“Why is this romance arc eating my brain?“
I’ve asked myself this question countless times. It’s usually accompanied by “how the heck can I write something that hooks my readers as hard as this hooked me?” and “what is it about a great romantic arc that can turn a Fantasy novel from ‘good’ to ‘I think about this book while showering, grocery shopping, and struggling my way through the gym?’“
For me, the answer lies in the fundamental nature of a capital-R romance. As we’re reading, the question isn’t whether the characters are going to end up together; if the story is billed as a Romance—even if that Romance is a subgenre—we know it’s going to end in a happily-for-now or a happily-ever-after. The question, then, is how the characters are going to end up together.
In other words, some part of our subconscious mind is curious not about the novelty, the surprise, or the external plot events, but rather, the recipe and roadmap for how these characters find a way to be together. We crave these insights into relationships on a fundamental, human level.
Or, to quote Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story:
“Story is how we make sense of the world.”
Here’s an excerpt from a blog she wrote for Writer Unboxed shortly after publishing Wired for Story:
It’s long been known that the brain has one goal: survival. It evaluates everything we encounter based on a very simple question: Is this going to help me or hurt me? Not just physically, but emotionally as well.
The brain’s goal is to then predict what might happen, so we can figure out what the hell to do about it before it does. That’s where story comes in. By letting us vicariously experience difficult situations and problems we haven’t actually lived through, story bestows upon us, risk free, a treasure trove of useful intel, just in case. And so back in the Stone Age, even though those shiny red berries looked delicious, we remembered the story of the Neanderthal next door who gobbled ‘em down and promptly keeled over, and made do with a couple of stale old beetles instead.
Story was so crucial to our survival that the brain evolved specifically to respond to it, especially once we realized that banding together in social groups makes surviving a whole lot easier.
Suddenly it wasn’t just about figuring out the physical world, it was about something far trickier: navigating the social realm.
In short, we’re wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world and give us insight into what makes people tick, the better to discern whether the cute guy in the next cubicle really is single like he says, and to plan the perfect comeuppance if he’s not.
The sense of urgency we feel when a good story grabs us is nature’s way of making sure we pay attention to it. It turns out that intoxicating sensation is not arbitrary, ephemeral or “magic,” even though it sure feels like magic. It’s physical. It’s a rush of the neural pleasure transmitter, dopamine. And it has a very specific purpose. Want to know what triggers it?
When we actively pursue new information – that is, when we want to know what happens next — curiosity rewards us with a flood of dopamine to keep us reading long after midnight because tomorrow we just might need the insight it will give us.
So how do authors who really hook us with these romantic arcs ignite this sense of curiosity and flood us with ooey gooey happy hormones? What is it about the relationships they’re creating that makes us crave the insight they give us? Here’s my theory:
When we intellectually and emotionally enmesh ourselves with a fictional romantic arc—particularly one in dual-genre fiction with a strong external plot—we’re feeding off the power of a well-written, self-actualizing relationship.
In more Cee-like terms, the crackiest dual-genre, romantic arcs are all about transformation.
When I talk about romance with other readers and writers, I find the conversation often turns to tropes (there was only one bed, the third act breakup, enemies-to-lovers, etc.). These conversations—and tropes—are fun, but they don’t form the backbone of a romantic arc.
Tropes are window dressing. They’re plot devices through which writers can introduce conflict, but when we focus on tropes at the expense of crafting solid character arcs, the story ends up feeling like a house built out of throw pillows. Cushy, but not the sort of structure we want to live in for weeks after reading “the end.”
Romance, when presented as a transformative experience, fundamentally changes the participating characters. And while tropes can be a vehicle for the motion of the external plot—a fun premise, if you will—they aren’t the engine behind transformative character growth.
True tension in romantic arcs lies in their connection both to the character’s arc and to the external plot arc. These arcs function as a ‘third rail,’ powering and propelling the story. The spark generated through tension between the romance, the characters’ individual growth arcs, and the external plot is that Ingredient X; readers believe these characters must be together because, on some level, they recognize that the success of the relationship is integrally tied to whether or not the protagonist will ‘win’ against the external plot problem by the end of the story.
Writers create this integral tie in one of two ways:
1) Character growth generates the possibility for a romantic relationship which didn’t exist at the beginning of the story, and the synergistic relationship between the protag and love interest allow them to solve an external plot problem which would be impossible for either of them to battle alone, or
2) The development of a romantic relationship between two compatible characters drives their character growth; they become better people for having known one another, and by growing into this better version of themselves, the protagonist accesses/unlocks the skills necessary to defeat the external plot problem, often with assistance from the love interest.
