How to Write an Outline for a Romance Novel
Where do I start? That’s the first question many writers face when contemplating upon a new novel. Some writers are pantsers—writing from the seat of their pants without knowing where the story will take them. Other writers are outliners—planning out all the details before they begin. Writing based off an outline can help many writers avoid extensive rewrites, dropped plotlines, and the struggle to come up with a great ending.
How do you start an outline for a romance novel?
There are several components to take into consideration when developing a strong romance outline.
- Know your audience
- Character profiles
- Romance genre conventions
- Romance sub-genre conventions
- Story arc/Outline Development
- Structuring each chapter
Let’s cover each of these individually.
STEP 1. Know Your Audience
While it is true that most romance readers are women, there is now an increasing number of men reading romances every year. Stereotypes exist about romance readers, and many are entirely off the mark.
So, who are romance readers?*
- 84% of romance readers are women, leaving 16% to be men – a number which has been growing over the last several years!
- 70% of romance readers begin reading romance novels between the ages of 11-18, but most romance readers are in the 30-54 age group
- 59% of romance readers are in steady relationships
- 60% of romance readers consider themselves feminists
- 35% of romance readers buy more than one romance novels per month
- Romance readers read romance for entertainment, to escape, to relax, and for pleasure
- Romance readers demand good writing
In short, romance readers come from all walks of life, relationship statuses, education levels, and careers. Understanding who you're writing for can help you craft a stellar romance outline.
STEP 2. Character Profiles
Developing strong characters is essential for two reasons. Well-developed characters are realistic and relatable, which will keep your reader reading because they can connect with the characters on an emotional level. Your characters’ story will also determine the type of conflict that will work best for a particular storyline. Flat characters produce boring conflict. Characters with depth provide complex conflict that will keep the readers engaged.
Conflict in a romance novel is typically either situational (outside of the characters' control) or internal (within the characters' control). Who your characters are will make a big difference on which type of conflict you should use, or how to blend both into the plot in a realistic way.
Who are your hero and heroine? Start with the basics.
- Physical appearance (including anything that makes them unique)
- Career/income level
- Education level
- Childhood – how it affected them as an adult and what baggage they’re bringing to the relationship
- Biggest faults/weaknesses
- Biggest strengths
- Characteristics that are important to them in a partner (what will be a relationship deal breaker?)
Once you answer these basic questions, use them to determine what type of conflict will impact the developing relationship the most. Does the heroine have a dark past that comes back to haunt her and the hero plays a part in rescuing her? Has the hero’s heart been broken before, making him tentative to trust and quick to end things? Does a childhood full of abandonment make them run from commitment and sabotage relationships as an adult? Once you pinpoint what will threaten the relationship most, it’s time to look at romance conventions.
STEP 3. Romance Genre Conventions
When it comes to romance in general, some conventions need to be taken into consideration as you begin developing the plotline. There are four essential components of a traditional romance novel.
- A hero and heroine fall in love
- A conflict arises that creates tension in the relationship and threatens to tear the couple apart
- Their developing love is unique, the kind that only comes along once in a lifetime
- There is a resolution that overcomes the conflict and allows the couple to be together
These essential aspects of a romance novel translate into the beginning stages of developing an overall plot arc. A good story arc looks a lot like a rollercoaster. It starts low, rises exponentially (with a few bumps along the way), then peaks and races toward the conclusion. We’ll discuss this further in just a moment. First, let’s discuss the difference between following conventions and writing the same book everyone else is writing.
Conventions are what readers expect to see in a novel (the 4 necessary components mentioned above). As a writer, you should want to give readers what they want. However, …you don't want to give them something they've already read a dozen times. Following conventions means you have the critical, essential elements of the genre incorporated into your novel. Writing a fantastic romance novel means you've used these conventions in a new and unique way.
STEP 4. Romance Subgenre Conventions
You start by figuring out what subgenre your novel will fall into and what romance subgenre conventions are essential to follow. Subgenre conventions are critical to creating a good outline because they will affect the conflict, flow, and content of your book. Let’s look at a few examples of how subgenre conventions affect the outline.
- Sweet or clean romance will have limited or no profanity or sexual situations. The romance arc will often culminate in a first kiss or marriage proposal rather than sexual intimacy.
- Erotic romance will be heavy on sexual content and will often have liberal profanity. Sex plays a role in the romantic arc, but begins earlier and is carried throughout the storyline, usually getting more detailed as the book progresses. While sex is essential to the storyline, it is still secondary to the character arc and main storyline.
- In contrast, erotica novels center around sex, and character development and storyline are secondary. Sex drives the story.
- HEA (happily ever after) romances must end with the hero and heroine overcoming conflict and finding true love. The third act of the outline will focus primarily on resolving any lingering conflict between the characters and setting up their happy ending.
