setup for the plot—a wedding planner tasked with planning a wedding for a man she’s falling in love with (whether he’s the real groom, as in The Wedding Planner, or he’s just pretending to be the groom, as in Stand-In Groom); a woman whose former flame returns and is resentful toward her for turning down his proposal years before—she must watch while he flirts with and seems to build a new relationship with someone she’s close to (Persuasion); the woman who’s falling in love, unbeknownst to her, with the man putting her out of business (You’ve Got Mail); this is the shotgun wedding, the arrival of the mailorder bride, the wedding day when the arranged bride and groom meet for the first time, and so on. The turning point is the realization that this isn’t going to be a smooth path to romance—it’s the first (major) bump in the road. 

Beat 3: You’ve Got Mail
Shortly after Kathleen and Joe meet for the first time at her store, still not knowing they’re “Shopgirl” and “NY152,” Kathleen and Joe run into each other at a publishing party. When Kathleen is introduced to Joe as Joe Fox, she realizes he’s part of the mega-chain bookstore that’s threatening to put her out of business. Even though she was initially attracted to him, she’s now furious at him because of what his company is doing to small, independent bookstores, like hers, and because he didn’t identify himself when she first met him. Now, instead of attraction, they’re set up as bitter rivals.

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)

This is taking the conflict you’ve just raised at the turning point and continuing to raise the stakes—throwing as many twists and turns and conflicts as you can at the characters to keep them apart as long as possible. In Jude Deveraux’s Velvet Promise, the turning point is just after Judith and Gavin’s arranged wedding, when Judith comes upon Gavin and his lover in the garden—the lover is threatening to kill herself if Gavin falls in love with his new wife. Because there had been an immediate attraction between Judith and Gavin, this is the first time Judith realizes she isn’t in for a happy marriage. The raising of the stakes is when Judith is captured by an enemy who believes he should have been given Judith as his wife. Even though Gavin rescues her, because he has been unfaithful to Judith, he believes the enemy’s story that Judith has been unfaithful to him as well and now bears the enemy’s child.

Beat 4: You’ve Got Mail
Though they’re now enemies in real life, Kathleen and Joe’s relationship continues to deepen and develop through their anonymous online communication. Adding to the conflict of the story, both Kathleen and Joe are involved in dead-end relationships the viewer knows are completely wrong for them.

Online, “Shopgirl” and “NY152” decide to meet in person. Kathleen shows up with her rose and copy of Pride & Prejudice. Joe shows up, with his friend along for moral support, and realizes that “Shopgirl” is none other than Kathleen Kelly. He decides to go in and talk to her anyway, but doesn’t reveal who he is to her because he doesn’t want to lose what they have online—realizing he’s actually fallen in love with her, both through their online chats and in person. Kathleen is mean to him, and ends up regretting the nasty things she says to him, but she cannot bring herself to admit she’s starting to like the man who’s putting her out of business.

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 stated goal—or vice versa—and his/her goal shifts. (115)

Let’s pause for a moment and consider the characters’ “goals” in a romance novel. In every work of fiction, each character must have a goal, motivation, and conflict for them to be believable to the reader. In Stand-In Groom, Anne’s goal is to plan the wedding she’s just been hired to plan to the best of her ability; George’s goal is to get through planning his employer’s wedding without anyone finding out he’s not the groom. When Anne and George begin falling for each other, both of their goals are jeopardized—if Anne falls in love with a client, her reputation as a wedding planner, and her business, would be ruined. As George falls in love with Anne, he risks revealing the truth to her, even though he’s signed a confidentiality addendum to his work contract; if he breaks the contract, he’ll have to return to England because he’ll lose his job, which means losing his work visa.

In Velvet Promise, the second turning point occurs when Judith and Gavin go to London to attend court. Through the contrivance of the king and queen, Gavin and Judith realize they’re in love with each other, and Judith is able to convince him the child is really his, that she didn’t have an affair with the enemy. But Gavin’s paramour isn’t giving up quite so easily. One night, after Gavin and his brother get rip-roaring drunk, Gavin falls into the nearest bed to sleep it off. The paramour climbs into the bed under his inert form and sends one of her servants to fetch Judith to help her husband back to their room. When Judith sees her husband in what she believes is an intimate position with his lover, she falls down the stairs and begins to miscarry the child, putting her life in jeopardy. Though Gavin is miserable at what happened and fears for Judith’s life, he will not abide anyone’s saying anything ill against his paramour. Judith, on the other hand, believes he’ll never change and blames him for the loss of the child, barely tolerating his presence. Because her goal was to have a happy home and a loving marriage, this second turning point has now jeopardized her chance at succeeding. And it seems like nothing will ever be able to bring them back together again.

