Writing the Romance Novel: Beats 6 & 7
I don’t usually publish series posts on Sundays, but we still have a lot to cover in this discussion!
Last week, we looked at Billy Mernit’s seven beats of the romance storyline, first with his definitions, then with examples of the first five. Let’s round out the discussion with the two final beats, the ones that seemed to generate the most confusion/comments last week.
6. The Dark Moment/Crisis
- Wherein the consequences of the swivel decision yield disaster; generally, the humiliating scene where private motivations are revealed, and either the relationship and/or the protagonist’s goal is seemingly lost forever. (115)
When we talk about the general structure of the romance novel, this is the “boy loses girl, seemingly forever” part. This is when the conflict between them rises to such a crescendo that it seems insurmountable.
Continuing the illustration with Jude Deveraux’s historical romance The Velvet Promise, the dark moment comes when—after Gavin and Judith have reunited, forgiven each other for everything that’s come before, and admitted they love each other—Judith is kidnapped by Gavin’s former lover, Alice (remember the one who created the first and second turning points [steps 3 & 5]). Now crazed because Gavin has given her up, Alice threatens to pour boiling oil on Judith’s face to steal her beauty and, she believes, regain Gavin’s love (kind of a “who’s the fairest of them all” scenario). Gavin arrives—his only thought of saving Judith, yet still not wanting to believe that Alice is the deceitful, manipulative woman of loose morals everyone has been trying to tell him she is. When Alice greets him, he finally sees her for what she is—an obsessed, crazed woman. For Gavin, his dark moment comes when he realizes how foolish he’s been in always defending Alice, in always believing she was as close to an angel as a human could get, and that because of this, he stands a very real chance of losing the woman he truly loves, Judith. For Judith, the dark moment comes when Alice drags her up onto the rooftop to try to get away from Gavin (Judith is terrified of heights). She believes she is about to die.
Beat 6: You’ve Got Mail
Despite all of Kathleen’s efforts, she comes to the painful decision to close The Shop Around the Corner—the one tangible thing she had left from her mother, who left it to her. To add insult to injury, Kathleen gets sick. When Joe hears she’s sick, he goes to visit her and discovers just how devastated she is by the closing of the store. There’s no way he can make up for the loss he’s caused her. Kathleen likes him, but to forgive him would be a betrayal of her mother’s dream, now lost.
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)
This seems to be the point that generated the most questions/confusion. What did Mernit mean by “personal sacrifice”? Does that mean that to be together, the hero and/or heroine has to give something up in order for the romance to have a HEA ending? No, not necessarily.
Here is the step from The Velvet Promise (Jude Deveraux, published by Pocket Books, copyright 1981):
- Alice fell backward, away from the edge, thanks to the sacrifice of her maid. But the pot of oil in her hand fell with her, spilling across her forehead and cheek. She began to scream horribly.
Gavin made one leap across the roof to where Judith still clung. Her extreme fear of heights and her resulting iron grip on the chimney had saved her life. . . .
“Look what you’ve done to me!” Alice screamed through her pain. . . .
“No,” Gavin answered, looking at Alice’s mutilated face with great pity. “It was not I nor Judith who has harmed you, but only yourself.” . . .
Gavin took Judith down the stairs to the room below. . . . “It’s over now, my love,” Gavin whispered. “You are safe now. She will harm you no more.” . . .
“What will happen to her now?” Judith asked quietly.
“I don’t know. I could give her to the courts, but I think perhaps she’s been punished enough. No longer will her beauty ensnare men.”
Judith looked up at him in surprise and studied his face.
“You look at me as if you’re seeing me for the first time,” he said.
“Maybe I am. You’re free of her.”
“I have told you before that I no longer loved her.”
“Yes, but there was always a part of you that was hers, a part I couldn’t touch. But now she no longer possesses you. You are mine—totally and completely mine.”
“And that pleases you?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “It pleases me greatly.”
The “personal sacrifice” Gavin has made here is that he saw his first love for what she really was. The rose-colored glasses were torn from his eyes and he was forced to see reality (and, as mentioned above in his dark moment, realize that his willful blindness to Alice’s faults put Judith’s life—and that of the child she lost—at risk). This book closes with a “commitment” HEA ending—because Judith and Gavin are already married. In arranged/forced-marriage stories, usually historicals, you’ll usually find this kind of an ending—a reconciliation of the couple and something that indicates their marriage will be happy. And both of these steps—from Judith’s kidnapping to the ending, quoted above—take place in the last nine pages of the book.
The “personal sacrifice” that Mernit mentions can be equated to whatever internal journey the characters have throughout the book. It’s the change they need to make in their lives—whether emotional, spiritual, or even physical (moving, changing jobs, etc.)—that will allow them to make that commitment to the other person. It can also be one of the characters facing his or her greatest fear (such as flying, heights, water, etc.), because the thought of losing the other is actually worse than the long-held fear.
In Catherine Marshall’s Christy (not technically a romance, but a women’s fiction with a strong romantic thread), it is Dr. McNeil’s prayer at Christy’s sickbed, when he gives up the tight control he’s always tried to hold over his life to God. In The Wedding Planner, it is Steve realizing he’s making a mistake if he marries Fran and going on a mad rush to try to find Mary, because he finally realizes he chose to marry Fran for the wrong reasons.
Beat 7: You’ve Got Mail
Determined to not only make things up to Kathleen, but to get her to fall in love with him offline as well as online, Joe begins a tactical campaign to bring down Kathleen’s defenses. He arranges for her to meet with a children’s book publisher to help her see that just because she lost the store, she hasn’t lost the meaning/purpose in her life. He uses his online personality to gently push her toward Joe in real life. As their “accidental” meetings start becoming more purposeful, with Kathleen agreeing to meet up with him, they develop a warm friendship—and Kathleen realizes she’s falling in love with him. This is complicated by her feelings for NY152. When her online friend again suggests they meet face to face, Kathleen is torn; she wants to know who NY152 is to see if there’s a chance at a relationship, but she’s in love with Joe . . . who doesn’t give her any reason not to meet with NY152. Kathleen arrives at the designated meeting place and realizes that the person she fell in love with online is the same person she’s fallen in love with in person: Joe Fox. They kiss, and the viewer is left believing they will have a happily ever after ending.
Is your dark moment dark enough? What about some that are too dark so that they become melodramatic? How long are these two steps in your WIP or last completed manuscript? If you haven’t gotten that far, pick out a favorite book and see how many pages it takes to complete these two steps.
Mernit, Billy. Writing the Romantic Comedy. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2000.
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