Finding Your Romantic Story Arc

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

If you are writing a romance, it can sometimes be difficult to know exactly how to build all the pieces so that you have the right amount of tension in your story. How soon do you make them fall in love? When do you start breaking them up? How do they get back together?

This problem is solved by understanding the two main story arcs of romance: The Why/Why Not, or the Why Not/Why. (These arc models apply to both a straight up romance, or just a romance thread.)
Understanding the kind of story you have helps you understand how to layer in the tension and where to insert the different components of your romance.

Let’s a take a look: The first structure is Why/Why Not:
These are stories that have our characters falling in love in the beginning, with no major obstacles in their way, only to discover obstacles half-way or even later. It’s not about how we as the reader see their journey, but how the characters see it.

Return to Me: The hero and heroine meet and instantly hit it off. They have a similar sense of humor, and they like similar foods and have fun together, even have some romantic sparks. Until she discovers she has her boyfriend’s deceased wife’s heart. Suddenly we’ve arrive at the Why Not part of the story.

You’ve Got Mail : The hero and heroine love each other online, have similar interests, similar love of New York and books and business drive. They are perfect for each other until they find out they are enemies in real life. Enter, the Why Not.

The key to the tension in these this story arcs is that the reader knows why they will break up, even if the character doesn’t. It’s waiting for that breakup that puts us on the edge of the seat/page.

Let’s look at the other structure: the Why Not/Why stories.

In a Why Not/Why story structure, the external and internal obstacles (Why Nots) keep them apart even as the Why pulls them together. Then, when it seems that the Why will win the day, the biggest Why Not rises to break them apart.

Sleepless in Seattle: The hero and heroine have so much Why Not in front of them, it seems they’ll never get to the Why. Again, it’s in the viewpoint of the character, not the reader, because from the beginning we can see that these two belong together. Why Not: She’s engaged to someone else, they live thousands of miles apart, she doesn’t even know him, he thinks she’s loony (or at least among the strange women writing to him). It’s not until the end that they realize they belong together and discover the Why.

While You Were Sleeping: The Why Nots are glaring: He’s her, um, fiancés, brother. And of course, she’s lying, but that only adds to the Why Not, until she’s revealed as a liar. But by then, they’ve seen the Whys and that is what causes the angst.

As you’re beginning to plot your romance—even before you nail down the component elements—think through the structure of your story. Do you have the Why first and then the big Why Not? Or is the Why Not glaring, until finally the Why is too big to ignore?

In the early stages of my plotting, I start with creating the hero and heroine. Then I assemble a few of the key ingredients: why they belong together, why not, what their sparks are, their happily ever after. Nothing is written in stone, however.

Then, to get going, I nail down the story arc: Why/Why Not or Why Not/Why. Knowing what kind of story arc I’ll have helps me to know where to drop in the components. For example, if I’m building a Why/Why Not story, I’ll build the interest, through in some wooing and Why elements, as well as the kiss, and perhaps even a glimpse of the happily ever after at the beginning. (They need to know what they have to live for!) Then, I’ll throw in the Why Not, with lots of sparks and the Black Moment.

If I have a Why Not Structure, then I’ll start with sparks, a touch of interest, perhaps a hint of wooing, all the while keeping the Why Nots paramount, gradually leading up to the kiss, before we get to the big sacrifice and the Why.

Figure out your Romance structure and it will help you build the right kind of tension into your story.

Quick Skills: Is your romance a Why/Why Not, or a Why Not/Why?
Happy Writing!

Susie May

PS – Are you looking for more in-depth training and face-to-face coaching!  Let’s hang out at the upcoming Oregon Christian Writer’s Conference (August 15-18th)!  I’ll be there teaching on how to create a fantastic career as an author, as well as tips and trips on creating back cover blurbs.  And of course just hanging out, helping writers with story problems.  This is an AMAZING conference—one of my favorites.  This year the amazing FRANK PERETTI is our keynote speaker.  Set in beautiful Portland, you’ll be encouraged, educated and empowered to write the story in you.  See you there!


Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-time Christy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.