This article is by by B.K. Bass, and is presented by Worldbuilding Magazine.
We’ve all been there: the butterflies hit our stomach, although that’s too kind a term, as it feels more like a pack of angry badgers scratching to get out. Our heart thumps like the drums of an orcish warband. Sweat breaks out on our brow in what we hope is a glistening sheen but eventually runs down our face in rivulets. There’s somebody we’d like to talk to, but the anxiety kicks in even thinking about it.
Romance is a difficult thing. It’s filled with all sorts of social nuances, unwritten rules, and unspoken body language that even a master of the craft would be hard-pressed to translate. Often, mastering this enigma is a central goal in many of our lives; or if not, it is a major secondary goal. Why then should this be any different for the characters in our stories?
There’s a lot of people giving writing advice these days, and if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably heard this: “You have to have a romantic subplot in your book, no matter what it’s about.” I’m going to start by setting the record straight and saying that this is rubbish. By no means should you feel obliged to wedge a romance into an otherwise fully developed narrative. Imagine a perfectly crafted stone tower. What would happen if you tried to force another block on one side? For one, you’d probably find it impossible to do. Secondly, even if you could, it would send the whole thing teetering to one side—perhaps to crash to the ground.
That being said, there are plenty of reasons we should weave in a romantic subplot to our books in the planning phases. Depending upon the narrative, a romance can add a lot of depth to the plot, a new side to our characters, and a new level of tension that might have been missing. “But I can’t even figure out romance in my own life,” you say?
Never fear, faithful wordsmith, because when you’re writing the romance, you’re in charge of both sides of the story. The emotions, communication, and reactions of both (or all) parties are yours to command. Are the intricacies of romantic tension something altogether foreign and mysterious to you? Do not fret because I have found a deconstructed pattern for writing romantic subplots.
Pulling the Wool Apart
I myself am one who has little understanding of the subtle nuance of wooing a potential mate. I have been lucky to build successful relationships based on trust, loyalty, and compassion; but when my current partner asks where the romance is, I promptly remind her that I didn’t sign up for that!
So, how does one not versed in the intricacies of writing romance into their fiction navigate the minefield of the most subtle and mysterious of social interactions? This is something I recently set out to do.
First, I needed to add some tools to my writing toolbox. In the course of my writing career, I’ve come across many methods to structure a narrative, but my favorite thus far has been the seven-point story structure developed by Dan Wells. This structure breaks down the traditional three-act model into smaller chunks and sets a rhythm of highs, lows, and breaks that provides a framework upon which to build an exciting tale.
To start, here are the seven points:
PLOT TURN 1
PLOT TURN 2
Before we get into what this means for a romance, let’s look at the basics first.
The Hook is what will draw the reader into the story. This is the status quo of our main characters and the setting. This is where we establish the world we have built and the lives of those within it.
Plot Turn 1 is where we will put in what is more commonly known as the inciting incident. This is what happens to push our characters out of the status quo and set them upon the path that will be the rest of the narrative.
Pinch 1 is where we start to throw our characters under the bus. As they are reacting to the inciting incident, this is the first major failure they face. It may not be their first challenge, but it will be the first challenge with major negative consequences.
The Midpoint is where our characters may learn something important, gain a new ally, or simply gather the determination to transition from a reactive state to a proactive state. This state change is the important piece of the puzzle, no matter what inspires it.
You’ve probably guessed by now that Pinch 2 is going to be another traumatic setback for our main characters. It is, but this time it’s even worse! The death of a mentor is a common event to be found here, especially in a story that follows the hero’s journey.
Plot Turn 2 is where our characters finally discover what is needed to overcome the obstacles that you have placed in their way. This can be a moment of self-discovery, tactical genius, or any other number of things.
The Resolution is where we take the newfound tools from the second plot turn and put them to use. This is the climax of the story where we overcome the final obstacle and grasp victory from the jaws of defeat!
So, how in the blazes do we turn all of that into a romance? It’s quite simpler than you think! While there are numerous combinations of social dynamics that can be thrown together to form a relationship, for the sake of brevity we’ll look at the classic ‘boy meets girl’ perspective as an example:
HOOK: Boy is alone.