Beat 5: You’ve Got Mail
Kathleen begins a public campaign against Fox Books—and Joe—organizing a boycott/picketing of Fox Books and doing TV interviews. When her boyfriend appears on a local talkshow and falls for the hostess, they break up amicably. After getting stuck on an elevator with his girlfriend and seeing her for who she really is (with Kathleen as a point of comparison), Joe breaks up with his girlfriend as well.

For Discussion:
From your own work, a published novel, or a romantic film, identify the Turning Point, the rising stakes in the Midpoint, and the Second Turning Point. Is there a way that you can make the conflicts even bigger/worse?

Continue on to 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. Thursday, May 1, 2008 1:43 pm

    This is great food for thought. I have my turning point in mind–in fact, I wrote it yesterday. I have some tweaking to do, but I think it works.


  2. Thursday, May 1, 2008 5:32 pm

    Thanks for outlining character’s goals in these examples! For some reason, when I try to think about my characters’ goals, I think in terms of big “life” goals: succeed at a career, etc., instead of in terms of their goals in the story.

    I also tend to think that the goal or motivation has to be pre-existing, i.e. they already want this/that before the story starts (which is why I get back into the problems previously cited).

    I know their goals in the story, but trying to give them overall life goals is a bit harder (though it has highlighted some interesting aspects of my characters). When I write them out, their goals end up being things like “be successful at (career)” instead of the far easier and more obvious “catch bad guy.”

    Thanks so much for clearing this up!

    Let’s see… My most recent work:
    Turning point: when hero discovers that there’s something screwy with heroine’s art exhibit (naturally, after they’ve already been out a couple times)

    Midpoint: when she admits to him that the exhibit’s fake because she needs his help catching her partner in the exhibit, who she thinks is a murderer (complicating things because now she’s a source, and dating her would be a conflict of interest, and because her tracking him down reveals a lot about his past that he didn’t particularly want her to know, and because DID I MENTION there’s a murderer in there?)

    2nd turning point: Hm… tougher, since the midpoint sounds so much like a turning point here…. Probably after he dumps her, when they have to see one another again (subpoenas aren’t just for lawyers’ convenience 😀 !).

    Now that all sounds terribly complicated…


  3. Thursday, May 1, 2008 9:01 pm

    My heroine is in a position where a relationship with the hero is questionable and puts her future career at risk. The turning point (I think) is where they both feel the attraction but she tells him that she can’t be involved with him.

    The second turning point happens when the hero desperately needs her help with family concerns. She takes pity on him and helps him, putting them in each other’s daily path for a time.

    The swivel occurs when they are discovered and she either loses her career goals altogether or at least her future career takes a huge hit (haven’t decided yet). Either way, she’s in serious hot water.

    Here’s my conundrum. She also has internal conflict in her relationship with the hero: his situation mirrors her difficult childhood. So the collapse of her *external* goal, which she felt would ‘fix’ the inadequacies of her past, validates the *internal* conflict she’s dealing with, and both combined lead her to shut him out completely.

    Sometimes I think the pairing of an external situation with an internal situation makes the story resonate more fully, and sometimes I wonder if it’s just too much going on. ???

    **sigh** If only we could get from “Once Upon A Time” to “The End” without all the plotting pitfalls… 🙂


  4. Thursday, May 1, 2008 9:36 pm

    Taking it all in…

    I’d like to take one movie, like The Wedding Planner and try to identify each of the seven beats. That would help me to better understand how it flows.

    In my current wip, my heroine’s goal is to establish a stable life for herself and her daughter in a new town. My hero’s goal is to maintain the stable life he has built for himself and his son in that same town. The turning point is when his son offers the heroine and her daughter a temporary place to stay, causing the two sets of lives to become tangled.


  5. Sunday, May 4, 2008 3:07 am

    Just wanted to say I’m printing these out to make a tighter comparison with the first part of my novel.

    I’ve 95% decided to split the story in two, since the marriage of the two main characters makes a very clean first ending.

    Only, I wonder if it’s cheating to write two different kinds of novels: first the romance than the adventure… with/about the same characters.

    I don’t know enough about this sort of thing.


    • Friday, October 20, 2017 1:50 pm

      Couldn’t one act as a subplot to the other? The romance / adventure, that is.


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