You might recognize #1 as an enemies-to-lovers arc (because it is ;)). These characters grow for the better throughout the first half of the story, often from having known one another, and thus grow ‘toward’ one another for long enough that a romance becomes a viable option. #2 better describes friends/teammates/rivals-to-lovers: two adult characters who are relatively emotionally mature, who pique one another’s interest fairly quickly and embark upon a romantic relationship which transforms their character arc.
These different methods of connecting character, romance, and external plot yield different “push” and “pull” factors. Every good romance has both, and every good romance writer does clever work shifting the balance between these factors throughout the story. “Push” factors keep the characters apart; “pull” factors encourage them to be together.
At the beginning of the story, push factors outweigh pull. The super-tense-and-satisfying romantic tipping point happens when those pull factors finally eclipse the push. In other words: for these characters to get together, something fundamental needs to change. In #1, that’s something fundamental about the characters. They’re not suitable partners for one another at the beginning of the story, so they must become suitable partners for one another before the scale can tip. The factors in #2 are usually external*; the characters simply don’t know one another well enough yet, or they don’t have time to embark upon a romantic relationship, or the external plot / other characters keep getting in the way, or the risk of being discovered is too high, etc. etc.
Sometimes a plot that primarily relies on #2 will throw in a few character-level stumbling blocks (a fear of intimacy, romantic inexperience, etc.), but these don’t require character growth to overcome so much as they require a reframing or perspective shift, which tends to happen earlier in the story than the character-level changes you might see in #1.
(*A note on external factors:
External factors are like any other plot-point or method of conflict generation, and obey the same dramatic rules. In other words, they must be part of a cause-and-effect chain that makes sense. Romantic tropes that make us roll our eyes do so because they don’t make sense. They’re plot-convenient conflict thrown in for the sake of creating a push-factor so the characters don’t get together too fast. If you’ve ever found yourself deeply annoyed by a third-act breakup… this is probably why.
Push-factors strain credulity and feel unsatisfying when they aren’t grounded in the reality of those characters’ flaws. They make little sense given what we know about the character, and they aren’t hooked to the events of the external plot in a sensible, well-foreshadowed, well-constructed twist.
In other words, conflict for the sake of conflict is just as annoying in fiction as it is in real life.)
Romantic arcs #1 and #2, when well executed, rest on an extremely strong premise:
Being a part of a self-actualizing relationship makes us stronger. Whether romantic or otherwise, this is a fundamental human truth: we are social animals, and our survival (literal, emotional, etc.) depends on the relationships we build with others.
Great romantic arcs contain magic because they hit upon one of the most fundamental human questions:
How do I find and cultivate relationships that help me thrive?
These arcs are satisfying because the protagonist’s interactions with the love interest help both of them grow. This growth brings them closer. It allows them to pursue a healthy and fulfilling romantic relationship, and their newfound strength—as well as the strength of the relationship—is the well they draw upon in order to defeat the story’s villains.
This isn’t a matter of the love interest ‘saving’ the protagonist, or vice versa. Rather, they’re driving growth in one anotheruntil they’re strong/healed enough to save themselves. When talking about these kinds of arcs, we sometimes use phrases like “they saved one another,” but that’s not entirely accurate. These arcs feel so good because they play not into our desire to be saved, but into our deep craving for transformative experiences.
We love the love that makes us love ourselves.
Great, capital-R, romantic arcs yield self-actualizing relationships. They’re fundamentally compelling because, even if we as readers wouldn’t want to be in an IRL romantic relationship with either character, we want the kind of relationship these characters end up having: ie, one in which our partner acts as a source of support, inspiration, and accountability as we grow into the kind of person we want and need to be.
The magic of a well-crafted Romance—the sort of magic that gets us imagining those characters while we’re in the shower or riding the bus—lies in how it sends the reader on a profound emotional journey with the characters. These stories are as much about personal growth as they are about romantic attachment, and focus on building relationships in which each character is better off for having known and loved the other.
And isn’t that what we truly want in all of our relationships, romantic or otherwise?
As Lisa Cron said, “story is how we make sense of the world.”
The greatest romances are the ones that make the most beautiful sense for both partners.