PLOT TURN 1: Boy meets girl.
PINCH 1: Girl rejects boy.
MIDPOINT: Boy and girl start to get along.
PINCH 2: Boy loses girl.
PLOT TURN 2: Boy figures out how to get girl back.
RESOLUTION: Happily, ever after.
Now this is a very elementary explanation of the situation, but you can see how this not only follows the seven-point story structure. One can find that it also aligns with many romantic plots throughout all kinds of fiction. Here’s a popular example that—while it may or may not have been written with this structure in mind—still follows the same major beats. This is the story of Han Solo and Leia Organa’s relationship in the original Star Wars trilogy by George Lucas:
HOOK: Han Solo is a selfish rogue hired to take passengers to Alderaan.
PLOT TURN 1: Han is convinced to rescue Princess Leia from the imperials aboard the Death Star purely for profit.
PINCH 1: Han thinks Leia is conceited and self-righteous; he can’t stand her. She finds him to be selfish and can’t stand him.
MIDPOINT: Han and Leia form a tenuous bond over time, and after escaping Hoth, they both unexpectedly realize they have fallen in love.
PINCH 2: Han is taken captive by the Empire, frozen in carbonite, and turned over to Jabba the Hutt.
PLOT TURN 2: Leia rescues Han from Jabba’s palace.
RESOLUTION: On Endor, Han and Leia resolve remaining roadblocks and enter into a relationship.
Spinning the Yarn
Now that we have an idea of how to structure our romantic plot, we have to figure out how to fit this into both the world we have created and the overall narrative we are writing. How can we use worldbuilding elements to further develop this romantic plot? Can the romance help us to flesh out parts of our world we hadn’t thought of? Again using the ‘boy meets girl’ analogy for the sake of brevity, let’s take a look at a relatively standard fantasy setting and a character on the course of a hero’s journey and see what we can throw at him.
Hook: Maxwell is a farmer’s son living in the village of Wheaton. He is not romantically involved and has lived a quiet life.
This is where a lot of our worldbuilding foundation will be set. What kind of society does Maxwell live in? What is the population, economic system, and geographic situation of Wheaton? This is all general in terms of worldbuilding, but we can start thinking about the customs of Maxwell’s people as they relate to romance. Is he of an age of consent? Are there arranged marriages? Is it a liberal or conservative society?
Plot Turn 1: Maxwell meets an elven princess named Laira. He is immediately smitten by her.
Now we can get into the interesting questions! What is the worldview on interracial (humans and elves in this example) relationships? What kind of problems do their different social standings have? Do the two societies have entirely different rules regarding courtship and romance?
Pinch 1: Maxwell has insulted the elven king, perhaps by his very attempts to woo Laira. He has been told he must leave their lands.
This is a great opportunity to explore the consequences of the social ideas we considered in the last step. What differences between their cultures led to this insult? Was it an honest misunderstanding on the part of Maxwell, or did he consciously violate elven customs for the sake of love?
Midpoint: Maxwell and Laira have one last night together before he must leave the elven kingdom to continue on his quest. Their love blossoms.
Now we have to look at the customs or laws that caused Maxwell to be exiled and explore the possibility that Laira is violating those same customs now. What are the consequence for her? Are they different because she is royalty, or simply because she is an elf? Is she rejecting her people’s ways and risking exile herself—or worse?
Pinch 2: Laira is abducted by a marauding band of orcs!
This throws a wrench in the works for everybody. Does Maxwell follow his heart and rescue Laira? Does the elven king support him in this effort despite his former misgivings? What are the political tensions between the elves and the orcs compared to those between the elves and the humans?
Plot Turn 2: The elven king hands over a magical weapon to Maxwell so that he can defeat the orcs and rescue Laira.
The king might be violating his own laws here. What might the consequences to this be? Will there be a reformation of elven attitudes towards humans, or is the king destined to be held culpable for his actions by some sort of council of governing nobles?
Resolution: Maxwell saves Laira, and they determine to stay together after the ordeal they have endured.
What kind of ramifications might this have on their cultures? There might be changes in customs or laws that are inspired by this. Or if the society is too rigid to change, Maxwell and Laira might have to set out on their own.