- HFN (happy for now) romances end with the hero and/or heroine coming to terms with their situation and finding peace, even if that means they don't end up with their love interest. Some conflict may remain at the end of the story, but there shouldn't be any unanswered questions, and the characters should end at a stable and happy place.
If you're not familiar with all the romance subgenre conventions, collaborating with a Hotghostwriter who's experienced in a particular subgenre is a great place to start. Becoming familiar with romance subgenre conventions is an integral part of creating a great romance outline, whether on your own or with a little help!
STEP 5. Story Arc- 3-Act Structure
Now that we have most of the basics figured out, it's time actually to start plotting your novel. We’ll look at the 3 Act structure of the plotline, which is a method of plot writing used in professional movie and script writing. This will ensure that we have a story with a proper structure. Let's break down each of the 3 acts!
1. The First Meeting
This is precisely what it sounds like: the point where the hero and heroine meet! It is typically within the first 1-2 chapters and takes place after some initial worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding includes showing the readers a basic idea of who each character is (job, age, appearance) and what is going in their lives at that point in time. The initial meeting should introduce attraction between the characters and a point of potential conflict. A conflict might be physical distance, jobs, relationship insecurities, or an incident that causes dislike and stalls a relationship (think Pride and Prejudice).
2. Refusal or Rejection
The incident of conflict during the “meet” is taken to the next step in this section of the outline. This can take several forms and should be based on the characters' personalities, backstory, or situation in life.
- Denying attraction (refuses to date sports figure/sibling's friend, bad reputation creates a barrier, workplace romances are not allowed, etc.)
- Distance (characters meet during vacation/travel)
- Family/personal influence (religion, race, wealth)
After the refusal or rejection, characters typically keep thinking of the person, hinting to the reader that something will eventually happen between them
3. Giving In to the Situation
At this point in the story, the characters are pushed together, despite trying to stay away from each other. It could be a work project, mutual friends, living near each other, etc. The close contact begins to soften them toward the idea of attempting a relationship, though both still believe there is no possibility of anything long term or of finding their HEA. Love is not in the cards for them at this point, but they realize they need to work together toward a common goal or for the benefit or someone else.
4. Testing the Waters
The characters agree to a first date or truce and decide to see how it will go between them. Often, it is curiosity or an attempt to prove to themselves it won't work, that spurs the characters to take the first step toward dating or becoming friends.
During this time, the characters get to know each other on a more personal level. Misconceptions may be corrected, trust begins to develop, and attraction deepens. However, they also learn things about the other person that reminds them that they can’t be together long term.
At this point, consider if both characters are drawing the same conclusions. One may believe they can't have a long-term relationship, but the other may think the opposite and push the other to change their mind. To keep the conflict progressing, at least one character should be hesitant to proceed, unless outside factors are keeping the couple apart.
5. Midpoint Crisis
The early barriers and conflicts have been settled enough at this point that both characters now admit they see potential and like having the other person in their life. Often, physical intimacy escalates based on the subgenre conventions (first kiss, sex, etc.).
Just as the characters admit they are willing to take small risks in the relationship, the crisis brings everything to a halt. This crisis should stem from the backstory, faults, weaknesses, etc. you established in your characters profiles, and often is related to a secondary plotline (work or family issues, etc.). While this is not the ultimate crisis point of the story, it should still be meaningful and believable, and significant enough to cause one or both characters to pull back.
After the crisis causes the hero and heroine to take a step back, the characters need to find their way back to each other in a realistic way. This should be a journey, not a single incident. The forces that pull a couple back together may be external or internal.
External forces may be similar to what brought them together in the first place (work, friends, a project that still needs to be completed). These are situational forces that the characters cannot contend with without significant consequences (being fired, abandoning friends or families) and decide to suffer through being near the other person for a particular benefit or reason.
Internal forces have to do more with personal development and change. A character terrified of commitment may seek the help of a professional or friends. Unresolved issues from past hurts need to be dealt with before the character can move forward. Rebuilding trust may require one character to prove themselves to the other.
Once the characters begin to deal with the crisis and face their fears, the relationship has a chance to deepen and progress. Vulnerability leads to real intimacy.
7. Falling in Love
As the character struggles to deal with the crisis and any personal issues, they begin to fall in love with the other person truly. One or both characters are still unsure of the future of the relationship, but they admit to themselves (and possibly to the other person) that they are falling in love.
This is typically another chance for physical intimacy to escalate. If they had only kissed before, now they may have sex. If there was sex previously, this would be where the couple “makes love” instead of having casual sex. The increased intimacy should have meaning to both characters and should be in line with subgenre conventions.
8. Breaking Up
Falling in love is a significant moment in the story. The fall or reason for them breaking up should be just as significant. It is essential to match the level of emotion experienced in the "falling in love" scene with the breakup scene. The reason behind the breakup should again stem from factors identified as the characters' weakness or faults (or problematic backstory) and should be more significant than the first crisis point.
