What is the story about? What happens next? These are questions that you want the reader to ask, so first you must be able to answer them yourself. This is where story structure, plot and conflict come in. Plot is almost always where the new writer starts, but with a romance novel so much of the plot is predetermined that you have more chance of writing an original story if you start with your characters.
The previous chapters show how to get to know your characters thoroughly. By following the steps, you will know what your characters are likely to want – their goals – and what actions they might take to achieve them. This should lead you directly into the beginnings of your plot, which you will then expand into an outline so you are ready to start writing the manuscript.
Editor Anne Gisonny calls a plot 'a tightly integrated series of scenes set in motion by some direction idea. Something like a line of dominoes falling one into the next.'
The heroine's goals will usually supply the directing idea. How the hero stands in the way of her goals provides the conflict. Without a sense of direction and conflict, the book can become a series of chance meetings and unplanned events where the characters argue endlessly before falling inexplicably in love on the last page.
Some editors say that the developing romance is the plot of a short novel, with the story itself as the subplot. However you describe it, the story must support and illuminate the central love story. How the characters meet, what keeps them from giving in to the attraction they feel, and how they resolve their differences form the core of your book. Everything else is secondary.
As soon as the reader sets eyes on your hero and heroine, they know the characters will end up living happily ever after. Your job is to make them worry that this time the outcome could be different. Your plot must answer three questions:
The first question will be answered by your character profiles, both internal and external. Initially she will probably be attracted to his appearance. As they get to know one another, they will find in each other qualities worthy of their love.
The answer to the second question – what keeps them apart – is the body of your story. It provides the essential conflict without which there would be no need to keep reading. The conflict is the obstacles the characters must overcome before they can give in to the attraction they feel.
Pondering one of the more common plot situations can provide you with an idea for a new story, provided you can come up with an idea for a new story, provided you can come up with an original treatment of it. All of these situations have been used many times. How could you treat them differently?
How can you turn these around? Perhaps the author is female and the secretary male. Better still, is he trying to prove she stole his ideas? The tutor or nanny to the here’s child might have been hired by his ex-wife (a close friend of hers) to prove he is an unfit parent. The possibilities are endless, provided you keep the focus on the developing romance.
Do your hero and heroine meet as close to page one as possible?
Does the reader share the characters’ immediate attraction to one another, shown through their viewpoints and senses?
Is the conflict between them original, or given a fresh twist?
Do you show the conflict through their actions and dialogue?
Do you show how they resolve the conflict through their own efforts, leaving them free to love?
Is there a balance of fast-paced scenes and quiet moments in your plot?
Is there a balance between narrative passages and dialogue?
Will you need to rewrite long paragraphs of narrative to make shorter ones, or can they be rewritten in dialogue?
Have you started the book with a ‘hook’ and ended each chapter on a cliffhanger or question so we’ll want to read on?
Does the plot follow the domino effect of each action leading to the next, which leads to something else, and so on?
Is the focus kept on the developing romance throughout, with your hero and heroine thrown together as much as possible?
Have you ‘charted’ the romance to make sure it develops steadily and convincingly from first kiss to satisfactory ending?
At the conclusion, have you tied up all the loose ends, cleared up any misunderstandings and followed through any foreshadowed plot points?
Is the ending romantic and worth waiting for? Is it long enough and sensuous enough to reward the reader with a truly satisfying conclusion, leaving them uplifted by the experience?
Sometimes people object to the terms 'story' and 'plot' being used interchangeably. They suggest that the story is what your book is really about, whereas the plot is the sequence of events that you use to tell the story. What they call story, I call theme or premise. It is what you are choosing to explore or demonstrate with your book or script or whatever else you are writing.
In The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri suggested that the best way to formulate a premise is 'something leads to something else'. For example, selfishness leads to downfall, or love leads to redemption, or wealth leads to corruption. However, you can state a premise in other ways, such as 'love conquers all' or 'the child is the father to the man' or 'your past always catches up with you'.
Reduced to such terms, a premise sounds trite. What saves it from being trite is how you embody it in a fascinating, moving, intriguing, fresh-feeling book or script.
The premise of my novel Max Hollywood is 'it's never too late to be a hero' but the plot is about an over-the-hill actor who has to decide whether he's willing to stand up for what's right, even if it means giving up his final chance to make a comeback. If each person in a room full of 30 writers set out to weave a tale that embodies the same premise, I'm sure they would come up with 30 different plots.
The advantage of having a premise in mind from the start is that it acts as kind of a compass. As you develop the plot, you can make sure that the events do indeed embody the premise. The danger of having a premise to start with is that it may incline you to come up with a story that feels preachy or too straightforward to be interesting. If you're not sure what your premise but you have a plot that excites you, go ahead and start writing. Many authors don't know what they meant to say until they've said it.