Weaving it into the Tapestry
So, now that we have a formula for building a romantic subplot and understand how to use it, how do we weave this into our narrative? This can be the most difficult part of outlining a book, and it is where we need to ensure that our romance is related to the main story in some way. Let’s take our story of Maxwell and put it into the scope of a larger tale.
Maxwell is a farmer’s son in a simple village (hook), and life is going great until a band of orcish raiders burn it all to the ground (plot turn 1). He sets out on a quest of revenge but fails to overcome the orcish horde (pinch 1). He hears of a magical weapon held in an elvish kingdom that can help him to defeat them (midpoint). He travels to an elven city and begs the king for help but in the process insults him and is cast out (pinch 2). When the king’s daughter is abducted by the orcs, the king agrees to give Maxwell the weapon (plot turn 2). Maxwell defeats the orcs (resolution).
So, our romantic subplot is only going to occur in the second half of this story when Maxwell encounters the elves. The insult to the king (main plot, pinch 2) is the same event that throws a wrench into the relationship (romance plot, pinch 1). But then when the elven princess is abducted by the orcs (romance plot, pinch 2), the king agrees to hand over the magic weapon (main plot, plot turn 2). And then, when Maxwell defeats the orcs and saves Laira, both challenges are overcome (main plot and romance plot resolutions).
Not only does the romance now make sense in the framework of a larger story, it also serves to propel the main plot forward. Note how some of the events overlap, where one incident fills slots in both outlines. Alternatively, an event in one plot (Laira’s abduction) leads to an event in the other (the king gives Maxwell the weapon). This is a key trick to making a moment in a story more exciting! You can have ten different subplots, but if they’re all parallel to each other there’s just ten separate stories. If they weave between each other, crisscrossing and intersecting at key moments, you have ten interesting stories that come together to create one amazing book.
We also have the opportunity to bring our world to life by examining aspects of societies and cultures that otherwise would not serve to propel the narrative forward. In the main plot, there are chances to explore the relationships between the humans, elves, and orcs. We also have the chance to view the elven kingdom from an outsider’s perspective with Maxwell’s point of view. This, however, would be limited to his interaction with the king. By adding in a romance, we can take a deeper dive into the culture and examine facets of mating and courtship customs. Also, since Maxwell and Laira have a more personal relationship, there are opportunities for her to show him parts of the culture that the king himself—in a purely official capacity—would not be interested in sharing.
In conclusion, you don’t need a romance in your book. However, if it makes sense with the main story, it can add tension, excitement, and intrigue to the plot. It can also serve to flesh out your world and provide opportunities to look at the cultures of the setting from a more intimate perspective. Even to a reader who isn’t interested in a romance, you can turn this into a social tug-of-war that can help illustrate aspects of the cultures you have created that would have otherwise gone unseen. This extra layer of depth adds realism and life to your fictional cultures in addition to the layers added to the story itself.
- Dan Wells. “Dan Wells on Story Structure.” S. James Nelson. Youtube.com. October 1, 2015. April 14, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLC430F6A783A88697
- Brandon Sanderson. “Brandon Sanderson – 318R – #10 (Plotting).” Camera Panda. Youtube.com. September 03, 2016. April 14, 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tI2UsHU4Htk&list=PLH3mK1NZn9QqOSj3ObrP3xL8tEJQ12-vL&index=10
- Moira Allen. “Writing Romance.” Critiqueville: The Guided Online Critique Group. Writing-World.com. April 14, 2019. https://www.writing-world.com/menus/romance.shtml
About Worldbuilding Magazine:
Worldbuilding Magazine is a bi-monthly publication which covers a variety of worldbuilding topics. This article was featured in their June 2019 release: Gender & Relationships. You can visit their website to read full issues and subscribe for free here. Make sure to join their Discord or follow them on Twitter for the latest news. Mythic Scribes is a proud partner of Worldbuilding Magazine.
Artwork for this article is by Tristen Fekete, who you can follow on his website. Cover art for this issue was done by Adam Bassett, who you can find on his website.
You can learn more about this article’s author, B.K. Bass, at his website.