One character may panic at the level of commitment and run. A past danger may resurface and pulls the characters apart or puts them in danger. A lie or betrayal may break the trust of one character and cause them to shut out the other. The crisis should be believable and realistic, and it should not be easily resolved and may take several chapters to explore fully. The characters will have to work to mend the relationship and rebuild trust. If the crisis is inconsequential or unbelievable, readers will be frustrated and lose connection with the characters.
9. The Sacrifice
One or both of the characters must make a choice. Lose the person they love or do something to save the relationship. This “something” usually requires one (or occasionally both) character(s) to make a sacrifice in order to remain with the other person. The sacrifice they make should be based on their character profile. Whatever they give up should be important to them, and be a significant struggle to give up. This may be a great job that will take them away from the other person, a single wild lifestyle, committing to one person despite their fears, giving up money or family/friend relationships, etc.
This sacrifice makes it possible for the couple to overcome the crisis and proves their love for each other. If the crisis came from one character lying or betraying the other, trust must be rebuilt. The character must prove themselves. This can take several steps, but should not require a large amount of book space. Typically, the third act of a story only accounts for the last 25% of the book.
10. Resolution and HEA (or alternative)
Once the sacrifice has been made and accepted by the other character, the characters are ready to achieve their happily ever after. This usually entails a declaration of love from both characters (or if one held back earlier, they finally admit their love now). For the character who was hurt in the crisis, they may still be reluctant to trust the other person fully, but they decide the risk is worth taking and commit to their love for the other character.
After the "I love you" are uttered, now what? Most readers want a glimpse at the couple living out their HEA. This can take the form of an epilogue, or flow naturally from the declaration in the final chapter. The glimpse should be relatively short and serve the purpose of satisfying any lingering questions the reader might have about how/if the couple could make it work long-term.
STEP 6. Structuring Each Chapter
Now that you have your overall outline completed, it’s time to take a look at how to structure each chapter. Each chapter should read like a mini-story, with a beginning, middle, and end. A chapter should be compelling, and something needs to happen in each chapter, though it doesn’t have to be action! In other words, what is the point of each chapter? Understanding what you need to accomplish in each chapter is key to developing a properly structured chapter.1. Identify the main goal of the chapter - (Why is this chapter in the book?)
- What will happen in this chapter that will move the storyline along?2. Identify the beginning of the scene -(Capture the reader’s attention!)
- Start in the middle of an activity, rather than slowly leading up to it, to capture reader attention right away and make them interested in the outcome.
- Activity doesn't have to be "action," but it does need to be interesting
- Avoid opening a chapter with internal dialogue or lengthy description3. Develop a series of events that leads to the main goal of the chapters - (Lead the reader to discover something new!)
- Plot out a sequence of events, revelations, or personal developments that will lead to the climax of the chapter. Your character(s) should change, achieve something, or learn/discover something in each chapter.
- Dialogue sequences should provide useful information relevant to achieving the goal of the chapter
- Action sequences should lead the character to a new location, discovery, or revelation
- Romance sequences should provide romantic development and move characters closer to overcoming an area of conflict4. Identify the end/climax of the scene - (Leave your reader wanting more!)
- End with a question or cliff-hanger
- Lead into the next chapter
- Stop when there is a natural pause
- End a chapter when you need to switch point of view, location, or point in time
(If you need to change POV, time, or place but aren’t ready to end the chapter, be sure to use *** or another form of a chapter break to avoid confusing your reader).
Structuring each chapter, so it is moving the storyline forward and capturing readers' attention makes readers want to keep reading. Readers who start skimming a chapter's results means they are looking for a new book! If you find yourself struggling with structuring your chapters, don’t forget we at Hotghostwriter can take care of the writing of your next book a deliver a page-turning story that will have your readers at the corner of their seats. Contact us to get your next project underway!
Next: Outlining Your Way to A Great Romance Novel
Outlining takes time. It's an extra step that is sometimes tempting to skip. Some writers never outline at all. Should you?
Outlining is a great tool to make sure your story is staying on track to give readers what they expect and want. There are dozens of romance subgenres, and each one has specific conventions and reader expectations. If any of this seems overwhelming, don't panic!
Hotghostwriter is the leading service to help you craft an outline that will bring your story to life and hits all the points we've discussed! We can take your general ideas and story plot, (or as little as the subgenre) and create a beautiful chapter-by-chapter outline that is in line with what your readers are buying and craving for, whilst bringing something fresh, unique and exciting! We’ll handle the research, development of your characters, and all complexities of creating a clear blueprint from which your next story and novel will be birthed.
Not only that but if writing is not your strongest point or if you are looking to grow a self-publishing business and want to focus on the business end, we can write incredible stories for you that will blow you and your readers away. Click on the Facebook chat on the bottom right of your screen or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your next project!
*Sources: Huffington Post, Romance Writers of America, The Dangerous Books For Girls survey.