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Planning Using the Three-Act Structure: Romance Novels

This is the first in a series of posts about the Three-Act structure, written by guest blogger Annabeth Lynch.

Writing a book can be daunting. Ernest Hemingway gave my favorite description of being an author: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” It’s a big project that takes a lot of determination, especially if your goal is to write to meet a fast-paced challenge like NaNoWriMo. It’s beneficial to have a game plan to help you move along, even if you’re a pantser like me. 

An understanding of the three-act novel structure can really help with basic planning. This structure breaks a story up into three primary sections: the beginning, middle, and end. Usually, the first act is called the Setup, the second act is the Confrontation, and the third and final act is the Resolution. The Setup is the first 25% of the story, the Confrontation is the middle 25%-75%, and the Resolution is the last quarter, 75%-100%. Across all genres, most stories follow this structure, which makes it a great plan to follow, but there are a lot of details that just knowing the names and approximate lengths of the acts doesn’t cover. Especially, the common landmarks that mark the transitions between the acts are often different between genres. In this article – the first in a series discussing how to apply the three-act novel structure to different genres – we’ll go over the more in-depth structure of a romance novel (which are usually approximately 90,000 words long). For simplicity’s sake, this will be written as if the romance only involves two parties (e.g., isn’t poly and/or harem and/or reverse harem) and that the development and advancement of the relationship is the main plot.

Act 1: The Setup

This act lays the groundwork for the novel. It should, of course, start with your story hook – the situation or goal that will draw your readers into the story. Then, proceed with your world and character building. We should see your character(s) in their normal life, get a baseline of how the world works if the story includes fantasy or science fiction elements, and see their routine.

By the 12% mark (approximately 10,800 words into a 90,000-word novel), the main couple should have had their meet-cute (or meet-ugly) and reacted accordingly. This can result in them deciding to pursue the relationship or rejecting it, whichever your story calls for. This should directly cause them to accept or reject the call, e.g. wanting or not wanting the relationship.

20% into the book (approximately 18,000 words in) is typically the latest a main character should be introduced. Any character who is important to the plot should be actively involved in the story by this point. They need time to work their magic too!

The 25% mark – the end of the Setup act (approximately 22,500 words in) – is when the first plot point is introduced. This is where the couple is essentially “stuck” together. One or more major events that change their lives will, by this point, also cause them (often force them, if they’re antagonistic initially) to need to spend more time together, furthering both the “main” arc of the plot and their romance/relationship. The reason they are spending time together will serve as an important element for the second act, so it will need to be a consistent reason to meet up.

Act 2: The Confrontation

This is the meat of the story. Over the following 45,000 words (roughly half of the entire story by length) is when the romantic tension builds. The couple spends increasing amounts of time together, growing closer and building mutual trust. Doubts about each other and/or the relationship and/or the problem introduced at the end of the Setup and will lead to the final conflict should also grow in proportion.

Around 37% of the way through (approximately 33,300 words in) is the first “pinch point” of the story. This is where there should be a scene that builds intimacy. It could be something physical and discrete, such as a first kiss, or something more interpersonal, such as a demonstration of the increasing trust between the characters. Whatever occurs, it changes the way the prospective romantic partners see each other and takes them deeper into the relationship. This is an important plot point and shouldn’t be overlooked.

50% (approximately 45,000 words in) is the story’s midpoint. Congratulate yourself on making it this far! Now is the time to up the stakes. This is usually accomplished by bringing the characters to a false high or false low. A false high makes it look like the couple are on their way to a “happily ever after,” whereas a false low threatens that the characters may never end up together. Regardless, the result is that your characters do some introspection or get advice that causes them to decide what they really want in terms of the relationship, and how that does and will influence the daily life we got a glimpse of during the Setup.

At 62% (approximately 55,800 words in) the second pinch point comes into play. Events at the second pinch point more often are driven by internal forces/feelings/reflection – a look into the mind of the main characters as they struggle with the circumstances around their relationship. They have to overcome their own preconceptions to earn their love story. If you choose a false high, the other shoe should drop and separate them. Whenever things give them pause, though, the characters’ issues should resolve by them finding their way back to each other.

The end of act two, the Confrontation, comes at the 75% mark (approximately 67,500 words in) with the second major plot development. This will be a point when the stakes reach an all-time high. All the simmering conflict should boil over, and the worst possible thing(s) happens. This is often a breakup, where it looks like the couple will never end up together. Trust is broken and their differences appear unfixable due to one or both of them rejecting their true feelings.

Act 3: The Resolution

During this act is when all the questions that have been raised throughout the book are answered, and the couple comes together again. I like to call this act the “triple C’s”, the Crisis, the Climax, and the Conclusion.

The crisis comes at about the 87% mark (approximately 78,300 words in). Your characters work through their feelings and decide if the relationship is worth the effort (this is a romance novel: they’ll decide that it is). They’ll face their own flaws and learn a life lesson, which will usually also give them the answer to their current non-relationship problems.

There’s a quick turnaround between the crisis and the climax, which should come at about 90% into the book (approximately 81,000 words in). Often, this involves a grand gesture by one member of the pairing toward the other, but that isn’t required. Either way, this is the point in the story when one of them admits their love for the other. Readers will be on the edge of their seats, waiting to see if they get back together.

By the ending, the characters have decided to be together and the readers want the “happily ever after” or “happy for now” ending. Conclusions often include a snapshot of their future, a hint of how they’re doing together, and how they’ve put in the work to achieve their dreams (both in terms of the relationship and any external goals introduced earlier in the book). This can sometimes be an epilogue as well.

And you’re done! That’s the whole book!

I hope this helps anyone struggling with developing and/or utilizing a basic framework suitable for structuring a romance novel. This is a general guide, but don’t be afraid to mix it up and make it yours. Remember, you make your story special, unique, and engaging!